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Saturday, September 6, 2014

Driving the Caterham Seven 360, the British throwback on American soil


Caterham Seven 360
Caterham Seven 360

In England, they’ve been building the Caterham Seven or something like it — that is, the ne plus ultra in sports car minimalism — seemingly forever.
 It’s been so long now that one’s point of entry to Seven awareness could be a recent turn in GranTurismo5, or as far away as the celebrity role it played starring alongside Patrick McGoohan in the semi-obscure 1960s British television classic, "The Prisoner."

It was known as a Lotus 7 back then. But in 1973, long after the TV show was through and a full 16 years after the 7’s debut, tiny Caterham of Surrey, England, licensed rights to the design from the founder of perpetually cash-light Lotus, Colin Chapman.
Much to everyone’s surprise, not least Chapman’s, the Seven then refused to go quietly into the night. Today, 41 additional years later, Chapman is long gone but Caterham is still building his seminal, no-frills go-kart for the road, with no end in sight.
Unlike most foreign automotive forbidden fruit, the Caterham Seven has been available for eccentric Americans to buy and enjoy for decades because it can be sold here under a kit-car exemption to federal regulation.
 Because of this, and because its design dates back to the bygone age before computers and safety had anything to do with automobile engineering, there are no airbags and no offset collision tests necessary.
  The result is a car so low and so slight that an inattentively driven Ford Fiesta – not to mention an 18-wheeled Peterbilt — could take one out  without the bigger vehicle’s driver ever noticing.

In keeping with the kit car rubric, customers buy Sevens from England, into which is installed in America their choice of approved drivetrains, or, if they don’t mind further hands-on engineering, non-approved ones.
 For instance, if you think a massaged Wartburg four is all that’s standing between your Seven and the checkered flag, no one’s going to stop you.

Ditto with the collisions, offset or otherwise. That is, avoiding them is entirely up to you, the four-point seatbelt which keeps you firmly fixed to your low-riding bucket seat, your throttle pedal and the non-ABS four-wheel disc brakes.
 You are fortunate in an active safety way, though, as few things are more nimble than a Seven.
 Reflecting the state of the art in 1950s’ racecar design, with some useful updates borne of wisdom gleaned in the intervening 57 years, the Seven still weighs next to nothing — 1,179 lbs., as tested, even in “wide”-bodied Series 5 form — and it continues to corner like it’s riding on the proverbial rails, with steering so sharp that it lives up to another famous cliché by changing lanes when we sneeze.
 A Seven, it is fair to say is like nothing else out there, an uncompromising track day car you can drive to work, especially if your colleagues do not mind when you show up looking like you’ve just fallen out of a crop duster.

Caterham, who build about 600 cars in a good year, recently announced a new U.S. distributor for its progeny, Superformance of Irvine, Calif.
Superformance are still assembling their dealer network for Caterham, but they’ll arrange to sell you one of two U.S. spec Sevens right now, an 180-hp 360, or a 237-hp 480, both with versions of Ford’s naturally-aspirated 2-liter Duratec under their clip-on, aluminum engine covers.
 We tried the tamer 360, and believe us, with approximately 271 hp per ton at its disposal, it steps out with all the authority we need, reaching 60 mph in under five seconds. A 310-hp 620R model, not offered stateside officially, needs less than 2.8 seconds to reach that benchmark, making it the fastest Caterham ever sold.

Some will want nothing less than the 620R. But seeing as top speed is already a claimed 130 mph for the 360 and as, with the roof down and cut-out door apertures exposed, speeds of much more than 75 mph are essentially unbearable sans helmet, we think we might settle for the lesser model.
 At $69,040 (with drivetrain) it’s fast enough and expensive enough for us to stop climbing the Caterham ladder, though we know others will always want more. Personally, we regret that Caterham will no longer offer Yanks its 160 model, with a 660-cc Suzuki three-cylinder. Slower, suppler, cheaper and even lighter, there’s a lot to recommend it, but Suzuki has taken its marbles home to Japan and no longer wants to share.

Caterham Seven 360

So how does the 360 go? Great, basically. Because basic it is. If you like direct steering, lightning acceleration, and that seat-of-the-pants feeling, there can be no substitute. But in the name of full disclosure, it must also be reported, with the top up (it’s a crude but effective affair, possibly designed by Hobbits) and the side curtains installed (they cleverly double as doors,) wind noise and wind burn went down in our test vehicle, but lots of other noises went up.
Hurriedly assembled by Superformance, our 360 was slapped together to make it to Pebble Beach for old-car-dom’s premier weekend of posh festivities just in time. But driving this most un-posh roadster south to Los Angeles, we’d come across several defects that more time might have obviated, including an inoperative speedometer and wipers.
 A stainless steel side exhaust resonated unpleasantly at certain rpm’s, while a noisy five-speed gearbox and a clunking DeDion rear end were more irksome still. These were joined at the end of our journey by failed headlamps.

But we didn’t and don’t make too much of these. In the scheme of things, all are easy enough fixes. Even though there's plenty that still seems clever about a Caterham 7, there's nothing complicated about it. Just as there never was.