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February 1994 (CMM 70) and Alwyn Brice went in search of paradise - and ended up with sand in his teeth...

SOMETHING FOR THE WEEKEND...THE CATERHAM 7

"YOU'RE GOING WHERE?" they demanded.

"In a what?" they queried.

"When?" they asked.

"You're off your chump!" they concluded.

But fortunately, dear reader, the conversation didn't end there. In an attempt to bring to readers of "CMM" an update on a classic that is currently celebrating its 35th anniversary, your intrepid scribe set aside a weekend in order to sample this piece of British history.

The job? To try out the latest in the long line of Lotus/Caterham 7s. But instead of bringing back a story complete with pictures of a car stripped bare and basking in sunshine, I decided that it was about time that someone did the unmentionable to Caterham and took their car abroad - in November.

It's true. I've a file on these cars back home, one that has been garnered over the last eight years or so. And in each and every case, someone has taken the car away and disposed of the hood and managed to find the sun. That's all very well but we Brits know that summer is usually relegated to that brief three days somewhere in August when, quite without warning, there are blue skies everywhere and life takes on a more tolerable aspect. So, faced with that reality, what does a car as impractical as a Caterham behave like out of season, when the deck chairs are locked up and the candy floss man has gone home? It's something that's never even whispered about but I felt it time to lift the lid on life with a Caterham at the year's end.

Consequently, it wasn't overly difficult to book out a car towards the middle of November and with the date duly agreed, all I had to do was secure a place on the Hover between Dover and Calais. The object was to take Madame, luggage (mostly hers) self and the car down to the Pas de Calais where we have the use of a friend's half-timbered cottage. We'd leave on the Friday afternoon and arrive just after 6pm. And we'd see just what reality was like in a tiny two-seater...

The Friday started off wet - which I didn't really need. I amused myself driving up towards Dartford by watching the antics of a Porsche 911's spoiler which twitched up and down as he negotiated the slow traffic. Hopefully the WHOLE weekend wouldn't be like this.

Jez Coates handed me the keys to what he sees as being one of the company's bread and butter cars as it goes into the 21st century. I'm not sure that "bread and butter" is the correct nomenclature for the little metallic blue bolide that awaited me outside the factory: this, the K-series car, boasts the 1.4, all alloy Rover twin-cam that has 16 valves and a cat. To make matters more interesting, the car assigned to me had the SuperSport engine upgrade (which involves adding a chip and fiddling with plenum chambers and the like). The result is 130 bhp in a car that weighs just 520kg.Caterham 7 Picture

As if that wasn't enough, on this pre-production car a six-speed gearbox had been installed. This, at the time of writing, is almost ready for release to the public and is the result of much research and development by Caterham's backroom boys. There's no longer anything Ford about the unit: housing, gears and drivetrain have all been developed by Caterham themselves.

Under the light drizzle near Dartford I admired the colour and took in Jez's advice: "You can rev this all the way and you won't hurt it." Having explained the requirements of my trip, I was pleased to see Jez hand over a luggage rack and a hood roll: these latter would hopefully be proving their worth once we were two-up.

Getting into a Caterham with its hood erected is something of an esoteric art. Left leg into the footwell, crane your head and shoulders in, look directly at the nether regions of your partner (real or imaginary) and then bend and swing your right leg through the little door gap. After this, ease said leg into the well. It's awkward but it works. Once in, though, it's enjoyably cosy with plenty of head room (I'm close to 6') and the latest cars have an amended pedal-box layout which allows for a little more leg room. More importantly, the seats are now sculpted and have fitted headrests. Although those of the test car were clothed in vinyl, they were superbly comfortable and have the benefit of containing removable horizontal sections which can be adjusted to suit for optimum comfort. The thighs are also well supported, which goes to further improve an already reclined driving position.

I was already familiar with the 7's dash, having driven several over the last few years. But for newcomers, it should be pointed out that the flick switch and tumbler rule - and there are just five dials to glance over: speedo, tachometer, oil, water and petrol. The most important switch is immediately to left of the wheel, just a finger's length away - the indicator. Left or right it can be flicked and it doesn't self-cancel; after all, we are talking of tradition here. The car was also kitted out with a thick, tiny, chunky Momo steering wheel: yes please, Santa, I want one.

Eager to get back home and pack, I prepared to leave Jez. A Vecta alarm necessitates a quick insertion of the coded key into a slot on the dash after which I had just a few seconds to insert the ignition key into the barrel which is concealed under the dash. Failure to do so means you have to start afresh. Once the ignition light comes on, a noticeable whirring behind the driver's right shoulder signals the fuel pump; turn the key a little further and this ticking is lost in the bellow that heralds internal combustion. And I do mean bellow: the car I borrowed will be silenced further before production but with the hood up, it's like being in an echo-chamber.

Slot the brushed alloy knob into first and slowly release the heavy clutch, at the same time taking care not to over-rev the light throttle. It takes a bit of practice, smoothly juggling these two, if you're to avoid a kangaroo start. Almost immediately you hit the traffic around the Bexley area but once you learn not to be intimidated by lorries and Volvo estates, life gets easier. The trip home was uneventful, since it was mostly motorway: the droning of the engine and the constant sixth gear are not what Caterhams are all about. No, France was to be the testing ground for this little baby.

Packing, of course, took but a few minutes. Even without a luggage rack we managed to put bed linen, a camera bag, tripod, suitcase, two plastic bags and a soft shoulder bag into the boot; our jackets were stuffed on top of this pile. It's a lot easier if you strip back the hood and load up and then replace the hood when the accroutrements are in situ. We learned that quite quickly. Fastening down the hood poppers, though, is another matter - the trick is to snap them all on then raise the hood sticks from within. You'll never do it otherwise, unless you've outwitted some of those TV Gladiator types. I hadn't, needless to say.

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Another tedious hour brought us into Dover and finally off the motorway. The first hiccough was encountered at the port when the lady with the mirror on the pole couldn't persuade it under the car to check for suspicious bulges. My wife's cosmetic bag apart, we declared we had no unusual packages aboard - and had to tell the security man exactly what it was we were driving.

The hover, on this occasion, was mercifully quick and once into Calais we were able to clear les douanes without stopping. Out on to smooth, wide French roads at last and a chance to enjoy the car.

To be fair, though, our drive down skirted Boulogne and the N1 is fairly humdrum until you clear that port. The road then gets more interesting as you head inland towards Montreuil. The late afternoon was mild and we didn't require the heater: there's a simple push/pull valve under the dash that allows an ambient temperature or a hotter environment. Touch the two speed fan, though, and the cabin becomes Hades in the middle of a barbeque during a hot spell. We stopped briefly in Montreuil to load up with croissants before continuing our journey. (How do they make croissants so well in France?)

Just half an hour later, amid encroaching drizzle, we arrived at our destination. Struggling to get out of the car in the dark (you have to take it in turns), we were both surprised to feel quite fresh. Only the ringing in our ears and the frenetic tick-tick-tick of the engine cooling down broke the rural silence. We were already looking forward to the morrow.

With typical forethought, the Saturday dawned grey - and became progressively greyer, wetter and more windy. We had breakfast and frowned at the lowering horizon. A lesser writer would have thrown in the sponge but I didn't. Instead, I took the thing and cleaned the exterior of the 7. In the event, I needn't have bothered, for about two miles down the road it was filthy again.

It's a funny thing, the aerodynamics of these cars ( or rather the lack of them): spray is flung forwards by the tyres and ends up coming back over the clam wings and depositing itself everywhere.

With lights on and struggling to keep the car on an even course over the sharp camber of the B roads, we made our way to Abbeville to see the famous cathedral. Again it was a dire journey as the roads were fairly straight and the spray being thrown up by the trundling lorries all but cut out vision beyond about 50 yards. It was also a constant battle to keep the windows from misting up; the 7 has a heated screen, true, but the side windows attract condensation. Arriving in Abbeville we were assailed by a pungent, earthy reek, one that is no stranger to the agricultural hinterland in the area. The processing of sugar beet is big business here and you consequently know when you're in the district as there are either great piles of the stuff along the roadside or factories are processing it, without regard to visitors' noses.

We have a habit, Helen and I, of arriving in French towns at approximately midday and Abbeville proved to be no exception. It promptly closed. We wandered around, fascinated to find none of the Christmas hype that has been par for the course in the UK for the preceding two months. After lunch, a tour of the impressive cathedral (which was swathed in plastic sheeting because of reconstruction work), a couple of shop calls and the rain returned. We decided to try for the coast.

Squeezing back into the 7 (which attracted attention the whole weekend), we left on the NI and passed through Nouvion although we didn't spot the Café René. Perhaps it was shut. The car was behaving itself admirably, willingly pushing the speedo needle up to the 100 without fuss, which I found surprising in view of the high coefficient of drag. The only limiting factors were the wet and the unfamiliar roads. We turned off the N1 at Nempont and reached Berck Plage about 2.45 to be confronted with even wetter weather. But the 7 didn't leak. Despite its unfetching looks with the top up and its fiddly hood and door panels that need to be tucked up into a groove, it remained snug and dry.

Berck Plage is probably the bee's knees in the summer but its vast, empty, wind-swept beach tempts only a few sand-yachts and the odd dog-walker in November. A coffee in town was called for. Much of the front was closed but there was a degree of life in the little side roads out of the freshening wind. Strangely, for a Saturday afternoon, there were few people in evidence.

By about 4pm we'd seen everything and the weather had settled in for the day. The cosy cocoon of the 7 beckoned and we made for Montreuil via the D917.

That evening we dined out in a restaurant, La Garenne, which is to be found at Huby St Leu, just outside Hesdin. A good dinner and a brisk drive home was the optimum way to finish the day.

Sunday. Yes, things did get better! It was one of those rare times, a November morning as mild as early autumn. Looking out at the bedewed 7, I knew that THE TIME HAD COME. The top was coming off, bobble hats were going on and we were going to get our money's worth out of these French highways.

There's only one place to go on a balmy Sunday morning in November: the beach, but more precisely, Le Touquet. It's a lovely drive along the D138 with its sweeping curves, flat roadside and good visibility. The 7 was in its element: a dry surface and plenty of torque enabled it to nip in and out of traffic without loss of power. With the hood down, I expect most who saw us believed we had just escaped from some institution. The noise of the exhaust vanished as if by magic, indeed it sounded quite docile as we buzzed along, relishing our good fortune. The camber on the road required some concentration, though, and the 7 did behave rather like a grasshopper with St Vitus' Dance on more than one occasion. Two problems reared their heads on the morning. One, which gear to choose for roundabouts (when you've got six and the ability to pull away in fourth from virtual standstill, it's a tough choice) and two, how to drive at the legal limit in built-up areas. That is hard because the engine begs your indulgence all the way until sixth gear, for only then is it happy.

Some readers may question the concept of six gears and indeed, I myself was a little sceptical at first. The only car I've driven before with six was a BMW 850CSi and that had so much torque that you could change up through the box and be happy by the time you'd reached 50mph. The philosophy behind the 7 is to recreate the car of yore; go back far enough and you'll find the car in Lotus 7 Mk 2 guise with the options of a Ford 1172cc sidevalve engine or a 55bhp Morris Minor A series block . You needed the gears in those days to extract the performance from the car - and such was the received wisdom of the car I had.

Le Touquet is worth a stop and a wander, whether you come to gape at the rich (in season, at the Casino) or just want to potter around the back streets and admire the greenery. The front was less bleak in the sun and we found an unprepossessing restaurant on the beach which served up a spectacular seafood meal for a tenner a head. The 7 found many admirers in the car park, from old ladies to little boys with sticky hands. The car has that kind of effect on people.

Alas, all too soon it was the witching hour and an exhilirating drive back (and only one caution from a flic on a motobike heading in the opposite direction) admirably settled our meal. The 7 threw itself wholeheartedly into corners, oblivious of recognised limits of adhesion, and found ordinary traffic a chore. Most caught a glimpse of its tiny frontal area in their rear view mirrors and obligingly inched over a little. The few that tried to hold on to our spare wheel soon realised that bends had to be taken with a little less panache if they were to remain on the tarmac. For the 7 has virtually no peers in the cornering game, especially in France.

Back at base a swift loading up and locking-up prior to hurtling off (you just try driving the SuperSport in a relaxed way) up to Calais to catch the flight back. There was a little room for some duty-free as we waited on the front for the huge hover to coast in. Five hundred frantic miles accompanied by big smiles: that really summed it up. There were very few people travelling on the hover and absolutely no 7s whatever, apart from ours.

After all, people don't use them unless the sun is beating down... do they?

Alwyn Brice

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