Motorized Madness

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

Like some presidents, most great racehorses and all superior cars, the Caterham Seven sports an impeccable pedigree. Back in 1957, the legendary British race car designer Colin Chapman introduced a modest little club racer called the Lotus Seven, which immediately began blowing the doors off its bigger, heavier competition, instantly fomenting a cult of obsessive partisans. For his part, Chapman called the Seven design "the sort of thing you dash off in an afternoon." He was otherwise engaged, after all, in dreaming up the revolutionary Lotus Fords that would capture three Formula One world championships -- including Mario Andretti's 1978 title -- and the first rear-engine racer to win the Indianapolis 500. That was in 1965, with Jimmy Clark, the Flying Scot, at the wheel. In 1973, Chapman sold production rights to his Lotus Seven to an English auto dealer named Graham Nearn, in the little town of Caterham, Surrey.

Thus did the beloved Lotus Seven become the soon-to-be-beloved Caterham Seven, and although Chapman's original design has undergone many chassis and engine improvements over the past three decades, the cars -- turned out like clockwork, 500 a year -- still look almost as they did in 1957. Same boxy rear end. Same ungainly snout and square-ish fenders. Same bug-eyed headlights. As a consequence, the first of the present-day Caterham Seven's chief design faults (its timeless charm, some would say) remains the snugness of its doorless, climb-in cockpit. At 5' 7", the single-minded, race-weight-conscious Chapman felt no need to accommodate any basketball stars. Today, even the longer, slightly roomier new Roadsport SV model, designed last year by Nathan Down himself, would prove a tight fit for many rangy Americans.

The classic car's other serious drawback, also a relic of the Chapman lunacy, is its antique notion of aerodynamics. Up to 100 miles an hour or so, the car sticks to pavement like glue, but over 100 (and on up to a top end of 145 mph), its odd shape kicks and buffets like a wild horse, pushing air and fighting its pilot. That, adherents say, is part and parcel of the Caterham glory. If the breathtaking little test ride this reporter took one chilly morning, with Down at the wheel, is any measure, they're absolutely right. Not in any Porsche have I felt such neck-snapping acceleration, nor in any blood-red twelve-cylinder thoroughbred born in Bella Italia. Never have I been knocked around so vividly at speed as in the little 1998 Caterham Roadsport the able Mr. Down pointed so expertly through some high-speed sweepers along an uninhabited Denver road that shall here remain unidentified.

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

For Down, who operates Rocky Mountain Motorcars on behalf of owners Ben and Hal Wofford, and 24-year-old Cody Story, who manages the Caterham USA office for distributor Jonathan Nelson, it remains a little baffling -- but only a little -- that Caterham manages to sell only fifty cars per year in the U.S. "Its performance will easily outshine a ŒZ' or a [Honda] S2000," Story says, "because it's a much purer sports car. Of course, it's not for everyone." Down, who points out that there are nineteen Caterham-based racing series around the world, asks himself why 300 million Americans buy only fifty of the cars each year while 55 million citizens in the U.K. account for 300. "Strange," he says. Road & Track, after all, calls it "an uncompromised vision of what a sports car can be, and the purest expression of the term." On the other hand, some call the Caterham "spartan." Others say it's "like driving a hair shirt." And if you don't watch out for that huge Escalade bearing down on you, some drivers say, "you'll wind up as road pizza."

In any event, even if sales volume doubles or quintuples, local Caterham owners aren't likely to see their ride coming and going in the supermarket parking lot anytime soon. Of the 800 to 1,000 Sevens currently on U.S. roads, only a dozen or so are registered in Colorado. One of them belongs to retired magazine editor Howard Stussman, who moved to Fort Collins from New York in 2002. After assembling the car himself (with a little help from the Denver shop), he's been driving his British racing green, yellow and brushed-silver Caterham for a year and a half -- on carefully selected warm days only, mild top-down days only. Otherwise, his vehicle is a Ford F-150 pickup truck.

"The car has a heater," he laughs, "but that's it. There's certainly no luxury at all. But if you really enjoy driving, it connects you to the road better than anything I've ever experienced. You have total control. You feel everything. It's a purist's car -- a four-wheel motorcycle." The unexpected bonus? The Seven is so low to the ground, Stussman says, that "you can do your nails by dragging them on the pavement."

The Caterham also attracts such relentless attention from strangers that Stussman, who worked at McGraw-Hill's Engineering News Record for more than thirty years, prepared a fact sheet about the odd car to satisfy the curiosity of onlookers and to give himself a break from the barrage of inquiries. So far, he's handed out fifty or sixty of the fliers -- a suitable avocation, it seems, for a retired editor who now spends the odd afternoon touring the serpentine asphalt of Poudre Canyon (at modest speed, he claims) in an automobile many might see as the plaything of a 62-year-old madman. Well, let them talk if they must. This summer, Stussman says, he and his wife of twenty years will take their Caterham on a 400-mile jaunt to the wilds of North Dakota. Sanity and the safety of eardrums be damned.

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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?