Tue, Oct 18, 2016 4:21 PM
It’s as proudly British as Marmite - and inspires just about the same level of love-it-or-hate-it passion. The Caterham Seven, powered by its design team’s mission to constantly evolve and improve the car, is also about as close as you can get to actually owning a Formula 1 car.
The baby of Lotus founder and spearhead Sir Colin Chapman - and today owned by Malaysian tycoon Tony Fernandes, who also owns Queens Park Rangers football club - Caterham cars inspire a level of passion and commitment among both the company’s workforce and owners and drivers alike which attaches to few, if any, other cars generally available today.
Even the name of the company’s most iconic car: Seven - yes, just ‘Seven’, no more, no less - embodies the minimalist approach the company takes to designing its products.
And today the car, whilst stripped-back from Sir Colin’s original Lotus Seven, stays true to its original creator’s design maxim of “simplify, then add lightness”. Produced between 1957 and 1972, the Seven embodied Lotus’s vision of producing cars whose performance resulted from their low weight and simplicity of design.
The Lotus Seven quickly acquired cult status, thanks to it being designed as a road-going car whose abilities could also be exploited to the full on a racetrack.
When Lotus ended production of the Seven, Caterham bought the rights to the name, the model and all patterns and parts. And for the ensuing 40-plus years, it has been building both kits and fully-assembled cars to the original design.
The decision to sell the cars in kit form was taken in light of the UK’s purchase tax system (now replaced by value added tax, or VAT). Under this regime, a car bought in kit, or in ‘completely knocked down’ form was exempt from the tax, and so this put the price within the reach of many more enthusiastic owners.
But of course, this required the buyer to either commit the time to building the cars themselves, or have someone do it for them.
However, this was a short-lived move, as when, in 1973, Lotus sold the rights to the Seven to Caterham Cars - named after the Surrey town in which they were based - it reverted to selling the cars in pre-assembled form only.
Today, the Caterham Seven is sold in 30 countries around the world, and the current management signalled a major push into these territories when it added a mid-powered model, the Caterham Seven 275, to the range in 2015.
Yet despite its long and proud heritage, the Caterham Seven is still considered by its current owners to be a work in progress. As the company itself puts it: “The history of the Seven reads as an annual catalogue of technical development, innovation and functional design; and this is not set to change any time soon and we will stretch the envelope even further.”
This constant evolution is enabled by the structure of the Caterham Cars company, which has been broadened under Mr Fernandes’ ownership to become a fully-fledged engineering business, with divisions focusing on automotive, motorsport and specialist engineering disciplines.
With all these businesses pulling in the same direction, and producing and continually refining a car which is true to the spirit of Sir Colin Chapman’s original, yet remains relevant and desirable in the 21st century, Caterham Cars sees itself as the proud custodian of a unique heritage.
But the overriding philosophy which Caterham embodies more than any other is a “unique Britishness” - and it’s this quality which has helped the cars establish a market for themselves well beyond the shores of the company’s homeland.
The Caterham range is split into two variants, Roadsport and Superlight. The former is marketed as a “lightweight sportscar for all conditions”, which is equally at home on regular roads as on the track.
The more ‘hardcore’ Superlight is truly at home on the track, or those classic roads in the vein of the A82 from Loch Lomond to Loch Ness.
Indeed, it provided a fitting swansong for former Evo magazine deputy editor Jethro Bovington’s road-testing career, when he took an R500 for an extended spin through the Scottish Highlands, and returned, breathlessly, proclaiming: “For sheer fun the tiny, narrow-bodied R500 Evolution is in another league. No flab, no fuss, just a pure ball of energy.”
His overall verdict again majored on the minimalist style of driving thrills the car offered, when he said: “The Seven is pure function. That’s why it’s so enduring, so timeless.”
In other words, in the eyes of 99 out of 100 drivers, it will be seen as an irrelevance - but that remaining one per cent, those who ‘get it’, will appreciate that a Caterham 7 is all about enjoyment. And when so many people see driving as nothing more than a chore, to get them from A to B, there’s surely room for those who can appreciate that a car can be engineered for fun and excitement, rather than merely being a utilitarian machine.
Even Top Gear’s The Stig has been seen getting excited at the prospect of exploring the Caterham 7’s capabilities - and expressing it in the only way he knows how: out on the track.
While few owners would be prepared to put their cars through this kind of treatment, the basic premise of the engineering platform on which they’re built means that a Caterham is designed to be driven hard, and in the process give the driver as close an experience as possible to sitting in the cockpit of an F1 car.
Indeed, Caterham offers its own track days programme, giving anyone the chance to put a car through its paces, and experience the full thrill of low-to-the-floor, wind-in-the-hair driving with which the cars are strongly associated.
In an age when we’re all being encouraged to think about the impact our driving habits have on the environment, is there a future for such a niche car, so closely associated with driving just for the pleasure of it?
If the attitude of the Caterham Cars team, as expressed on its website, is anything to go by, the answer is an unequivocal ‘yes’. “There is so much we want to do, limited only by the number of hours in the day – if the passion and commitment of our staff is anything to go by,” Caterham proudly says. Hear, hear!
It might sound somewhat hackneyed, but when the car industry in general is going down a road of ever-greater consolidation, and more homogeneous design, Caterham continues to resolutely plough its own furrow.
And that’s undoubtedly what has endeared the Caterham Seven to enthusiastic car drivers for more than half a century.
In terms of technology, it’s a real throwback - in the best possible sense. No fancy electronic driver aids, in fact, as little technology as possible is allowed to get in the way of the experience of driving the car.
Around the manufacturer’s circles, there’s something known as ‘the Caterham smile’. It’s born from the satisfaction the car’s design and engineering team gets when someone steps from one of their cars having driven it for the first time - and invariably, they’re wearing a broad grin. “The picture is unequalled anywhere and in anything else,” they say.
The good news is that Oakmere Motor Group’s Caterham dealership in Northwich is located within easy driving distance of some pretty spectacular roads, through the Peak District and Staffordshire Moorlands, which are great places for putting a Caterham through its paces. You can arrange a test drive, but to really put them through their paces, a great option is to hire one of their Caterham demo cars for as little as £99. It’s a perfect gift for birthdays, Christmas or any special occasion for someone who hankers after
Just be warned - you won’t have experienced anything like it, and you might just get hooked!
Oakmere Motor Group is the sole appointed Caterham dealer for the north-west of England, with sales, service, bodywork and engineering staff boasting more than 200 years’ trade experience. Let us introduce you to a ‘blast from the past’ which will change how you think of driving. Feel free to contact the team if you are passing for a chat and a drink.