Saturday, 3 September 2011

Gandy Drives: Caterham Supersport

The model

There comes a time when a man suddenly realises that his youthful bravado is no more and he has grown old and ever so slightly tame. My moment came when I collected what turned out to be one of the most significant cars I'll ever drive: the Caterham Supersport.

The very British Goodwood Festival of Speed is now said to be the finest motoring event in the world. I wanted the top driver's car produced by a British Company, so Caterham was the obvious choice: it suited the exuberant, slightly rebellious nature of of the festival. As I entered the small Caterham offices in Surrey, dodging the numerous tourists taking pictures of the unique-looking cars outside, I already had this review written in my head: a fast, unpredictable, big toy that really belongs, like a lot of the British car industry, in the history books. However, I couldn't have been more wrong.

The interior

My testicular shrinkage moment occurred when I met the delightful Caterham team. "Do you have a helmet?" they asked. "Or any waterproofs?" My answer of "Er, no", with a slightly terrified look on my face, was met with a not-too-confident "Well, the weather looks fine and your sunglasses will protect your eyes." Once outside, the relevance of their questions then became apparent. I was taking away with me the Supersport, the most uncompromising of the line-up. No weather protection, no windscreen and 140bhp track-biased.

As I lowered myself into the composite race seats and struggled pathetically with the four-point race harness while being shown the main points of the car (which turn out to be a starter button, indicator switch and, well, that's about it), I really did feel an alarming sense of doom.

However, with no shoes on (you need racing shoes, to be honest), I pressed the clutch, engaged first gear and set off. With only a pair of Persols and a TAG Heuer Monaco to protect me (Steve McQueen would have been proud, at least), I embarked on what turned out to be probably the most entertaining and thrilling weekend of driving I have ever had on public roads, in any car.

The drive

There are a few things one quickly learns while driving the Supersport- in my case, the hard way.

Firstly, rain hurts at motorway speeds when you have no protection. Secondly, stones hurt even more. Thirdly, when you are so low to the ground, trucks can't see you in their mirrors, making for more than a few squeaky bum moments. Fourthly, if you don't adopt a two-wheel-on-two-wheel-off approach to speed bumps, you will get beached. And finally, if you don't have a windscreen, where the hell do you put your parking ticket?

But frankly, who cares? This car is about driving. If you want to know what steering, throttle and brakes should really feel like, this is it. Everything is undiluted perfection. The smallest of inputs trigger a response from the Supersport. Everything becomes an extension of your body: even the indicator switch is activated with a flick of your index finger without your hand leaving the gearstick. While 140bhp doesn't sound much. and wouldn't be acceptable in a supermini nowadays, in a car weighing 520kg the Torquey Ford Sigma engine provides an ample 0-60 time of 4.9 seconds, which proves accessible from any gear. The rasping from the side exhausts, literally a few feet from your ear, only adds to the feeling that you are in a stripped-out track day car - which isn't far from the truth.

The verdict

You can't compare this to other cars, so it's pointless to try and do so. This car is for purists: people who don't care about status symbols, iPods, DVDs, ESP, ASR, satnav etc. This car has reminded me why I love driving so much, why I cherish the freedom of the automobile. On the right road, on the right day, this car is extraordinary. It's an event, an occasion. Children point, women smile, guys give you the thumbs-up. It seems to bring joy not only to the driver, but also to people around it. It draws unbelievable amounts of attention.

At £23K factory-built (£20K to have a go yourself), I'm struggling to see where that cost comes in. But when you compare it to other Caterhams in the range at £35K-£40K, it almost seems a bargain. Well, it would at £18K anyhow. But then they are one of the least-depreciating cars available: they just don't lose money because of the low volumes and high demand. Truthfully, the summer's day I drove the Supersport down to Goodwood will forever be engrained in my memory. Early morning mist, warm sunshine, man and machine in perfect harmony… The only way I could recommend this car more is if I put my money where my mouth is - so I will. I simply can't live without one in my life. Next stop, Caterham...


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