The Caterham 7 is the Malteser of the car world - impossibly light and very tempting
Words by Erin Baker, Editorial Director at Auto-Trader
The Caterham 7 has been with us since the Fifties, when it was called the Lotus 7, and the styling of this quirky British two-seat sports car remains unapologetically vintage. You cannot imagine how much fun it is until you have been for a test drive. With no heavy safety or warning systems aboard, this is the Malteser of the car world – impossibly light and very tempting. And for budding novice racing drivers, the company offers the Caterham Academy. We’ve done it and it’s a whole lot of fun.
How well do you know your spanner from your wrench? The Caterham 7 is probably the only two-seater sports car you can buy ready made by the factory, or in kit form to build yourself. Unless you know your way round a tool box blindfolded, we’d strongly recommend the former. So that’ll be £29,395 ready built, instead of £26,490 for the kit.
Our car also came with the large chassis for another £2,500, which means you don’t have to be a size 10 to fit in comfortably. You can pay a further £75 to have a painted “7” on the grill, £300 for embroidered “7” headrests, £95 for side door arm rests and £995 for a limited slip differential which means it goes faster and more neatly round the corners by allowing the wheels to turn at different speeds.
You can judge for yourself the effects of that Fifties styling, with the frog-eye chrome head lamps, fat exhaust running round the side and boxy little cabin for two people. We’ve never been that keen, but will forgive the looks for the way it feels to sit inside while it rushes along the road, jiggling and popping, with everyone smiling at you, and small children pointing with delight. On a summer’s day, there are few finer experiences, and it’s absolutely tiny, so will fit in any parking space you care to find.
Inside, there’s a small Momo racing steering wheel, and the list of extras just makes you laugh, because you realise what Caterham determines are expendable creature comforts in the pursuit of light weight: fully carpeted interior, black vinyl boot cover, full windscreen, hood and side screens, mats and boot floor carpet, black leather seats, heater, polished exhaust, petrol filler cap in silver or black and a choice of four paints: black, red, green or yellow.
Nothing. Really. Nothing. No radio, no satnav, no display screen, no air-con, certainly no Bluetooth or phone connection. No USB ports, no lane-departure warning systems, no traction control, no nothing. No central locking, because there are no doors, just leather poppers on the side sills. You do get an immobiliser – put the key in the slot by the steering wheel, turn it and the immobiliser will unlock the system. Then push the red starter button to fire her up. You also get dials for fuel, speed and revs.
Apart from that, as we said: nothing. Which is partly what makes it so great for learning to race in – with no electronic interference or driving aids, it’s a pure, linear experience involving the brake, throttle and clutch pedals to learn where the boundaries are.
This is a car far more suited to women than men, because it’s very narrow – you wear it more than drive it. The three pedals are so closely situated that you have to wear thin-soled shoes or you risk stepping on two pedals at once. You more or less lie down to drive, your legs stretching down the tunnel to the pedals, which sounds scary but is actually very comfy and a more natural driving position. It doesn’t pay to think how close your bottom is to the ground at 70mph, however.
We have driven one as a daily commuter in London, all year round. As long as your hood fits snugly over the car, there are surprisingly few drafts, and the heater works well, although you won’t actually need it as so much heat comes off the transmission tunnel. It’s not a car recommenced for those with back problems however, as you have to fold yourself in and back out, being careful to step over the hot exhaust which runs alongside your door. We commuted in heels and skirt for weeks however, and all was well, although it might be an idea to do a course of yoga alongside ownership.
Bear with us briefly in geeksville here while we explain what makes this car so much fun: the Ford 2.0-litre engine produces 135bhp which isn’t a lot of power on paper, but what’s important is something called the power-to-weight ratio, meaning that in cars such as this, which weigh next to nothing (565kg is next to nothing in the car world), you don’t need much power to go really quickly. And so the 270S sprints from 0-60mph in just five seconds. And because you’re very low to the ground, with the little wheels jiggling up and down in front of you, the exhaust popping loudly and the air rushing by, you feel like you’re flying. This is seriously the most fun you can have in a car for under £30,000. There’s a dinky five-speed manual gearbox with a short little movement between each gear, and you lie down, blip your feet, flick your wrist and spin the little wheel, and hurtle down the road with the sun on your head and the sights and smells whizzing past. It’s pure, unadulterated joy.