My girlfriend is accustomed to having exotic and obscure cars materialize in our driveway. But she doesn't know what to make of the tiny, impossibly low-slung kazoo-on-wheels that thunders to a stop in front of our house and improbably disgorges not one but two full-size human beings. "It looks," she says uncertainly, "like a toy."
Caterham Cars technical director Jez Coates thinks this over while stretching his limbs after two hours of slogging through rush-hour traffic. "Actually," he says, "it is."
The Caterham CSR260-the first of the new CSRs to arrive in the States-is a roadworthy plaything designed for the sole purpose of making even the most ham-fisted driver feel like two-time world champion driver Jimmy Clark. As such, it's the latest and greatest iteration of the bare-bones Lotus Seven conceived in 1957 by Clark's mentor, Colin Chapman. With 260 hp conveying a scant 1315 pounds, the CSR reportedly scats from 0 to 60 mph in a mere 3.1 seconds. And that, Coates tells me, handing me the keys, is where the fun begins.
With the spindly top laboriously unsnapped and stowed in the trunk, I climb-literally-into the confining cockpit with straight legs splayed on either side of the Momo steering wheel and lever myself carefully into the seat. Sighting down the long, louvered hood-painted in a rich French blue, with a headlight orb adorning each aluminum flank and otherwise open wheels dressed with cycle fenders-I find myself thinking that this is the modern British take on the classic Bugatti Type 35. Part thoroughbred racer, part sports car, and all engineering marvel, the Bugatti set the standard for dual-purpose design. How, I wonder, will the CSR260 measure up against that lofty yardstick?
I crank the ignition and whack the throttle, and the Cosworth-tuned engine-a 2.3-liter Ford Duratec in-line four-sends a full-throated bellow out the side pipe. "It's all warmed up, so you can give it the full chocolates," Coates tells me. I'm not sure what that means, but I suspect it's an invitation to dump the racing-style clutch and indulge my heretofore sublimated Nigel Mansell fantasies.
Although 200 lb-ft of torque may not sound like much, the Caterham has so little mass to accelerate that it goes from parked to hyperspace in a heartbeat. The engine pulls belligerently from 3000 rpm, enabling the car to scoot around town like an overgrown go-kart. At five grand, the engine note intensifies from a satisfying growl to a serious shriek. By the time I trip the rev limiter at 7800 rpm in second gear, I'm obliterating the speed limit. The top of third, meanwhile, puts me into go-directly-to-jail territory. In the interest of driver's license preservation, I point the nose north and head for Willow Springs International Raceway, billed as "The Fastest Road in the West."
During the '50s and '60s, Southern California was the epicenter of the American road-racing scene. Riverside International Raceway was the nation's first great purpose-built road course, and there were big-time races on temporary circuits in Palm Springs, Pomona, Santa Barbara, Torrey Pines, Del Mar, the parking lot of Dodger Stadium, and even Paramount Ranch, recognizable as the cinematic backdrop for countless Western movies. Back in those days, it wasn't uncommon for guys to drive cars such as the Lotus Seven to these tracks, race them for a weekend and-with any luck-drive them back home again.
"In those days, we raced the cars pretty much unmodified," says SCCA stalwart Andy Porterfield, the last survivor of the four drivers who competed in the first race at Riverside in 1957 and the final one in 1988. "My first race was at Santa Barbara in a '57 Corvette, and it was completely stock except that I took off the windshield and bought a set of Firestone 170T race tires. As I recall, I ran against 300SL Mercedes-Benzes, XK120 Jags, Corvettes, and even a couple of T-Birds."
Urban sprawl and insurance liability have long since killed off most of the SoCal circuits. Today, Willow Springs, located in the Mojave Desert north of Los Angeles, is the only one of the old tracks that's still around. It opened in 1953, just as Colin Chapman was creating his first production car in a London suburb. Four years later, the so-called Lotus Mark VI morphed into the giant-killer that we now know as the Lotus Seven, and, one way or another, it's been in production ever since.
Like Enzo Ferrari, Chapman never had much time for street cars. But even though he treated the Lotus Seven like an unwanted stepchild, others fell in love with the ugly duckling. Future Sebring winner John Morton bought a hot-rod Super Seven with twin Weber carburetors in 1963 for $3265, drove it to Riverside to watch the inaugural Motor Trend 500 stock-car race, then entered it in his first road race at Pomona. "Of all the fabulous cars that I've raced, that's the only one I think I'd really like to own," Morton says. "It's not too practical here in L.A., but there was just something about it. It felt like a race car is supposed to feel."
In 1973, after many unfulfilled threats to discontinue production, Chapman sold the rights to the Lotus Seven to Graham Nearn, the founder of Caterham Cars. Since then, Caterham has sold nearly 12,000 versions of the Seven. Lotus, by contrast, built only 2682. (Also, Coates says, some two dozen manufacturers have fashioned unauthorized knockoffs.) The current cars don't feature a single Lotus component. Yet the heritage of the Caterham is obvious at a single glance.
Caterham builds 500 cars a year, and thirty to fifty make it to the States in left-hand-drive form. Customers can choose from three chassis: the entry-level Series 3 faithfully replicates the dimensions of the Lotus Seven; the SV is 4.3 inches wider and 3.2 inches longer; and the CSR is a beefed-up SV. Each chassis can be customized with a mind-boggling array of options. Further complicating matters, cars are also sold in kit form and as racing models.
For legal reasons, all Caterhams are imported to the United States in pieces, and the car and the engine must be bought separately. As a practical matter, you can have your components assembled by a dealer or by Caterham USA (or a local shop) for $3000 to $4000. Do-it-yourselfers should plan on spending between 40 and 100 hours screwing one together. For the record, our test car ground to a halt with a broken differential on day two of our test, but we were assured-and we believe-that this was an anomaly.
Caterham created the CSR as a top-of-the-line model to showcase state-of-the-art, race-inspired technology. This meant leveraging the engineering expertise of partners such as AP Racing, which provided the brakes, and Avon, which produced bespoke tires. The most recognizable collaborator, though, is the one whose name is stamped on the carbon-fiber cam cover.
Cosworth started with the same Ford Ranger block and Ford Focus head found in the Duratecs powering the latest generation of Formula Atlantic cars. Fittingly, the Caterham engine features plenty of motorsports goodies-forged rods and pistons; a dry sump lubrication system; high-lift, high-duration cams; rotary throttles; a tuned, stainless-steel exhaust manifold; and so on. With a 12:1 compression ratio, the engine makes a whopping 113 hp per liter.
To corral all these horses, Caterham doubled the stiffness of the traditional spaceframe by adding 100 chassis tubes. And to take advantage of this torsional rigidity, the company developed an unequal-length control-arm rear suspension-the first independent rear end in Caterham history. At the front, the existing control-arm suspension was retained, but a pushrod was added and the dampers were mounted inboard to minimize unsprung weight and clean up the aerodynamics. Front-end lift and drag were further reduced by reprofiling the nose and cycle fenders as well as adding a splitter and carbon-fiber winglets. The car still has the aero qualities of a two-by-four, but it'll now reach a top speed of 155 mph.
Of course, this isn't much by supercar standards. But the CSR can do things that most supercars can't, no matter how expensive or fast they are. Put a Ferrari production car on a race circuit and it feels significantly less capable than even a crude race car. But Caterham earns one-quarter of its revenue from motorsports, and many of the cars that aren't raced, per se, are track-day regulars. So we figured the CSR would "do the business" at Willow Springs, as the Brits like to say. And we were right.
The Caterham is the purest and most honest street car I've ever driven. Period. No power steering. No power brakes. No drive-by-wire. Just a direct connection between you and the contact patch. The responses to steering, throttle, brake, and gearshift inputs are so nearly instantaneous that they verge on the telepathic. And I can see exactly what's happening, at least at the front end of the car, as the wheels turn and judder.
The Caterham is so brutally quick that it takes a few minutes before I can keep my foot planted on the gas pedal long enough to wind out the Cossie to redline. At 7500 rpm in fourth gear, the combination of wind howl, induction hiss, exhaust snarl, and adrenaline rush creates an intoxicating testosterone cocktail. And when I lift the throttle to snatch fifth, the momentary silence is punctuated by a staccato bark-engine overrun and the rotary throttle snapping shut-that's almost loud enough to pass for artillery fire.
But the aural delights of the Caterham are merely icing on the cake. The real selling point of the CSR is formula car-style performance. Old-school formula-car performance, that is: No ground effects on this baby, just oodles of tire grip, which translates into the kind of cornering any enthusiast can enjoy.
The handling is balanced and vice-free, so you can provoke understeer or oversteer as circumstances warrant. All things being equal, we'll take oversteer, thank you. With such wide, sticky rear tires (9 x 15 inches, compared with 6.5 x 15 inches at the front), the tail is easily controlled with judicious applications of steering and throttle. The car reminds me of a shifter kart, except that it doesn't beat me up. It's remarkably compliant, in fact, and this lack of race-car stiffness is a major reason why it's so forgiving.
I leave Willow Springs with a giant smile on my face. Sadly, it's dissolved into a grimace by the time I reach Riverside, two hours south. To my dismay, I discover that the last vestiges of Riverside International Raceway have recently been graded into oblivion during the construction of a shopping mall. But the really bad news is that I've now got to fold my aching body back into the Caterham for another hour on the interstate.
The CSR isn't built for long-distance highway travel. Although the ride quality falls short of punishing, I'd strongly discourage using the car for emergency surgery. The otherwise comfy seats move fore and aft, but the rake is fixed, which can be-and was for me-a real pain. Speaking of driver discomforts, there's no dead pedal for your left foot, and your right thigh gets a good grilling from the aluminum transmission tunnel. The snap-shut side curtains can't be raised or lowered like conventional windows, so you're either freezing or sweltering.
Sweat is streaming down my chest by the time I hit Palm Springs. Mind you, the Caterham is perfectly content in traffic as long as you don't mind your nose being at the same level as the lug nuts of passing eighteen-wheelers. (Integrated roll bar notwithstanding, it's best not to think about the consequences of any accidents.) But while wearing the four-point harness, I can't wriggle out of the sweater and overcoat I'd donned earlier during the colder part of the trip. Hence the internal heat wave.
There's no radio, of course, or air-conditioning. The turn signals are operated with a toggle switch on the minimalist dash. (For conventional steering-column stalks, choose the optional interior package.) The CSR260 will run you about $67,000. Caterham USA plans to start offering cars with detuned Duratecs for about half that price. Still, I'm starting to think that this is an awful lot of money to spend on a car that's so thoroughly unsuited to the exigencies of everyday transportation.
Then again, the Caterham would have been par for the course back in the '50s, when virtually every big name in American road racing competed at Palm Springs. The program for the March 1955 races includes a rookie listed as "Dean, Jas." entered in a Porsche. In one respect, the racetrack is still there: Races were contested on a circuit cobbled together from runways and taxiways at the local airport. But aside from a short stretch of pavement just south of there, I can't find any signs of the original racecourse.
Fortunately, Palm Springs still has one treasure to offer road-racing fans-Highway 74, a twisty up-and-down two-lane featuring spectacular vistas and challenging corners in equal measure. I experiment briefly with ditching the side curtains. Not a good idea: The turbulence is so fierce that I can hardly breathe. But with the side curtains back in place, the Caterham is nothing short of spectacular. It carves around hairpins, blasts through sweepers, and gobbles up straightaways, always feeling perfectly planted and making the exhilarating noises you expect from a racing car.
And that, in the end, is the most impressive feature of the CSR: It makes you feel like a hero even if you're just a wanker. The beauty of the car is that you can sneak up on its prodigious limits without scaring yourself silly, which is something you can't say about most supercars. Sure, a Z06 has a higher top speed, but going ten-tenths in one isn't a job for the faint-hearted. The Caterham, by way of contrast, isn't always threatening to kill you, and long before you're on the verge of wrecking it, you can sense the chassis politely suggesting that you slow down and start behaving yourself.
Bottom line? The CSR260 isn't a car for going from point A to point B unless one of them is a racetrack. But if you're looking for something that will reconnect you to the visceral thrill of spirited motoring, whether on two-lane twisties or during a track day event, then life doesn't get any better than being in the cramped cockpit of a Caterham.