Lockdown has made me want a Caterham – Thank Frankel it’s Friday

24th April 2020

I have found it amazing how this enforced lockdown has made me change my view of things. I am a news addict so you’d have thought I’d be soaking up every column inch and press briefing there was. Not so. The worse the long term outlook appears, the less I want to see. I just want hard facts: how long is it going to last and what does the endgame look like. And of course no one is in a position to provide the answer.

I have likewise gone back to basics with cars. Which for me means just one thing: I want a Caterham.


There is nothing new in this. Ever since I first saw a Lotus 7 burble past me in the street when I was a child, these are the cars that have best expressed in steel, aluminium, oil and rubber what I want a car to be. I owned a Caterham long before I was a motoring journalist, a live axle, four speed 1700 Super Sprint whose premature death against the bank at the exit of the Goodwood chicane regulars may recall me writing about in this spot.

I did my first ever race in a Caterham, a 12 lapper at Brands Hatch on a full grid of identical cars. I qualified 12th, got up to fourth, fell off and finished, er, 12th. And then in the late 1990s I specced my own car from scratch, a thing called a Superlight R with a 195bhp 1.8-litre motor. The 750 Motor Club refused to let me race it because despite complying with its rules, it had a new engine specification that would have blown away everything else in the same capacity class (which was rather the point), so I just did track days in it. I cannot imagine why I sold it.

But it’s a Caterham I didn’t own, race or crash I remember most fondly, because this one I actually built. It was an out of hours project in 1992 when I was the Road Test Editor of Autocar. There was a studio around the back of the office we usually used for photographing cars, but this time and over the course of a single weekend, a handful of us – including a rather fresh-faced James May – actually built one. (You can see the full cover here.)


It was an HPC, which meant a grunty 2.0-litre Vauxhall ‘red top’ motor breathing air and fuel through a pair of snorting 45mm Webers and producing 175bhp. We started on Friday evening with a load of boxes and an engine hoist and after a weekend of not enough sleep and far too many takeaways, on Monday morning we carefully wheeled an entire car out of the studio.

When I say ‘entire’ I’m not being completely accurate. One or two fairly key components had not turned up including if memory serves a rear wing and a steering wheel (hence the very careful wheeling) and try as we might we could not get the bloody thing to start. As it does with all homebuilt cars, Caterham checked over our handiwork prompting its engineering boss Jez Coates to pronounce it the worst built Seven he’d ever seen.

But we must have done something right because for the next six months it became my almost entirely trouble-free daily driver. The car did something like 12,000 miles and the only fault I recall was the clutch cable going, meaning I had to apply more than the usual amount of thought to my gearchanges until I got home.

And I absolutely loved it: loved the look, the instant overtaking it offered, the implausible cornering speeds, the instant steering… All of it. I also took my then girlfriend on holiday to France in it and reckoned that if she could spend that much time cooped up in its cockpit and go away with almost no luggage, she was probably the kind of girl one should hang on to, which is why I’ve been married to her almost ever since.

I think that’s what I’d go back to. I like the simplicity, torque and sound of the Vauxhall engine and they’re very strong indeed. I need a car with a De Dion rear axle and a long cockpit which rules out anything from most of the ‘80s and earlier, and I just love the look of those 1990s car.

Of course I may or may not do anything about it, and trawling around the classifieds reveals a dearth of really nice examples of this era of Seven. But the thought of hitting the open road again in a Caterham is helping sustain me through these troubled times. And if it works, I say don’t question it.

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