It started with a tanning spray. Now Radical is a tech-filled racing car factory, but with a very traditional vibe. This is the story.
Here’s something that you probably don’t know. Radical, one of the most prolific manufacturers of bespoke racing machinery in the world, got its start manufacturing tanning spray. The trail between this and the incredibly popular track machinery like the SR10 that you know Radical for is long and impenetrable, but enter ‘Radical spray tan’ into your favourite search engine and you’ll find bottles with the same logo that used to adorn the cars.
It’s one of the less obvious routes into car manufacturing, up there with Peugeot and its pepper grinders, but that hasn’t stopped the cars being a runaway success. It’s easy to assume that little British sports car companies like this occupy tiny market niches, with annual sales in the double figures, but despite the handmade nature of Radical’s products, it produces around 200 cars every year.
Much of this is thanks to the fact that many Radical cars are track-only, and can therefore be sold pretty much globally without having to meet road car standards. In fact, it might surprise you to learn that one of the biggest markets for these low-volume, hand-built British sports cars is the USA – one track, the Spring Mountain Motor Resort in the desert outside Las Vegas, has more than 100 Radicals.
Here, in early March, on this unassuming industrial estate in Peterborough, that sun-baked tarmac feels a million miles away, but this is where all Radicals begin their journey. The company has been based here since its inception in 1997, and its presence is steadily taking over the estate, having added the unit next door and one across the road to its original facility.
Though the cars Radical produces are at the cutting edge of club-level racers and roadgoing sports cars, its little cluster of production facilities feels refreshingly old-school and no-nonsense amongst a world of increasingly stuffy, corporate-driven manufacturers.
When we arrive at around 10:30am, the shop floor is nearly completely empty. This isn’t because it’s not a hardworking, deeply industrious place – it absolutely is – but because this is when pretty much the entire workforce downs tools for a tea break. Because how are you supposed to get anything done without a mid-morning cuppa?
The sense of industry continues all around the factory. Sparks fly behind translucent-red strip curtains as the tube-frame chassis are assembled, and there’s the rumble of heavy machinery as vital engine components are milled.
In the next room, cars in various states of completion are lined up on production stations, the bodywork peeled away to reveal the skeletal forms beneath. In a separate room, engines are assembled, the Ford EcoBoost and Suzuki superbike engines stripped back and thoroughly overhauled to the extent that there’s very little of the donor motor left.
Next door houses the body shop, which comes with all its own fascinations. The slightly chemically smell of fibreglass resin is intense – it smells like things getting done. There are stacks of front and rear fairings lined up, ready to be attached to chassis, the usual white paint schemes punctuated by the occasional pops of bright primary and secondary colours that the cars can be specced in.
Leant against one wall, looking like a peculiar hot tub, is the fibreglass mould for Radical’s first coupé, the RXC, with clear impressions for the shape of its gullwing doors. Repairs take place here, too, and there’s the odd section of body from a car whose race has come to an untimely end in one of Radical’s many global one-make championships.
Across the road are a handful of completed cars, ready to ship. Most are the larger SR10, with the Ford-based engine, or the smaller SR3 with its superbike-derived motor. They look a little odd – for shipping, the rear wings are mounted backwards to ensure they fit in a container.
A peculiar outlier is tucked away in a corner – an MG Metro 6R4 rally car, shorn of a fair amount of its bodywork. This, we’re told, is a hangover from a period when Radical Performance Engines – the in-house subdivision that handles engine-building – was involved in a number of other non-Radical products. It’s a surprise to see, although it’s never unwelcome to lay eyes on a Group B car.
What strikes you most about Radical is how much it feels as though it’s being run by real people. All the desks, all the workstations, have little personal mementoes on them, fragments of the people who work at them – there’s a framed Liverpool FC flag on the wall here, and a dusty and worn stuffed figurine there.
This feeling of community permeates the whole place. Parts are scattered around and stacked up shelves in a way that perhaps wouldn’t fly in other, more clinical factories, but everything clearly works as it should. There’s a real clever, entrepreneurial spirit, too: the engine dyno, for example, is housed in a shipping container – because why spend the time and money building a dedicated dyno room when it works just as well?
It’s this blend of industrious attitudes with modern tech and research that allows companies like Radical to continue thriving. Even with a supply and support network reaching around the globe (including, somewhat inexplicably, an outlet in Reykjavik), this small team in Cambridgeshire are part of a coterie helping keep the lightweight British sports car alive.
We think it’s worth celebrating, which is why we’re excited to have Radical join us in the Yard for our Lightspeed weekend on 18 and 19 March. Fancy coming down? Tickets are live now.