After giving millions of people a chance to fly for the first time in their lives, Tony Fernandes now wants to make affordable sports car for the mass market.
It may seem a far-fetched dream to some, but the founder of AirAsia is determined to get his sports car cruising the streets of major capital cities such as Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, Jakarta and even cosmopolitan Singapore.
Last week he was in Paris to sign a deal with the French carmaker, Renault SA. It is a 50:50 joint venture between his UK-based Caterham Group and the Renault subsidiary Automobiles Alpine Renault.
The new company, Societe des Automobiles Alpine, will design, develop and build sports cars, sport utility vehicles (SUVs) and city cars.
The idea is to build high-performance cars rivaling Ferrari and MacLaren at Renault’s Dieppe facility in Normandy, which makes sporty versions of its mass-market vehicles. Fernandes wants another line in Malaysia for the completely knocked-down versions.
The Malaysian plant will likely be a Naza Motors plant simply because Naza is also a sponsor of the AirAsia chief’s Caterham Formula One Team.
The partners individually will sell the output under their own brand names once the JV begins operating, which could be as early as January. Neither Fernandes nor Renault CEO Carlos Ghosn disclosed the investment cost or sales targets.
The new venture represents a revival for Alpine, a brand popular among the French racing community in the 1950s and ’60s.
According to reports out of Paris where the deal was signed, the cars under the Alpine and Caterham brands will be priced from 35,000 to 40,000 euros (US$44,700 to $51,100). Existing Caterham models are priced between 14,500 and 45,000 pounds.
A report said that aside from its Team Lotus Formula One team, Caterham has a big following in the UK for its Caterham Seven, a two-seater sports car that is delivered to customers either fully built or in kit form so enthusiasts can save money and spend their weekends assembling it.
While Caterham sells about 700 of its Seven roadsters a year, Renault sold 2.7 million cars in 2011.
For Fernandes, it is a new business after airlines, insurance, hotels, financial services and his Queens Park Rangers football club. For Renault it is in line with a strategy to move more upmarket and rely less on its core models.
The move comes as Europe’s mass-market automakers are struggling to maintain market shares by slashing sticker prices in response to the economic slowdown there.
Forming the venture, say Fernandes and Ghosn, took a year of “painful” discussion. For Fernandes, it’s a chance to take another run at the Malaysian national carmaker Proton, which has since been sold to the DRB-Hicom group controlled by tycoon Syed Mokhtar Al-Bukhary.
Fernandes’ previous dealings with Proton have not been pleasant, and it’s not in his nature to walk away from a fight.
It all began 18 months ago when he decided to enter the big boys’ game of super-fast racing via an F1 team with the Lotus name.
The original Team Lotus was created by the late Colin Chapman in the 1950s and became one of the most successful teams in the sport’s 60-year history, with 79 race victories and seven constructors’ titles.
“A new dream starts today, Team Lotus is back,” Fernandes declared 18 months ago after acquiring Team Lotus Ventures from David Hunt — the brother of former world champion James.
It was reported at the time that Hunt retained the rights to the name following the original team’s exit from F1 in 1994.
But before Fernandes could warm his seat as boss of Team Lotus, Proton disputed those rights, pointing to its earlier acquisition of Group Lotus, the fabled and chronically money-losing sports car maker.
One thing led to another and Proton chairman Nadzmi Salleh declared war when he said, “We believe the Lotus brand to be one of the most valuable brands in Formula One today.
“We are the owners of this brand, and will take all necessary steps to protect it.”
The bitter dispute landed in the courts, but in any case it appears unlikely that the Lotus name will feature on the F1 calendar next year.
It may have taken him 18 months to get a partner to build sports cars but surely Fernandes has not forgotten the embarrassment and the court battle. Whether he will use the sports car, SUV and city cars to push Proton off the curb remains to be seen.
However, he announced last week that he would step down as principal of the Caterham F1 team to focus more of his energy on the new carmaker, which he says is about getting beyond F1.
He is using the F1 platform to push an affordable sports car to a younger generation that prefers a flashy and fast life. There is indeed a big market, given the rising affluence as a result of the growing middle class across Asia.
But it is going to be a long wait as the first sports car will not roll out until 2015.
About the author
Writer: Jen Rita