Over the years I have been lucky enough to drive all sorts of cars and the main thing I have noticed is how over time, everything has got a bit softer. Another problem I have noticed is the amount of tech that goes into modern cars, it’s all a bit overly complicated and a lot of the time, unnecessary. A prime example of this is the new dual touchscreen setups in Land Rovers – they look great but are a pig to navigate when you’re driving and as a result, I just don’t see how they can be safer than good old-fashioned knobs and switches. One manufacturer, however, has been making pretty much the same cars for 45 years without the need to fill them with gadgets and screens as time rolls on. That company is Caterham.
Originally launched in 1973, the Caterham 7 has remained pretty true to its routes for over 4 decades with very few changes to the original design other than engine changes, suspension upgrades and the odd touch here and there and as a result, they have earned the title of a driving enthusiast icon. The ingredients for a Caterham 7 are very simple – a lightweight aluminium body, an engine at the front, 2 seats and rear-wheel-drive. That is literally it. No power steering, no ABS, no traction control, not even a radio. The purest driving experience you can get on the public road.
Now, before I go any further, I must confess that the car I have been driving isn’t exactly the most hardcore of Caterhams, it is the 310S model with the SV pack. The “S” basically means it’s set up more for road use than track and even comes with a heater and 12v socket along with “comfy” leather seats and a couple of other little touches like a fully carpeted interior. The “SV” is the wider bodied kit that also features lower seats to accommodate larger and taller occupants, perfect for me as I would definitely struggle with the smaller standard model.
The drama and pantomime with the Seven really does start when you try and gracefully get in – due to its tub body and snug interior, there really is no delicate way to get in or out, you need to contort your body like a Russian gymnast and feed yourself through the gap like a postcard – I would say it gets easier the more times you do it, but after 3 days of getting in and out of the car, it didn’t get much easier. It’s all trivial though, as from the minute you are in and buckled up, you feel like you’re in a proper little race car. In front of you is this tiny Momo steering wheel surrounded by some old-school toggle switches and button and your left-hand falls perfectly where the gearstick is. You can tell that this car was designed and built to be driven properly.
As mentioned before, the car I had was a Seven 310S which loosely means the 1.6 Ford Sigma engine produces around 310 bhp per tonne, but this is to be understood with a pinch of salt as the SV kit means the car weighs a bit more than the standard model at around 565 kilos. Either way, it’s more than enough power for a car that weighs so little. The 310S sits in the middle of the Caterham range with cars like the 160 and 270 sitting below and then the 360, 420 and the utterly insane 620 above. For a first Caterham, I was more than happy with the 310 as it offered the best blend of driveability and performance.
On the road, the Caterham is unlike any other car I’ve driven before. The lower seat position in the SV means you’re literally hovering over the roads surface, and this mixed with the Bilstein suspension setup means you can feel every little pebble and crack. I had the pleasure of driving all the way from Crawley back to my house in Cambridgeshire for my first ever drive in the Seven, so I had plenty of time behind the wheel to see what it was like on longer motorway drives and to be honest, it was a bit exhausting. Due to the temporary nature of the doors, visibility in the wing mirrors is pretty much nil and after a 2-hour stint, the constant vibrations start to affect your hands.
Once you’re back in the countryside, it all changes and all of a sudden the little 310S comes into its own! 0-62mph take a smidge under 5 seconds but it feels much quicker. The 1.6 Ford Sigma lump pulls well and you feel like the car will just keep on accelerating. The gear changes are so short and tight, like loading a cartridge into a 50-cal rifle and the analogue steering means you feel totally connected to the wheels. The slightest movement of the wheel and the car darts in a different direction. It handles like a gnat on the Avon tyres.
Going from any modern “normal” car to a Caterham is a bit like switching your MacBook for a typewriter, everything is heavier and there is no backspace to save you if you don’t pay attention to what you’re doing but at the end, the result is a lot more satisfying and you can rest easy knowing it was all done by you with no spell-checker style driver aids. There may be a complete lack of technology and other mod-cons in the little Caterham, but that just makes it so much more appealing. Driving the 310S is such a visceral experience that very few other cars out there can match, you have so much input and feel, it’s refreshing in a strange way.
I am not going to recommend the 310S as a car for everyone, or a car you can drive every day – I know there are people out there who do and I doff my cap to you all – but for me, it is perfectly suited for those who want to remind themselves what driving is really about on a decent technical circuit in one of the best proper, unadulterated driver’s cars on the market. I feel I may have caught the bug a bit with little rocket as I now really, really want one!
For more information on all of the Caterham range, please visit http://uk.caterhamcars.com/ who I’d also like to thank for opening my eyes to this great car.