Three days, two drivers, and one race-striped tearaway – the Fitzroy Motor team get to grips with the 620R, Caterham’s most extreme offering yet…
“So, what next?”
I thought back to my first time in a Caterham – a year ago, roaring through Kentish villages in a Seven 270, my senses straining to keep up. Nothing since then had quite matched it.
“I’ve asked them for something a bit special this time,” I answered. “I’ve asked for the Lego Cat.”
A moment’s thoughtful pause. “Oh dear,” said Phil.
I’m convinced that inside every driver is a fantasist. Stuck in a dreary daily commute or gazing out over the modern car industry’s sea of tepid mediocrity, most of us want something better. We’re always imagining going faster, in a more exciting car, on that perfect road. It’s only human to dream – but life gets in the way. You’re not Senna. You’re not Moss. You have a career, responsibilities, kids. You find some workable compromise and start to make excuses. Practicality, fuel efficiency, space for the family, an actual roof…
Most recreational drivers stop there. A smaller contingent buy some ratty little car and yomp up and down the country in search of a snatched moment of automotive bliss on the road or on the track. But it’s never really enough, and it comes at a price. The life of an amateur racing enthusiast is tough: solitary, poor, occasionally nasty and brutally expensive.
But what if luck and fate were to align, and the gods agreed to grant you one of their own contrivances? A pure race car for the road, the ultimate track toy, with no compromises and no creature comforts. What would it be like?
I’d suggest that it would have a small, low, lithe chassis. You’d need a beastly yet compact engine, some vague gesture of bodywork, and a few carbon bucket seats. No power steering, traction control, none of that. No doors, no roof, just a carbon aeroscreen. Properly stiff racing suspension. A tiny wheel (Momo, naturally) and a quadruple tubed chrome exhaust. Then some final aesthetic touches – bug-eyed headlamps like your favourite racers had, a dashing tonneau cover. And let’s paint it yellow. No, more yellow than that. Lego yellow. Yeah. With a big ‘7’ on the grille, and a double black racing stripe down the middle.
Well, luckily, this car exists. It’s the Caterham 620R. And it was ours for one wild weekend.
The 620R is the fastest vehicle Caterham make, with a spec sheet which reads like the outcome of several late nights of engineers shouting ludicrous numbers at each other followed by a fistfight and loads of aggressive wrenching. Under the hood is a 1999cc Ford Duratec four-cylinder engine. In naturally aspirated form it produces 210 bhp and propels a regular Seven to 60mph in a mere 3.8 seconds. However Caterham’s engineers didn’t think this quite hit the spot for the 620R, the pinnacle of their road-going range. So they stuck a supercharger on it, leaving those who dare squeeze themselves into this car in command of a 310 bhp bathtub full of fuel which does 0-60 mph in just 2.79 seconds.
Now that is not fast. It’s not even M&S fast. It’s face-bendingly, innard-rearrangingly fast. Forget other cars. This one rends spacetime. Zero to national speed limit is a large breath, mostly in first gear. You’re screaming into your helmet, the 620R is screaming, local villagers are screaming. Welcome to Driving with Edvard Munch. And there’s only one thing for it as the rev lights flash red. You give the stubby lever attached to the 6-speed SADEV sequential gearbox a manly yank, and a cannon goes off next to your head. Congratulations sir – welcome to second gear.
So much for hooligan speed. What takes you by surprise however is how despite a lack of aids and comforts which in a regular car would be blasphemous, the 620R feels oddly compliant. Yes, it’s unbelievably impractical, with heavy steering, relentless engine noise, no crash protection, and painfully unforgiving racing suspension. But when the uncompromising rawness of the whole package is so obviously designed to prioritise pure driving pleasure, you can’t help but respect it. Once you are strapped in, gloves playing over the silver toggle switches and breath condensing inside your helmet, you feel like an integral part of the vehicle, a racing driver of the old school. All extraneous distractions disappear. It’s just you and the road.
Not to say that there isn’t stuff to gripe about, if you really want to. A tiny pedal box means every decision to brake and accelerate has to be accurately executed. As the tiniest car on the road, you also get buffeted by the wash from pushchairs upwards and encountering a truck in anger is frankly terrifying. Lastly, as we discovered and as every 620R owner will attest, there’s nothing quite like having a lovely pub lunch, hoisting yourself into your Caterham in front of your mates, and with a beaming smile dropping yourself squarely onto the big red harness lock. Ouch.
However it wasn’t the absurdly quick point-to-points on the open roads of Kent, or roundabouts taken slightly sideways, which showed me what the 620R was really about. It was actually on the route back from our testing grounds at 7am, on a sopping miserable Monday morning, lashed by biblical rainstorms, where I really appreciated it.
It was a pretty grim scene – road grit pinging off my helmet onto the tonneau, my racing gloves soaked through and my visor beaded with raindrops. Steam hissed off the engine cowling and I could feel the water forcing its way through my inadequate cagoule. Phil was a pair of hazy red lights a hundred metres up the road, but I felt totally alone. The 620R didn’t make it easy for me to drive – hair-trigger wheelspin on speed bumps, a face off with a skittish Velar on a steep incline ending in a smoking burnout, the odd jerk and slide as the tyres struggled to mediate the huge power flowing through the rear axle. Worst was the occasional squeeze of adrenaline as I felt a ghost of aquaplane pass through the steering wheel, before the tyres found grip again.
And yet, in the midst of my trepidation, I found a strange solace. My senses were fully tuned to what was happening, as I used the immense power of the car to shoot down unknown country lanes and under green forest canopies, rowing up and down the gears. The 620R forces you to confront your own driving and forces you to trust yourself. You’ve got nobody else. In the wind and the rain, fighting to preserve fuel, to keep momentum going, to get back in time, soaked to the bone, uncomfortable and slightly deafened, a little part of me felt like Moss, Senna, Fangio. It sounds crazy, but it made it feel special.
That’s what I’ll remember. Me and the Lego Cat, a man and his machine dancing across a rain-soaked English landscape, with absolutely no competition except ourselves. God mode indeed.
We also took Alex R-H, a dear friend of Fitzroy Motor, along for this one. When he is not tending to his beloved vintage Mercedes, he is flying aeroplanes with an elegance matched only by his driving attire. What would he make of the 620R, we wondered…
The man behind the desk glanced at me suspiciously. “Have you ever driven a Caterham before?”
I thought back to my first time in a Caterham – five minutes ago easing a 360R from the back of his showroom to the front.
“Oh yes”, I answered truthfully.
“Well, this is the fastest one we make, and the fastest car you will ever drive.”
I thought of his words as I sank into the vehicle. From behind the wheel, the Caterham 620R feels like a light aircraft, with its snug seating position, myriad toggle switches, and cockpit-like view of the elongated cowling. It smells like a vintage motorbike, with the aroma of engine oil and hints of protesting clutch wafting gracefully through the lack of windscreen. And it moves like a nuclear missile.
After a quick tutorial on the sequential gearbox (another first for me), I was released from Caterham HQ onto the unsuspecting streets of Crawley, which I swiftly traded for the rolling B-roads of Kent. And it was there that I fell utterly, utterly in love with this preposterous, scintillating yellow machine.
The noise is symphonic. At low speeds, the portentous growl of the exhaust makes dogs stand to attention as you drive past, hackles raised as they wonder who this rambunctious challenger is. As you accelerate, the growl evolves into full-throated howling coupled with the dread whine of the supercharger; you build the revs higher and higher to the thundering redline, then smash the sequential box with a bellicose bark from the side-mounted exhaust. You can even flat-shift without lifting your right foot, keeping you in the 620R’s delightfully wide power band. And because this power-band is so torque-rich, the car’s 310 horses are always ready and waiting to chase down those rowdy dogs.
If the horsepower is readily accessible, the steering is telepathic. No power assistance here – driving our E46 M3 support car felt like steering a rudderless cruise ship by comparison. Controlling the 620R is like having a silent two-way conversation: the tiny Momo wheel telegraphs road feel to your palms and fingertips, and you transmit rapid and precise changes of direction to the front wheels in turn. The electronically assisted steering in modern cars, and even the hydraulically assisted steering of yesteryear, drowns out this conversation. As far as steering feel goes, the 620R really proves that there’s no match for no assistance.
The 620R doesn’t just turn canine heads. Every time we stopped for fuel, or parked up for lunch, people would come and ask questions about the car. I also noticed that children exclaim and point excitedly when they see a Caterham; I like to think they recognise its shape as the quintessential, primordial car design, manifest in the toy cars they play with. They might not consciously understand the timelessness of the long bonnet, wheels at four corners of the low-slung chassis, and round headlights, but subconsciously they get it.
A lot of people ask about how this track machine fares on the road. Being so light, traction is sometimes more of an afterthought, compounded by the fact that you can spin the wheels in third gear without much effort. However the car is very balanced. I always regained traction moments after losing it, but this does make the 620R a terrifying prospect on normal roads in the rain. The upside to this lightness? Although the suspension is incredibly stiff, the lack of weight means bumps and potholes are nowhere near as jarring as you might expect. Oh, and should you get into trouble, you can almost pick up the 610kg 620R and put it back on the road yourself.
Similarly, the 620R’s pedals are designed for track use, meaning the accelerator and brake are extremely close together. When pressing the brake to slow down for a junction, I often found I was inadvertently gunning the throttle with the right side of my foot. Similarly, I often found that when pressing the accelerator, I was still making contact with the brake with the left side of my foot. The internet suggests 620R owners bend the brake pedal to create more distance from the accelerator. I think going barefoot is somewhat more romantic, and probably less damaging to resale values…
But the impracticalities pale into insignificance when you strap up the four-point racing harness and become one with the machine. The 620R is visceral, primal. It demands your undivided attention. It inundates you with a torrent of sensations as you open up the throttle: the wind, the smells, the ear-splitting music of the exhaust, the delightful lurch of the G force. It hearkens back to a simpler automotive time, when driver aids were laissez-faire, and when cars weren’t the mass of indistinguishable design language you see on the road today. And that makes the Caterham 620R what it is: as pure a driving experience as you could possibly hope for.