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

Motorized Madness

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.

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."

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.

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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