Motorized Madness

The boxy, vintage Caterham auto beckons the purist with unbridled speed.

There's no radio. Mother Nature provides the air conditioning. If you're 6' 3", forget it. Houdini would have trouble squirming in and out of the thing. Wind this tiny, bug-eyed British beast up to 105 miles per hour or so, and it starts ripping and crashing into the oncoming air like a brick shot out of a cannon. After 200 deafening miles on the highway, some contented masochists report, anyone who can still hear his own voice is likely to demand a head transplant.

But for the hard-core Anglophile, or the balls-to-the-wall open-cockpit sports-car driver with Valvoline in his veins and fierce individualism in his heart, there is nothing that quite equals the Caterham Seven. Don't tell a Caterham owner about your new Nissan 350Z or your sleek Porsche Boxster, much less your prosaic Toyota Celica. He'll probably give you the same weary gaze a hardened combat veteran lays on a bank clerk bragging about his chess game. The Few. The Proud. The Ecstatically Battered. That's who drives a Caterham -- the car that looks like the result of a breadbox mating with an aardvark, but flashes through a corner like a cheetah with its fur on fire.

The best place to get one? Right here in Denver. Caterham USA, 1212 West Custer Place, is the sole American distributor for one of the quirkiest, least practical, purest sports cars on the planet. There are ten Caterham dealers around the country -- in New York, Texas, California and a few other states -- but the little unmarked shop and dealership tucked away on the west side is the best place to plunk down between $30,000 and $40,000 for a goofmobile of your very own. Manufactured in England, the Caterham comes in five models, with a variety of engine and drivetrain options, which makes each car as unique as the possibly crazy person who buys it. And who, uh, builds it. Every Caterham Seven that arrives in this country -- only about fifty of them each year -- comes in semi-assembled kit form. It is, unquestionably, the finest and fastest "kit car" made, and more than half of all new owners spend a hundred hours or so fitting and bolting their purchase together themselves. Technicians at Caterham USA are happy to assist, usually by telephone, but if you want them to do the whole job for you, add $2,000 to $3,000 to the tab. You're not done yet, though. As the proud owner, you must then jump through days' or weeks' worth of bureaucratic hoops to get the exotic hybrid registered with the motor-vehicle bureau. That's not always easy when the authorities spot no cup-holders, and the trunk space is just big enough to accommodate a ham sandwich and a Visa card.

Nathan Down and Cody Story stand next to the 
Caterham Seven.
Mark Manger
Nathan Down and Cody Story stand next to the Caterham Seven.

Ah, but the subsequent rewards are measured in sheer thrill. On road and racetrack alike, the Caterham Seven has long been known as a giant-killer, an extremely light, beautifully balanced little phenomenon that can out-accelerate [zero to 60 in about four seconds] and out-corner most cars twice as powerful and four times more expensive. Last year, at Second Creek Raceway, near Denver International Airport, a Caterham Superlight R equipped with a four-cylinder, 200-horsepower Ford Zetec engine (at 1,150 pounds, it's one of the fastest Caterham configurations) reportedly turned laps six seconds faster than a Ferrari 355. In a telling zero-to-100-miles-an-hour-to-zero test, a Caterham R500 beat a Porsche 911 Turbo by 1.58 seconds, a Lamborghini Murcialago by 2.46 seconds. In December, a gray, race-prepared Caterham Super Seven built in Denver finished fourth overall in a grueling, rain-drenched, 25-hour enduro at Thunderhill Raceway in northern California. It knocked off assorted Lolas, Mazda Miatas, BMW M3s and almost everything else on the track with ease. The only cars in the huge field of 83 to beat it? A trio of factory-prepared Porsche 911 GT3 Cups heavily muscled with 420 horsepower apiece. Postscript: The fastest of those GT3s just finished third overall in the prestigious 24 Hours of Daytona.

The Thunderhill-placed Caterham, by the way, can be all yours for just $47,000, including sets of spare wheels and tires. The car squats right now on the concrete floor in Caterham USA's Denver shop and, with a few minor changes, can quickly be turned into a street-legal two-seater that will feel right at home at the races anytime you have the guts to floor it.

Nathan Down, the 29-year-old British driver and designer who built the car and co-drove it in the California race, oversees the day-to-day operation of Rocky Mountain Sports Cars, the Caterham dealership next door to Caterham USA on Custer Place. After five years as a research-and-development engineer at the factory in England, he knows as much as anyone about the wild-eyed fringe appeal that has lured Caterham owners like guitarist Eric Clapton and Aerosmith's Steven Tyler. "There are no comforts," he says bluntly. "There are no power brakes or power steering. No AC. It's a very raw, very pure driving experience There's no sanitation about this car. Every input gives you an output. It's an authentic race car for the road, a small, minimalist car for people who are, perhaps, a bit egotistical, certainly individualistic. There's nothing like it. But it's also very forgiving. You can put it into some very lurid slides and get it right back again."

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200-horsepower Ford Zetec engine that did laps faster than a Ferrari, that is insane! I wonder what type of custom Ford parts these guys have in their vehicle. That is simply amazing. Does anyone know of any other upcoming automotive events like this one that are open to the public?