Like the ultraviolent teenager Alex in Stanley Kubrick’s vision of the future, this Caterham Superlight has the raw appeal of the aggressive British antihero with the agility of a Manx cat.
Many ec readers will be familiar with the Caterham. Colin Chapman’s philosophy of subtracting weight to add power has been faithfully continued by the company that took over Lotus’ reins years ago.
While the original svelte roadster had questionable looks at best, the newer version, like the one pictured here, cleans up well with slightly less boxy lines and carbon-fiber front cycle wings as opposed to the duck bill style of the earlier versions.
This particular model is a Superlight R400, and it has more than a few items and upgrades that set it apart from the standard Caterham. For starters, the rollbar that sticks up just above head level is a sign that this Caterham is meant to see some track time. In fact, it’s been said that on any given weekend the bug-eyed British roadster is the most often raced car in the world.
Snoop around the black powdercoated interior a bit more and you come across a few aesthetic additions like the carbon-fiber dash and the aluminum handbrake lever, as well as adjustable leather seats. But underneath those seats is where the fashionable additions end and the functional ones begin. For one, there is a heater to keep your bottom toasty on those nippy jaunts through the English countryside or through the Hawk’s Nest near New York, which is where this car resides now. The current owner had it built in Colorado before shipping it out east. Which is when we had a chance to put this particular model through its paces, but more on that later. The floors have been lowered on both sides to make even more room for the six-foot-tall owner, as the frame is an increased dimension chassis. Last but not least, there is a pushbutton starter. Depressing this button not only makes you feel like James Bond, but more importantly fires up the surprisingly ferocious-sounding motor. Surprising because it’s a mere two-liter.
Of course when the entire car weighs close to 1200 pounds, about a quarter the weight of an American behemoth like the new Camaro, one can afford to run a two-liter, especially when it makes close to 100 hp per liter.
At around $3,000, the motor is actually one of the least expensive parts of the Caterham package. Purchased through Ford, the Duratec motor is both cheap and plentiful, especially compared to the $50,000 it costs for the rest of the base kit. Actually, in this case, the entire kit came closer to $65,000 with the various aforementioned extras like the rollbar and others, such as the engine upgrade kit. This includes larger fuel injectors, a reprogrammed ECU and roller barrel throttle bodies. These trick components allow for the fuel-injected motor to behave like a carbureted one by rolling open a port that literally dumps fuel into the combustion chamber, and Ka-Blam! The heat is on. While these upgrades increased horsepower from 210 to a claimed 220, the other engine upgrade available is the dry-sump system. This helps the motor cope with the extra power but more importantly keeps it lubed while the Caterham is attaining the g’s it can while it’s in the corners. And when you’re driving this car you want to go through those as often as possible. Program my GPS to roundabouts, please.
Sprung on a Superlight’s suspension, the underpinnings are comprised of wide-track front wishbones and adjustable spring platforms and a Watts linkage rear suspension, as well as an uprated rear antiroll bar working in conjunction with the rest of the DeDion rear suspension. This hybrid of an IRS and a solid rear axle suspension has been the choice for the Caterham for years, and it works like magic in tandem with the limited-slip differential. I know, I got to cane it. But before I caned it, I built it. Well, I did so with a lot of help from the tech at Caterham USA, the American importer located in Denver, Colo, that happens to be about a mile from my house. The garage where the cars get received is in a sort of rough area in Denver. This adds to the mystique in a way. Once we found the faceless operation we went inside where our project car lied waiting in a crate. We pried it open and looked inside like a scene out of Indiana Jones. There was an amalgam of parts along with the Caterham orange body with black racing stripes. After retrieving everything from the crate, we put the body on jack stands and laid the parts out in their respective area then got to work on the suspension. The attachment of the front wishbones was fairly straightforward as was the rear, especially with two people. It’s always nice to have someone to guide your bolts into the holes.
The trickiest part of the build (besides the wiring, which was done by Caterham’s tech) may have been the installation of the Caterham six-speed transmission. The 7000 CSR six-speed is like Amy Winehouse at church, it doesn’t fit in so well at first. The motor, on the other hand, bolted right in, and after a few more steps, like installing the seats and mounting up the 15-inch Motorsport wheels shod with Avon CR500 tires, the little roadster was ready for it’s shakedown run.
It was with much anticipation that I awaited the end of this. I spent years in England gazing at Caterhams and Lotuses and wondering how they performed. I also remember staring transfixed at one I would always see parked on the streets of SoHo and wonder how on earth they could be so ugly. The raised headlights make it look like a frog being squeezed by a cruel child. The newer version still has those raised headlights for obvious legal reasons, but I have to admit they’ve gotten a lot more attractive.
Ingress into the cockpit is not such a bad ordeal with the rollbar to assist, and the cabin seems to have ample legroom, even for my 6’3” frame. I turn on the ignition switch and push the James Bond button. Contained explosions and organized mechanical chaos fills the garage with the lively growl of the Duratec. Filling the Caterham with petrol for the upcoming drive proved a bit tricky. There seemed to be a few problems with the Aero filler cap accepting the nozzle. But after some patient pumping, (insert premature ejaculation joke here) we got on our way to the hills.
Just outside of Denver there is an eclectic selection of twisty mountain roads for which the Caterham seems to be built specifically for. Of course, to access these lovely twisties you’ve got to get on the highway and get out of town. I shift up from Second to Third at about 3,000 rpm and the Caterham positively eats the on-ramp alive. Hill climb events have often been won by lighter cars. I could see why as I snicked up through the close-ratio gearbox onto Sixth Ave. and toward the twisties. The sensation of having my ass inches above the tarmac is an odd one as I approach the first phase of Evergreen Canyon. As I turn in I nearly cross over the side of the road. The steering is that responsive. All you have to do is think about it and the car turns. After getting used to the feel of the driving position and turn-in response I decide to really dig in on a couple of corners. The rear end gets loose, as I expected it might, but controlling the drift is amazingly easy, with the tractable powerband and limited-slip you can throttle steer at almost any speed.
Long story short, the Caterham is everything and more than I thought it would be when I first laid eyes on one with awe on that day in SoHo. And the fact that the importer is right down the street from me is sign from above that I must purchase one.
2011 Caterham 7 Superlight R400
Longitudinal front-mounted, rear-wheel drive
2-liter I4, dohc, 16-valve; dry-sump lubrication w/ external oil reservoir, Ford Motorsport injectors, Roller-barrel throttle body, reprogrammed ECU
7000 CSR 6-speed modified to fit engine bellhousing
Double wishbone (f), DeDion with Watts linkage(r), antiroll bar (r)
Ventilated front discs, four-piston calipers
Wheels and Tires
6.5x15 aluminum Motorsport wheels Avon CR500 195/45
Peak Power: 220 hp @ 7600 rpm
Peak Torque: 150 lb-ft @ 6300 rpm
0-60 mph: 3.8 sec.
Top speed: 140 mph