Dirty weekend: Autoblog meets Caterham (Part I)
The iconic Seven is a rare exception to the automotive industry's rule that newer equals better. Caterham's cars – which can still be purchased in kit form – are still based on the Lotus Seven designed by Colin Chapman in 1957. Things have evolved of course, but the advent of air-conditioning, cruise control, airbags, ABS, sat-nav, traction control and even doors have passed the company by.
We approached our chosen car on a Friday with a fair old dose of excitable anticipation tempered only by the nagging thought that maybe the Caterham had been oversold to us. The Seven recently celebrated its 50th year in continuous production – could the venerable open-topped car still cut it with the younger generation of lean machines? Or was it merely a shadow of its former self resting its reputation on faded laurels, like the Sony Walkman or Rod Stewart.
Fortunately for the Caterham, our allotted weekend with the car had fallen one of those utterly perfect spring weekends that England only blesses us with once or twice a year. Under a faultless blue sky it was hard not to fall heavily in love with our Seven at first sight. Caterham's marketing man talked us through the best way of assembling the car's antiquated roof, but our eyes kept drifting from the canvas's poppers to that low-slung body. Very few product designs are truly timeless, but five decades have passed without the Seven ageing at all. It looked great then, it looks great now, and there's no reason to think that will ever change.
Fall (literally) into the seats and not much seems to have changed 'inside' either. The Caterham Roadsport 175 we were in was so basic it might as well be made of Bakelite. The indicators are operated via a rocker switch on the dash which doesn't self cancel, the heater control is hidden out of sight under the steering column, the seats don't adjust much, the steering wheel doesn't at all and the wipers couldn't clear away a strong sneeze. Nevertheless, oily charisma leaks from every pore – as if you were strapping yourself into the cockpit of a Spitfire.
Obviously you sit close to the ground in a Caterham. So close, in fact that we nearly blinded ourselves from staring up into the sun to listen to the aforementioned exec complete his walkthrough of the car's idiosyncrasies. He reminded us that, despite the snug nature of the cabin, we were in the wider bodied chassis. The Superlights still cocoon their occupants within the original Lotus's minuscule dimensions.
Of course our Seven felt a lot bigger when we edged it onto Caterham's streets. The Seven's low vantage point and heavy controls instantly focus your attention, as does that long expanse of bonnet and nose. The Roadsport 175 might only have a 2.0-litre Duratec engine out of a Ford Focus, but the relationship between clutch and throttle has been hardened to facilitate huge off-the-line performance, and our car sported an exhaust pipe that looked like it had been reclaimed from a blast furnace.
Come back tomorrow to find out what happened when we got our Seven out onto the open road...