The SUPERLIGHTS !
I guess that the preamble to this story goes something like this......
In 1998 (or was it '97 ?) at the London motorshow I was thinking about getting back into performance cars and getting out of my trusty Peugot 205Gti. Naturally I was sort of thinking about another Lotus but thought that the Motorshow would be a good way to see what else was on offer. At the end of the day I turned to my wife and said that I reckoned the most impressive and exciting car there was the Caterham Superlight R, newly released at the show and looking awesome in Mclaren Orange, aeroscreen and a utterly stonking power to weight. The elises at the show didn't really do it for me and the esprits with newly revised wings & interiors were looking dated.
Shortly after that I arranged a visit to Caterham cars but the day didn't go too well. Firstly it was raining so I didn't get the chance to test drive and secondly the salesman scared the hell out of me when he drove. The car was a race prepped supersport so really not that quick but then I hadn't been in a fast car for 2-3 years and compared to the 1.6 Peugot the Cat was like a missile. When he first let it go it shook me up a bit. Also, the feeling of speed and lack of security was intesified by the lightweight and tiny dimensions of the car. I had never been in anything so small, the doors were wafer thin and the whole car felt from the passenger seat very very raw, almost agricultural. I guess the cars character was too much of an extreme shock to what I was used to. Back then there was no way I ready for a Caterham.
In the end I saw an elise in orange down in Salisbury and started to quite like the look of the car in that colour and thats basically the direction I went in. But then a year after that when I was tiring of the elise and looking for bigger thrills once more, I payed another visit to Caterham. This time I did get to drive and it was in a VVC car. Things went better and I remember taking pretty well to the immediacy of the drive but down a very bumpy country lane was not particularly impressed by the compliance ... the car was bouncing all over the place. I don't think that this completely put me off, it was more of a subconcious thing really. As I left the showroom I knew that one day I could really get into the whole Caterham experience (the amazingly immediate feel of the car ensured that) but somehow it was bad timing; a lot of my friends had elises and in a sense I was still not through with the elise thing and not prepared to lose out on the practicality and desirability factor. As you may know, I ended up with the 340r which did provide bigger thrills but still with the very refined and technological prowess that the Lotuses posess. Although the 340r is a harder edged car than the elise it really is still a pussycat and a road car as much as it is a track car.
So thats the background. You may ask what led me back to Caterham cars ? Well, the 340r was motoring Nirvana for me and I had more than my share of smiles from the car but in time I do get bored with all toys. Also, owning a Lancer EVO6 accelerated my outgrowing of the 340r. Why ? Well not only is the evo faster with punchier gearing but more important, its handling at the limit is much much more playful and basically more fun ! It took me 2 years to discover this (when I took both the evo & 340r to Brands and drove them back to back) but the 340r never really did it for me as a curcuit car. It feels great - nice and sharp and responsive, it brakes well and is pretty quick but once you have the balls to drive up to the limit the fun stops. Okay, so there is satisfaction to be derived from getting the entry smooth, the line right, staying commited and exiting at high speed but there are no options in the corner and little window for correction if you get it wrong or if you want to just have a play and be creative. I hate to quote EVO magazine and admit that they actually got something right but read their first ever review of the 340r compared against a Seven and you'll know exactly what I mean.
In a way it took me 10 years to finally buy a car that was very slidy and hooliganised at the limit and hence discover that THIS IS HOW I PREFER MY CARS (not least because its safer that way as well !). So, we are talking more raw, more sensory and more thrilling than a 340r, faster than a 340r, but with the adjustability and goonability of a regular front engine/RWD car. Also, we are talking about a car that is track ready and track proven since due to new family members that is where the bulk of my driving has to be in 2002. Of course, we are talking about the Caterham Superlights. I always knew that I would one day take the plunge into the massive and hugely absorbing, beard-inducing Caterham fraternity and spring 2002 is when it felt most right.
So its March 2002. Down in Caterham in Surrey I step into a spanking Orange Superlight R. Around 490kg, 190 bhp, close ratio 6 speed box...... if nothing else its gonna be thrilling ! Setting off with the salesmen driving at first, its immediately clear to me that the Seven is not nearly as "homemade", as rattly or agricultural as I first remember. Maybe this was a result of being in various other raw cars since but this SLR actually feels pretty solid and well screwed together. I'm also immediately impressed with the driving seat and general cockpit ... it feels so snug and although a side impact would proabably be a real nasty scene in the car, I do feel quite secure and bonded to the whole vehicle.
Heading out off a roundabout, the salesman boots the car from 2nd way up beyond the ton. The acceleration is raw and quite brutal, the noise from the exhaust addictively fierce and although we break the ton very very quickly the car doesn't make my stomach go light, the acceleration doesn't take my breath away. Certainly, its quicker that the 340r and hugely fast but maybe I'm having one of those days when even Concord would feel sluggish.
Soon its my turn at the wheel. As I get into position and make adjustments its clear that the pedals are very close together and there really is only room for one decent sized foot down there. Good job I'm size 8 then ..... I not sure how you would manage otherwise. The clutch feels quite heavy to press but as we move on and make a few upchanges its clear that the clutch actually doesn't need a lot of pressure and is barely making its presence felt. The first thing that you get from this car is the snugness, the immediacy of being a part of the drive, in fact being a part of the car. They say that they fit like a glove and thats the best way to describe it - its like a second skin ! Everything is beautifully placed and the close proximity of all 3 pedals, gearchange, tiny steering wheel somehow makes the elise controls feel clumsy. This is micro-driving, you don't need to move a millimetre beyond your resting position .... especially since the wheel needs just a whiff of a nano-input to even U turn it and the box is a lovely short throw.
At this point I'm still acclimatising to the overall feel. The steering is beautifully weighted, plenty of meat but so directly wired to the wheels ... Scalextric is the best word I can think of. The view is great, tiny little windscreen and the long nose with vents all the way down its middle - it gives you a historic feeling because it reminds you that your in a caterham and reminds you of that classic shape which hasn't really changed a great deal since the original Lotus seven all that time ago. The pedals are fine for me, perfect for heel & toeing and the clutch is not even demanding. Now the gearchange, well this is something very very special .... more friendly and useable than a TVR box, more soul than an S2000 box .... its a great action and the throw is short but not inhibitingly so.
We are approaching a free stretch of road now. I accelerate hard in 3rd and the car just goes. Somehow the VHPD in this car feels far far looser than any one I've ever sampled in any elise. I suspect that the breathing system is much more competent but then also we're in a car thats under 500kg. There is such a total lack of inertia, acceleration seems completely effortless. And the fantastic gearing of the 6 speed box means that its truly fast in ANY gear. I stab the pedal in 5th then 6th .... no need to drop down ... you can despatch rows of cars more than comfortably in either gear.
And then I guess the X factor hits me. There I am taking some high speed bends, closely concentrating on the messages coming through the wheel and altering, nudging my line just for the hell of it ..... the wind is swirling into the cockpit, the exhaust is chatting away, barking and popping incessantly & I feel so very close to the act of driving and very smug and excited in the knowledege of the acceleration that I have on tap, everything feels so very focused and geared toward fun, me and the salesman.. two car-nuts all snug in this tiny cabin and in it for the sheer buzz and madness of it all........ the sun is shining, its a glorious day and I start smiling, grinning uncontrollably. Yes I know its cliche, but no car has made me do this for years... And I haven't even tried it on track yet !!!
Around those few bends I knew that the Caterham was my next big thing.
The only question remaining was ... SLR or R500.
So first thing to do was go out in an R500. There was only one at the showroom and it was on sale or return so didn't belong to Caterham. Also, since I hadn't got to the stage of putting a deposit down I could only passenger in the car.
To keep it brief, the acceleration in this thing was nothing short of mindboggling. Coupled with the fact that the car was running an aeroscreen and my vision went blurry after about 80mph with all the wind and the shaking... the ride was the most intense experience I have ever had in anything with 4 wheels. When 4th gear was achieved, the relentless, completely animal and brutal acceleration became overwhelming to my various bodyparts. The other very distinct thing about this car was the sonics; the pops from the engine, the thick meaty blips on downchange and the thunder that reigned just to the left of me way into the 8000's was worth the 31K asking price in itself ! This beast truly sounds like a competeition engine should do.
Needless to say, I was desparate to own it and indeed I was millimetre close to putting a deposit down but after many emails, bulletin board posts, telephone conversations and even a visit to Brands to meet 2 R500 owners - all within the space of 24 hours - I decided that I didn't want to take on board yearly rebuild costs and the potential risks of such a highly tuned engine.
The SLR, the next best thing, would have to do. For arguably a small sacrifice in performance I would benefit from proven good depreciation, lower running costs, lower buying price and (without wanting to p1ss any R500 owners off) theoretically greater potential reliability. The SLR was on paper far quicker than either of my last 2 cars (340r & evo6) but would it be enough ............