When you think about cars with a 1.4, or 1.6 litre engine, the word ‘quick’ is usually the last word to come to mind. But when that engine goes into a car that weighs less than the Wallabies tight five, you’ve got a formidable weapon at your disposal, a car that delivers one of the most enjoyable driving experiences available to motoring enthusiasts today.
Manufacturers of performance cars are constantly looking for ways to reduce weight, from carbon tubs and components in top flight supercars, to aluminium bodies on family Four Wheel drives. In Caterham’s case, and that of the Lotus 7 (the car it’s based off), the entire concept revolves around exactly that, weight – or lack thereof. Like all manufacturers, Caterham offer many variations in engine size, propelling the cars to 100km/h faster and faster, but bigger isn’t necessarily better.
I’d previously dreamt of driving a Caterham since my high school days, originally introduced by a fanatical friend who’d always discussed buying a Caterham kit and building it from scratch. I couldn’t tell you how many hours we spent sitting in class talking about it – naturally Nick was the first person I contacted when Caterham had confirmed my day with the 270S.
The Caterham story starts with Lotus founder Colin Chapman, who launched a radical new open-top lightweight sports car called the Lotus 7, at the London Motor Show in 1957. With an affordable price tag, and racing like performance, it was an instant hit. In 1959 Graham Nearn’s Caterham Car Services was appointed dealer duties, and Nearn went on to sell variations of the vehicle until 1973 when Lotus announced they would cease production. That same year Nearn purchased the rights to continue producing the car under the Caterham brand name, offering the first build your own kit in 1984 (which they still offer buyers today).
Unfortunately my itinerary didn’t allow time for assembly of my own vehicle, so my arrival at the showroom in Crawley was greeted with a set of Caterham 270S keys instead. After a quick look around the space, which houses a huge selection of pre-owned and new Caterham cars, my companion and I were given a quick brief about Caterham’s new ‘lightweight sportscar for all conditions’ before setting off for Brighton, via some of West Sussex’s picturesque country roads.
Everything about the Caterham experience is raw, from the car itself, to the way it drives. With the roof stashed in the somewhat usable boot space behind the seats, climbing into the drivers seat is a fine art. When the roof is up, climbing in is comical, requiring Catherine Zeta-Jones like agility from the movie Entrapment.
Once your settled in, it’s best if you lean forward and allow your passenger to fetch your seat belt and lock your door, which reassuredly comes in the form of a button that clips into place. Once you’ve found the barrel for the handsome key, dealt with the engine immobiliser, struggled to slide said key in, and brought the engine to life, you’ve almost certainly broken a sweat.
Only once you’ve released the clutch to a point that stalls the engine do you recall the word’s, “Give it some serious revs”, and “you’ll probably stall it once”. But like all things in life, the best way to learn is from making mistakes, and as I put the little 270S into the first roundabout, and shifted from second into third as I took my exit, the huge grin hit me, instantly.
And that was it, I was obsessed. Gripping a tiny unaided Momo steering wheel, shooting down the M23 motorway and into the narrow country lanes, feeling every single jitter on the road’s surface, actually using my arms to move the wheel, hearing the clutch tap the aluminium in the footwell every time I changed gear, directing the stick between gears like Paul Walker in his Supra in Fast and The Furious. All I could think about (between hysterical periods of laughter) was, how on earth did BMW score the tagline, ‘Sheer Driving Pleasure’? The Caterham redefines that phrase, and then some.
Stop and imagine for a moment, a chassis made of inch wide hollow aluminium, housing a 1.6 litre Ford Sigma engine, two seats, a steering wheel and some legally required mirrors and other stuff. I wasn’t show bagging when I referenced the Wallabies tight five, in fact the Caterham 270S weighs less, 540kg compared to 572kg, light enough to get the car to 100km/h in 5.0 secs flat – although it feels much faster.
And it’s that word ‘feeling’, that defines the experience. It isn’t that quick, not when compared to some of the cars I’ve driven in the past. But after getting to know the car, and its lack of driver aids, applying the brakes and throwing it into a corner, whilst keeping it on the limit, before finding the next gear and exploding out the other side, is one of the most sensational driving experiences I’ve had since I began writing about cars. It’s so pure, so involved.
Sure it’s a logistical nightmare at the best of times, but that’s part of the charm, and perfectly acceptable for a car you’ll probably only drive once a week (if you’re lucky). The Caterham 270S isn’t without its mod cons though, sporting an optional Limited Slip Differential, small heater fan under the dash, and an all weather roof that certainly exceeded my expectations. Those looking for a slightly more track orientated version might be swayed by the 270R which gets (along with a price increase) sports suspension, a four-point race harness and many other race-orientated upgrades.
I’m not going to pretend reverse parking it is fun, or that manoeuvring it around tight city streets doesn’t require some additional consideration, but once you’ve climbed out, looked back in admiration, and heard your female passenger (and every passer by) marvel at it, you’ve completely forgotten about its imperfections. They just don’t matter, because the Caterham delivers as much driving pleasure as any top flight supercar I’ve driven, perhaps more.
It also gets as much attention.
Check out the full line up at Caterham’s website.