• Feature

The other Caterham

Laurence Edmondson October 2, 2013
The Caterham Seven Superlight R400 © Laurence Edmondson

Two words best sum up the Caterham Seven Superlight R400: 'Silly' and 'quick'. Or to phrase it another way, the Caterham Seven Superlight R400 is 'silly quick'. That's not meant as a criticism, it just gets to the core of what this car - and the Caterham brand - is all about.

BHP-per-tonne tends to be a good measure of quickness and this Caterham is so proud of its figure that it wears it on the badge. The R400 has a two-litre engine producing 210bhp and a lightweight body tipping the scales at 515kg. Do a little bit of rounding down and some basic maths and you arrive at the figure of 400 BHP-per-tonne (but in fact it's closer to 408). To put that into perspective, a Ferrari 458 produces 394 BHP-per-tonne and a McLaren MP4-12C weighs in at 418 BHP-per-tonne. On any scale this car is quick.

Silliness is more subjective, but when a roof and full windscreen come as optional extras you start to get some idea of what this car is all about. It is, quite simply, a racing car for the road. That makes it silly, but it also makes it a huge amount of fun.

So that's the R400 part of the name dealt with (although it should be noted that Caterham has just launched a 620R using the same nomenclature), but for Formula One fans the Caterham and Seven parts of the name should arouse more interest. As most readers will know, in 2011 F1 team owner Tony Fernandes bought the Caterham brand, re-badged his F1 cars and set about mapping out an ambitious future for the car company. Fernandes first had his eyes on Lotus, but after the well-documented naming saga a couple of years back he settled on Caterham. Today, an F1 team, a composites company, an advanced technology arm and an expanding car company are all parts of the Caterham Group.

The Seven part of the name refers to the car on which all Caterham's current road-going products are based, the Lotus Seven. Designed by one the greatest F1 engineers of all time, Colin Chapman, and first produced by Lotus in 1957, the Seven embodies Chapman's most basic philosophy: "Simplify, then add lightness". It was produced by Lotus until 1972 when Caterham bought the rights to the chassis and continued to add lightness, updated technology and, in more recent years, huge dollops of power.

The Caterham Seven R400 is capable of 0-60 in 3.8s © Laurence Edmondson

Our test car is trying especially hard to justify its Formula One heritage, with a paint job to match the CT03 F1 car and a row of gear shift-warning LEDs above the removable steering wheel. But as the tachometers and speedometers swing in front of you, the R400 feels much closer to a go-kart than anything else. It does without ABS brakes and power-assisted steering, relying on the driver to feed carefully judged inputs through the controls, which in return offer feedback of every bump, hump and ripple in the road. But the sensory experience doesn't end with just steering feedback; the complete Caterham experience includes a side-exiting exhaust bellowing in your ear, wind rearranging your hair above 30 mph and grip from the tyres wrenching your guts through fast corners. Things can quickly get out of hand, not to mention out of shape.

Yet for all its acts of hooliganism on empty B-roads and its rather anti-social exhaust note, the R400 attracts admirers everywhere it goes. Take a convertible, bright-red Ferrari through an Oxfordshire village and no matter how carefully you drive, you will inevitably get disapproving tuts from the locals. Take a British racing green Caterham through an idyllic countryside scene, and it is loved by one and all. Pottering along at 30 mph it receives knowing nods from OAPs, enthusiastic waves from young children and smiles from everyone in between. Whether those smiles remain in place as the village is exited to the sound of four cylinders at 7,000 rpm is harder to say.

But unlike the road-going offerings from Ferrari, the Caterham Seven cannot claim to have F1-derived technology. There is no paddle-shift gearbox, no carbon-ceramic brakes and no wind tunnel-honed aerodynamics. With its long bonnet extending in front of the cockpit, it feels more like a 1950s Vanwall than a modern-day F1 car. That means it's not really appropriate for the 'win on Sunday, sell on Monday' marketing spiel that manufacturers have used to justify their participation in F1 for decades.

Caterham is fully aware of this and in the future intends to play on its F1 links a lot more. The Aero Seven concept car launched at the Singapore Grand Prix last month is the first product of that new vision. It's basically what happens when F1 engineers are let loose with a Caterham Seven in a wind tunnel, but despite its divisive looks, it signifies the basis of Fernandes' vision for the future of the brand, and a brave departure from the loveable Seven of old.

The future is here: The Caterham Aero Seven concept car © Caterham

That vision is now fully focused on a joint venture with Renault to produce a brand new rear-wheel-drive sports car. Although full details of the new car have not been announced, it will be built at Renault Sport's base in France and have a near-identical sister car sold under the Renault-owned Alpine brand. But while the Seven is, and will continue to be, sold to its own niche of enthusiasts, the new project is targeting the likes of Porsche in the super-competitive mainstream sports car market. The September issue of Evo magazine reported that Lotus, another future rival, had sold just 17 Elises and 11 Evoras in Europe since the start of the year - a horrifying statistic for anyone embarking on a new 'affordable' sports car project. But Fernandes has brushed aside such concerns and made clear that he sees Asia as Caterham's "playground" for the future, and the F1 team as the marketing tool for the brand worldwide.

According to Fernandes the new car will "showcase all the Caterham magic and take our DNA of accessible fun to more people than ever before". Essentially, the hope is that some of the Seven magic described above will rub off on the new car, while it still has mod-cons such as air conditioning and ... a roof. But that's where it becomes tricky. The beautiful simplicity of the Seven will inevitably be lost in future models, especially with plans for a sports utility vehicle and city car in the pipeline, and unless it is very carefully managed, the Caterham brand could lose its charm.

After 40 years of building cars aimed at nothing more than fun and frolics, Caterham is on the brink of going mainstream. Whether it will be a success or not only time and investment will tell, but it's fair to say that while new Caterham models may well be quick it's unlikely they'll be silly-quick. Fortunately, for the petrolheads among us, there are no plans to ditch the Seven.