The modern car is a lie. All you’ve been told about the necessity of power steering, traction control, heated seats and Radio 4 muttering away as you cruise down the M6 is false. Society does a great job of filtering most of our experiences through several layers of abstraction, and almost every modern car reflects this philosophy. Carefully designed to protect us, and keep us comfortable and safe as we get from point A to B, modern vehicles are in a balancing act; how to navigate through the natural world without spending too much time in it.
I say “almost” every modern car, because there are vehicles in production today which do away with familiar luxuries in order to capture some of the original rawness and thrill of motoring as it used to be done. It’s the simple magic of using exploding gas to propel a human object through beautiful surroundings at thrilling speeds. One such vehicle, and perhaps the archetype, is the Caterham Seven sports car. And we had two of these at our disposal over a glorious English summer weekend.
Caterham – that first time drive…
I pulled myself out of my Caterham and looked at Phil, climbing out of his car in the shadow of the country pub we’d pulled into. The sun was beating down out of a perfect clear sky. The engines were off and all we could hear was the quiet ticking of our hot little sports cars, dutifully dissipating heat through their slatted grills, and the soft rush of a cool spring wind through the trees.
“Wow,” I said, wiping my brow as the adrenaline ebbed away to numb contentment. Phil looked at me with the manic joy of a man who had just struck oil in his back garden. “Wow!” he laughed.
As I sipped on a lemonade, I looked back at our cars from the terrace. It was curious to think that their design hadn’t really changed in over half a century. The predecessor to the modern Caterham was the Lotus 7, produced by Lotus Cars in the UK between 1957 and 1972 until Caterham Cars bought the production rights and continued to make incremental improvements to the original classic design. The motorsport design legend and creator of the Lotus 7, Colin Chapman, had developed the characteristic bug-eyed racer in thrall to his explicit design philosophy to ‘simplify, then add lightness’. Such a minimalist approach yielded cars which were mechanically straightforward but provided high performance on the road and on track due to their low weight and sharp handling. Even better, they could be supplied as kits to be built at home by keen amateurs.
Dear old Colin had certainly been on to something. Our last few hours had passed in a blur of engine roar, spitting exhausts, chattering mechanicals and rabid acceleration thanks to each car’s 1.6 litre Ford Sigma engine and five speed gearbox, producing 135 bhp. Because a Caterham 270 weighs about 540kg, this creates a power-to-weight ratio of about 270hp per tonne (hence the 270 assignation). Roughly equivalent to a Porsche Boxster GTS or a Jaguar F Type, that is pretty serious for a car with no roof. Or doors. And it’s sobering to think that the current Caterham range goes all the way up to a frankly ludicrous ‘620’ model.
I looked at the pair of keys on the table, worn with hundreds of gleeful man-hours of spirited driving. Given the statistics, you’d be forgiven for thinking that these vehicles were designed solely for lunatic men and women who eat crushed up clutches for breakfast, dust themselves in powdered driveshafts and think it is romantic to buy race-fuel scented candles. If you ask the average punter whether they would like to hop into a tiny, angry little race car with a silly power to weight ratio, a jolly propensity to spin wheels in middle gears, no driver aids at all and an engine note recalling some sort of Satanic congress in a turbine hall, the normal response is to call the nice men in white coats.
A car for madmen
Perhaps we really are mad, I had thought earlier that day, as Phil and I spent the train journey to the Caterham factory in a state of nervous agitation. Neither of us had ever driven a proper stripped-down sports car of any description before. Sure, we’d been in various shades of fast vehicle – but they were all supremely over-engineered, safe, and about as wild as a mechanised sofa. We’d read up on the Caterham 270 in advance, although this didn’t really put us at ease. Watch out with the gas on roundabouts, the internet said. Don’t take risks with the throttle if it’s even slightly damp, it warned. And most memorably – don’t worry that you can’t see through other cars, because you will in fact be able to see under them! Er, brilliant. I had a distinct image of my final resting place as a hood ornament on a Chelsea tractor.
We flicked through the specification, which read like the ultimate anti-options list – no traction control, no airbag, no ABS, no power steering, some flappy pleather doors, a titillating rumour of a roof, the wild luxury of a heater (i.e. a flap letting in hot air from the engine bay), and a seating position so low you could reach out and touch the tarmac with your hand. Oh, and no safety rating – the guys at Euro NCAP had clearly taken one look at the Caterham 7 and said “nah – you’re alright mate – as you are.” So here we were. Phil hoped out loud that this wasn’t his last trip out of London. I thought about my last goodbye to my parents. I thought about the dog.
We arrived at the factory and were soon introduced to our cars, a blue ‘S’ model (equipped to be more appropriate for the road) and a yellow and black ‘R’ model (race-oriented). The S spoiled us with carpeting and normal seatbelts, while the R (amongst other things) had a full four-point race harness, no carpets, a lightened flywheel and a very insistent gear shift light. The dashboard on both was very simple, containing the speedometer, a somewhat untrustworthy fuel gauge, a load of toggle switches for various essentials and a big red start button. Who needs more?
With a cheery goodbye to the Caterham staff, I strapped myself in to the blue 270S, turned the key, and pressed the start button. The moment the engine on a Caterham rumbles into life with a soft breathy sputter, you get the sense you are about to experience something unique. Trundling out of the factory car park in first gear, all I could think about was how intimidatingly raw everything felt, and how mechanical. It was like being asked to just nip to the shops in a Spitfire. The exhaust to my right emitted an unforgiving burble, occasionally snapping and spitting when I pushed in the clutch. The mechanical orchestra of the car’s innards provided the soundtrack to my lurching progress up the road as I tested the razor-sharp throttle.
And I was in the road-friendly car – Phil’s 270R had even less sound dampening and was even wilder, crunching and whinnying away as he got to grips with the gearing. Neither car liked low speeds much, burbling every time the revs dropped too low, swallowing the clutch sullenly on low-speed downshifts around town – like a truculent mechanical horse wanting you to kick it into a gallop as soon as possible.
It was time to stretch our legs. When we encountered our first proper strip of clear A-road, our instincts were unsurprisingly aligned: we both floored it.
Now there is only one word to describe the acceleration of a Caterham of any specification, and that is visceral. The 270 shoots you to 60 mph in 5 seconds flat. Perhaps the regular motoring mag reader is inured to such a number, but in a car so low to the ground it feels like you’re riding a laser beam. The vehicle hunches down as the power flows from the front-mid mounted engine to the back wheels. At the same time, you hear the high whizz of the mechanicals lifting into a roar and the tremendous bellow of the exhaust. Your vision is blurred as the entire vehicle shudders with the power unleashed to the back wheels. The air whips around your head as you careen through the gears while watching the countryside unfold in front of you, swiftly swallowed up under the Caterham’s long fighter-like nose.
As we ate up the miles in Kent over the next few days, my thoughts turned to a number of quirks of the car. The lack of power steering for the tiny steering wheel is a particularly interesting experience. It makes turning the vehicle into an event, a concrete decision with consequences you need to accept. It’s a distinct physical act – not just your hands but your arms have to push the steering rack firmly in the direction you want and say here, I want the you to go this way and I want you to turn exactly like this.
The same goes for braking – if you want to stop, you’d better press the brakes firmly. No servo assistance here. It’s a case of push hard to stop, or get squished by pretty much anything else on the road.
All this combined with the steering and absurd acceleration means that every road becomes an adventure. But you are only ever one wheel twitch from disaster. It’s a peculiar and addictive kind of thrill.
There is also another side to these vehicles: the response you get from the public when you drive past. Some people think it’s a vintage racer and will wave you through with a smile. Others know what’s lurking under your bonnet and will want to race you to every roundabout (to the man in the Audi RS5 – please never ever drive so close at such high speed to me or anyone else ever again…). Sometimes driving the Caterham 7 makes you feel like you’re part of some machine cult responsible for preserving the purity of motorsport. Sit down in a pub and you can’t help talk about the cars, like sailors talking about the wind or surfers talking about the waves. Then the people next to you start talking about cars. Then the whole beer garden is talking about cars. Then the whole world gets up and starts to sing and dance about cylinders and throttles and valves and everyone is happy forever after. We can but dream.
Admittedly, this cuts both ways. Not everyone is impressed. A special shout out goes to the lady on Margate pier who took it upon herself, hands on hips, to inform the two raffish playboys in their silly little cars, at least three times, that we were next to her Nissan Micra and would need a parking ticket. Yes, m’lady, we mumbled, chastened, as we plodded off to the tourist office. The fact that one of us was wearing a ludicrous silk bomber jacket at the time and sunglasses only acceptable in the hipper parts of East London probably only made her like us more…
To drive a Caterham well requires all of your concentration, in the same way that a musician must give himself totally to his instrument. In this concentration, in this flow, is freedom. Like in a great piece of music, there are moments in the drive which leap out at you as a pure expression of that freedom. The moment when you enter a motorway tunnel and, in a stolen instant of teenage joy, drop the car into third and slam the accelerator like a hooligan, cackling as you listen to the engine’s roaring crescendo urging you towards the light. The feeling as you wind your way along B-roads as dusk approaches, everything taking on a seamless rhythm where hours pass in a moment and the road disappears effortlessly under the front wheels. The moment when you pull out onto the road and your immediate future seems like one great adventure into which you want to leap.
You can’t help but feel that you’re stealing these moments back from all the people who would tell you to run along, drive a sensible car, switch on the aircon and Radio 4, and ignore the outside world. It feels wonderful to be a pleasure thief, to have such an intense and enjoyable experience on four wheels. It makes you think that perhaps these cars shouldn’t be experienced just by petrol-guzzling motorheads. Perhaps they are the motoring world’s best kept secret.
As we handed back our keys on the Sunday afternoon, we were already planning our next escape.
A Caterham will do strange things to you. It will turn your drive into a kaleidoscope of sense – the powerful scent of grass, a snatched image of a narrowly avoided pothole, a momentary glimpse of an epic countryside panorama, and the flash of your vehicle reflected in the chrome casing of a bug-eye headlight. It is a car which will make you burst out in manic laughter without notice as you push yourself round a banking turn onto a shimmering asphalt straight, and which will humble you into silence as you catapult yourself towards the horizon. It encourages you to embrace something that feels so raw, wild and untamed that the mere act of driving moves from a functional activity into something transgressive and exciting. It puts you in a position where only your wits lie between you and an afternoon extracting your smouldering wreckage of a car from a hedgerow. And that’s a great thing. That’s total control. Total responsibility. Total freedom.
That’s the Caterham 7.