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."