From the February 1993 issue of Car and Driver.
Mazda’s easy-to-live-with Miata might have redefined the small convertible sports-car market, but it didn’t kill off the eccentric little convertible with—to put it delicately—a bit more character. MGs, Triumphs, and AustinHealeys, for example, never linger long in the used-car classifieds. And sales remain steady for Alfa Romeo’s Spider.
But the choices don’t stop there. If the words “kit car” don’t frighten you, you might want to consider a Caterham Super 7, a modest-looking paradox of a car whose granny-like open fenders and upright windshield conceal some rather immodest performance.
Oldsters might remember this shape as the Colin Chapman-designed Lotus Seven, first introduced at the 1957 London Motor Show at Earl’s Court. The Seven survived sixteen years and four different iterations under Lotus’s roof. But when Chapman lost enthusiasm for smaller cars and money got tight at the Hethel factory, he sold the design of the Seven to Graham Nearn of Caterham Cars. Caterhams have been available in the U.S. since 1984, thanks to Chris Tchorznicki of Seven and Elans (of Cambridge, Massachusetts), currently the sole distributor.
If you can distinguish a flat-head screwdriver from a Phillips, Tchorznicki figures you could wrench together the Super 7 kit in about 80 hours. That time estimate would be affected by the number of options you select from a list that stretches as long as the Caterham’s shiny, louvered aluminum hood. Our loaded HPC (high-performance) test car, assembled by Tchorznicki, stickered for $30,961. That price includes a heated windscreen, a snug-fitting top with weathertight side curtains, and a heater. The last option, a recent addition to the Super 7, was a prickly job for engineers. “Moving the Caterham factory was easier,” says Tchorznicki.
Engine choice is yours, as long as it’s a Ford four-cylinder (the old Pinto/Fiesta block, with several power ratings) or a “Caterham” (meaning “Vauxhall”) sixteen-valve 2.0-liter four, either of which Tchorznicki can help you procure. “These kits have to go together a certain way,” he says, “and other engines are just too much bother.” Our test car’s engine could have been pulled straight from a Vauxhall Calibra: it came with Bosch Motronic port fuel injection and even a catalytic converter. It’s rated at 150 hp at a lively 6000 rpm.
Once you’ve settled into the driver’s seat-accomplished by a wriggling, interpretive dance—you’ll find there’s adequate fore-and-aft headroom and legroom, even if you’re over six feet. But everything else, sizewise, seems to be about seveneighths’ scale, from the Motolita steering wheel, which is eleven inches across, to the cockpit, which is just a yard wide. The view out the front is pure retro hot-rod: a little rectangular windshield frames a tapered hood with exposed headlamps and fenders on each side. This car looks like something Porky Pig might drive in a Warner Brothers cartoon.
But “porky” the Super 7 is not. With its lightweight sheet-aluminum body on a tubular steel frame, our car tipped the scales at only 1406 pounds. And, as any racer worth the grease under his fingernails knows, the lighter you get, the faster you go.
Much to our delight, this fact is lost on most stoplight challengers. Our Super 7 rips to 60 mph in a mere 4.8 seconds, leaving most other machinery for dust. One snickering jerk in a Z28 endured such embarrassment that he quit after first gear. He might have continued had he known the Caterham’s brick-like drag coefficient of 0.62, which limits its top speed to 114 mph.
The Super 7’s feathery weight make for other remarkable numbers. Stops from 70 mph are possible in only 170 feet, performance bettered only by the likes of Porsches and Corvettes with anti-lock brakes. (That stopping distance is achieved through four calipers clamping solid discs designed for—are you ready for this?—a Triumph Spitfire.) And this Super 7 rounded the skidpad at an astounding 1.02 g. A degree of credit goes to our car’s Goodyear Eagle GS-D 205/45ZR-16 tires, but that’s still a C/D record for a “streetable” car, kids—better even than the Ferrari F40.
Perhaps you’re wondering “Where’s this car been all my life?” The British press, in fact, likes to use these stupendous track numbers as evidence that the Caterham betters the world’s most notorious sport cars. But comparing this 7 with a 911 or an NSX is like pitting an Avro 504 biplane against a Northrop F-16. The Vauxhall four-cylinder buzzes as if it were bolted directly to the tube-frame (it nearly is). The little cockpit confines like a straitjacket. Even the Caterham’s sophisticated unequal-length control-arm front and de Dion rear suspension has its limitations: dive into a curve, and hit a cross-the-road rut, and the 7 reacts with a startling kachunk. Between the ka and the chunk you have no idea whether the nose, the tail, or both will lose their grip, perhaps spiriting you merrily into the nearest ditch.
The solution is to slow down. But that’s the game you have to play with cars whose punch far exceeds their refinement. There may not be a better player around: the Caterham’s steering is sharp and properly weighted. We’d be hard pressed to find a better set of non-ABS brakes. Throttle response is instantaneous, and the engine always rewards prods of the pedal with a surge in the back and a trombone-like blast from the exhaust. With the top and side curtains off, the Caterham will completely restyle your hair. Sometimes the package seems so goofy, it’s hard to stop grinning.
We called F.A.O. Schwarz, the king of toy stores, and asked if it sells Caterhams. No, we were told, but collector Miatas are selling well. Kids these days. What do they know?
A better name would be “the Bolt.” Not as in a threaded rod, but as in “to start suddenly and run away.” I thought the Vauxhall sixteen-valve four was a Ford eight. I let out the clutch, and sure enough, it bolted. Through the gears—a short-notch Ford Sierra box—there’s precious little din and clatter, surprising in a kit car. Best to drive it barefoot, as clutch, brake, and gas pedals are arranged sardine-style. Good seats, though human of copious girth won’t fit. Tough to appear stylish while getting in. Worth $30K? Who knows, but it will cream a MG TC, and must be grand on summer nights. —Steve Spence
This is a great way to blow the cobwebs out after a week of commuting. One moment you’re all jaded from sitting in a stream of zoned-out motorists, the next…zap, you’re plugged into a hi-fi roadster. The wind cascades through your hair, the wheel twitches in your hands, and the chassis feeds data from the suspension right to the seat of your pants. What’s more, the Caterham is quick. It flashes past slower cars with vivid blasts of acceleration. Expensive? Maybe. It depends on how bad you need undiluted sport driving. —Barry Winfield
Exhilarating! That’s the word that best describes the Caterham Super 7 experience. Every drive in this car is an assault on the senses, but it never failed to leave me elated and grinning like a fool. This car is driving distilled to its purest form, a 1406-pound roadster that goes like stink and corners as if it were on rails. You wear it like a driving glove, and both body and soul get a workout every moment on the road. Fair-weather car, you say? Not so—its snug-fitting top and heated windshield kept me enjoying this car even on the dreariest of days. —André Idzikowski
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