A decade or so ago, it was routine for Autocar to take a Caterham Seven to our Britain's Best Driver's Car contest. Frequently there was little new about the Seven, so although the car was there, it didn't qualify to be judged. We took it as a handling benchmark. It showed what you could do with a car's handling if you only used half a tonne to do it.
This year, though, Caterham introduced a new variant of the Seven, the Supersport. Our contributors who drove it, loved it, and because it had been a while, when we made the phone calls to arrange the 11 cars for this year's 'handling day', one to Caterham was among them. And this time we wanted it as a proper competitor.
Caterham Supersport beat many expensive rivals
For all the improvements that have been made to the Seven since its inception in 1957, it remains, by modern standards, unsophisticated. It runs a de Dion rear axle, is cramped inside and is too low to afford exceptional visibility. We thought it would do kinda-okayish.
It finished second.
That it was good on a track was in many ways predictable. The competition was very strong, but to learn that a 520kg lightweight is more entertaining than a McLaren MP4-12C or Aston Martin Vantage S should be no massive surprise.
The surprise was just how good the Seven is everywhere. It‚s so beautifully balanced and perfectly adjustable that taking a corner in a Supersport is an open book: pick a cornering style, and it will indulge you.
On the road, though, it was just as enjoyable. We wondered if its limited suspension travel, and the fact that a light body does little for a car‚s ride, would catch it out. But no, it was exceptional; a different class not just to many of today‚s other driver‚s cars, but also to other recent Caterhams. As I write we have an R400 on loan for another feature, and it is nowhere near as classy and honed as the Supersport.
But besides all that there's a broader question of what makes for a great driver's car in modern conditions. Even if the Caterham's chassis dexterity wasn‚t so exceptional, that its performance is accessible, and that it can be placed with millimetric accuracy, both enhance its appeal.
I recently dug out these quotes from an Autocar back issue: "[A Porsche 911 Turbo's] limits are only attainable under conditions of total brain fade on the road", "John Bolster was dead right when he said one of the first priorities for sporting motoring was a narrow car" and "budget excitement is still available in the Caterham Super Seven".
Those quotes come not from last week, last year, or last decade. They're from December 1978, and they‚re just as true now as they were then, possibly more so. That's the remarkable thing about the Caterham. More than half a century on, it just keeps getting more relevant.