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Throwback review: Autoweek Seven Up: Caterham's iconic bare-bones sports car gets stiffer and quicker (CSR) (Feb 2006)

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To find a vehicle more minimalist than a Caterham you would have to look at something like a skateboard. But it would have to be a rocket-powered skateboard, like an Ariel Atom. After the Atom and maybe that rocket sled the Air Force used in the 1950s out at Edwards Air Force Base, the next thing in line as far as power-to-weight and screaming fun is a Caterham.


Caterham is about the barest of the bare-bones sports cars. Originally designed and built by the master of minimalism, Colin Chapman, in 1957, the basic car hasn’t changed much in the half century since. Chapman built it up until 1973, when he sold the rights to car dealer Graham Nearn, who renamed the car the Caterham Super Seven and cranked it out, largely unchanged, until last year (okay, they did go from live axle to de Dion axles and a few other things, but it’s not like comparing a 1957 Corvette to a 2006 Z06).

Last year three guys from Lotus, backed by venture capitalists, bought Caterham. At the time the Super Seven was in the midst of a redesign, which was finished under the new owners and is what you see here—the first real new Seven ever.


Looks the same, you say?


Well, it is and it isn’t. It’s still a crazy-light, boxy-snouted road-squealer that seats two and has absolutely no room for luggage. So don’t worry that it has gone all Grand Touring on you with statistics about how many golf bags fit into some huge new trunk. It’s still insanely fast and completely uncomfortable. So relax, purists. Indeed, rejoice!


The mild steel tubular space- frame chassis is new, up 100 percent in torsional stiffness thanks mostly to improvements around the central transmission tunnel. If the old one was stiff, then this new C’ham is stiff, stiff, stiff.


To that stiff structure is bolted a new suspension system with inboard-pivot-activated coil springs controlling double wishbones up front and a fully independent rear suspension replacing the live and de Dion axles that floated and crashed around back there for decades.


Aerodynamically speaking, the car is significantly improved. You might have noticed a little front-end lift at 100 mph in the old Seven. Officially the car had 100 pounds of lift at 100 mph. Depending on what you were doing at the time, that lift could be felt as increased understeer or as scary wandering around.


So one of the design goals for the new car was to reduce that lift. Look closely and you’ll see little trailing edges at the rear of the front fenders, which took out about 10 or 15 pounds of lift. Moving the coil springs inboard, race car-style, took out another 10 or 15 pounds. And channeling the engine-cooling airflow up and out the top of the hood took out a whopping 40 or 50 pounds of lift. So while this may not be a Bonneville streamliner, it at least won’t fly as easily as before.


It is also new under the hood. While this may be a kit car into which you can stuff anything you want—and about 10 percent of buyers do—the semi-official engine is a 2.3-liter four-cylinder Ford, developed by Cosworth. Yes, you can buy a Cosworth-powered car once again. All is right with the world.


The four-cylinder aluminum block and 16-valve aluminum head is about 20 pounds lighter than the old ZTEC four and puts out 200 hp or 260 hp, depending on which setup you choose. Both are 2.3-liters. Our test car, the 260, comes with cast crank, forged rods, forged Cosworth pistons, Cosworth camshafts and really cool roller-barrel port throttles that operate like a flute rotating along the head to open and close the four throttle valves. Cosworth developed the intake manifold and exhaust manifold as well as the dry-sump lubrication system. Engine management ECU is calibrated by Cosworth.


Power is way up from the last pair of engine choices, the 1600-cc 147-hp or 1700-cc 202-hp ZTEC. We actually preferred the 2.0-liter 204-hp ZTEC we drove a few years back in the Superlight R (“Caterham Seventh Heaven,” Feb. 17, 2003), but that might just have been that car’s 1080-pound curb weight.


This new car weighs 1315 pounds “with gas, oil and no funny business,” according to Jonathan Nelson, CEO of Caterham USA. All in all, we might favor waiting for a Superlight R, should Caterham decide to make one, but that could be a long wait.


Nonetheless this one is still quite a thrill. It rides on Avon 195/45 fronts and 245/40 rears mounted on “Formula Three engineered 15-inch tires.”


Given the choice of drive locations, and it being midweek in Los Angeles, we met up with Nelson at the base of California Highway 2 in La Canada, the goal being lunch at Newcomb’s Ranch Inn. Between La Canada and the Ranch are hundreds of third-gear twists running over pavement that is less than a decade old. This road is suicide-crowded on weekends, with every contraption known to man lumbering over the double-yellow line willy-nilly. During the week it was just us and a handful of superbikers.


Nelson said this first car is still being calibrated. In fact he asked us afterward how we thought the suspension should be set up. As it was, our version was track-day stiff. And even with the relatively new pavement (thanks, Caltrans), there were many bumps. For this drive we would have softened up the front end a little, allowing the springs, shocks and links to do their job.


The car reminded us of an open-wheeled race car with a little bit of the bang-crash feeling over bumps and divots. But reminding the driver of a race car is a good thing for Seven buyers, since most look at it as a race car.


“The market has really changed,” said Nelson, who remembers when a stouthearted enthusiast might drive a Seven every day the sun shone. “Now it’s all track-day guys who just want a real fast car.”


Those guys will not be disappointed in the Seven. The balance is good, 48/52 front/rear. Had we been going all the way to the Willow Springs track out in the desert, the CSR would have shone when we got there. This being a kit car, you can set up your own suspension how ever you like it, even changing it up, down and all over the place every weekend, depending on your itinerary.


Still, the overriding emotion from the day’s drive is fun. How often do you get to toss all compromise out the window and drive a car made solely to take you and maybe a small whimpering passenger directly to an apex? The CSR turns in fairly quickly and hangs on through whatever line we set. Steering is so responsive we had to recalibrate our internal steering clock. While your garden-variety car muffles most of the feel through the wheel, this unmuffled Caterham takes some getting used to. There is a small amount of bump steer, but it isn’t unmanageable. Again, probably just right for track day.


Power is good, and with the six-speed manual we never had trouble accessing it. A couple of times we ran it out to the soft redline of 7500 rpm, never hitting the hard line at 8000.


We stopped to take pictures and swap drivers and found the ingress and egress is as much fun as ever. We also drove without shoes, as seems prudent in this traditional British sports car with its tiny foot box—wouldn’t want to let a foot slip and make tomorrow’s newspaper. Track day calls for Puma Speed Cats, if not real racing shoes.


“Our advantage is that we don’t make any pretense of practicality,” said Nelson. Caterham’s pretense, if you could call it that, is fast track times, and on that it does deliver. Since the car is aimed at an infinitesimally small sliver of the American buying public, maybe 30 to 50 a year, Caterham can afford to avoid compromise.


The CSR should arrive at the 10 U.S. Caterham dealers in April (see uscaterham.com). The dealers sell the cars as kits, remember, minus the engines and transmissions. A base kit should run about $44,000. The engine and six-speed manual should cost another $20,000. If you get somebody else to put those two together it will cost $2,500 to $4,000, depending on who you get. Your dealer can tell you. So you’re looking at as much as $68,000 for a car with no cupholders.


Which is exactly how those 30 to 50 drivers will want it.


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