Engine: 2.0 litres, four cylinders, petrol, normally aspirated
Top speed: 130mph
Power: 180bhp at 7300rpm
Every year has its commemorations, but I fear that amid the deluge heading this way in 2013 —50th anniversaries for Lamborghini and the Porsche 911, 100 years of Aston Martin, 90 of Le Mans and so on — one small but significant birthday is going to be overlooked. Forty years ago this year Colin Chapman was a man with big plans for Lotus, plans that would turn Lotus Cars from a manufacturer of low volume, low profit, lightweight sports cars into a constructor of epic coupes and supercars to rival Porsche and Ferrari. Needless to say those plans did not include the car that pretty much started it all. The Lotus 7 was already 15 years old and Chapman saw no part for it in his ambitious vision for the future.
But one of his dealers did. Graham Nearn had the Lotus concession in Caterham, Surrey, bought the rights to the Seven from Chapman and founded a new marque in the process.
Although I got to know Nearn quite well over the years, I never plucked up the nerve to ask him if he knew just how brave he’d been to take on an apparently obsolete sports car just as the world economy was tipping into OPECinduced freefall. I liked and admired hugely his courage and achievements, but he had an irascible quality where the press were concerned, even those of us who needed no convincing as to his products’ merits. Like many small British sports car manufacturers, if he read a test you’d written he’d ignore the 99 per cent praise you’d lavish and ring up to complain about the one per cent criticism.
Every motoring journalist has a Caterham tale to tell. I bought my first before I got into the business and crashed it heavily at Goodwood, exiting a wet chicane trying to show my mates in the pits just how sideways it would go. Very, as it turned out. Unable to foot the bill, I sold the wreck back to the factory. Then James May, myself and sundry other Autocar chums worked around the clock for an entire weekend to build another powered by a fiery 2-litre, 175bhp Vauxhall twin cam engine fed by a pair of snorting Webers. In six months I drove it something like 15,000 miles, including a holiday to France with a girlfriend so unfussed by this highly unorthodox means of transport I thought she might make a good wife and mother. She did and still does.
I did my first race in a Caterham and was heading for the podium until ambition overtook talent and threw me off the circuit, mercifully damaging only my pride. And then, when I was made editor of this magazine, I realised a life’s ambition to spec my own Seven, a Superlight R and the first to be painted black with a yellow stripe but, happily, by no means the last.
Today Caterham is the same, but different. Nearn sadly died in 2009 and his company was sold first to the likeable and effective Ansar Ali and, in 2011, to Tony Fernandes. It still makes about 500 Sevens a year in its Dartford factory, 150 of which are racing cars built to take part in myriad series around the world, including the Caterham Academy (in which nearly 900 compulsorily novice drivers have now cut their racing teeth).
But plans are afoot. Fernandes already has a Caterham-branded Formula 1 team and a new engineering business, called Caterham Technology and Innovation, that’s based just around the corner from Lotus in Norfolk. This is the same facility that built Bentley’s 2003 Le Mans winner and Caterham intends to use it to compete with Lotus for consultancy work. At the same time CTI is working on the new Caterham/Renault joint venture that will lead to a new breed of Caterham-branded sports cars being built in Renault’s old Alpine factory in Dieppe. With a business plan for it to produce 25,000 of these new Caterhams from 2015 onwards, and a design brief that puts it on a collision course with the new Porsche Cayman, this is going to be a Caterham like none before.
But I wanted to see how things stood today, which is how I found myself in the Caterham showroom the company will soon have to vacate, because Nearn’s children have served notice. The company hopes to stay in Surrey, but the chances of finding other premises in Caterham itself seem remote.
I was there for a run in the new Supersports R, a kind of halfway house between the entry level Roadsports cars with modest engine power, open differentials and road-based tyres, and the delightfully loopy but utterly uncivilised R400 and R500 track-day weapons.
Like all Caterhams you can select almost any detail specification you want, but all Supersport Rs come with a 180bhp 2-litre engine, racederived suspension, a limited slip diff, close ratio five-speed gearbox (an even more tightly stacked six-speeder is an option) and Avon CR500 rubber designed to work equally well on road or track.
This one also came with a windscreen and heater, options I can remember Caterham’s then-engineering director almost refusing to put on my Superlight R because it so went against his principles; to me it just made it possible to enjoy the car more of the time.
So without the need for a helmet and with lightly toasted feet I headed out onto slippery, salt-strewn roads in a temperature of precisely zero degrees to find out more.
My first discovery is that those Avons have no grip at all in such conditions, which is precisely what I’d hoped. It reminded me of my first, the one I smeared down the tyres at Goodwood, with its live rear axle and concrete tyres. It just gently oversteered everywhere feeling more like a Formula Ford on spacesavers than a conventional road car.
I had to go faster, not slower, to calm it down a touch. The five-speed box is still related to that found in the Ford Sierra, albeit with superclose ratios. It changes swiftly enough, though I’ve always found Caterham’s homegrown sixspeeder far preferable. Either way, on a day like this you need third before there’s reliable traction. Thereafter it’s a question of just how far into its arms you want to fall. Its charms are such you can feel almost helpless against its urgings. It wants you to go forever faster — not a good idea in this weather — but not only does it provide the tools for the job, it also climbs into your head and starts rewiring your brain to give you the imperative to pick them up.
Happily 25 years of driving Caterhams had provided a degree of immunity and I was able to return slowly, licence, liberty and livelihood intact. What impression did it leave? It might have been the wrong day but, 40 years on and for those to whom driving pleasure matters most, it remains the right car.