First Caterham 7 Super Sprint

 

This is really just a personal diary so I can look back at all the interesting things I did with and too my Caterham but please read if you want to...

After a lifetime of quick, pretty conventional sports cars, from Ferrari 308s (one of which I raced back in the 80s) to 911s (one which I supercharged) and a Skyline GTR (breathed on by Andy Middlehust and which was very quick indeed) I decided I'd been disqualified enough times for speeding (6) to have a change of heart and try a car that I'd always admired from afar. So I phoned my local showroom, Williams Caterham in Chipping Sodbury, Gloucestershire, to see if they'd let me take a 7 out to see how I'd get on with it. I'd been to Williams before when the local Porsche Club had a meeting there, so it was nice to return to their brilliant location. They're pretty close to the A46 between Bath and Stroud which used to be a fantastic run before the proliferation of twats in Toyota Yaris' and Nissan Micras which seem to gum up the roads in these parts these days. They only had a few sevens in stock at the time as their main income comes from their Morgan sales but I was able to sit in both an S3 and SV version to see the difference in the space available. The S3 I tried didn't come across well as it had a carbon bucket seat which was a pretty tight fit eventhough I'm only five seven and am not known for my big hips. The SV felt great but I think that was probably due to the lovely non-bucket leather seats. They kindly let me take out their 2016 model which was either a 270 or 310S though I can't remember which. As I drove out of their grounds a line by Rutger Hauer from the movie 'Blade Runner' came to mind, and to paraphrase: "All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain...... Time to die". You see I'd got into my mind that with the way I drive combined with what on the surface looks like a pretty quick yet very flimsy car it would be a sure fire recipe for a well earned early grave. So I'd got all my affairs in order before I kissed my wife goodbye an hour before.

I quickly settled in to the car which had it's doors on and was surprised to find it wasn't as breezy as I'd imagined. However I was still glad I'd worn my baseball cap as the low winter sun would have otherwise been blinding. The sounds of course are half the experience and reminded me of a Porsche 962 which I'd been lucky enough to take round Donnington for a few laps a few years ago. You could hear every lovely mechanical bit do their thing in the engine and transmission and tracklaying that with the exhaust meant the final mix was such a beautifully orchestrated cacophony that to a petrolhead it was better than any symphony by Mozart or Mahler. After a short while I reached my beloved A46 and quickly dispatched a couple of slow moving Yaris but here's the thing - I'm obviously still alive and for a very good reason too - I just didn't feel the need to drive the way I normally do in a more conventional sports car. The problem with most cars is that you're so isolated from everything else in the world outside your own little padded cell anyone who loves driving needs to drive very quickly simply to get any buzz at all. But in a seven your smile starts as soon as you're seated and gets bigger and bigger the further you drive. The connection you have with the road and the outside world is simply unparalleled and that connection meant I felt so much safer at any speed than in a padded cell. I could place the car with absolute precision at any time and the feedback I got through the tiny wheel and my body was so encompassing I blended in with all the other mechanical bits to such an extent I felt I finally reached cyborg status. It was a momentous epiphany - why hadn't I done this before ?

I phoned my wife and told her that she wouldn't need to open the envelope I'd left for her with my will inside. And I now had to get one of these though it wouldn't be from Williams as their stock didn't include any models at the price point I'd set. All theirs were well over thirty k at the time. So it was off to ebay, Pistonheads and Autotrader to see what was available. After reading a fair bit about the history of the car and the plethora of models available one thing was fairly apparent - a modern car is not a million miles away from the early cars in terms of overall experience. There are naturally improvements in the technology here and there but generally the experience will be pretty similar no matter which car you drive. And certainly a totally different experience to driving a modern padded cell. So I felt pretty confident that I really didn't need to spend over twenty k to get a car that would be suited to me. In fact there was an argument that if what I really needed was for me to get the ultimate in visceral experience an early car would actually be more beneficial. Pistonheads won the day and I narrowed down my search to three possibilities at GP Sevens in Sevenoaks and one at Sevens and Classics just down the road at Brands Hatch, where I'd done a racing course back in the 70s. I absolutely love Brands Hatch and rue the day when they were part of the F1 grand prix circus, swapping with Silverstone every other year. How could Bernie Ecclestone turn down Brands Hatch as a circuit for the lack of run off and facilities and yet agree to a street circuit such as Azerbaijan ? Could it be related to money Bernie ? Shit.

I'd never been to Sevenoaks before but it was a nice day, so I dropped off my wife for her to do some shopping and then drove the extra couple of miles to GP Sevens through some lovely countryside. They had a great selection of cars, about thirty or so, spread over two buildings, one being mainly a workshop with about fifteen cars waiting for a fettle before the handover to a lucky new owner and the other a showroom with twenty or so waiting for a new owner to fall in love with them. And all were worthy of falling in love with. From almost new 620Rs at over forty and fifty k to the three models from the 90s all under twenty k that skinflints like me would be keen on. One however stood out even before I sat in her. If you've bought more than a few cars you get a feeling almost immediately regarding how a car has been treated in it's life and this one seemed like it had been treated really well. It had a relatively low mileage for a '95 car having covered only thirty thousand miles and the ali bonnet was unmarked as was the rest of the red livery, bar a few stone chips below the ali protectors on the rear wings. The interior was pretty spotless too as were the lovely leather seats which felt snug and really comfortable when I slid into the driver's side. I'm pretty lithe and don't really have issues with getting into the sevens and actually find a removable steering wheel, like this one had, more of a hindrance than a help as I use it as support for my right hand getting in. Damian, one of the guys who runs GP Sevens, has loads of experience with these cars having been a sales manager at Caterham for a number of years and because a very slight drizzle had started he wasn't keen for me to take the car out for a run. But I knew this was certainly going to be on my short list. It only had a  135bhp Ford X Flow engine with twin  Webers but a race exhaust and she sounded lovely. And the price was pretty good value too. So I left it at that and took myself down to Sevens and Classics at Brands.

Andy Noble, who runs Sevens and Classics with Tim Ward, used to be Damian's boss at Caterham so he too has loads of experience with sevens and runs an attractive set up in what feels more like a large petrolhead's garage. He features in the 2003 BBC documentary about Caterham during their troubled days in the 90s and early noughties. It's called 'Caterham - Survival of the fastest' and is definitely worth a watch. Andy has a slightly more relaxed approach to sales than Damian and so he was quite happy for me to take the '95 150bhp Super Sprint Ford X Flow out. It had full red leather everywhere, including the tunnel but one thing was immediately obvious. It had had a harder life than the one I'd seen earlier and also had double the mileage, which in itself wasn't something I was too worried about but combined with the somewhat unloved feel of the car meant I didn't warm to it like the previous one. However, I was going to take it out. The pedals on the car were quite interesting in that someone had added an extension to the accelerator and placed it perpendicularly to the main pedal which on the face of it sounds like a pretty good idea but in my case, because the brake and the accelerator were fairly close, when I pressed the brake there was a tendency to depress the accelerator too which made things slightly awkward and in one case quite embarrassing as I approached a mini roundabout. Everybody knows the pedals on a seven is an issue that has never been satisfactorily dealt with for those who like to heel and toe and I find it quite amazing that Caterham haven't designed a fix for this. I know we all have different sized feet and that the space is cramped down there but this isn't rocket science and you would have thought after all these years this is something they would have dealt with, particularly as they're quite a racing oriented marque. This is something no doubt that you simply have to get used to with Caterham and on one hand can be seen as part of English eccentricity but on another can be thought of as English bloody mindedness and unhelpful. Anyway, the car drove really well and you could feel the engine was very willing. However, I went out without a door on my side and not only did my right elbow of my leather jacket get a good soaking from the wet road surface but something happened that had not been mentioned in any of the hundred or so Caterham reviews I'd watched. Which I found odd as it hits you in the face. Or rather, gets sucked out of your face. You'd imagine that with a door removed your head would get battered by wind but at anything over 40 mph the opposite happens - I found it almost impossible to breathe as every breath was immediately sucked out from my lungs by a mysterious invisible force. I've never felt anything like it and it meant I could only do a few seconds at a time at over 40 or otherwise I'd die of asphyxiation. So weird. Andy did warn me that might happen after he realised he'd forgotten to put the door back on for me but by then, though the car drove really well, the one at GP Sevens was the one that was going to be for me. Andy was really helpful and the sort of guy you could be confident buying from but in this case I'd set my eye on another car.

So it was back to Sevenoaks to have lunch with my wife and get the low down on the local shopping. Which was pretty good for a reasonably small place apparently. While we were having lunch the weather did get markedly better and so I thought I'd try again to get a test drive in the car I'd seen at GP Sevens. After all I'd driven 140 miles to see the car and was slightly miffed at Damian's rather intransigent attitude. When I phoned I talked to his partner in crime, Antony Paine, who assured me that a test drive would be fine now the weather had cleared. And anyway Damian was at a funeral.  GP Sevens is only a couple of miles outside of Sevenoaks so it wouldn't take long and as there was a dress my wife had seen but not tried on she was fully supportive of me going and trying the out car. Antony was an equally interesting guy as Damian and gave me list of dos and don't before he would let me near the car. And I had to assure him I would drive like his 100 year old mother. If his mother was a natural born racer I told him of course I would. This car had a totally different pedal layout compared to the one at Sevens and Classics. This time the brake was so close to the clutch pedal, the accelerator was in the next county by comparison. The previous driver obviously had very wide feet and only used the loud pedal. But the car drove brilliantly and very willingly, though it obviously had less power than the previous one, albeit in raw numbers it was just 15bhp. I'd already agreed a price with Damian and the drive confirmed my interest in the car. I was sold. And so was the car.

About ten days later the car was ready and the day looked as though it was going to be great. So said Meteo Blue, the world's greatest weather forecasting app and sure enough the weather in Somerset looked as though it would be just that. As I neared London it started getting cloudier and quite foreboding but at least the train was on time which is probably more of a mystery than the weather. By the time I arrived in Sevenoaks things had brightened up and I was met at the station by Damian who had just returned from a trip to Belgium and France where he was buying a seven. Apparently there's quite a Caterham following in France which has something to do with an historical import/export duty rick that no longer exists. But it means there are quite a few right hand drive sevens over there in France. Though I make it seem Damian and Antony are pretty stern characters they run a great operation that is really professional and with very high standards. And at the end of the day, beautiful is as beautiful does. And GP Sevens does it very beautiful; all the cars appear proper and all the staff work with the same high level of professionalism. I wouldn't have bought a car from them if I felt otherwise and you can't say that about all car dealerships.

Chris, one of the technicians moved the pedals for me which seems quite straightforward after you take the top of the pedal box off and you're armed with a crow bar. And of course have the knowledge and experience of what you're doing. He moved the brake much closer to the accelerator and though I can now heel and toe, or rather toe and toe by rocking my right foot, I still have to develop the right muscle memory of the exact placement of my foot when I stand on the brakes. And the difference between getting it right or getting it wrong is about two millimeters. Such is the world of a seven. Over the next few months I'll attempt to sort this out fully as being able to heel and toe naturally and easily is probably one of the most important elements of how I drive. And getting it spot on is a beautiful thing. I'd already sorted my insurance through Damian's recommended A-Plan broker which worked out very nicely at sixty quid less with the same insurance company, KGM Underwriting, that comparethemeerkats suggested. So much for meerkats. Damian had also sorted out six months tax for me which was great and given me half a tank of petrol which probably cost an arm and a leg after the Putin insanity.

The drive back was pretty uneventful, though I did have to go through a brief down pour going underneath a black cloud. Probably put there by Putin. But by the end I was more confident at pushing along at speed and the amazing thing was I felt safer than I did in my porkers or Ferraris. And I put that down to the visceral attachment you have to the road and the outside world. I was more in tune with what I was doing and where I was going than I ever have been and for that simple fact it made the experience safer and much more enjoyable. And what's all this nonsense about having unusable side mirrors that I'd listened to on YouTube reviews ? Properly set up they were fine for me. In fact much of what I'd seen on YouTube was misinformation which is one of the issues with Caterham so generously loaning their cars out to every Tom, Dick and Harry. Most of course are really positive but I think there's a need for a good buying guide for those who don't want or aren't able to buy a new car. But I have a plan for that.

So, I arrived home with a beaming grin which hasn't left my face and I look forward to getting to know my seven over the coming few months once this shit English weather improves. Watch this space. And three days later, writing this, I still have the smell of the engine in my nostrils. Magic, just a shame we can't use Castrol R. Attached should be a pic of my car in the garage.

 

Comments

I've booked the car in with Dave Griffiths at Interpro to look at the engine to make sure everything is fine and dandy with the engine and that's it's producing the best it can in it's current configuration. We'll then discuss what the possibilities are for upgrading if he thinks that's a good idea.

I'm also going to book the car in at Williams Caterham to have the immobiliser removed. It's a complete pain in the arse as it's sometimes reluctant to let me turn the car over and I'm worried that it may give up the ghost entirely one day and leave me stranded somewhere like many others have done in the past to other Caterham owners.

I've also bought some Toyo R888R tyres all round and will pick up and fit them next week. The fronts will remain 185/60/13 but the rears will widen to 205/60/13.

He was looking for the card so high and wild he'd never need to deal another - Leonard Cohen