Two days earlier, I’d been summoned to the semi-detached house my grandparents called home before infirmity and chronic forgetfulness finally ushered them into full-time care.
With a place in the estate agent’s window beckoning, the immediate family were there to siphon treasured memories from a six-decade mountain of dusty clutter. Occasional poignant moment aside, this wasn’t difficult – until, that is, the jumbled shelves and ancient boxes of my grandad’s workshop spilled their secrets.
Often still in their original wax paper or packaging, the most achingly beautiful hand tools, still sharp or shiny or else solid like a lump of basalt, tumbled from pre-history into the daylight of the disposable age.
Grandad, a talented worker of wood and a teacher of its assemblage when not lecturing about mathematics, had clearly completed his last buying spree in the late 1950s, a time when being well made and durable meant you came stamped with a ‘Made in Sheffield’ trademark and shone like stained glass.
He owned, among other things, a micrometer that makes a nuclear reactor core look flimsy, a hand plane of such absurd heft and forged metal splendor that my manliness literally trebled by holding the thing aloft to look at it, and an ancient yet functioning electric drill that started its life on the line at de Havilland, boring holes in the balsa wood and birch that made up the monocoque of a Mosquito fighter bomber.
Being a glorified typist, I have no practical use for any of this, of course – but the build quality, tonnage and overt imperial magnificence of the collection mean that I now own it all. And it is that magnetic wistfulness, I think, for the glow of the long-dead furnace at the core of Britain’s prewar and post-war workshop, and of the molten exceptionalism that it engendered for decades afterwards, that characterises the appeal of cars like the Seven Sprint.
It is a trick, frankly, that Caterham has too often overlooked in its compulsive reflex to make its single product go ever more indulgently (and profitably) quicker. But 2017 has given the company good reason to look back as it marks 60 years since the Seven made its debut at the Earl’s Court Motor Show.
The Sprint bears little resemblance to the model that actually adorned Lotus’s stand that year. With its flared front wings, powder-coated chassis, wood-rimmed steering wheel and polished hub caps, the car is meant to celebrate the essence of the age rather than its substance. Underneath, it’s unchanged from the current entry-level 160, driven by an 80bhp, 660cc Suzuki three-cylinder engine and its corresponding five-speed manual gearbox.
But that’s fine. Much like the imagination-capturing Morgan 3 Wheeler, the hark-back theme hits the spot not just because you can have it in one of six special contemporaneous colours but also because the Seven itself still retains so much of the original car’s conceptual brilliance.
Its designer, Colin Chapman, was a product of his age as well. Unquestionably and quixotically brilliant, and endowed with the savage drive and single-mindedness to make those qualities meaningful, he left a mark on motor racing that’s well known and rightly acclaimed.
His throwaway idea for an open-top sports car was not intended to last six decades – and not just because he eagerly offloaded it to a savvy car dealer when the time came but also because he lived so self-righteously and necessarily in the present anyway.
The Seven’s gossamer spaceframe and stressed aluminium panels, pioneered in the even more threadbare Lotus Mark VI and perfected in the racing Lotus Eleven, was an elegantly engineered solution to the immutable predicament of kinetic stress and structural load. It was also relatively cheap and easy to make – ideal attributes when you’re selling a kit for someone else to build.
Its ingenuity and low weight were obviously derived from Chapman’s race-addled preoccupation with performance but, in a wider sense, the car symbolised the in-built confidence and scrupulous yes-wecan ambition of the 1950s.
The Seven existed because a comparatively tiny group of people dreamed it up, drew it, dashed off some calculations and then built it – a human-resource formula fundamental to many cutting-edge technological industries that Britain incubated in the decade that succeeded total war.
In the same year that Lotus rolled the Seven into Earl’s Court, the Mullard Radio Astronomy Observatory was established just outside Cambridge – the telescope wing of the university’s worldfamous Cavendish Laboratory.
Remnants of the war effort were still prominent. Even driving onto the site today, the ordnance dump that once handled mustard gas and other chemical weapons is visible in the solemn mounds of wind-blown grass that overlay forgotten bunkers.
They stand now, though, in the shadow of the observatory’s real heritage: the magnificently grizzled hulks of the One-Mile and Half-Mile radio telescopes. Built on the track bed that once formed part of the abandoned Varsity railway line, the first array was also conceived in the late 1950s by Sir Martin Ryle and completed in 1964.
The incremental spacing of the antennae (two fixed at either end, one movable on the now rust-red rails) was fundamental to the development of aperture synthesis – an imaging process that brought unparalleled clarity to the weak radio maps of deep space by effectively turning three 60ft-wide dishes into one a mile wide.
So great was the increase in sensitivity and resolution that the computational effort was handled by Titan, the room-sized computer then housed in Cambridge’s Mathematical Lab. Perfecting the technique earned Ryle – the first professor of radio astronomy at Cambridge – the Nobel prize for physics in 1974.
Today, the decommissioned telescopes stand motionless, their antennae pointed nobly skyward but heedless now of the universe’s cryptic wavelength, seized in the steering gear and shrouded in bottle-green mould. Like much of the scientific detritus of Britain’s recent past, the array is one part festering oddity, one part museum piece and two parts genuine engineering marvel.
It is grandad’s workshop upended and assembled, similarly pristine in obsolescence and anachronism. I’d number the steel latticework and have it reconstructed outside my bedroom window if I could – but I’ll settle for having driven the Sprint slowly past on a spectacular winter’s day, eyes craned permanently up, head somewhere in the reverie of a cloudless sky.
Ryle, a prickly character, had an office at the observatory to prevent him from quarrelling with colleagues at Cavendish. What better way would there have been for him to survey the machinations of his array than from the open deck of a 1960s-era Seven? By 1964, the Series 2 was available too – a skinny-wheeled model the Sprint comes much closer to echoing in its look and ethos.
Its early 1.3-litre Ford Kent engine would have been nothing much like the 12-valve turbocharged triple that thrums away at the heart of the Sprint, but something of the unconstructed driving style – the amenable spring travel, the wispy steering, the occasional grouchiness of the live rear axle – would surely transmit between generations without needing a Titan to render it familiar.
At Mullard, the car feels as curiously intrinsic to the backdrop of Cambridgeshire fields as the mossy concrete and 50-year-old metalwork of the telescopes. Conversely, back in 2017 and on the A11 heading north, the Sprint seems microscopically small – even for a Seven.
For a moment, I dwell on Chapman’s reputedly laissez-faire attitude to safety and just how dangerous (by sanitised modern standards) it would be to thwack anything more substantial than a pothole.
However, the Sprint’s attitude to progress is so congenial that my imagination has trouble running away with the thought. More so than any other Caterham, it indulges a merry tolerance of the speed limit. You seldom try very hard or worry about where you’re going.
The Sprint is soft-throated and dynamically buoyant – and because the larger timber steering wheel makes for a better lever, its direction can be massaged around with fingertips rather than a revolution of the wrists.
As is often the case, our destination appears no more slowly for the lack of effort. We’ve chosen to end up in Suffolk, under the flight path of RAF Lakenheath – the last proper airbase of the United States Air Force’s once mighty presence in the UK.
It, too, is a leftover of post-war vintage, originally tasked as a spoke in the ever-spinning wheel of Strategic Air Command. Now it hosts the 48th Fighter Wing, which contains the tenuous reason for our visit: the F15 Eagle.
As unlikely as it seems while watching the twin-engined, Mach- 2.5 air superiority jet fighter ascend into the darkening sky on full reheat, the aircraft’s design heralds from the late 1960s – almost exactly the same moment the Series 3 Seven was launched.
The F15 was initially made smaller and lighter than it might have otherwise been to enhance its performance as a dogfighter, while the advent of the Series 3 was pivotal, because it was that car – and not the later, larger, all-glassfibre Series 4 – which Caterham’s Graham Nearn paid Lotus the rights for in 1973.
The F15 entered service three years later. It has evolved. A groundattack capability was added a decade later. It was a triumphant export. Its production line is still functioning and will be until 2019, almost 50 years since its first flight.
The Seven, under Caterham’s guardianship, has mimicked its gradual modernisation, sprouting more sophisticated suspension, offering the choice of a roomier chassis, moving from Ford to Vauxhall to Rover and back to Ford again in the engine bay, and still racing, still winning.
Last year the firm sold more cars than it has in 20 years. The Sprint was a significant part of that: all 60 examples were sold out a week after its launch at the Goodwood Revival.
Its popularity with customers – and their apparent indifference to the £5k premium over a factory-built 160 S – will not have gone unnoticed. Don’t be surprised if Caterham delves back into the sentimental memory box before too long.
I hope so. There are few better or more charming time machines.