Who needs sat nav and fancy stereos when you've piloting a lightweight rocket? Not me, says James Fisher, after a long weekend behind the wheel of a Caterham Seven.
If the past decade has taught us anything, it’s that we are addicts to nostalgia. Things were better back then, we’re told, before the iPhones and Google and Facebook and SatNav and whatever the hell a Logan Paul is. Things were simpler, the elders howl online, with glass bottles delivered by the milkman and polio and post offices that weren’t covered in graffiti.
I try not to judge. Progress is tricky because it’s complicated. The British, more than anyone, like the things that they know and are cautious of the things that they don’t. Technology may be constantly improving, but our understanding of it doesn’t. ‘Technoliteracy’ doesn’t move smoothly forward; it sticks and sticks and then snaps to a new spot, where it sticks again. My own father rang me up wondering what to do with his Bob Marley album because his new car didn’t have a CD player. So now he’s on Spotify — ping goes the comforting cord of his past, snapping into the 21st century.
Cars are a neat prism through which we can analyse progress. Technology has undoubtedly been beneficial: who knows the countless lives airbags, ABS, ESP and various other acronyms have saved. Reliability and economy mean we can travel further, for longer, helping both our wallets and the environment. It’s not all silver linings though and as Charles Rangeley-Wilson deftly pointed out in Country Life, things like lane assist, touchscreens and auto braking can be as much of a hindrance as a help.
Does anyone truly use all the gadgets and gizmos that come as standard on almost any new car? Would we better off stripping it all away to like it was Back Then, when it was just car, driver and the road? That seems to be the modus operandi of a few manufacturers, perhaps most famously of all, Caterham.
Colin Chapman’s Lotus 7 needs no introduction. The iconic kit car has been around in one form or another since 1957, and Caterham have been producing them since they bought the rights to the design in 1973.
What’s changed since then? Well, not much, and absolutely nothing at all in the way of electronic wizardry. On my model, the 360R, we have no airbag, no ABS, no radio… not much really.
What we do have, instead, is a car that is truly astonishing to drive, with the best engine I’ve ever had the pleasure of using. Allow me to explain.
The 2.0 litre Ford Duratec engine has long been a favourite of the ‘Boy Racing’ community, but what Caterham have done to it deserves nothing but the highest praise. It is a delight at low revs, burbling along happily, quietly and economically as I buzz past the oast houses of the North Kent countryside.
The 5-speed manual gearbox is smooth and responsive, with a satisfying clunk that you can both feel and hear when you’re switching discs. It’s a calm and collected operation, with buckets of torque on standby, which means that even cruising along in fourth gear at a gentle 30mph, you can still plant your foot if you need to overtake the postman and the engine responds almost instantly to whip you up to whatever speed you need to be.
But underneath that benign just-popping-to-the-shops-on-a-Saturday-afternoon gentlemanly exterior lies what can only be described as an absolute scoundrel. From a standing start, the 360R will fly up to 60mph in 4.8 seconds, with the Duratec winding up to 7,500rpm, screaming at a pitch that would make Pavarotti blush, before asking you to change up. It is pant-wettingly quick, so much so that one passenger — a motorbike fanatic with many Isle of Man TTs under his belt — let out a squeak of terror when we took off. ‘I’ve been in Ferraris, Porsches you name it,’ he said. ‘I’ve always found them very boring, but that, that was real excitement’.
I rest my case.
A great engine needs a great chassis and Caterham have built that too. The suspension is soft enough that your spine doesn’t crack every time you hit a crack in the road, but stiff enough that you can feel every movement when you turn the wheel, every little nuance of the road, every bend. There’s no disconnect between man and machine, and it feels like you could drive this car with your eyes closed (do not do this).
What it all adds up to, then, is a car that is effortlessly pure. It has what it needs, and is missing what it doesn’t. It means that Caterham can focus on making the driving experience perfect, which it is, in almost every way.
Of course, it has its faults: at high speed, the wing-mirrors vibrate so much that they effectively become useless, the exhaust that runs down the side is blisteringly hot, if it starts to rain there is now way you’re getting the roof up before you get wet and getting in and out of it is about as elegant as slipping down a flight of stairs. None of these really matter, because once you get going, you’ll never want to stop.
A Caterham seems like what nostalgia should be. A reminder of how cars were, before they got big and heavy and filled with endless menus and acronyms that you don’t even know exist, let alone use. You just drive a Caterham, and have an immense amount of fun while you’re doing it.
However, the Caterham’s trick is that it isn’t nostalgia at all. It’s a modern car, with a modern engine, modern brakes and modern suspension. Technology isn’t the problem, excess is. For so long we’ve been used to having everything done for us, that we’ve forgotten what driving is actually supposed to feel like. So I recommend you get your hands on one, go for a drive, and fall back in love again.
Caterham 360R: The details
- Price: From £30,990 on the road (£42,650 as driven)
- 0-60mph: 4.8 seconds
- Power: 180BHP
- MPG: Really? No official figures but owners report 35mpg, and far higher with a steady right foot. But where would be the fun in that…?
- Find out more: www.caterhamcars.com
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