When I was a kid my favourite sports car wasn’t a Ferrari, a Lamborghini or a Porsche. It was a Caterham. I was just seven when Colin Chapman sold the manufacturing rights for the Lotus Seven to one of his dealers, Graham Nearn of Caterham Cars, but as possibly the world’s most avid consumer of motoring media even then, I knew this was the car for me.
A brief sojourn in the City at the end of Thatcher’s bull market bought my first, a 1700 Super Sprint that I wrecked at the Goodwood chicane showing my friends in the pits how sideways I could go. More than I thought. I did my first ever race in a K-series car, built another from scratch over the course of a weekend with some chums on Autocar and ran it as my company car for six months. Powered by a snorting 2-litre Vauxhall engine, it was the willingness of my then new girlfriend to spend 10 days touring France stuffed into its passenger seat that made me think she might make a good mother for my children. And she does.
My last I bought new. A 1.8-litre, 196bhp Superlight R with black paint and a yellow stripe, I used to drive it to the Nürburgring, thrash it senseless for two days and drive it home again, popping in at Spa for good measure. I can’t remember why I sold it, but I can remember finding it in the paddock at Spa a year later and its owner suggesting I did a couple of laps for old times sake. I wasn’t halfway through Eau Rouge before I wished I hadn’t. It was coruscatingly brilliant.
But even that was probably a dozen years ago, and while I’ve driven all the craziest Caterhams produced since — R500s and CSRs — I’ve never felt tempted into owning one again. There are so few places where you can exploit their performance properly and safely in public that they are effectively track cars, and with prices the far side of £40,000, damn expensive ones at that.
Now, however, I’ve driven a Caterham that’s got my options box finger itching again. Called the Supersport, you might think it to be the most powerful and nutty yet; after all, it’s the same name that Bugatti gives to its ultimate 1200bhp £2 million Veyron. But it’s not, for the Supersport has a small 1.6-litre motor providing a modest 140bhp.
But it also has an ultra-close-ratio gearbox, a limited slip differential, lightened flywheel, widetrack front suspension and a kerb weight of 520kg. And its greatest asset is a price tag of just £19,995. Okay, if you want one for this you’ll have to build it yourself and it won’t come with weather equipment or even any paint, but even if you allocate £25,000 for a factory built, properly equipped car in a colour scheme of your choice, that still stands in my book as exceptional value, particularly given the glacial depreciation rates enjoyed by most Caterhams.
I know we in the enthusiast press are fond of banging on about minimising mass but it’s only when you get into a car weighing barely more than half a tonne — less than half the weight of something like a Ford Fiesta — that its importance becomes so clear. It is simply and physically impossible for a conventional performance car with, say, three times the weight and three times the power to respond quite so accurately and immediately to its driver’s commands. Not even the cleverest designers in the world can engineer their way around inertia.
If you think your Porsche, Ferrari or even Lotus is responsive, this little slice of British brilliance will make you think again. Only then will you realise how long it takes for normal cars to respond to your commands and how approximate is that response. Despite the very great age of its original design, the Seven’s capacity to make you rethink all you thought you knew about the way road cars handle remains undimmed. Even the very lightest Lotus Elise you can buy weighs more than half as much again.
But you’ve been able to say as much about certain Caterhams for many years. What made me feel the need to go into print about the Supersport was the frame of reference within which these abilities are provided.
Sadly, there is very little in the automotive world you can buy for £20-25,000 that will provide a unique driving experience for all the right reasons. But of those that do, this Caterham must be the king. It understands that all speed is relative and that after a certain point its pursuit becomes counter-productive, not to mention prejudicial to the licence and liberty.
So you have just 140bhp, which is still enough to cannon it past 60mph in under 5sec, something none of the Ferraris or Lamborghinis that plastered my bedroom walls when I was a child would have managed. For almost all people in almost all environments almost all of the time, it really is enough. The fact that it runs into an aerodynamic cliff at around 110mph is really neither here nor there: this is a road car to be enjoyed at road car speeds.
And to make sure you do, Caterham provides this Seven not just with its well tuned double-wishbone front suspension and well located De Dion rear axle, but 13in Avon tyres just 175mm wide. That is an absurdly small amount of rubber to put on the road, less than you’ll find on entirely unsporting small family hatchbacks; but it is all the Seven needs.
It means the engine and the chassis are perfectly balanced. There’s sufficient grip for the car never to feel overpowered, but whenever you feel the need to kick the back loose, there’s always enough under your foot to do it. And because the car is so small, weighs so little, is so phenomenally well balanced and reacts so fast, you can drift it through a tight turn without ever troubling the white lines in the middle.
Too often people like me who love the idea of fast cars become enthused by a car’s speed without tempering it by acknowledging that unless you go to considerable effort and expense (which usually means a track day), its potential performance will remain just that: an unrealised asset. If you owned a Supersport Caterham and were smart enough to add a small number of kilos by fitting it with full weather equipment so it could be used year round, so long as you lived somewhere reasonably quiet, you could count on enjoying all it had to offer every time you climbed aboard; what’s more you could do so at speeds not likely to attract unwelcome attention from the law enforcement community.
If the true calculation of how much a car can be enjoyed is how much fun it is to drive multiplied by how often it can be driven that way, that ranks this new Supersport as one of the most fun cars of any kind or, indeed, price.