she’s not just four wheels and an engine ~ she’s a friend
Caterham 7 and one-time friend
Sitting at home in this government-imposed lockdown I’ve had lots of time to think and to remember. I found myself remembering all the cars and motorcycles I’ve ever owned, the good, the bad, and the just damn ugly. As I have an almost perfect memory I believe this is a pretty good list of my motoring history.
Bikes; BSA Bantam, Honda CB 175, Honda 400 Four, Norton Commando, Ariel Square 4.
I was never a particularly keen motorcyclist. England is just far too cold, wet, windy, and icy to be a fun place tor ride a ‘bike. However for one memorable year I did commute on a Honda CB175 like the one opposite. The upside was I could weave through traffic, the downside was that weaving through traffic is damn dangerous.
The very first car I ever owned, the one I learned to drive in was a Vauxhall Viva HA in dark blue. Since then I’ve liked navy blue cars. Following that I owned a Mini 850, Austin-Healey Sprite, Mini Cooper, another Austin-Healey Sprite, Lotus Elan, (which I wrote off in a bird-strike at 100+mph on the road from Durham to Edinburgh), MG Midget, (which is the same as an AH Sprite except for the badge), Jaguar E-Type Coupe, Mini 1275.
Then I bought a house and swapped the mini for a Reliant Robin van. As series of vans followed; Ford Escort Van, Bedford, and another Reliant.
Then I went upmarket again; Austin-Healey Sprite, VW Scirocco, Triumph TR6, Ford Escort as a second car, MG Montego, (that shit heap was really bad), Rover Vitesse, Vauxhall Astra, Rover Coupe, (in dark blue with the removable glass roof, great little car). Then a stealth black Vaxhall Calibra 2.5, which was a genuine 140mph car, Nissan 200SX, Caterham 7, (and that Caterham was the fucking fastest point to point little car ever on anything other than a freeway). And finally a Light Weight Landrover, which had to be the most brutally ugly car ever built.
Of all the myriad of cars I rented after that, three stand out. The Ford Mustangs, always a convertible. The Dodge Charger, and a few Nissan SUVs, which I liked a lot.
If ever I get out of this lockdown I’m buying a Volvo, a C30 sports coupe, which if you have to ask is a very cool car.
I won’t ever tell which of the above list I made out in. A gentleman never tells. I will say that you can’t make out in a Lotus or a Caterham.
I owned one of these weird 3-wheeler vans
eventually it just fell apart.
most women would rather cry in a jaguar than on a bus
V12 E-Type Jaguar
Jaguar XJ S V-12 Convertible
Series One Land Rover
Caterham 7 de Dion
Caterham 7 with a girl riding shotgun
my other Ford Mustang
a miniature Aston Martin
I’ve owned, rented, or just driven examples of all of the above.
Some days you don’t want to be just a number
The Lotus / Caterham 7 is the fastest A to B car in the world. Nine times out of ten a well-sorted 7 will get you to a destination a couple of hundred miles away even faster than a powerful motorcycle. The only car that can come close to a 7 is a Porsche 911, but take one of those on an LA freeway and the gaps in traffic just aren’t big enough to make real progress ~ without you getting killed or caught.
A Lotus / Caterham Seven is SMALL. You don’t turn the steering wheel, press the gas pedal, or reach down to change gear ~ you think the little car into gaps in traffic. By the time you have had a conscious thought you are already a few hundred yards down the road. A Seven is an extension of your mind, not an extension of your body ~ and for a guy a 7 is not an extension of your penis like a Porsche.
Both a Porsche and a well-sorted 7 will get you from rest to 60 miles and hour in a little under 4 seconds, but in any car other than a Seven you will need an open road, free of traffic, to make the most of that car’s savage acceleration. In a Lotus / Caterham 7 you can just about ignore traffic ~ if you are brave enough, and if you are good enough. And, you have no business sitting in the driver’s seat of a seven if you are not brave.
I don’t mean stupidly brave like motorcycle owners who are always just one tiny mistake from serious injury, or death. Transplant surgeons love it when it rains, because they know there will be a motorcycle accident and they they will have some spare parts soon.
Brave in a Lotus / Caterham 7 means being who you truly are, embracing freedom, throwing away your ‘stand-in-line’ mentality, and becoming one with the moment.
Many women will not sit in the passenger seat of a Seven more than once. They find the entire experience too visceral, too powerfully emotive, too
fucking damn frightening. Finding a girl to ride shotgun on a long road trip in a Seven isn’t an easy thing to do ~ but then what real man wants the first women they meet at a bar? If you drive a Seven it’s going to take patience and time to find The Girl Riding Shotgun.
Anyway, if you are a real man you will have built your Seven yourself, and that takes time and patience too. And if you drive hard, with the top down, (which is the only true way to drive a 7), then she can’t talk with you anyway~ it’s just too damn noisy. The harsh bark of the side exhaust is overpowered by the flat roar from the Weber carburettors. There is wind noise around the side-screens, tyre roar, and probably transmission whine.
There are some other things about a 7 most ordinary women don’t like. It’s tiny, she’s sitting with her ass less than a foot from the road underneath, her hair is going to get blown about, every time you reach down to change gears you’re going to touch her leg, there’s limited luggage space, and when she gets out she’s got to be
fucking damn careful not to burn her leg on the side exhaust, (if you’re driving a European spec car).
But real women, women who are not afraid of their own feelings will love a Caterham / Lotus 7.
Some say that they’re not a number, that they are a free man. And, that they will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, numbered, and made to stand in line. All I know is that of you drive a Seven you can do anything, as long as it’s what you want.
Me and my Seven.
Really successful engineering is all about understanding how something will break or fail.
For some strange reason I am blessed with the ability to fix almost anything, install almost anything, make almost anything, and build almost anything.
I built myself a Caterham / Lotus 7 sports-racing car, which I then drove all over Europe on long road trips. The trip I enjoyed most in this little car was driving down the entire Loire Valley in France. (Or maybe it was the Stelvio Pass.)
Minor pieces of carpentry are child’s play for me ~ which is why I could rip out the old kitchen in my garret and replace it with something that I liked and suited my needs.
(With help from my friend Marmaduke of course.)
I’ve also erected log cabins and built vacation homes from plywood. (This is a stock picture, not one of mine)
Sometimes, half way through a project, I’ve wondered why I started, and if the thing would ever be finished. The picture above shows this kind of ‘why am I doing this’ project. Although, this wreck of an Austin-Healey Sprite turned into a really beautiful little car, finished in British Racing Green as a frog-eye. (the almost completed little car, I like that I did the white stripes)
For my next project I’m thinking about finding an old school bus, rebuilding it as an RV, (Recreational Vehicle), and then spending an entire year in the thing, touring as much of the USA as I can, on the longest road trip ever.
Something you need, if you want to tackle advanced DIY projects, is a really, really comprehensive tool kit. And, take my advice, always buy the very best tools you can afford. (You may need a hard hat.)
This post is sponsored by: http://www.amazon.com/shops/salinevalleyenterprises
some power tools are a must have
click on the power tools picture
Caterham has launched a ‘new’ Seven, the ‘Sprint’ with retro ‘swinging sixties’ styling reminiscent of Colin Chapman’s original Lotus Seven, clamshell wings, steel wheels, chrome hubcaps and all.
The Caterham Seven Sprint is largely based on the entry level Caterham Seven 160, and uses the same little 660cc, 3 cylinder Suzuki engine, albeit with dohc, 4 vales per cylinder, and fitted with a turbocharger to give 80bhp and 79 foot pounds of torque. That’s a lot more power than the 39bhp of the very first Lotus Seven, but in today’s terms, it’s pretty puny. It isn’t a good looking engine bay.
The Seven Sprint is also fitted with a live axle, which is fine in its way, but there is such a thing as taking nostalgia too far. The last Caterham I owned used a very sophisticated de Dion rear end, and even that was very prone to power oversteer. Every live axle car I’ve ever driven has had ‘interesting’ roadholding and handling ~ I’ve no reason to suppose the new Caterham Seven is any different in that respect. Still, it all adds to the terrifying fun.
I have built, owned, and driven a Caterham Seven with clamshell wings, and they are a mixed blessing. On the upside they are so much better looking than cycle wings, on the downside clamshell wings have the aerodynamics of a box-kite. Given a couple of Sevens with otherwise identical specifications, a car with flared clamshell wings will have a lower top speed and much worse acceleration at higher speeds, than a Seven with close-fitting cycle wings.
However, there is no doubt that the new Seven Sprint is a pretty little car in those retro colours, flared wings, and with a brilliant red leather interior. As a driver’s car it will be utterly brilliant too ~ you haven’t driven a sports car until you’ve driven a Seven. But in comparison with other Lotus / Caterham Sevens available, it’s sort of the runt of the litter. Pretty but lacking in spirit.
There is one huge problem with the Caterham Seven Sprint ~ prices start at £27,995, which is a stupid amount of money to pay for this particular little car. Mind you, Caterham Cars aren’t the remotest interested in what I think of the Seven Sprint, the limited production run of 60 cars sold out in a week.
I have a sneaking suspicion that not many of the 60 people signed up to buy a Caterham Seven Sprint will be driving it much, if at all. It seems to me this is a Summer Sunday afternoon car to take for a short drive to the country / beach / pub. Or even worse, a lot of the buyers could be ‘collectors’ who will stick this Seven in their heated Motor House under a dust cover, and mostly leave it there.
Would I recommend a Caterham Seven 160 / Sprint to a friend? No.
the BRG and yellow car is my last Caterham Seven
these opinions are mine and mine alone
English, small, open, two-seater, inexpensive, sports cars… Need one say anything else?
From 1958 to 1979 these little cars appeared in 5 different versions from the nifty Frogeye Sprite to the rather ugly rubber-bumpered MG Midget 1500. For my sins, I have owned, wore out, crashed, rebuilt, and restored a few of these fairly practical little cars ~ and I would rebuild / restore another at the drop of the proverbial hat. Mostly, the whole car comes apart using only a couple of 1/2 inch A/F spanners, (wrenches), and you can’t get much simpler than that.
By modern measure this is not a fast car, especially in any of its standard versions. However, perhaps with the exception of the original mini, (and the Lotus / Caterham 7), there are more spares, tuning parts and options available for the Sprite / Midget than for just about any car you can think of.
For a road trip, with a cute girl, these cars are utterly brilliant. On a really good road trip the destination and how fast you can get there is not the point. To me, the whole ethos of a road trip is enjoying the journey.
The Sprite / Midget is of unitary / monocoque steel construction, with the main strength being in the box-section sills, the facia / windscreen hoop, and the whole of the back end. Of course, these areas are where you’re likely to see rust appearing, or bodged repairs.
The doors and front end all bolt onto the facia / windscreen hoop. And, if you’ve ever owned one of these things you can first tell what kind of condition it’s in by the unmistakable clunk the doors make when you close them hard.
Engines are the venerable A-Series 3 bearing straight four ranging in size from 948cc in the Frogeye to 1275cc in the last of the good-looking cars. In the Midget 1500, the 1493cc engine was lifted from the Triumph Spitfire. (In all honesty, the 1500 isn’t the world’s best engine.) Twin SU carburettors are the usual fitment, and what you want. A better exhaust than the clunky cast iron manifold will pay a lot of dividends.
As standard, none of the engines used in the Sprite / Midget was in a very high state of tune, which is maybe just as well as the gearbox isn’t the strongest unit in the world, (no synchromesh on first gear either). The gearbox used in the Midget 1500 is better.
Suspension is by semi-elliptical at the rear, and lever arm shock absorbers and lower wishbones at the front. Amazingly, it works brilliantly.
You would be crazy to pay more than £5,000 for one of these cars, but people are crazy at times. Personally I would buy a wreck and rebuild it the way I wanted it. Face it, it’s just a pile of tin held together by a few 1/2 inch bolts.
As a gentle touring sportscar, the Sprite / Miget has a lot going for it. It’s inexpensive, reliable, has good roadholding and great handling. There’s a decent amount of room in the cockpit, (as compared with a Lotus 7 that is), the hood is easy to operate on the later versions, (terrible on the earlier cars like the Frogeye, which also don’t have wind-up windows), the luggage space isn’t so bad, and the things are just so much damn fun.
Some say a good road trip is a great way to spend your vacation, or a great way to spend any time you have with your girl, or any time you don’t have to do something else for that matter.
My very first long-distance road trip was from my place in the North of England to a little villa on a vineyard in Tuscany. At it’s very best that’s 24 solid hours driving, assuming no delays, and that you don’t go out of your way sightseeing and driving mountain roads just for the sake of it. All told it’s a drive of around 1,350 miles, each way. Perhaps I was being optimistic to think my Triumph TR6 would make it there and back without breaking down, at least once. (I was younger and better-looking then.)
In my opinion, there are seven essentials for a successful road trip:
- A cool car.
- Enough money.
- The right girl.
- A great driving road.
- Good weather.
- A relaxed attitude to deadlines and commitments.
- Time. Lots and lots of time.
Not necessarily in order of importance ~ however, if you don’t have all seven then your road trip adventure isn’t going to be all you hoped it would be.
If you are using your own car, then you also need to take along a decent tool kit, some spares, and the knowledge to use both.
It is vitally important that the girl riding shotgun is someone who you really like hanging out with, because you are going to be spending a lot of time cooped-up together. That has been my mistake on more than one occasion, because taking a long road trip with the wrong girl can give new meaning to the concept that there are sixty minutes in every hour, and twenty-four hours in every day.
(It helps if she knows how to take a great picture.)
There are three kinds of road trip;
- Where the destination is important. Usually the time is also important. You have to be in say; Tuscany by Tuesday…
- Where you have organised everything in advance, including booking your overnight accommodations.
- Where the destination is immaterial and time is of no pressing importance. Except perhaps, you have to go back to work in a couple of weeks or so.
Guess which type of road trip is the best? But then, you do what you want as long as you stay cool and relaxed.
As an example of organising everything in advance was a road trip I took down the Loire Valley. Because I wanted to stay in a different château each night, this all had to be booked and paid for before I set off. (If the girl riding shotgun is the least bit ‘precious’ don’t make her pack all her luggage in the back of a tiny 7 ~ or she will sulk.)
For my next road trip I want to follow as much as I can of the old Route 66 from Chicago to Santa Monica, ending with dinner at The Lobster. Say 2,200 miles. For something shorter there’s the PCH which runs from Orange County in Southern California to Mendocino County in the North. About 600 miles. What the hell, I have the time and money to do both, preferably in a muscle car.
pictures by jack collier
and the girl riding shotgun
I am not even a number
I am a non-person, I am imperfect
In retrospect I do not exist, I am suspected
my records have been checked, disconnected
my files are wrong, incorrect, unconnected, ejected,
my whole life is disected, rejected, redacted, and wrecked
(has two dates of birth
on government computers
therefore, I cannot officially exist)
There is something surreal about a road trip, a feeling of being detached from reality, of living in some kind of parallel universe. The longer the trip goes on, the greater the feeling that out there lies a basic truth, and that all one needs to do is keep travelling…
It helps if one has a good car, the right landscape, and a good companion.
It also helps if you keep your luggage to a minimum. Men can do a long road trip in an European sports car, and most women need to take more shoes…
I would advise a considerate guy to get a truck for his next road trip, their girl will no doubt be appropriately grateful.
Yet, there is no right way to take a road trip, the truth is out there, it will find you, however you travel. You just have to go far enough, for long enough…