Road test: the Caterham Super Seven 1600 is beautifully basic
Let's go back to basics in the Caterham Super Seven 1600 and has a blast. - By Andrew English
Take your average family car, why don’t you? The one that’s outside on your drive will do just fine. Now, grab a spanner and wire cutters, and get out there and start taking stuff out: the anti-lock brakes, cruise control, stability electronics and camera-and-radar safety systems can all go. Then deep-six the power steering, the air con and the sat nav. Dump the traction control, the electric mirrors and the heated seats…
There that’s better. And who needs doors, or a tin roof, or rear seats and a boot.
You’re getting close now to what this car represents. Even in 1952, when Colin Chapman’s little two-seater raced on to the motoring scene, it represented motoring at its most fundamental.
"Simplicate and add more lightness" is what Colin Chapman didn’t say, that came from Gordon Hooton, a designer who worked with Ford design executive William Stout, but was ever a car more simplicated? It doesn’t even have steering column stalks for Pete’s sake, just a daft little toggle switch for the indicators, which you must remember to switch off when you’re 100 yards up the road.
In September 1967, ITV launched The Prisoner, a perplexing television series set in Portmeirion in Wales with opening credits showing hero Patrick McGoohan driving a yellow-and-green Lotus 7 along a London Street. I never really understood The Prisoner, but that car sure did capture my imagination…
Did I mention fun? Ah yes, that’s just a turn of a key away. In this anniversary-special Super Seven 1600, Jenvey throttle bodies give voice to a 1.6-litre Ford Sigma engine. Lying under the heavily-louvred aluminium bonnet, this venerable mill celebrates its 25th birthday this year. Still fitted to various Fords including Fiesta and Mondeo models, in this Seven it produces a modest 135bhp at 6,800rpm and 122lb ft at 4,100rpm. That’s enough to give a frantic 122mph top speed and 0-60mph in five seconds.
There’s a five-speed gearbox and an open differential, with 14-inch alloy wheels and rear tyres slightly wider than those at the front. There are no homologated figures for fuel consumption and CO2, so all we can say is that it delivered about 35mpg on test.
A first encounter with a Caterham Seven is to become acquainted with pop fasteners, side screens, flapping fabric, and the essential need for a hat. Graham Nearn, the founder of the titular Lotus 7 dealer, bought the rights to produce the Seven in 1973. Chapman wanted to steer Lotus into a more executive class of high-performance car and Nearn picked up the slack. Then, as now, you could buy it as a kit. My senior school caretaker built one in his garden one summer; I avidly followed its progress…
At heart, this is still a club-racers’ special; a tubular steel chassis with reinforced glass-fibre panels and a straight-forward, revvy, rear-drive drivetrain. It’s been fitted with some weird and wonderful mills over the years, from a Coventry Climax fire pump engine to a full house Cosworth BDA twin-cam. I was editor of Fast Lane magazine in March 1993 when friend, contributor and race driver Mark Hales achieved the world’s production 0-60mph record (3.46 seconds) in a Day-Glo yellow JPE model. A half-tonne missile with a Vauxhall Touring Car engine, it wasn’t a particularly nice to drive, but my-then three-year-old son Fergus loved it dearly. He stood on the hot exhaust pipe running alongside the driver’s cockpit chatting while his soles of his shoes melted gently onto the silencer.
This model is a back-to-basics Caterham, built to celebrate the firm’s anniversary but also to combine old-school looks with modern performance hardware. The wings are clamshells rather than cycle wings and the seats and leather trim hark back to the Lotus days of yore.
It’s not cheap, though and the expensive options pushed the price from a steep £33,495 to £39,655.
Two body types are available: standard, which is3,100mm long, 1,575mm wide and 1,090mm high; and large, which is 3,350mm long, 1,685mm wide and 1,115mm high. Ours was the larger size with floors lowered by 110mm which is a £495 option.
There’s not much in the way of creature comforts, but the leather upholstery, Smiths instruments and old-school plastic rocker switches are perfectly judged. There’s a two-speed heater, which has negligible effect and the windscreen is electrically heated for demisting. You sit low, almost in line with lorry hubs and you quickly find that various bits of the cockpit rub bits of your body raw.
The £2,250 mohair hood and side screens aren’t the last word in weather protection and make elegant access to the cockpit well nigh impossible. So, you slide into the driver’s seat like a greased otter. And whichever version you drive, the pedal box is tiny wee, so you wear pumps to drive. The tiny Motalita wood-rim steering wheel (£300) is delightful, but driving hard you have to spread your arms and the stiff shifting gearlever requires you to poke your elbow out to the side, both of which encroach on your passenger.
I started in the rain, which wasn’t much fun. It’s hard to see out, the wipers are a bit rubbish and you feel the quintessence of vulnerability. As the weather cleared, however, on curving B roads, the little two-seater started to work its charm.
Although the Sigma engine feels a bit crude compared to some of the other more exotic engines fitted to Caterhams, it’s truer to this car’s roots, which started life in 1952 as the Lotus VI with a side-valve Ford under the bonnet.
Snick the tiny gear lever into first and you even feel the clutch take up as the Avons bite into the road surface. At 565kg, this Caterham has a power to weight ratio that embarrasses cars with many times the power. And while this is a far cry from the faster Caterham models, it’s brisk enough even if you feel you are doing a million miles per hour just keeping up with the traffic.
Wring out the little engine and it gets a bit short of breath, but it’s quick enough while still staying manageable, almost coaxing you into sliding the car gently through the slower-speed corners. And it’s all so alive, willing you to drive that extra mile and push on for the next bit of road; this is a car that brings out the Mister Toad in everyone.
The ride isn’t too bad, either, though the Avons crash through sharp-edged bumps and potholes. The unassisted steering feels is simply wonderful; light and easy, and with this larger wheel rim, it sends huge amounts of feedback up to the driver. No you wouldn’t want to drive one every day (though some do) and you wouldn’t want to drive across Europe in one (although, again, some do), but on a fine day and on sinuous dry roads, a Caterham is probably the perfect automobile.
This model is very expensive, but its details are just about perfect, and the chassis balance is firmly in favour of the road rather than the track, which I like. I’d like a bit more power and a lower price, which the Caterham brochure happily provides for, but as I stare out of the window on a dreich and drear autumn day, just the thought of my sunny drive in this car is enough to bring a broad smile to my face.
And that is simply priceless…
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