I’d already tried it once before, heading from Los Angeles to San Francisco in a tiny Lotus Seven. A 1961 Lotus Seven, to be exact. A lovely, microscopic, 53-year-old car so freshly restored that it broke down nine times (or was it 11?) on the way up. This was largely on account of the time-release failure of a radiator expansion tank weld that gradually water-wasted the distributor of my ride’s lightly massaged, pre-crossflow 1500cc Ford engine, so epically in the end that the Lotus was shooting flames from its tailpipes and twin Webers as it pulled up to die in front of my San Francisco hotel.
You’d think that experience would dissuade a guy from turning right around and doing it again, and, of course, you would be wrong. Mind you, the Lotus Seven went back East to its owner, ad man/mad man Al Navarro, months ago. But because some of us are not just dumb but stupid, too, I found myself commemorating the first anniversary of that memorably punishing trip up the California coast by agreeing to make a trip down it. This time, after August’s Pebble Beach festivities on the Monterey Peninsula in Northern California, I would be driving a direct descendant of the old-school Lotus, a freshly assembled Caterham Seven.
For no particular reason, it’s been a Seven kind of year. After my adventure with the genuine article, built in 1961, I drove one of Caterham’s new 160 models in the U.K. With steel wheels, tall tires, the narrow body option, and a 660cc, three-cylinder engine/gearbox from a Suzuki kei car, it came as close to achieving the original, Lotus Seven, ultimate minimalist ideal as modern man has come.
Caterham bought the rights to the Lotus Seven design in 1973. For years, the trend has been toward Sevens for which outrageous straight-line performance is the point, as opposed to absurdly nimble sports cars that happen to be quick off the line because they weigh nothing. A parade of ever-bigger engines, wider bodies, and wider, lower-profile tires followed, none of which, I would submit, mark improvements from a fun-to-drive perspective.
The 80-hp Caterham 160 was the perfect antidote to the hyper Sevens, with sizes ranging from the 140-hp 280, up through 360 and 480 models and a 310-hp 620. In a roughly 1200-pound car, any of these powerplants will go a long way. But contrary to what we reported in the April 2014 issue, the bottom-of-the-line 160 is no longer going to be offered here officially, by order of Suzuki, which wants to be through with the American automobile market in every way. This is deeply sad, more so because the 1.0-liter Ford turbo-three—as seen in the Fiesta and a seeming natural for Caterham deployment—is too tall to fit under the Seven’s detachable engine cover, which sits at the height of a child’s knee.
So I wanted very much to love the only moderately overpowered 360 I was offered for yet another trans-California Seven journey by Caterham’s new U.S. distributor, Superformance of Irvine, California. We’ve checked out Superformance’s work in the past—its South African-built Cobra replicas are some of the best. When they offered a drive, it was hard to say no, even with memories of a rugged Seven journey emblazoned—or, more accurately, steamed—into memory.
Caterhams arrive in the U.S. as kits, sans engines and gearboxes, bestowing them with the key kit-car exemption from federal regulations: It is this magnificent loophole—plus the age of the original design—that allows a death-mobile-sized doorstop like the Caterham Seven to be legally sold here new. Customers then install drivetrains on their own or hire a shop to do it for them. In my case, the Superformance team raced to build the red 360 kit they were bringing to Monterey—a 180-hp, naturally aspirated 2.0-liter Ford Duratec (0-60 in 4.8 seconds, they say)—in a mere two days.
Caterhams are not marketed as long-distance tourers, and highway miles promised to be taxing, but this was a new car, so at least my hopes for reliability were high. Still, my earlier experience breaking down up and down the coast suggested a convoy couldn’t hurt, so when Southern Californian Blake Rong invited me and the Caterham to fall in with him and a few other of this magazine’s friendly journalistic competitors who were riding motorcycles back to L.A.—along with their friend, Alex Roy, in his Citroën SM—I signed on. Inevitably, Roy and I barely saw the bikes; they took off whenever the RVs ran thick on California Highway 1, which is usually the case. We followed the big rigs closely and, in my case, I contemplated a lot of Citroën-Maserati exhaust.
In the end, the quick build of my $69,040 Seven may have been too quick. It arrived with dead wipers and washers and an inaccurate fuel gauge. In my short time with it, the kilometer speedo erroneously sent from England failed, and the day I returned it, the headlights went out. The De Dion rear end clunked, the transmission made some very bad noises, and the massive side exit exhaust hit some resonant frequencies that recalled Dick Cheney’s concept of enhanced interrogation. That is why I’m forced to tell the truth now: This is a great car, but it needs another thorough going-through before being sent back into combat.
Combat it is, driving something so low, so open, and so loud as a Seven down any road at highway speeds. Wind pulls the flesh from your face like you’re on a NASA rocket sled. Sunscreen can slow the inevitable burn, but it cannot stop it. And by and by, it occurred to me that the depleted-ozone, globally warm California sun was crisping me to a cinder. Time to erect one of the Caterham’s two tops. I chose the less formal partial roof that snaps on to the windscreen header and is held in place over the rollbar to the rear by two snaps and Velcro. Then I installed the Seven’s clever side curtains. Large things that open like doors, they do as good a job of keeping the wind out as they do of keeping the heat in. In these conditions: instant sweat lodge. Optional 15-inch wheels standing in for the Seven’s standard 13-inchers made for much additional, mandatory brutality.
Gazing to my right, I saw the Santa Barbara oil derricks, pumping merrily. In front of me, the Duratec four blasted away, its loud exhaust joining the staggeringly hot air and the bright sun that had only minutes before been making fry-meat of me. The top came undone, which would mean stopping and extracting myself from my four-point seat belts again. But I didn’t mind. I realized I’d been spotted a classic oil-burning moment that few will ever enjoy (and I mean that in every sense), and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Something tells me I may even do it again.