Caterham Seven 160: a back to basics car for the motoring purist
Caterham’s new Seven 160 strips car design back to its bare essentials. Minimalism is a rare commodity in contemporary car design. The occasional concept walks the talk of a reductivist aesthetic, but the combination of onerous safety requirements and customers’ insatiable demand for gadgets, gizmos and more and more power turn even the smallest city car into a lumbering giant when compared to its predecessor from three decades before.
Caterham doesn’t have any issues with scale. The tiny manufacturer has been turning out bespoke variations of the classic Lotus Seven for fifty-five years, eventually acquiring production rights for the simple design in 1973. In the years that followed, the ultimate lightweight sports car has undergone countless mechanical iterations, with the tubular chassis and aluminium body panels staying essentially the same. The Seven of 2014 is a dead-ringer for its predecessor and the ethos behind the car - lightness and mechanical purity - is undiminished by the decades.
The new 160 model is even closer to its antecedents than other contemporary Caterhams. The company’s model range is straightforward; add a bigger engine, charge more money. The basic car is so light that small power increments can instantly transform the way the car drives, running all the way up to the ferocious Superlight R500, which will out accelerate a Bugatti.
But such is the essential rightness of the chassis and steering that the company decided there was a good case for dialling it down and building a car that handles beautifully without ever becoming a handful for the unwary. Enter the 160. Powered by a tiny 0.7 litre Suzuki engine (usually found in Tokyo-bound Japanese microcars), the 160 has just 80hp. It also weighs in at around 500kg, so there’s never any danger of feeling down on power. Unassisted steering is razor sharp, and there’s undeniable pleasure in watching the open front wheels do their stuff as you turn as sharply as possible into every available bend.
The Seven’s main drawback is its almost pathological aversion to basic creature comforts. Go for the cheapest option and you’ll not only be assembling the car yourself but going without a windscreen, hood or heater. Even with these elements in place, the Seven is not a place for the tall or broad; so constricted is the pedal box that the big-footed must invest in bespoke driving boots. It’s also noisy (hood up or down) and almost unbelievably exposed in the face of modern automotive gigantism - even the lowliest city car looms above you.
But it’s also brilliant. On an open road the pleasures are visceral and immediate, the snappy steering, thrumming turbo-charged engine and slick gearbox helping keep the momentum going and enjoyment up. Even around town, the tiny scale helps with parking and positioning and adds a certain stoic romanticism to every journey. Every element is functional in the extreme, from the popper-operated ’doors’ to the toggle-switch indicators, but this is a big part of its appeal. If you’re able to squeeze in, you’ll find the 160 is a hard place to leave.