The Caterham 420R – a car for a very special type of petrolhead
Most of the time the 420R was unpleasant, but when it finds its stride all the anger melts away
Alex Goy is a freelance motoring journalist who writes for the likes of Motor1, Carfection, CNET and DriveTribe.
With autonomy on the horizon (allegedly), more driver aids than ever, an apparent international shunning of the manual gearbox, and more people gleefully saying ‘oh, I hate driving’, the desire to have something you need to grab by the scruff of its neck and actually drive is increasingly understandable for anyone with a love of cars.
Cars like the Caterham Seven exist to sate a small but passionate group of drivers. A group for whom grip, control, balance, and excitement are the be all and end all. Proper petrolheads, basically.
This brand of petrolhead cares little for likes or views, they care about going fast and having fun. The Caterham Seven is perfect for them – the cars are small and (comparatively) simple, which means they’re easy to fix, tinker with, and store. Because they weigh nothing they don’t need to be powerful, yet they’re still ballistically quick.
The line up goes all the way from a dinky 270 to a ludicrously powerful 620, yet the 420 is mooted as something of a sweet spot - not so grunty you’ll involuntarily clench every time you hit the gas, but not wanting for power either. While the standard car comes with some neat mod con-lite touches, you can fit an R package which turns the ‘hardcore’ up a notch. Tweaked brakes, lighter components, sport suspension – a whole heap of angry.
With all that on board it’ll take 3.8 seconds to get from 0-60mph, and it’ll top out at 136mph. Its 210bhp 2.0-litre motor is potent enough then. A 420R is the perfect car for a track day – no mod cons, proper springs, plenty of pace. What it isn’t perfect for, however, is the day to day.
If you want to make a quick escape, you can’t because the 420R’s four-point harnesses are a huge pain in the arse to sort. Its fuel tank is tiny, so you need to refuel often. Its massive exhaust, when you’re simply bimbling around town/on the motorway makes ‘a noise’ – not a good one, not a tuneful one, just noise. Of course, thanks to Caterham’s decision to put it right under the driver’s doorhole you have to step over it when you get in and out of the thing. Oh yeah, and getting in and out with dignity takes practice.
If it rains you’ll need the roof up, which attaches to the body with poppers, straps and Velcro. While it protects occupants from the majority of rain it also makes rear visibility something of a problem as the black fabric blocks large chunks of the view, and the mirrors affixed to its wobbly doors are impossible to adjust once the door is shut. Making progress on the motorway can be a leap of faith. Oh, and at one point on a motorway run the poppers affixing the roof to the windscreen decided to undo themselves, which was alarming.
If the roof *had* flown off the rest of the world would have seen a spartan interior geared towards one thing and one thing only: speed. There are no frills here. The indicators work on a switch, not a stalk. And even with a heater specced you didn’t need to turn it on once the motor was up to temperature as the car just fires hot air into the cabin. Naturally, with the roof on you can’t open a window to relive the heat.
The ride on actual roads is punishing. You can feel every slight lump and bump in the road. Hit any of those lumps too fast and you’ll be bounced around the cabin. Four days after handing the car back my back is still aching.
Grip is at a premium during the UK’s winter, and the Avon ZZS rubber fitted wasn’t a fan of finding much. If water had been near the tarmac in the last, say, 24 hours, the rears would light up in first and second without much provocation. And thanks to a throttle pedal on a hair trigger it’s quite easy to provoke.
You’re probably thinking that the Caterham 420R is one of the worst cars ever built. But trying to use a Caterham as a daily driver is much like trying to use a Leatherman to fell a tree. It’s woefully inappropriate.
You have to go through drudgery to find the 420R’s perfect road, but once you do you’ll find a different car. You learn its gearbox is an utter joy to fire through, and that while it’s a bastard to get going from a junction, leaping form third to fourth and back is addictive.
The car tells you that chasing revs makes the exhaust sing a different, marginally more tuneful, song, and that it can feel just as quick as its 3.8 second 0-60mph time suggests. All of its controls are so fine that as you learn the car you realise just how blunted everything else on the road truly is. Your driving position – basically lying on the floor – feels more natural than anything else. You’re connected, working as one. It’s fast, it’s frantic, and it’s one of the best experiences normal humans can have on four wheels.
In order to find that brief squirt of nirvana you need to find a dry country road with no one else on it – admittedly a hard thing to do. More often than not you’ll fire yourself along an a-road, only to get stuck behind some clown in an old SUV doing ten under the limit. Of course, because the Caterham is so low and small you can’t easily see round what’s ahead, which means you end up back in the drudgery of daily life and grumpy.
The Caterham 420R is for a very special type of petrolhead: the patient one. The ones who know that to get to the really, really good bit of Caterham driving you need to sit through some really quite terrible stuff.
It’s not for everyone, despite what many people in the comments and on Twitter will be saying. It’s hard, uncomfortable, and uncompromised, but it’s hiding something. There’s an addictive hit out there to be chased, but you’ve got to earn it first.
Can't afford a real one? How about a Lego Caterham...
If a much smaller version of the car Alex has been driving is more suited to your price range, click here to buy the Lego model.