But in 2012, when Tony Fernandes bought Caterham and headed for F1 and beyond, Ali and Edwards took a deep breath and decided to leave and set up a new sports car company called you-know-what.
The company’s ethos would be to build simple, affordable sports cars and form a brand that is “passionate and inclusive about everything it does.”
And thus, Zenos Cars was born, with the further help of another ex-Caterham engineer, Chris Weston, who I just so happen to have known quite well for most of the past 15 years.
So what makes Zenos Cars so different from the rest of herd? And why do we get the impression that it will flourish rather than fail in the years to come? Four reasons.
One, they came up with a price point for the entry-level car first – an enticing £24,995 – and designed and built the car to that price afterwards. More often than not, people make the mistake of doing that part the other way round, which more often than not can prove disastrous.
Two, they came up with a brand structure that already includes two further models so that potential customers can buy into the long-term future of the brand, because they can already see into that future.
Three, they have employed a small band of people who already know the sports car business inside and out, and who really do care about what they are doing.
Four, they decided from the outset to make the customer king, which isn’t always the case with start-up British sports car companies. Hence the reason that Zenos has already embarked on a unique customer testing programme in which people who want to buy can, and have, driven the first prototypes.
In 20-odd years of writing about cars, that’s a first in my experience. Quite why no one else has tried it before is one of those things that seems so obvious, but only with the benefit of hindsight.
At the moment, there are two test mules for customers to sample: the basic E10 and more track-orientated E10S.
Both use the same fundamental chassis and suspension design, which consists of a hybrid construction of aluminium and carbonfibre-reinforced plastic, on to which double wishbones are bolted at each corner with “affordable” Ford-sourced parts being used as much as possible elsewhere – for the brakes, steering, engine, gearbox, loom, ECU and so on.
The central tub is made from the same material that BMW uses to such good effect in the i3 and i8 and it works, says Ali, “because it’s UK sourced, which is an important factor for us, and is 70 per cent as stiff and light as full carbonfibre yet costs a tenth of the price”.
The name Zenos stands for a combination of Zen – a state of enlightenment that focuses togetherness of body and mind – and Os, which loosely translated means ‘spine’. The secondary explanation of ‘Zen’ is probably the most appropriate in this instance because “it necessitates dropping the illusion and seeing things for what they are without distortion created by preconception or prejudice”.
What you see is what you get, in other words, and, in the E10’s case, what you get looks very good indeed. For £24,995, you get a 200bhp 2.0-litre Ford-engined two-seater with a hybrid carbon/aluminium tub with double-wishbone suspension and a five-speed manual gearbox – all with a quoted kerb weight of just 690kg and a 0-60mph time of 4.5sec, plus a top speed of 135mph.
Go up a step on the ladder to the E10S and the price rises to £29,995 but that brings an eco-boost turbocharger to the party, which produces another 50bhp and drops the 0-60mph time to 4.0sec. In the fullness of time, there will be two more models, the E11 roadster, plus a coupé version of the same car, the E12, both of which will be like the E10 but a fair bit more dynamic.
Ali’s philosophy is to get customers hooked on the brand with the relatively simple and affordable E10, and then to keep them entertained for years to come with faster, more expensive models.
The concept is rather better thought out than the usual ‘fingers crossed’ approach adopted by some other small British sports car companies.
And if the way that this E10 pre-production prototype drives is anything to go by, it’s a philosophy that very much works. I drove the non-turbo car around Brands Hatch for a few laps, and then for a longer time on the public roads around the famous Kent circuit – and to be perfectly honest, I was not a lot less than gobsmacked by how good it was.
Despite being the first prototype, it felt quite incredible well resolved fundamentally, with a lovely ride quality – a bit like an early Lotus Elise before they started spoiling it by bolting on bigger anti-roll bars and stiffer springs.
The steering was also very precise and featured zero power assistance. The handling was crisp and clean on the road, although maybe a touch too soft for the track – which is always a good sign to me because it means that they know this car is being built for use on the road, not just the track.
And anyway, if you want stiffer suspension, you can have it. Such flexibility is central to the whole ethos at Zenos.
The Ford engine felt strong and surprisingly well mannered considering that this is its first ever application in a Zenos, delivering a decent hit of performance via the sweet five-speed gearbox, as you’d expect it to when bolted into a 690kg car.
The brakes needed a bigger than necessary shove but, like most other aspects of the E10, they remain very much a ‘work in progress’.
However, what I found most impressive about the E10 overall was its sense of togetherness. It felt like a development car from a far bigger manufacturer than Zenos, one that’s already quite a long way down the line towards production.
The driving position and pedals were spot on, the simple digital instrument cluster perfect, the ride already beautifully well sorted for the road, the handling neat and tidy on the track, the turn-in smooth and the brakes powerful once I’d learned to hit the pedal hard enough.
Even the fit and finish of the black and green car you see above seemed unusually good for such a small, new car company. Each of the green body panels is removable so that customers can tailor the styling of their cars from year to year, or even day to day, if they wish.
That’s just another fresh and simple idea that defines the E10 as being something just a little bit special, and it’s but one of many such examples about the car, and the company that has created it. No wonder it already has customers lining up to become part of the story.
Remember the name – something tells me that this is merely the beginning for Zenos Cars.
Price £24,995; 0-60mph 4.5sec; Top speed 135mph; Economy 30-35mpg (est); CO2 na; Kerb weight 690kg; Engine 4 cyls in line, 1999cc, petrol; Installation Mid, transverse, RWD; Power 200bhp at 7200rpm; Torque 155lb ft at 6100rpm; Gearbox 5-speed manual