MOTOR MOUTH: Frighteningly addictive

MOTOR MOUTH: Frighteningly addictive - Whatever victim you were to delusional fantasies, you could not call the Caterham 7 a practical car. It's a bit of a stretch to call it a car at all, although it has four wheels and goes - in its singular fashion - f

by STEPHEN BAYLEY, an author and design consultant
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Whatever victim you were to delusional fantasies, you could not call the Caterham 7 a practical car. It's a bit of a stretch to call it a car at all, although it has four wheels and goes - in its singular fashion - from A to B. For instance, the Caterham does not have doors. I know that sounds suburban, but you get to an age where these things make a difference. Instead, it has approximately tailored leathertex flaps with a clear 'window' panel. These floppy flaps, located at their leading edge with crude pins to the windscreen, are further secured in place by an internal press-stud, although once you've done this you can't adjust the rear view mirrors, attached to the outside of the flaps. The best thing to do is to pull the flaps off, sling them in the hall and leave them there.

This means that rearward visibility is compromised. So you take the roof down. The Caterham's roof is like a Montessori school project, a spatial diagram designed to keep bright children alert. Take it down and keep it down is my advice. This provides the driver with an invigorating plein-air experience, although not one for the faint-hearted.

The Caterham is so low that you are eye-level with a Transit's exhaust.

At traffic lights you sit there thinking: 'Please, God, don't let me stall or I'll become terrine de bus lane.' But I haven't quite finished with the problems of rear vision. In principle, you should be able to look over your shoulder, except you can't because the Caterham comes with a racing-style harness that clamps you in place like one of those devices they used in the Inquisition. But this does not matter, since at all times of day the Caterham 7 is going so very, very fast that the prospect of anything coming up behind and doing a bit of a sorpasso is merely theoretical.

The 7 has other crazy practical shortcomings. In a summer downpour I had water rushing up in torrents through the pedals. Getting in is a bit of a palaver too. You can only gain access with the hood down. Even then, contortions somewhere between ballet and boot camp are required: you have to stand on the seat and, keeping your bottom inboard, perform an arabesque into a narrow metal channel. You could not call it cosy, unless you have an affection for unpainted aluminium, but when I showed it to an elderly chum who used to fly Spitfires his rheumy eyes went misty. Luggage? Forget it.

But to discuss Caterham ergonomics is like a plan to sell condoms in a nunnery. The point of a Caterham is not rationality; they have Volkswagens for that. Instead, it offers the rawest, noisiest, most head-banging, gut-wrenching, adjective-hunting experience you can have on wheels. It is at the outer limits of the extreme - which is its reason for being.

Starting the engine produces an explosive mechanical effect like firing a heavy machine gun in a confined space: there are banging sensations, profound vibrations, vicious noises, an oily-electrical smell and an immediate sense of danger.

Caterham sources its engines from sedate Rover. Mine was in a moderate state of tune, but a prod on the throttle releases another order of noise when the banging and rattling adjust to the more symphonic, but angry, howl that accompanies (actually) blinding acceleration. Top speed is largely theoretical, because you will be scared to tears and howling for mercy long before you get to 70.

The rush of acceleration has endocrinological side-effects that many may find pleasurable; the car's potential means that nothing can keep up with you in town or country. A neat six-speed gearbox with very short throws, competition-quality brakes and steering as direct as a bicycle's contribute to the dramatic sensation. It makes progress like a battle on fast-forward: insects, buses, mere cars, blur past as you blast and blare onwards. Corners test nerve and forearm muscles more than the car's abilities.

The modern Caterham is a descendant of Colin Chapman's classic Lotus 7 of the late '50s (which co-starred in the 1965 TV classic The Prisoner), but all that's in common with the old car is the purist (no doors) philosophy.

The SV version (which I tried) is wider and has clever composites and crash protection. I believe them, but I wouldn't want to try it. A half-hour drive is exhausting and, if you are doing it right, frightening. It is also utterly, utterly addictive.

Caterham 7 SV; Self-build pounds 16,900; factory build pounds 19,150.

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