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The mavericks fuelling our specialist car boom

Will Priestner drags his mouse across the computer screen and carefully drops another piece of the vehicles innards into place.
The lead design engineer of Riversimple, which is developing a hydrogen-powered car, is tweaking the design for the beta version of the Rasa, the firms zero-emissions vehicle.
There is a lot more functionality being added to this version, compared with the prototype, Priestner said. But theres no more space to fit it all into. So, Im just moving things around to squeeze it in.
This corrugated warehouse on a business park in Llandrindod Wells, mid Wales, feels a million miles away from the hi-tech cathedrals of British car manufacturing like Jaguar Land Rover in the Midlands, Nissan in Sunderland, and Vauxhall in Cheshire.
But the humble surroundings are typical of the small army of Britains booming specialist carmakers.
The latest report from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) predicted the low-volume car sector is on course for a 60pc boost in production by 2020, as a result of increasing global demand.
The mavericks fuelling our specialist car boom

The latest report from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) predicted the low-volume car sector is on course for a 60pc boost in production by 2020, as a result of increasing global demand.
The report confirmed Britain is home to the largest and most diverse specialist car manufacturing sector in the world, with some of the most globally recognised and iconic brands. These range from the sporty Aston Martin and McLaren, to traditional hand-built operators such as Morgan Motor Company.
In 2016, the SMMT said these niche marques turned over a collective ?3.6bn, up 52pc from 2012.
They employed 11,250 people an 11.5pc increase on five years ago the majority in highly skilled, specialist roles, while also supporting tens of thousands of additional jobs across the supply chain.
Smaller producers are booming amid growing concerns that UK car sales have peaked. Car production fell in the UK during September for a fifth consecutive month.
A 14pc fall in demand in the UK market drove the overall drop. The SMMT cited Brexit uncertainty and a drive to improve air quality as the main reasons for the car buyer apathy. Car dealer Pendragon last month sounded the alarm about the health of the automotive industry, issuing a profit warning it blamed on falling demand for new cars and lower prices in the used market.
Dr Paul Nieuwenhuis, senior lecturer at Cardiff Universitys Centre for Automotive Industry Research, says the burgeoning specialist car manufacturing sector is able to buck that trend because it is less exposed to any Brexit impact.
They will be less affected by Brexit because the main buyers for these vehicles will be in the Far East, or in Britain, he says. This compares with the main markets for mass producers, like Nissan, which sells about 90pc of its production from the Sunderland plant in continental Europe.
The mavericks fuelling our specialist car boom

Dr Paul Nieuwenhuis, senior lecturer at Cardiff Universitys Centre for Automotive Industry Research, says the burgeoning specialist car manufacturing sector is able to buck that trend because it is less exposed to any Brexit impact.
Morgan Motor Company, which makes hand-built sports cars in Malvern, Worcestershire, is the quintessential British speciality car maker. Unlike its larger rivals, it has seen no adverse impact on its business.
So far this year, Morgan has notched up a 20pc revenue increase on the same period last year 2016 was the family-owned firms best annual financial performance for four years. Dominic Riley, chairman of Morgan, said: Our growing success reflects the increasing demand for our hand-built British sports cars. This is especially strong overseas as we sell 70pc of our cars for export.
At the same time, owning a Morgan is still a rare treat. We make only 800 cars a year and our focus is on making limited volumes of high-quality, hand-built cars.
As well as drawing on heritage, like Morgan, the strength of the low-volume sector can be traced to motor sport. Many tend to be spin-offs from the motor sport sector, because around half of the Formula 1 teams are here, Nieuwenhuis said. In Britain, there are plenty of companies making money from producing 50 or more cars a year.
The academic also noted that Britain has a rich tradition of mavericks and eccentric inventors in the industry.
Other countries dont quite know how to do this kind of thing, he said.
Hugo Spowers, founder of Riversimple, is hewn from that vein. Spowers, like so many others in Britains specialist car sector, has his roots in motor sport. The Riversimple boss designed and built single-seat racing cars for Formula 3 and Formula 4 racing.
It was a business that reliably lost money, he says. But I had another business that restored old cars [including former Le Mans winners] for wealthy customers and thats where I made money to fund the [racing car] business.
The mavericks fuelling our specialist car boom

Hugo Spowers, founder of Riversimple, has his roots in motor sport. The Riversimple boss designed and built single-seat racing cars for Formula 3 and Formula 4 racing.
Spowers sold up and did an MBA, studying fuel cells and composite vehicle bodies. The fuel-cell concept comes from the Rocky Mountain Institute in Colorado. They published it but nobody ever did anything about it, he said.
He has struck upon an issue that has plagued the car industry how to build a cleaner, greener car. Spowers believes the answer is unlikely to come from one of the titans of industry, but from an upstart outlier.
Riversimples first vehicle, the two-seater Rasa, is due to go into full production in 2020. Spowers says it will have a fuel range of about 300 miles, and the only emission from its hydrogen-powered motor is water.
The next few years are shaping up to be a watershed for green vehicles. Dyson is to launch its first electric-powered vehicle in 2020; BMW plans to build a fully electric version of the Mini at Cowley in Oxford from 2019; and all Volvos new models will have an electric motor from the same year.
Spowers believes a move to electric batteries is a step in the right direction, but doesnt go far enough. Batteries add more weight to already hefty vehicles and have a limited shelf life of about 10 years.
Weve got to move to a business model that makes efficiency profitable. The current business model is fundamentally flawed, he said.
Riversimple will offer customers a service contract for one to three years, like a mobile phone contract.
The mavericks fuelling our specialist car boom

Redbrook, Monmouthshire - where Riversimple is about to start 'beta testing' 20 cars
So the customer pays a fixed rate each month and a mileage rate. We call it usership, not ownership, he said. Its actually not too different to how a lot of people own cars now most have cars on a lease, or hire purchase agreement, and pay a monthly fee and then trade it in after three years.
The Riversimple chief says the monthly cost of a Rasa user contract would be comparable to that of buying a small VW Golf diesel on finance between ?470 and ?520 a month, including all purchase finance, tax, insurance and fuel costs.
Thats the sort of cost we are aiming for with the Rasa, Spowers said. We are designing it for local use. So, if you live in or around Oxford (which is banning petrol and diesel cars from the town centre from 2020) and just use it to go back and forth to work or the shops, it would be ideal.
The company is about to start beta testing, with 20 cars going into Monmouthshire for 12 months, with a hydrogen filling station in Abergavenny.
Spowers is in talks with Powys county council about a new production facility, where it will employ 220 people making around 5,000 of its zero emissions cars a year.
At that scale, the plant is commercially viable, Spowers insisted. We estimate we will be trading profitably with about 9,000 cars on the road so around two years of production.
Spowers plan is certainly ambitious. But he passionately believes that big changes will inevitably disrupt the auto industry leaving an opportunity for smaller, more nimble players to play a huge part in the future.
Whenever you have a disruptive technological shift, the incumbent usually disappears, he said. It is going to be different companies that establish successful businesses in the future. When the asteroid struck and dinosaurs died out, they werent replaced by better dinosaurs.
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