The future of low-volume, British sports-car manufacturing seems a little brighter this month – after GRR paid a visit to a small trading estate in Norfolk, three miles up the road from Lotus HQ, where former Lotus and Caterham executives Ansar Ali and Mark Edwards now run Zenos Cars.
Is there still really a viable market for niche automotive manufacturing in the UK? If there is the smallest gap to be exploited, Ali and Edwards will find it. The two men founded Zenos three years ago and in 2015, the first full year of building cars to order, have sold 80, with a 50 per cent export split (12 cars to China, eight to the States, one to Japan and the balance to Europe). Next year they’re targeting 50 per cent growth. Why set up shop just down the road from Lotus? Because Norfolk has the monopoly on skilled low-volume engineers at the moment; their current factory employs 25 men.
Their approach is methodical in the extreme: there are no doors or roof because, as Mark Edwards, says, it’s ‘hard to get these things right’ and people who pay £25,000 (£29,995 for the S) for a sports car don’t want a rattling door. Those kinds of luxuries will appear on the next model, which will sit on the same platform.
The current E10 is a recycled carbon-fibre tub (with an aluminum-extrusion spine) for torsional rigidity. The 2.0-litre engine, wheel bearings and five- and six-speed manual gearboxes are from Ford – the more interesting bits they have engineered themselves. The price has been the pivot around which the E10 was built: the two men benchmarked rivals such as Ariel, Lotus and Caterham, settled on £25,000 and aimed to design a lightweight, fun, engaging product round it.
Have they succeeded? On paper, certainly: the E10 S, which is the uprated version of the basic car, has an extra 50hp thanks to the addition of a turbo, taking it to 250bhp and a 0-60mph time of 4.0 seconds, top speed of 140mph and a power-to-weight ratio of 345bhp per tonne.
Taking the car out on the road is quite an experience. Press the red button to bring the car to life, wave the immobiliser, and press the pulsating starter button and the engine ticks over fairly unobtrusively. Pick up a bit of speed, however, and the turbo kicks in, which alters its very nature in hilarious fashion.
I’ve never experienced a noise like it, other than when I watched the Audi’s diesel R18s race at Le Mans, puffing their way through the chicane. It’s a bonkers sound, and one that many customers (90 per cent opt for the upgraded S version) apparently ask to be toned down, but we loved it, although it simply encourages you to step on the throttle pedal for longer than is strictly legal.
The steering is linear and direct; our brakes had little pedal travel or feel but we had the optional track discs and calipers, so without much heat generated on the road we couldn’t feel their full efficacy. The six-speed transmission is what you’d expect from Ford: absolutely fine. The car feels well put together, with fairly basic plastics in the cockpit but two digital screens displaying revs, gear, speed, fuel and so on.
Is Zenos going to provide sleepless nights for Caterham or Lotus? One senses that buying a Caterham will always be a passion purchase, for those who love the ’50s open-wheeled design and brand heritage. But for those who just want an unusual sports car for track or road, the Zenos E10 is a solid contender.
Photography courtesy of Zenos Cars