After the deliberations covered in the Introduction, I found myself in the Williams Automotive show room talking to their Caterham sales guy, Lindon. He was more than happy to let me have a test drive in a couple of 7’s, talk through options and to see what worked.
First off, coffee, followed by a sit in an S3 with lowered floors. It was clear from the start that this was going to be a little too snug for my liking. I had already been thinking wide bodied SV rather than narrow bodied S3 so the sit in an S3 only went to confirm that view. Next up was a sit in a 420R SV and straight away that was enough to confirm SV line of thinking. While I certainly will be track’ing the car I expect to use it regularly on the road and also to take it on longer trips. The increased cabin space, boot size and fuel range are therefore further nails in the S3 coffin.
For those of you unfamiliar with Caterhams, there are essentially two body options at the moment. The S3 is the original 7 width and length. The SV is both wider and longer. I’m 175cm tall and I had the seat all the way back in the S3 but needed to pull it forwards a little in the SV… clearly a longer cabin space.
Caterham 360S SV Test Drive
Lindon chatted through various configuration options for a few minutes and then we headed out in a 360S for a drive. The weather had been wet and there were damp patches in places on the roads, I was determined to keep my cool and not go crazy. The sun was out and it was a crisp March morning – what else could you ask for?
First experiences with a Caterham are probably something that will always remain with you. The acrobatics of getting in, the fumbling with the harnesses, the tight space and the sound of the exhaust near your ear all go to create a sense of occasion.
Lindon let me take the car out of the gravel drive and onto the roads after we’d done all the paperwork and he’d extracted the car from one of their packed garages. I used to work in the village where they’re based, Horton, for 7 or 8 years so knew the area well. We went out over Chipping Sodbury Common, around the back of Chipping Sodbury and out towards the Cross Hands Hotel on the A46. Then we headed out towards Acton Turville, did a loop in the village and back to the Cross Hands. Instead of then heading straight back to Chipping Sodbury we took a right taking us up the A46, through Horton on the back lanes and out to Williams compound.
The route from the Cross Hands up to Acton Turville is a great route for a test drive Blat. There are some great long sweepers, a tight right hander on the way out and a couple of long straights, ideal to test the merits of what a 7 can do on the road.
However, within only a few hundred meters of leaving Williams the brakes on this 360 were alarming me. I was worried that this was how all Caterhams were. The travel was long and they didn’t seem at all effective. Lindon told me that this the car was brand new and I’ve more recently seen forum posts talking about the need for 7 brakes to be bedded in or else you can get this effect.
The roads weren’t too clear but the 360 was great. I didn’t push it anywhere close to its limits and I barely got above 5000rpm. I was very happy to soak up the experience and not embarrass myself or their insurance company. The sense of speed, even at low road speeds, was fantastic… a bit like driving an old mini or a fiat 126 but with the dial turned up to 11 – everything else on the road feels so big in comparison. The experience was similar to driving some of the more potent go-karts I’ve driven. It also felt closer to a go-kart than to a Formula Ford I drove on a track day experience at Silverstone. The Formula Ford is a real racing car. There’s a sense of claustrophobia in the FF that you don’t quite get in a Catherham, which somehow feels more open like a go-kart. Both cars I drove had lowered floors so you sit lower in the car and so I was Expecting it to feel more like the FF.
Caterham 420R SV Test Drive
Next up was a go in a 420R SV. While it was an R spec 420, it had full leather seats, heater and carpets. Lindon said this was a common approach… spec the R for the suspension, LImited Slip Differential etc but add back some of the comfort options from the options list, making it a better road proposition.
The 2.0L Duratec initially struggled a bit at tick-over but soon warmed up and we headed out. With both the 420 and the 360, the clutches were fierce. I overcooked the 420 on the exit of Williams’ paddock and the smell of rubber hung in the cabin for a good 2 or 3 minutes.
it was a relief to find that the 420’s brakes were fantastic. Short throw and hard pedal. Not the scary affair in the 360.
The test drive took the same route as we had taken with the 360 but this time the roads were a bit clearer and I could stretch it a little more, still way below crazy mode, but enough to show me what that might look like.
The 420 was instantly and obviously more tractable and powerful. Both cars I drove had the 5 speed box which suited the 420 well. The extra torque making the car easier to trundle along in traffic and enjoy the scenery. Not that the 360 was bad for that kind of driving, just that the 420 was better. I’m sure that if track-only is your thing then the 6 speed sequential is the right choice. However, for me this car will be 80-90% road use and so the H pattern, 5 speed will be the better choice for me I think. The clutch was a different matter though and I kangarroed off from a couple of junctions – Lindon was kind enough to say that everyone new to a 7 does that.
On returning to Williams, my mind was made up… 420R SV with lowered floor and some comfort options. Just needed approval from the finance committee.
Only regrets… not taking a couple of snaps to mark the occaision.