Small, but perfectly formed: Phil Llewellin shoe-horns himself into the tight-fitting Caterham Super Seven
Thursday 07 July 1994
It reacts in a manner that is almost telepathic, letting you know exactly what the front wheels are doing while preventing kick-backs wrenching your wrists. Fast curves become straights. Flex your fingers ever so slightly, and what should be a 40mph corner is taken 50 per cent faster with complete confidence.
But driving the Caterham posed problems I had never encountered before. For instance, my wife wondered if this 53-year-old body would be compatible with a seriously compact and uncompromising sports car whose roots delve straight back to the Lotus Seven of 1957. And if I got in, would I be able to get out?
Entering the Caterham, even with the hood down, is like squeezing a big foot into a small shoe. Adding a door, for the benefit of semi-geriatric wimps, would involve removing steel tubes that are important parts of the structure.
Legs slide past the tiny steering wheel and into the coffin-like driver's compartment, which is walled in by the padded transmission tunnel and only 16in wide. Cars don't come much lower than this. You risk getting the cocked-leg treatment from passing dogs.
The gearbox lever is within a finger's stretch of the steering wheel; just about everything is within a finger's stretch of the steering wheel, and amputation is the only alternative to draping the right elbow over the cockpit's side. This looks very sporting, but on bucolic byways, I worried about cow muck splattering backwards from alloy wheels shod with very wide Michelin tyres.
Driving more than 300 miles in torrential rain enabled me to give thanks for the weatherproof hood, but my hearing was battered to such an extent that I considered resorting to ear defenders.
The enormous grin sported while driving top-down for the first time vanished before I reached 60mph. Air lashing round the flat windscreen was drilling into my ear and making my right eye water to such an extent that speed had to be reduced.
Concerned about seeing and hearing, I resorted to wearing a full-face helmet with the visor clipped down.
Cynics can be forgiven for regarding a degree of anonymity as no bad thing when having an enormous amount of fun in a car whose rakish appearance and loud-but-legal exhaust are complemented by searing performance.
Colin Chapman designed the original Lotus Seven to be a road car that was also suitable for competitive events at weekends. The HPC that made me feel half a lifetime younger remains true to that concept. Vauxhall's 2.0-litre, four-cylinder, 16-valve engine bolts 165bhp into a projectile whose unladen weight of only 1,322lb is explained by the tubular chassis, aluminium body panels and fewer luxuries than a medieval penitent's cell.
The underside never scraped the road, but sharp undulations were reminders that the Seven's ground clearance only just exceeds 4in.
Although at its best on smooth surfaces, this car's suspension provides race-bred, razor-sharp handling while avoiding the sort of rough-edged ride that threatens to reduce your bones to powder.
This must be one of the most impractical road cars ever to turn a wheel, but its ability to stimulate the adrenal glands is second to none.
Specifications: Four-cylinder petrol engine, 1,998cc; 165bhp at 6,000rpm. Five-speed gearbox; 0-60mph in 5.4 seconds, top speed 118mph. Average fuel consumption 27.4mpg. The list price of pounds 20,700 drops to pounds 18,200 if you can cope with a kit that should take about 70 hours to assemble. Caterham offers a Rent-a-Seven scheme for potential buyers. Call 0883 346666 for details.
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