Guest contributor: Ben O’Bro on his Caterham Seven
Newly graduated in France, I decided to leave the country for some adventure. Luckily enough, I found a job after only one week of searching and I ended up lost in the Mediterranean Sea, closer to the rising sun than I have ever been. Welcome to Cyprus, the country of dust.
I was leaving everything behind for a fresh start. I just sold my good old Peugeot 206 and was quite broke, as any student would be. So months pass, and I ride an old bicycle and wait for my bank account to look like something a little more substantial in order to realize an old childhood dream.
As far back as I can remember, I have always been into cars. The walls of my bedroom at my parents’ house are still filled with the images of F40s, Countaches, 288 GTOs, and all the other legends. Under protective sheets to keep out dust lie a large collection of die-cast models, lots of stories behind them, and a lot of other souvenirs, too. But this passion has always been relegated to catalogues, scale models, and photography. Nothing really palpable, tangible. Not just yet. A long, devoted wait and strong tireless passion would finally lead me to the beginning of 2010.
After two years on the island, it was time. Time to get motorized. Not really tempted by the Audi TTs or Mercedes SLKs that you can find by the dozen here. No, I was looking for something different for sure. Not necessarily something practical, but rather, something enjoyable— that was the goal. Maybe a Mk1 Elise, or maybe an S2000, actually, since everyone around me was telling me nice things about it. Ah well— the economic crisis had affected England quite badly, and the British Pound had fallen even with the Euro, so the timing couldn’t have been any better.
And so began the long hours of watching AutoTrader. With a budget of £10,000, the possibilities were just astonishing. I had seen a few episodes of Top Gear that talked about how cheap the cars were in England, but I never really had any idea until I saw all that was in front of me. I had just opened a big portal full of goodies, each one looking better than the one prior, my eyes growing big. I wanted them all… a DB7 for £17k, a 964 for £14k. But that wasn’t really within my budget, nor reasonable. So I stuck to looking for an Elise, which already seemed quite unreal. But then I started reading more and more unfavorable things about them, especially UK examples and their supposed inability to hold up over time. I liked the new ones a lot more, but sadly, they were out of my price range. So I headed back to the S2000.
I always knew the brand, of course, and had even seen a few in France. But it looked so unusual, so exclusive, that you didn’t think of it as a car you could actually buy. But why not?
And then… I don’t really know how I came to look for a Caterham, or why I hadn’t considered one before. Maybe because you didn’t come across very many for sale— you might see a dozen over the course of a year. And most of them were around £14k. But not this one, the one I had just come across. I always knew the brand, of course, and had even seen a few in France. But it looked so unusual, so exclusive, that you didn’t think of it as a car you could actually buy. But why not? So I called the owner to get more information. And the next thing I knew, I had a ticket plane in one hand, a map of England in the other, and a short list of cars to check out over a short weekend in February.
Sunny Paphos 20°C. Rainy Gatwick 5°C.
My father came straight from France to assist me in what would prove to be a wise choice. I had a busy schedule to go over the cars for which I had made appointments. First up was a 2004 S2000, a nice gray example with red leather interior. I had a chance to test drive it. It had stopped raining moments earlier that morning. As it was really the first powerful car I had ever driven, I was a bit gun shy and didn’t enjoy it that much. The car was brilliant, I must say, except it didn’t feel right for me. At all. I wouldn’t have seen myself owning it, actually. It was too much car, perhaps.
Twenty minutes of narrow country roads later, I was done. I knew.
Without a lot of time to think, we headed to Kent to see the yellow Seven. It was being sold by the owner (unlike the S2000), and for insurance reasons, he couldn’t let me drive it. But we went for a ride. It was around noon by then, and the sun had finally come out. Twenty minutes of narrow country roads later, I was done. I knew. I was no longer thinking rationally… I just knew that this is what I was looking for. The decision was purely emotional. The noise, the look, the stiffness, the power, the feelings, the open air experience, the (co-)driving position— everything was perfect.
On the technical side, the car was in very good condition. The owner never raced it, he owned it for nine years and took good care of it. It went out on weekends and was garage-kept otherwise, so there was no rust, the paint was good, and the 1700cc motor felt great. Amazing for a car that had four owners since 1995.
As it was a Q plate (meaning kit car in the UK), I encountered a lot of bureaucratic and logistical difficulty getting the car to Cyprus. In addition to the multiple shipping delays, the car was too low so I had to rent a whole container for it… which it ended up sharing with a Harley. It took six months to actually clear all the papers, the MOT, and finally get my Cypriot plates! When my agent called me to come collect my goods, I took the afternoon off and went to the harbour where an opened yellow container was waiting for me. It was my first time climbing into the driver’s side to actually start the car.
The first few minutes were like nothing else. I was discovering a totally brand new way of driving and handling a car.
After pumping the petrol a few times and not being able to get the car to start the first few minutes, it finally started, right there in the container, the sound echoing off the walls— so much fun. And out I was! The first few minutes were like nothing else. I was discovering a totally brand new way of driving and handling a car. After the first stop, the wheels spun off the line, and when the next traffic light turned red at the last moment, I thought the car wouldn’t stop!
Clearly the car had lots of power, plus the throttle was highly sensitive. Maybe as small as it was sensitive, which was the complete opposite of the brakes. There’s no assistance, nothing. So when you brake, it feels like you’re pushing directly against the road. It’s surprising the first few times, but after awhile you get used to it, and it does feel safe. But you always have to be hard on the brakes without reaching the point of actually locking up the wheels.
So far so good. I was racking up 10,000 km in a single year, which is a lot on an island where you are 80 km away from anywhere you want to go. Not all the roads here are in good condition. Many are unpaved, old and bumpy, or always under construction. But the ones that are in good shape are just great. The surrounding landscape tops off the cliché: a lot of nice villages to visit, though the winding roads have nothing on the French Alps.
The Seven is a happy traveler. Boys, girls, the young, the elderly— everybody seems to like it.
And the noise the car makes on these narrow streets is unique. It puts a smile not only on my face but also on the faces of everyone else around around. The Seven is a happy traveler. Boys, girls, the young, the elderly— everybody seems to like it. A real head turner! I had a lot of fun leaving for the day with a map, a bottle of water, and a full tank of petrol to explore the Troodos, the local Alps.
The handling is as easy as it is enjoyable. You spend a few weeks exploring the limits of the car— the limits of grip, mainly. At low speeds the car understeers given that it’s really light and there isn’t much weight up front, and it oversteers as soon as you give it too much gas. But once you get it, there are no surprises. It’s all there in front of you, it’s in your hands. And it’s pure driving pleasure. I could use some more power, as this one has 135bhp to carry 600 kg (driver included), but on the other hand, it’s already enough to beat most bikes on a curvy road, and has a safe limit as well.
The car has never let me down (knock on wood). Every so often the battery is fickle at start-up, but so far that’s about it. I am trying to keep it well-maintained as well, so I’m spending money on it all year long: slowly changing filters, bearings, joints, etc. So in the end, it does cost a bit of money. But honestly, I really don’t care. Whatever it takes. I knew when I bought it that it is definitely not a common car, and that parts would be expensive to ship over from the UK.
Now the car is for sale, sadly, since my work situation in Cyprus isn’t the greatest, and I need to take precautionary measures in case I need to leave the island in a hurry. Nothing’s done yet, and there is still a chance I could keep it longer. But in any case, I have enjoyed every single day of ownership. It’s an amazing source of freedom and all kinds of wonderful sensations, and I am thankful for that. And of course, I am also grateful to my father, who helped me get it here from England.
If I had to buy another car in the future, it would need to be another Caterham. I really can’t go back to anything else. It would be very difficult finding another car with the same handling, classic spirit, power, excitement, and everything else I tried to described here and the feelings that this car raises.
If anyone here is trying to decide between a Seven and something else, go with the Seven. It’s a must-do in your lifetime.
Words and images: Ben O’Bro