“One of the lads down at the factory was so excited about test driving our new model that he forgot to check the wheel nuts were tightened. That test didn’t last very long, but one of the wheels ended up as a clock.” With one short story, the mechanic at the pristine dealership had summed up perfectly how it feels to drive one of Caterham’s creations – not that I needed to remind myself right now.
No longer finding myself joking and sharing stories with the guys in the Crawley-based dealership, I instead fought to keep our Caterham 420R on a Cornish A-road in the midst of a horrendous rainstorm. It’s at moments like this you begin to consider the wisdom of continuing such a drive, but in between handling a lively rear-end and numerous aquaplanes, I found myself thinking back to my conversation with the mechanic. The enthusiasm and the spirit of the people who work on cars like this is absolutely infectious; you can’t help but get emotionally invested in the product. Caterham, just like nearly all small volume British manufacturers, have experienced hard times, but the company and its staff never gave up; so, like them, we dug in and carried on. On that dismal first day, we found out the hard way that a blend of intense concentration and stubbornness is required to drive a 420R through violent weather conditions.
A great idea
It really did seem like a great idea initially; Land’s End to John O’Groats, the classic British road trip in the classic British sports car. The 420R – or ‘The Wasp’ as it affectionately became known as – is one of the most thrilling cars on the market. A baby racing car in every sense of the word, it needs just 3.8 seconds to reach 60mph and is more or less void of safety equipment. Nevertheless, we’d anticipated a straightforward journey, even adding some stipulations to make it more interesting. Motorways were banned, as was assistance from satellite navigation, but the trip was far from simple. Only halfway through day one, I and my co-driver (fellow Smooth Traffic podcast presenter Robert King) were seriously considering throwing in the towel, and we hadn’t even finished our lunch.
Storms and slippery roads
As it turned out, storms would plague us from the get-go, providing us with the worst possible conditions in which to drive a Caterham for three of the four days our trip was scheduled across. With over 210bhp on tap to shift just 560kgs of car, we had one of the fastest machines on the road – and one of the most lethal. On slippery Avon tyres, the 420R needed no invitation to slip on the sodden roads. To say it was lively is an understatement; the rear of the Caterham twitched and wriggled frequently, skimming across any standing water it happened to come across. As a car designed only with more favourable conditions in mind it, like us, was well out of its comfort zone. There was only one thing for it – learn quickly or quit.
A Caterham might not be happy running in foul weather, but it does at least do everything it can to help you stay in control, providing you with an immense amount of information through sensory feedback. Every tiny vibration, bump, crack in the road or slip of the tyres is transmitted to your brain via your hands, feet, and – less glamorously – through your backside. Traction control, ABS and power steering are all absent, and the car is all the better for it. The experience is intense, vivid. Going from driving an insulated, safety-first ‘modern’ car to driving a Caterham is to reacquaint oneself with the essence of motoring – driving for the love of driving, and nothing more. It is an incredibly refreshing experience for anyone who loves to drive for the sake of driving, even though post-drive, your hands shake from excessive vibrations and your ears ring like you’ve attended a rock concert. So, why choose the Caterham 420R? Why not an Aston Martin or a Bentley?
More than a sports car
Perhaps it is because the Caterham Seven in all of its guises represents something more than just a ‘British sports car’. Created by one of the greatest engineers Britain has ever produced – Colin Chapman – it has existed and evolved since those very first Sevens appeared. Over time, it has managed to retain its character, its spirit, and that unmistakable flavour that all small-volume British manufacturers have. Made by those who have – like Colin – passed on, the Caterham Seven is the inheritance of every young British person who has driving in their heart. We’ve taken them to our hearts and altered them for the modern era. Colin’s theories, and the graft and craft of his original colleagues still live on; the inheritance has been accepted, refined, and is being put to good use by those who share that passion.
I’m no Olympic athlete or great artist, so chances to represent my country are few and far between. This was my way to represent my country; this is how I’ve chosen to represent Britain. We’ve travelled the length of the nation, and at every fuel stop, lunch break, or photo stop, people have approached us. They’ve asked for pictures, they’ve asked to sit in the car; they’ve even told us stories about the Sevens that have been present in their lives. The affection for the car among the public is seemingly limitless, and in seeing the look on the faces of the children as we loudly ambled through towns and villages, I got a glimpse of the excitement that must have been etched onto my face when I saw a ‘Chatterham’ some 20 years ago.
There is, inside the Caterham Seven, something of us – a determination, an eccentricity. It is certainly a car from our past, but as a machine that embodies something of our national character, it’s also a car for our future.