Caterham Seven 1700 Super Sprint
It is astonishing to recall that the car we now call the Caterham Seven has been with us for nearly 30 years. As the Lotus Seven, it first saw the light of day two years before the Mini and was being readied for its launch at about the same time that Fangio won the 1957 German GP in his Maserati 250F. Over the years it has changed in detail but has remained essentially the same animal: a lightweight sports car with little in the way of creature comforts but which offers extraordinary performance at the price.
Lotus made four distinct types of Seven, the Series IV having a rather boxy fibreglass body which was generally felt to be less attractive than its predecessors. Lotus Components, the company which marketed the car along with Lotus’ production racing cars, began to lose interest around 1967, at which point it became heavily involved in the production of FF1600 cars, but continued to supply kits to Caterham Cars on an irregular basis for the next few years, Caterham having been the country’s first Lotus dealer. When the Lotus group of companies moved from Cheshunt, Herts, to Hethel, Norfolk, it underwent a re-organisation which saw the shedding of the production racing car business and a concentration on more up-market road cars. In 1973, Caterham Cars purchased the plans, jigs, shape and goodwill of the Seven, but not the Lotus name, and thereafter the company has produced what is effectively a Lotus Super Seven Series III.
The date of the purchase was not ideal for it more or less coincided with the three day week, the imposition of VAT on kit and component cars, and the 1974 oil crisis. Still, the model has survived and nearly 1,000 Caterham Sevens have been produced with production currently running at around 200 p.a. with half exported as fully assembled cars mainly to Germany, Switzerland and Japan.
In the UK the Seven is marketed either as a kit or as a component car. This is a nice distinction and it is the main one which Motor Sport uses when deciding whether to accept a particular car for testing. A component car is one made from new parts and which is loosely assembled in such a way that a buyer of even limited mechanical ability can put on the road a vehicle which meets the minimum specification conceived by the manufacturer. A kit car is one which requires the customer to buy in many major components, possibly using a donor vehicle. We do not test kit cars for the simple reason that we cannot guarantee that the average home assembler can achieve anywhere near the standard of the demonstration car supplied by the maker.
In kit form, Caterham Seven prices start at £1,985 for a body/chassis unit complete with brake pipes, wiring, instruments and windscreen wipers and motor. Using secondhand or reconditioned components, it would be possible to put such a car on the road for under £5,000. Part of the attraction of taking this route is that the owner can uprate the car’s specification as and when finances permit as well as making some saving in labour charges. The, Seven’s pedigree ensures healthy secondhand values in contrast to some other kit cars and, indeed, looking at the asking prices of secondhand Sevens, it is apparent that the car is one of the select few, along with the likes of the Morgan range, which will maintain their purchase price, or something close to it, for several years.
Over the years, the car has been refined and developed, the spaceframe has been stiffened, a long cockpit option is available as is a de Dion rear suspension set-up which is likely to become a standard feature sometime in the future. Currently, four engine options are available: three with the Ford “Kent” engine in various states of tune (84 bhp, 110 bhp and 135 bhp) and the 150 bhp Ford RS 1600 BDR. Last October, Caterham introduced the 1700 Super Sprint which uses an enlarged (1,700 cc) version of the “Kent” engine which, with its two twin-choke Webers, gives very nearly the performance of the twin cam but with a saving of over £1,800 in price and easier maintenance. It was with this car that I recently lived for around 2,000 exhilarating miles. Drive is through a four speed Escort Sport gearbox to a strengthened Morris Ital live axle.
The basic cost of this model is £8,142.00, inclusive of taxes, but the one I drove had over Â£1,700 worth of extras: a limited slip differential, heater, seat belts, roll-over bar; leather, adjustable seats, a Mota-Lita steering wheel, long cockpit configuration, alloy wheels and a paint job on the otherwise natural aluminium – the fibreglass wings and nose cone come in a choice of six colours.
Now the foregoing is a calm, rational, description of the car and its pedigree. But this is not a car to treat calmly and rationally. It is a car which has an extraordinary effect on everyone who comes into contact with it. Children would whoop and wave, friends begged for a quick drive, enthusiasts would smile and give a “thumbs up” and, as for myself, I jumped at every possible excuse to drive it – and managed to find the longest possible route between two points.
Yet as I eased away from Caterham Cars, and towards lowering clouds with the hood down, I began to have my doubts. Was I getting too old for this sort of thing? How long before I’d need an osteopath? Leaving behind my trusty Golf GTi, I felt like someone who had just exchanged a comfortable house for a sleeping bag and billy can.
Within 24 hours, however, I had covered nearly 400 miles and was getting to grips with the beast. The steering; which at first appeared so heavy, had become the only steering to have – quick, precise and free of vice. Used to servo-assisted brakes, it took a little time to adjust to the heavy pedal but, within a short time, I was in harmony with it, revelling in the feel which the Caterham’s system (9 inch discs, ex-Mk VI Spitfire at the front, with Ital drums at the rear) provides. “Harmony” is perhaps the word which best sums up the Seven: it’s noisy to be sure, it vibrates, the ride is hard (but not harsh) but all its characteristics combine to present a unity of style. Indeed, one reason why Caterham has not pursued its experiments with turbo engines is that the quiet power of a turbo was at odds with the character of the car.
I had been advised that driving with the sidescreens in place would prevent buffeting which was sound advice as we discovered when’ we tried running without them, and besides, they are impossible to store in the car. Since the external mirrors are mounted on the sidescreens, I thought that vibration would render them useless, but found them perfectly adequate. The top of the screen, however, interfered badly with my sightlines making tight right hand bends and the negotiation of roundabouts an anxious time.
Another doubt which was soon dispelled was the layout of the control switches which are either tumbler or rocket switches scattered around the dashboard apparently at random, yet it was soon clear that all the most frequently used controls were within finger reach and one could switch on the lights, indicate, operate the horn and so on without taking one’s hands from the tiny steering wheel. Even the fact that the direction indicators are not self-cancelling seemed to .enhance one’s pleasure, giving one a sense of being at one with the vehicle. It is as perfect a layout as one could imagine.
There are no doors, of course, and when the hood is up this presents some difficulty if one is blessed with a fuller figure. I found no dignified way of entry or exit and had to insist that a passenger took his, or her, tum. Given the contortions involved, had I had a lady already in the passenger seat, the only decent thing would be to have married her. I must say I rather took against the hood. In theory it is quite easy to put up, with a builtin frame and a separate covering which is fixed with studs, after you have first removed the spare wheel which sits on the back. In practice it takes several minutes to erect single-handedly and I used it mainly to protect the seats when the car was parked outside overnight. I never could get the heater to keep the windscreen and transparent panels clear of condensation in rain on a humid day and then preferred to dress accordingly and drive with the hood down. The condensation so affected visibility that it made driving the car positively dangerous.
Another thing which I took against was the petrol tank. With a capacity of just eight gallons and an average economy (excluding performance testing) of 21 mpg, the car’s theoretical range is just 168 miles but on “my” car the fuel gauge was such that it was prudent to call in for fuel every 140 miles or so. Once on the forecourt, unless you hold the pump nozzle just right, you can spend a long, long time trickling petrol into the tank for it is incredibly easy to get four star all over the back of the car. The combination of short range and slow fuelling (it takes at least twice as long as on the average car) is frustrating in the extreme and plays havoc with one’s average speed on a long journey.
Luggage space is minimal. Enough basic clothing for two for a weekend can be stored at the back and in the passenger’s footwell, providing it is packed in soft, slim, bags and if you don’t mind the creases. The point is, though, that we are dealing with what is essentially a vehicle designed solely for driving pleasure. You have to forget practicalities, forget the crude heater and go with the car. When you do so, the rewards are immense.
Top speed is a claimed 112 mph, for the Seven has the aerodynamics of a breezeblock, and on the two mile straight at Bruntingthorpe we achieved this exactly with the hood up, recording a best one way run of 116.5 mph. Other cars claim much higher figures but the Seven achieves its maximum under the conditions which most of us can manage (ie without pounding around a banked test track or finding a stretch of deserted autobahn). With the hood down the average of two runs was 109.6 mph. Top speed is not anyway the area from which the driver extracts his pleasure from the Seven, unless you enjoy having every sense assaulted. It is the phenomenal acceleration, the sure-footed handling, the precision of the steering and the overall sense of harmony which gives so much pleasure.
The engine rasps under power, but we are not worried here about noise of any description. I feared it might bog down in town traffic but it happily coped with London traffic in the rush hour, though the hand brake, which is located under the scuttle on the passenger’s side, was awkward to reach.
Acceleration is extraordinary, even if you do have to fight the car on a quick getaway. Caterham claim a 0-60 mph time of 5.8 sec but our best was six dead. We managed 0-30 mph in 2.6 sec, 30-50 mph in just 2.2 sec, 50-70 mph in 3.9 sec and 70-90 mph in 8.0 sec. This is acceleration for which you normally have to pay telephone numbers. In practice, on the road, it means that lines of slow moving traffic cease to exist and even short straights become safe places to pass.
While the combination of power and light weight gives outstanding acceleration, it can present problems. The car is distinctly twitchy in strong side winds while, in the wet, it has to be treated with the utmost respect. Nobody could call the rear end traction “limpet-like”: it is fairly easy to spin the car in the dry (I hasten to add we were using a test pad) and very easy on wet surfaces. The test car was fitted with 13″ HR-rated 185/70 Goodyear NCTs and we felt that slimmer tyres would be desirable for when the back end goes in the wet, it goes quickly indeed. We found that braking in the wet left something to be desired, the car is so light that the wheels lock up very easily. You soon learn to treat the throttle and brake pedals with delicacy.
The Caterham Seven is a car in the memorable class for it changes the man who drives it. I found a whetting of the appetite for driving which is something for one who averages over 1,000 miles per week, and I also found myself being a better, more sympathetic, driver as a result of my experience of the car. It has its faults but what it gives the enthusiast driver is something beyond price. M.L