Light, Fantastic

Subtle chances to the Caterham Seven have not altered its appeal. Simon Arron has finally been persuaded to disembark

For two minutes, my mother genuinely believed she'd won the National Lottery. With good cause. The six numbers on her ticket were a perfect match for those on the adjacent scrap of paper. However...

In her excitement at having correctly chosen the first four numbers, she had inadvertently copied the remaining two from her ticket, rather than those thrown up by the computer, onto said piece of paper.

Hardly surprising that they should tally.

In the time which passed before the error was spotted, she had already promised to buy me a new house. Not wishing to appear wholly ungrateful, it seemed churlish to point out that I didn't want a house. I already had one of those.

What I really would have liked was a Caterham.

And 'would' was the operative word, because for all the government's recent talk of economic recovery, the resultant £41 wasn't going to buy either of them ...

The Caterham. An affair of the heart. Hard to rationalise. Its utter rudimentanness makes it stand out in the anonymous '90s, where a horribly high percentage of cars aren't so much designed as cloned. The Super Seven is not practical. It's not always terribly comfortable.

But no way is it dull.

During the photographic shoot, around the environs of Greenwich Park, a succession of passers-by paused, took a second look, then ambled over and inquired, 'That's old. What is it?'

By 'old' they mean 'old-fashioned'. Or perhaps 'distinctive'.

For all that, however, Caterham is making concessions to the approaching millennium. The latest Super Seven, for instance, features wholly new suspension. Over the years, the increasing proliferation of racing Caterhams has led to ever firmer set-ups being deployed. After all, the sales pitch for most road-going Sevens drops hints about their eligibility for one racing series or another.

Inevitably, ride quality remained OK for a hardy few, but was not deemed to be to the common taste. Hence the adoption of a de Dion rear end, amongst other things. Damping control has now been improved substantially and this, together with variable rate rear springing, means that it no longer feels as though you've driven off the White Cliffs of Dover every time you encounter a pot hole (around once every 25 seconds in London SE1). A smaller roll-bar than hitherto is fitted at the front, and there is none at all at the rear, although the mounting points remain should you wish to over-rule the factory.

The suspension geometry, a hangover from the days when the words 'Super' and 'Seven' were prefixed by the word 'Lotus', has also been revised comprehensively. This has provided greater camber compensation when cornering, increased traction and other subtle benefits. Overall, the Caterham feels a little better in every department. And bearing in mind the strengths of the original, that has taken some doing: spawned in 1957: a paragon of handling sophistication almost 40 years later. Sure, ride comfort is still closer to that of a kart than a Bentley Continental, but it is an improvement, even though the occupant(s) there's no room for a passenger if you carry so much as a briefcase are still prone to the occasional jolt from low-speed surface changes.

Essentially, the handling reflects what a Caterham has always been: a four-wheeled glove, a masterpiece of dexterity and fingertip control.

The other benefits of ownership are equally unchanged. A 1.6 K-Series engine may sound pretty humdrum wearing a set of Rover clothes under a Caterham's minimalist structure, however, it is possessed of an intoxicating induction roar that demands you play constantly with the (optional) six-speed gearbox of Caterham's own manufacture.

This is simply superb, allowing ultra-quick changes through the closely-matched ratios. The engine is always fizzing, always aurally attractive. This is not a long-legged concoction. In top, you'll be a fistful of mph short of 20 per 1000 rpm, but who cares? The sound is fantastic, and you won't tire of it. In many cars, a decent stereo system provides isolated rescue from terminal tedium: in a Caterham, any such frippery is utterly superfluous.

It isn't just the dynamic aspects of the Caterham which so appeal. The marque how pays considerable attention to fit and finish detail. too. While it hasn't forgotten the essential pizzazz of its product, it does appreciate that the art of compromise can be taken too far. You no longer need to remove your knuckle skin to refit the hood, for instance, thanks to a simple sliding ribbon arrangement. The top is also 100 percent waterproof in heavy rain. There is an intermittent wiper setting; it's not obvious, but it exists. And an efficient front screen demister. A Rover immobiliser is standard issue. The handbrake is now mounted centrally, where you can see it (a former colleague once recorded semi-respectable 0-60 mph acceleration times in a Caterham at Millbrook Proving Ground ... with the portside handbrake still engaged). You can still graze your hand on the base of the dash Panel as you insert the (Hillman Hunter) key into the concealed ignition slot, but in most practical respects this is just like a 'normal' car.

And for all its performance (ignore its aerodynamically restricted 108 mph top speed, it's the sub-7sec 0-60 time, a sackful of torque and telepathic handling which count), its light weight contributes to remarkable economy: we returned 30.8 mpg. This is a by-product of the same kind of attention to detail which makes the cabin so user-friendly. In its bid to keep weight down, Caterham has produced a hood mechanism which weighs only a couple of pounds of the 1146 grand total.

Prices now start at around £8600 for the most basic kit, rising to £21,400 for a fully-built, 165 bhp, Vauxhall-engined missile. The more modest K-Series tested here costs £14,690 in Airfix form, or £17,850 if you wouldn't recognise a torque wrench if it landed on your foot. In addition to options such as the six-speed 'box (£1351), there is also a 'Supersport' engine upgrade available, which adds 25 bhp to the standard product's 115 for just under £1000.

Choices, choices...

It's easy to become blinded by superlatives. It's also excusable. There are those who regard Caterhams as a 'summer' car, a whimsical indulgence.

I regard them as an irresistible enticement to get on the road 365 days a year, whatever the weather.