Sixty years ago this year was born the Lotus Seven, the first hit of Colin Chapman. So the following should logically be a historical article, a retro essay full of black and white photos and shedding a tear on the great air of “it was better before.” Except not at all. This is indeed a test report of a car manufactured and sold in 2017, even if the first, and even the second glance give to think otherwise. Attention, a temporal paradox in approach with the Caterham Seven Sprint.
Caterham, after his current owner Tony Fernandes grew bored and turned his attention to another branch of his empire, leaving his acquisition in a small, pimping factory in Crawley, he refocused on his mission on this earth which is to perpetuate in its original purity the Chapmanien Gospel of the Light is Right. Caterham has always done, and continues to do, ranges and Impros on the Lotus became Caterham Seven, of which Graham Nearn, the founder of the brand, redeemed the license to Chapman in 1973 after having deployed persuasive treasures to obtain it from the latter.
Nearn’s intuition was that the Seven, even after Lotus had decided to abandon it due to the lack of success of the Series 4, still had some good years in the wheels. A great intuition. Whether in the form of car kit or all made, the Seven, without fundamental modification, continued to find its audience year after year, century after century itself, and Caterham, in full form, has just achieved its best production figure for twenty years.
The great novelty of recent years, apart from the escalation of the killer’s supercar that is the 500 then 620 R, is the placing on the market of the smallest Seven since the Sixties, the 160 (or 165 according to the countries). Inspired by a proposal from its importer in Japan, a major market for the little English, Caterham decided to reverse the race to power and graft a tiny motor into the car. Since it was from Japan that came to the idea and the first works, it is three cylinders 660 cm3 turbo Suzuki that was chosen. The K6A has been propelling dozens of Suzuki models for twenty years, including the Jimny currently, and is under millions of hoods throughout Asia and especially in Japan. Doped by a reprogramming of the ECU to give it a little more pep, the engine proved to make the pair perfectly with the ultra-light chassis and the 160 was received enthusiastically by the enthusiasts. Its price – relatively – content makes it a perfect introduction to the universe of the Seven, its feather weight and bird’s appetite perfectly fit it into the air of time. In short, it is a success.
When we were talking about celebrating the sixty years of the Seven, it is logically about the 160 that turned Caterham, with there still a great idea: to go back in time and produce a Seven thought in the way of the sixties, called Sprint, of the name of a model predicted by Lotus at the time but never produced. Sixty copies for Europe, sixty for Japan, numbered for a collector series.
We had the opportunity to try at the beginning of the year the copy hit number 1 on 60, in fact the pre-production car which acts as a press car at Caterham Japan, in an afternoon in the shoes of the Hakone Turnpike, which has become the Mazda Turnpike since last year, the ideal place to enjoy the qualities of the Seven, as indeed of any car a little athletic.
No neo-retro, homage or evocation here, Caterham did not embarrass himself of these false modesties of designer and directly resumed without more ways the plans produced in the Sixties. So much so that at a recent gathering of historical events to which we lend a hand, while the all-new Seven Sprint was next to an authentic Series 2 of 1961, we really had to concentrate to find the differences. The Sprint abandons the minimalist front fenders of the current Seven for the benefit of the large wings and receives a rear-mounted spare wheel.
Caterham is not known for his obsession with detail but has been violent with this car: a white stripe runs along the wings and decorates the hood, the lights are round and circled of chromium. The Sprint even rehabilitates the hubcap, an unloved piece synonymous with our days of plastic and radiant finish, since the small wheels in a sheet of the 160, painted in off-white, are covered with superb polished caps stamped with the brand logo. The final touch is the elegant Sprint lettering on the back panel and discreet Union jacks on the flanks. The final result will not be next to an MG TC or a Triumph TR3.
Let’s not forget the beautiful green water tint described under the name Camberwick Green in the catalog, a facetious alluded to a famous television series for children of the sixties and a surname that smells good tweed, late afternoon tea, scones and cucumber sandwiches. It’s perfect, really.
And the show continues in the cockpit (one dares to speak of the interior for a car that really does not like without its hood) all in red. Again, the usual minimum service gives way to a very cozy atmosphere, with symbol seats, Capitan, the Smiths circled meters of chrome on the dashboard and a splendid motorcycle-Lita wheel with the wooden hoop. A numbered plaque points out that one is a member of a very small club. Only wrong note, the nasty generic bar of switches straight out of the catalog of some large Euro-compact series and that does a little bit of work in the center of the dashboard.
Paradoxically, these sadly banal switches are a salutary reminder of what we are missing when we are in the Sprint. Fortunately the switches around the steering wheel, for the lights and the flashing, are pretty metal zippers fittings with the rest of the scene that one has before the eyes. On the other hand, the shrill beep of the flashing, directly grafted from some Taiwanese scooter, already suffered in other Seven, is all the more and in this exquisite setting.
In parentheses, it is not to say but why on earth did we abandon in our modern cars the elegant simplicity of these panels filled with dials, as out of a watchmaking shop, to replace them with these plastic seas more or less hard to unnecessarily intricate drawing and to the cold digital glows?
At the “We are not at Bentley” radius, the welding of the transmission tunnel close to the short polished speed lever is very, uh, crafty. Likewise, the padded liner of the transmission tunnel between the seats is decidedly not attached to its pressure button.
Then we could try, without great conviction, to invoke the usual excuse of the pre-production for these small imperfections, but the truth is that it is not very important at the bottom, even if it emerges more in this car than in the usual Seven, very few worn by nature on the material happiness. And anyway, once descended into the driver’s seat, one can only succumb to the enchantment that distills this delightfully dated ambiance.
For once the Sprint escapes the nomenclature drawn from the weight/power ratio that floors the rest of the range, but under the specific term, this is indeed a 160. Recall the principle of the figure of which Caterham designates its cars: it is the Power reported to the ton. 160, therefore, means, knowing that the car weighs 500 kg to make it simple – in fact a little less than that – that it has 80 horses, pulled without too much difficulty from the small three Suzuki cylinders of 660 cm3 out of a turbo. A two-digit power, so.
It doesn’t look like anything on paper, but in reality, it starts to grow nicely in this feathered weight box. 6.5 seconds from 0 to 100 km/h, it allows putting the ideas in place to the SUV “sportsman” of the next line that fleeced high what he thought was an old English asthmatic. Sayonara, sir! Especially since the floor of the box borrowed from the Jimny is short, very short, and that with the extra torque of the turbo the car does not get prayed to distally as soon as one pushes the pedal.
The net result is that we have fun with the chip, as we can do with the other models in the range (let’s put aside the 620 R which instead generates what is close to pure terror, but that’s another story). One will never say enough all the good that it would take from the small Suzuki engines to ride in the towers, a perfect illustration of the expression drawn from the popular wisdom that compares the small nervous and the big sloths.
The Seven Sprint is therefore well worth his surname. But there is a slight but. Caterham is sorely lacking in Acousticians and the Suzuki block does not sing like a Ford Kent period Summer of Love. He whistles at the acceleration and pochette cheerfully at the foot lift, as the modern turbo he is, but this soundtrack goes to the Sprint as a featuring Kyary Pamyu Pamyu in the middle of a single of The Kinks. It may have its charm taken separately, but somewhere CA is not fitting.
Obviously, one can get away with some simple manipulations on the lateral exhaust that the moral and the Marechaussee reprove but that the man of Caterham, who has the wide mind, does not discourage and even offers under the counter with a wink, to make the three cylinders more vocal. It will be necessary to go with caution, however, in order not to fall into the fault of taste, this car also does not have a head to spit the decibels Boso zo Ku, a question of ambiance.
A word about consumption. We would be well unable to give you a figure given that the fuel gauge, as for all the Seven we have experienced and it starts to make a significant sample, behaves in a way quite fanciful. But the disappointed mine of the attendant who, after much effort to painfully fill the pinhole that acts as an orifice of the reservoir – with a nice hinged cap for the Sprint – confirms what the elementary physics explains: 490 kilos moved by 660 cm3, it can not consume much, except to be at the cleat permanently, and again. One can therefore calmly mind postponing the fuel budget of the car on its own at the evenings at the pub. This is non-punitive ecology!
On the road
One knows well the special character of the Seven on the road: the enjoyment without filter, in direct connection with the bitumen, without an electronic nanny, a valuable experience that tends to illuminate the day as soon as we do more than fifty meters, and that does not go without the driver having to give of his person. The exact opposite of autonomous driving.
In the Sprint, things change somewhat from the typical Seven. The large steering wheel makes the course less physical, albeit a tad less precise, than with the small Momo hoop to which one is accustomed. We lose sight of the front wheels, hidden in the wings. The narrow Avon tires do not have the bubble gum grip of the more extreme versions of the semi slicks but the car, with a repartition of the optimal masses, is very balanced and progressive and prevents its reactions with more advanced than the Seven more powerful, and at the lower speed.
In short, we move away from the car for something a little more civilized, something of a roadster. We are more tempted to adopt a flowing rhythm and wind the curves by taking advantage of the landscape rather than keeping the eyes riveted on the next point of rope, which is perfectly adapted to the roads used in this test. Careful, that doesn’t mean we can’t andouille with the Sprint. Of course, we can. It’s still a Seven pure juice. But she is at ease in a role of touring car, in the first sense of the term.
And then like the 160, the Sprint is rather easy to live in the embarrassment of the comeback on Tokyo due to its general lightness and docility of mechanics and controls. If it is an almost livable Seven in everyday life, it is it.
Price and Conclusion
It is a bit pointless to talk about tariff at this point since all the copies have already found the taker for a long time. The happy owners, who receive their copies as they are assembled by the expert hand of the brave people of Caterham Cars, had to separate from 28 000 euros. This may seem expensive in the absolute but one can reasonably argue a good investment since the Seven generally tend to keep their value, and all the more so for a model as special as this one. And then to offer the legend, it has no price
The Caterham Seven Sprint is as desirable and exciting in 2017 as in 1957, and it has more than ever life ahead of it. When you were told that we were swimming in the middle of a temporal paradox.