Caterham - the kit-car company that took over the Lotus Seven and turned it into one of the longest-running success stories in automotive history and became an engineering empire along the way - has branched out into motorcycle manufacture, with three prototype two-wheelers on show at this year's EICMA motorcycle expo in Milan.
Malaysian-owned Caterham prides itself on its British heritage of performance, intuitive handling and 'accessible fun', so a move into bike-making seems logical, especially in light of the launch in September of the Caterham Moto2 motorcycle Grand Prix team.
Production of the three launch bikes - all priced affordably - is scheduled to begin in the second quarter of 2014, with the Brutus 750 (dubbed the 'SUV of motorcycles') the first to be built, followed by the Classic E-Bike (a battery-powered bike with retro styling) and the Carbon E-Bike (a premium electric bike inspired by F1 technology) later in the year.
Caterham Bikes is headed by Al-Ishsal Ishak, previously head of ancillary income (don't ask!) at AirAsia, with designer Alessandro Tartarini (son of Italjet founder Leo Tartarini), engineer Zeno Panarari and former MotoGP racer Andreas Leuthe as distribution and sales director to back him up.
Ishak's business strategy is based on the growing global demand for environmentally-friendly, multi-purpose two-wheelers. Initial focus will be on the European, North and South American markets but he sees Asia as his key growth area.
“We're realistic and honest enough to know that we're not in the business of rivalling the establishment,” he said. “We're here to offer an alternative that reflects the spirit of Caterham.
“Just as the Seven is a motoring icon because of its unique design and engineering credibility, our bikes will be aimed at a niche audience seeking exceptional quality, bespoke design flair and machines anybody can ride.”
The Brutus 750 - described as the “SUV of motorcycles” - has a thumping great fuel-injected 750cc DOHC single, rated at an underwhelming 33kW driving the rear wheel through a dry centrifugal clutch and continuously variable belt-drive transmission, with the option of low range and reverse.
Suspension is by 43mm inverted cartridge forks and a conventional rear monoshock; the bike runs on 14” cast-alloy rims and humungous off-road quad tyres - 26” in front and 28” at the rear.
Caterham says the Brutus can be ridden on-road, off-road (although with a wet weight of close to 220kg it's going to be a handful in the bush) and, after a conversion that takes less than four hours) as a snowmobile.
However, since it's rear-wheel driven only, the “two-wheeled SUV” label falls away. Caterham also claims that it's the first motorcycle with an automatic transmission (that honour, of course, goes to the 1975 Moto Guzzi V1000 convert, one year ahead of the Honda CB750A) and the first with CVT (here the laurels are shared between the 2008 Aprilia 850 Mana and the Honda DN-01 of the same year).
So what we have here is a seriously attitudinous big-wheel scooter that should be a blast in the dunes and a lot of fun from robot to robot.
Niche audience indeed.
The Classic E-Bike has retro styling “harking back to the golden age of British motorcycling”, a range of 40-80km and can be ridden without a motorcycle licence in EU countries.
The Carbon E-Bike is a premium (read 'expensive') machine, with modern styling inspired by F1 technology; a limited edition (read 'even more expensive') version featuring exclusive F1 input and materials is currently being explored.