Just months after many of us mourned the end of Australian car manufacturing, we are back in the game. Granted, it’s only a track car and, agreed, there are just 70 examples to be built, but the mid-engined Brabham BT62 coupe just might be the start of something big.
At nearly $2 million, plus options and taxes, the BT62 is far and away the most expensive car anyone has tried to put into series production from this country. But it doesn’t appear to be one of those pie-in-the-sky prototypes regularly unveiled around the world in the hope of attracting backers.
The funding is already in place, and the car has been in secret development since early 2016. The long-term plan is to build a series of Brabham models out of a 15,000 square metre facility in Edinburgh Parks, northern Adelaide, as part of a plan to develop a new transport manufacturing and technology hub. This newly acquired site is just a stone’s throw from Holden’s recently shuttered Elizabeth factory.
Production of the Brabham BT62 is ready to start, according to the company’s director of manufacturing, Christian Reynolds.
“One of the things that we wanted to do from a brand perspective is not necessarily come out with a concept prototype and then try and keep the media fed for 18 or 24 months while we get ready to deliver a production tested vehicle. [It] is tested, is demonstrable in performance, and we’re able to commercialise in terms of taking deposits now.”
Reynolds, an Adelaide-based Englishman, has worked for MG Rover, BMW, Lotus and was an early employee setting up production facilities for Tesla. Work for Holden (on behalf of TWR) first brought him to Australia and he says one of the reasons this new venture can succeed is the way it is being approached.
“If we were coming out of the blocks today saying we were going to produce 10,000 vehicles in year one, that comes with a whole host of challenges that would potentially cause capital drain and so on," he said.
"But, for us, bringing the brand back to market in a controlled way, respecting the heritage of track vehicles and then moving towards a road car programme, that’s the demonstrable pathway … we’re very confident in that business model.”
Reynolds says that, perhaps counter intuitively, some things to do with car making here have recently improved.
“The quantum of investment in defence-based suppliers actually has lifted the technical competency of the supply base, in what we would refer to as Tier One and Tier Two. This actually makes advanced manufacturing much easier now than what it would have been some 10 years ago.”
The managing director of Brabham Automotive is David Brabham, the youngest son of triple world champion Sir Jack and himself a successful racing driver. Although he will remain based in London, he says he is still stunned by the idea that he and his team are reintroducing car-making to Australia.
“It is quite a significant moment and I don’t know if we are really going to realise that fully until further down the road. The opportunity probably came up because automotive was leaving Australia. So one door closes and another one opens.”
England is the traditional home of low volume sports cars, and Brabham first tried to crowdsource the establishment of a car company there in 2014. The Australian opportunity he is talking about arose because a Tier One supplier to Holden, Ford and Toyota – Adelaide’s Precision Components – began looking for new opportunities when it became obvious local car factories were going to close.
Mathew Fitch, the proprietor of Precision Components, has now formed Fusion Capital, an investment group with a focus on advanced manufacturing and mobility solutions. So far, Fusion has fully funded Brabham Automotive and a bus making business. To do this, Fitch worked with Dan Marks, an experienced corporate lawyer who is now the commercial director of Brabham Automotive.
Marks says Brabham cars will be manufactured and assembled at the Adelaide site. Some overseas suppliers will be used, but carbon-fibre production and many other advanced processes will be done locally.
“From an engine perspective we’re using an established OEM base and we’ve re-specified that so much that they have given us permission to call it a Brabham engine.”
This is a naturally aspirated V8 delivering 522 kW against the car’s dry weight of 972 kg. The car can be built in left- or right-hand drive.
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, Marks offers many rationales why the new project will succeed, including the fact the car is not saddled with the restrictions that would exist if it were also street capable.
“Most cars, they’ve started from a road car architecture," he said.
"They tend to be heavier, and therefore not as dynamic from a performance perspective as the BT62 will be.”
He also says their car has features normally found only in F1 cars and Le Mans prototypes, such as carbon-on-carbon brake rotors.
“We are leveraging the winning DNA of the Brabham brand. There’s very few, if any, brands of this type who have living family members," he added.
"With David leading the brand both from a design input perspective, but also from a testing perspective, it adds credibility to the vehicle. This is a vehicle that David wants to drive.”
The challenge, however, remains a huge one. Local car making proved too hard for the multinationals, and scores of smaller would-be manufacturers have fallen through the years, often before selling a single vehicle.
A succession of ambitious Aussie sports car programs have come to nothing. None of these sports cars, to be fair, had the allure and heritage of the Brabham name, and most were severely underfunded.
Furthermore, a healthy international market has emerged in recent years for very fast, low volume, collectable sports cars. Several specialist makers claim long order banks for cars with stratospheric prices. It may be that Brabham Automotive can join them.
David Brabham says the timing of a Brabham road car depends on the take up for the BT62.
“Obviously if all 70 of these vehicles disappear quickly, the road car program starts to come closer, if it doesn’t then it moves away a bit," he said.
"[But] we have already started to get inquiries from people from different parts of the world. There is an appetite for these types of vehicles in lots of different countries.”