I've always put performance before comfort. but the Caterham Seven was a four-wheeled crucifixion: the seat padding was the thickness of Kleenex, and the driver's compartment was a narrow, coffin-shaped slot, so closely fitted that I could barely move. There were no doors, no radio, and no side windows. The heat of the high-performance engine soaked into the cockpit, turning the Seven into a tiny roasting oven on wheels. Immobilized, and being slowly cooked from my feet upwards, I realized how a pig at an Hawaiian luau must feel as it's buried in the coals. And if I wanted a little extra crisping, I could reach down and touch the exposed exhaust pipe, which ran along the side of the cockpit, since there was no room for it under the car.
But as I headed down a twisting road, none of this mattered. The Seven was one of the purest, most intoxicating vehicles I've ever piloted. It weighed less than half as much as a Mazda Miata, and the shift lever clicked up through the gears with the oiled precision of a rifle bolt. The steering had no power assist (with a car this light, you don't need it) allowing the front tires to speak to me through the tiny steering wheel, instantly communicating their grip. The road unreeled before me, faster and faster. After years of driving, the Seven snapped me back to a time when everything was brand new - it reminded me of speeding down a steep hill in a soapbox derby racer, consumed with the childlike joy of speed. I was Mr. Toad of Toad Hall, less the crash and the comeuppance.
When the road ended, I turned around and drove it the other way, hooked on the croon of the Seven's Cosworth engine and the sight of the exposed suspension arms dancing before my eyes. I railed through corners, wind blasting through the open cockpit. Next to this, every road car I had driven before felt like an obese compromise - the Seven was a Formula car with headlights and turn signals.
Of course my wife hated it. "It looks like a tractor," she decreed. When I told her I planned to buy a Seven, she chose this as one of the few occasions to put her foot down. In theory, I understood my wife's objections. Our kids were still small, and we were crippled by daycare bills. What we really needed was a minivan, not an unjustifiable toy that was designed for a single, selfish mission - going fast on twisting pavement. The luggage compartment was barely large enough for a loaf of bread, and the top was like a midget pup tent. I erected it just once, then took it down for the duration. (When it rained, I just drove faster, so most of the water would blow over the top of my head.) But I still wanted it.
The Seven exerts its minimalist allure over a particular group of drivers, most of them men who grew up in the 1960s, when the Seven starred in The Prisoner, a British existentialist drama. I didn't understand the show, but I was drawn to the car (lead character Patrick McGoohan drove a British racing green Seven with a yellow nose cone.) The Seven was also a fixture at sports car races, hill climbs and gymkhanas (slalom events held in parking lots filled with orange traffic cones.) The Seven was a giant killer, dusting off BMWs and Camaros on twisty roads. So of course I loved it.
The Seven was designed in the mid-1950's by Colin Chapman, legendary founder of the Lotus car company. Mr. Chapman liked his cars light, and it was rumoured that he designed the Seven by taking pieces out one at a time until the car collapsed under its own weight. Then he put the last piece back in. The Seven epitomized Mr. Chapman's less-is-more philosophy, and became a performance icon. The rights to the design were later sold to Caterham, an English firm that strengthened and improved the car. The company still makes the car today, catering to performance-minded purists.
Looking back, I realize that I was preordained to lust for the Seven. It aroused something in me that went beyond mere attraction and into the realm of philosophy. I like small cars. I admire Mr. Chapman. I believe in doing more with less. The Seven hit all those notes. To me, it was a piece of the True Performance Cross. But as a practical vehicle, it's an utter failure, and I have to admit that my wife was right to stop me from buying one all those years ago. But I still wonder what might have been - that's the curse of unrequited vehicular love.