The ex-Cater­ham en­gi­neer has turned his at­ten­tion from sports cars to driver­less Pods

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Jez Coates: Cater­ham 7s to elec­tric Pods

Iknow that Mil­ton Keynes still makes some peo­ple laugh, but it’s an ideal lab­o­ra­tory. The sep­a­ra­tion be­tween pedes­tri­ans and roads was thought out thor­oughly, and it’s a very green, calm place, with a lot of civic pride.

It’s where our driver­less Pod called the LUTZ [Low-car­bon Ur­ban Trans­port Zone] Pathfinder will be in­tro­duced. I’m chief en­gi­neer of ve­hi­cle projects at RDM Group, so it’s my job to de­liver the pro­to­types on sched­ule, and af­ter that to build a batch of 40 Pods for a taxi test pro­gramme in Mil­ton Keynes, mov­ing along the town’s pave­ments.

We’re work­ing with the Mo­bile Ro­bot­ics Group at Ox­ford Univer­sity on the in­ter­face to the au­ton­o­mous con­trol sys­tem that al­lows it to re­motely move, drive, stop, steer. We have to make sure the ve­hi­cle will move only when it’s con­vinced there’s no rea­son why it shouldn’t.

For 23 years I was with Cater­ham, mostly as tech­ni­cal di­rec­tor, and my home is still in north Kent. Very con­ve­nient for Cater­ham’s fac­tory in Dart­ford, with lots of se­cret back­wa­ters that made ex­cel­lent test routes.

Now I com­mute to Coven­try ev­ery week. It’s a hor­ri­ble drive so I of­ten catch the train on Sun­day night. At Cater­ham, I worked with Rover to fit the K-se­ries en­gine in the car. That’s when I met Rover en­gi­neer Dave Fender. Now I’m his lodger at Leamington Spa. From there, it’s a ten-mile com­mute. I have a staff of 20, and I’m usu­ally in by 8.30.

The LUTZ Pathfinder is the brain­child of the Govern­ment’s Trans­port Sys­tem Cat­a­pult, de­signed to kick­start de­vel­op­ment of new trans­port sys­tems and tech­nol­ogy. We won it be­cause we have a good de­sign and all the skills to de­liver it.

I started at Ley­land when it was the world’s big­gest man­u­fac­turer of trucks and buses. Not as sexy as cars, but they spon­sored me as a grad­u­ate in 1976 and it was a fan­tas­tic train­ing in proper man­u­fac­tur­ing.

The widow of a Ley­land chair­man funded a garage work­shop for us, in­stead of a statue of her late hus­band, and 17 of us kids had Lo­tuses. I had an Elan. Thanks to that garage, you could write it off, re­build it, and take it out again.

In 1983 Cater­ham of­fered me a job. We went from a cot­tage in­dus­try to a proper brand sell­ing 800 cars a year. I de­vel­oped lots of new mod­els – the all-in­de­pen­dent CSR was my proud­est achieve­ment. All the projects had to pay for them­selves within a year, so it was tough, but I never minded work­ing ’til 10 at night be­cause I loved it.

I still own two Cater­hams: the only CSR with a K-se­ries en­gine, and the last Cater­ham 21, plus a Zolfe Or­ange GTC4, the track car I de­signed af­ter leav­ing Cater­ham.

Each morn­ing at RDM, I’ll walk around the plant with my job list to mon­i­tor progress on dif­fer­ent projects. As well as the Pod, we’re work­ing on a pro­ject to ‘hy­bridise’ a small van – to eas­ily add a switched-re­luc­tance elec­tric mo­tor to an ex­ist­ing petrol-pow­ered ve­hi­cle. In some of our brain­storm­ing ses­sions I find I am the voice of re­al­ity. The demon­stra­tor we’ll build has to be de­liv­er­able.

We have a com­mu­nal lunch area where I sit with the guys and have a chat, try­ing not to talk about work.

There’s in­tense ac­tiv­ity be­fore the se­cond Pod pro­to­type is de­liv­ered to MIRA for tests. There’s a lot of func­tion­al­ity in­volved be­cause it uses sen­sors, cam­eras, radar and Lidar, and it’s evolv­ing fast. Pack­ag­ing all this is vi­tal, and I think Issigonis would have been pleased with how much we’ve packed into it. There’s a man­ual sys­tem too be­cause the test ve­hi­cles will al­ways have a safety driver on board.

I like to get hands-on. I spent an af­ter­noon help­ing de­sign­ers com­plete a steer­ing part us­ing CAD; some­thing we can laser-cut overnight and fit to the ve­hi­cle the next day. That used to take three months at Ley­land.

I am start­ing to plan the Pod fac­tory – not scary be­cause we built more than 40 Cater­hams a month. And, any­way, RDM al­ready man­u­fac­tures parts and sys­tems for Land Rover, As­ton Martin and Mor­gan.

At 6pm, when ev­ery­one else has gone home, my other agenda be­gins of re­ports, di­a­logue, and some clear think­ing. I am of­ten here late. Dave and I go to the pub a cou­ple of nights a week, and we oc­ca­sion­ally go to the Hook Nor­ton Brew­ery, home of my favourite beer.

I love the coun­try. I grew up in Cum­bria, and I still have my par­ents’ house there. I also have a share in a nar­row­boat. I like that be­cause you can only go at 3mph.

Fun­nily enough, I’ve of­ten sneaked through the back of Mil­ton Keynes on it, notic­ing how lush the place is…


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