Radical – A Morning With Phil Abbott

The last time dsc caught up with Radical Extreme Sportscars was at last November’s Race Car Live event at Brands Hatch, with the LMP2 SR9 still destined for the future.

This time around though the Deputy Editor sat down with Radical’s co-founder Phil Abbott, at the company’s Peterborough headquarters, to see just what is involved in building some of the fastest, most extreme and well, radical, cars on earth.

First up was a whistle-stop tour of the manufacturing plant, with the final assembly hall busy with both new build cars and, at the far end of the shop, the maintenance of the race cars run by the factory well underway. The ten cars currently run by the factory team include SR8s campaigned by Tim Greaves, Stuart Moseley and Phil Abbott himself (SR8 chassis no 1), sitting alongside an SR3 raced by Jack (son of Binnie Motorsport racer Allen) Timpany.

Abbott proudly revealed that his car had run some 12,000 miles since rolling out of the factory.
This shop has seen the completion of around 570 cars since the plant opened in 1997, a mix of the firm’s Clubsport, SR3, SR3 Turbo, the Clubsport replacing SR4 and V8 engined SR8 machines.
The big seller for Radical has been the SR3, with over 350 cars built and sold, with large sales in a wide variety of markets, including Sweden (over 30 cars), Germany and Portugal (over 20 cars in each market). The SR3 is an adaptable little beast with chassis fitted with a range of Powertec prepared Suzuki bike engines ranging from a 1300cc, 205bhp block through to a turbocharged 1500cc unit with a mighty 330bhp on tap.

The V8-engined SR8 is selling steadily: 35 cars have now been sold, with the latest delivery now on its way to Malaysia to take part in the Sepang 12 Hours, the new owner having arrived at the factory just a week before announcing his intention to campaign the car in a real endurance event.

In a small workshop alongside the main assembly shed, the team responsible for engine builds / rebuilds resides, a freshly rebuilt Suzuki Hayabusa 4 cylinder unit for an SR3 sitting alongside a brand new Powertec V8 (the brand for Radical’s own engine programme).

The V8 is a source of huge pride for Abbott - “A real in-house project” - and was a major investment for a company as small as Radical.

“We can build 100 engines a year here and the new V8 needs to pay back on the investment we made. We’ve built 56 engines so far in 2 litre, 2.5, 2.6 and 2.8 litre formats for a wide range of applications - from the racetrack through autograss, hillclimb, where we are starting to really challenge the Nicholson McLaren-engined cars, and a short-lived application in an MG Metro 6R4 for national rally driver Andy Hall. The car though was immediately banned from competition.”

The Powertec V8 is a little jewel of an engine, 92 kilos in weight in 2.6 litre form: it is reasonably priced, at £18,500 for the basic motor, but with the end of production last year for Rover’s evergreen V8, could this engine find other market applications in specialist sportscar manufacture?

Radical has found, as many other companies before it, that the market is one of feast or famine, hugely seasonal, and as such it needs careful management to maintain production. “A new car could be built and delivered in four weeks at the moment: by January that would be 16 weeks. We are heavily wedded to the natural cycle of the racing season.”

That places a great deal of pressure on production planning, on component order and supply from external suppliers (there are large numbers of Suzuki bike engines sitting crated and waiting for the orders to arrive).

Production continues steadily, not only in the finishing shop but also in the industrial unit alongside, in the machine room, where skilled engineers undertake both sub-assembly of major components, and manufacture - with both 21st century automatic machine tools and some good old fashioned, hardcore industrial lathes and turners all employed.

The result is some truly intricate components, many of them for the SR9 programme, crafted from solid billets, with hubs, steering arms and other works of automotive art in evidence during our visit, including a number of upgraded components building on the lessons so far learnt during the SR9 race and test programme.

At one end of the shop is the factory’s rolling road, an essential tool in the rapid development we’ve seen in the last decade. An SR3 Turbo was being prepared for a test as we observed, and later could be heard (via the heavily silenced exhaust vents).

“It’s a shame we aren’t running one of the V8s today that’s something special!” said Abbott with a smile on his face.

Several of the engineers now employed by the car business have transferred from Radical’s predecessor, a company which manufactured exercise equipment: a surprising level of transferable skills were on tap in the move from exercise bikes to bike-engined sportscars.

That was essential as, aside from the engine, springs, dampers, wheels and tyres, Radical’s cars are extremely bespoke machines. “Probably around 90% of the car is built right here. From the start we were intending to be a company that sourced most components externally, but almost immediately we realized that to go in the direction we wanted, we had to have more control.”

The original Radical, dubbed the Clubsport, was designed using the body for a Sports 2000 car called a Robinson. It was born after Abbott and co-founder of Radical Mick Hyde grew “tired of the political c*** at the election of a new Chairman of the 750 MC. We were both enjoying our racing and both realized that we wanted to go in a similar direction. I’d blown up enough Imp engines to realize that we needed to do something different and bike engines looked like a very promising avenue.

“Both Mick and I had been racing for a while – I actually started my career with a company called Spyder, building chassis for Lotus road cars, after leaving school at 15 (a poster still adorns Phil’s office wall).

“We decided to build the car in November 1996, cut the first tubes in January 1997 and drove it for the first time on the 26th of March that same year.”

Phil then cheerily recalled several early racing exploits for the new Clubsports including an incident at Paddock Hill Bend – immortalized in a framed photograph where “Mick and I had a moment that would have been avoided if we’d both followed the Highway Code!”

The designer of that very first car, Nick Walford, has designed every Radical, other than the SR9, since, and is a key member of the Radical family.

The rest is history: demand for the immediately successful Clubsport model boomed almost from the very beginning and in less than a decade since then the product range has expanded rapidly. The Powertec engine range too has seen rapid expansion and now “we need to consolidate. The V8 project is still a huge commitment and we want to sell more engines and more cars before we look at moving the product line on much further.”

“We’re selling about a third of our production as extreme road cars. Mick anticipated the trackday market and we designed the SR3 to fit it as a 2 seater, 8 inches wider than the Clubsport. We laid out the original buck by me and our artist sitting on the floor of the workshop and drawing the plan around us, we’re both big guys and the car will fit two six footers.”

Mick Hyde though has made it clear that he wishes to find a successor in the company – the majority shareholder is now Tim Greaves, with Hyde and Abbott each holding half of the remaining shares.

“Mick has been a great partner. Our skills have been wonderfully complimentary, his marketing expertise has really given us an edge over the past ten years and my engineering expertise has allowed us to keep up with his strategies. Anyone looking to step into his shoes is going to need to follow his lead, and fit well with Tim and myself in having a real passion for the business, plus a fair amount of flexibility in the future direction of the company and the investment required."

Across Ivatt Way is another pair of factory units, this time employed to produce the glass fibre bodywork for the SR3, 4 and 8 ranges.

Sitting at the back of the shop though is the (very dusty) buck for the SR9, close inspection revealing that the buck is still performing a useful function: a new aero tweak is being tested using the buck as a basis.

Finally (on the Ivatt Way site at least) there is a small unit dedicated to the SR9 build and race project.
The LMP2 car went from a first conversation about a programme to wheels down for the first (Rollcentre) car in just 14 months.

This is a programme which has brought together expertise from around the UK motorsport community. Peter Elleray’s design is now being fettled by a team of eight in the factory, that includes some Radical staff, but they have been joined by others. During our visit there were ex-Bentley and Chamberlain staff in evidence. In addition machine shop and other specialist staff at the factory are actively involved too and there is a sense of huge pride around the factory about the concern’s current flagship project.

“From the company’s point of view, purely from a business sense, we went a year too early,” said Abbott, ”but there was the overwhelming factor that there was a window of opportunity that we needed to seize if we wanted to be in this market.”

With the LMP2 class maturing rapidly, Lola, Courage and Porsche are all established players now and there are of course other pretenders to the LMP2 throne, both already racing and with programmes ready to go into production if demand emerges.

Abbott though is confident that the Radical programme has now got momentum: “With the level of interest we currently have on both sides of the Atlantic, I’ll be disappointed if we don’t have four more SR9s racing next year (over and above the current four confirmed sales).”

The project team is busily developing the car, learning the lessons of race and test experience so far with the two active race cars. The turbo pipe problems which punctuated the race debut at the Nurburgring for the AER Turbo engined Team Bruichladdich car have been traced and dealt with.

Famously the SR9 has never seen the inside of a wind tunnel, but judging by the results so far that hasn’t held the design back at all.

“In fact the SR9 is the only model we’ve ever made that hasn’t been in a tunnel and we will be putting the car in a tunnel at some point next year. The main thing however is that Peter brought huge experience to the project and he himself related that when they put the Bentley into a tunnel it was already 97% right, £350,000 worth of wind tunnel work later it was 98% right – the difference between the two programmes is that they had the £350,000!”

Sitting alongside the Team Bruichladdich SR9 was the soon to be completed van der Steur Racing car, its AER turbo engine awaiting some final components from an external supplier to be delivered, before being mated to the chassis. All the major elements were present though, final assembly just days away.

“The team was given the option to get the car earlier in the year but told us at the time that they were happy to see it in September.”

With the Rollcentre project now featuring a single car, the production programme has changed through 2006 and “we told them they could have it earlier, late June or early July. They decided to let us get some running on the Bruichladdich car and incorporate any lessons learnt and changes to the car into their chassis.”

When the van der Steur car vacates the premises to be shipped to the United States, the assembly bay will be occupied by the second Bruichladdich car, destined for a two car Le Mans Series effort.
Did Phil Abbott ever imagine he would be sitting here talking about being at the helm of an effort producing a cutting edge Le Mans racing prototype?

“It’s been a hell of a ten year ride but I’d liken it to motor racing, when the light goes green you look straight ahead, look to the sides and its all going to get very blurred.”
GG

 

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