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Monday, August 01, 2011

Today I Visited Dartford - Home of Mick Jagger and Caterham Sports Cars

This is the bottom of the line Caterham 7. For $25,000 you can have a hand built sports car capable of beating a corvette in a drag race. The car weighs about 1100 pounds - and no production car can keep up with it thru the turns. It seats 2 - barely - no trunk.

I weed my paper files monthly. I get some sort of perverse joy out of throwing stuff out. But in my files - under "cars" - are a couple brochures about the Lotus Super 7 that remain from 40 years ago. The car was introduced in 1957 by Colin Chapman - I wrote for sales literature - and it survives to this day next to my orange typewritten sheet from Carroll Shelby's Cobra.

When Lotus sold the rights to build the Super 7 to a company in Caterham England - they changed the name to Caterham 7 - but continued building and refining the car. Today the car is made in a small warehouse in Dartford England - and I got my chance to visit the factory today.

Sharon Wilkinson - the reception administrator - gave me a personal VIP of the production line. Normally the area is a bee hive of activity - but this week everyone is one vacation. The place was in pristine shape - cars in line in various states of production. It reminded me of Santa's toy factory when the elves were away taking their naps.

The Caterham is a superfast and superlight production race car. You can drive it on the street and then right onto the track.

What makes the car so fast is that it only weighs about 1100 pounds. Compare that to my 3500 pound Prius. You can order it with a 4 cylinder engine as small as 1.4 litre and 110 horsepower - or as large as 2.3 litres and 265 horsepower. Prices start out at $25,000 for a 110 HP version that will go from 0-60 in 6 seconds and 120 miles per hour - to a fire breather that puts out 265 HP - goes 0-60 in 2.88 seconds and goes 150 miles per hour.

But the real forte of these cars is the handling - they corner like they are on rails. It is the first production car since the AC Shelby Cobra to exceed 1 G - one gravity - on the skid pad. That means on a corner it is pushing you as hard to the side as gravity holds you down. This is Formula One and Indy quality performance.

For 40 years - I coveted one of these babies. I remember them kicking the crap out of everybody in the hill climbs back in Pennsylvania at Hershey and Weatherly. The SCCA - Sports Car Club of American - banned them because no one in their class could keep up with them. When I first wanted one - I could never afford it - now that I have the money - I am too old to squeeze in one on a regular basis.

You can have the bottom of the line for $25,000 - all the way up to the dragon at the top - for about $70,000. They build 500 of them a year - and there is an 8 month wait if you order one in your favorite state of tune and color.

Lotus has just announced that they are going back into Formula One racing. They have partnered up with Catherham to promote the race program. This is like the prodigal son coming home to work with his daddy. Lotus has slaughtered the finest calf - and look for a big advertisement promotional windfall.

Two of my favorite things - Caterham and Mick Jagger of The Rolling Stone come from Dartford - but he is another story.

Sharon Wilkinson - reception adminstrator - was a doll and set up a VIP tour for me. She ended up taking me thru the factory - just the two of us.

Lotus and Caterham have teamed up again for F-1 Racing. 40 years ago- the companies parted - now they are back together - hand in hand.

Some countries only allow the Caterham to be imported in a kit configuration. Everything comes in a big box - you do the final assembly.

They use little 4 cylinder engines - mostly Cosworth Fords - putting out 110 to 265 horsepower.

Nose cones and fenders are made of aluminum or carbon fibre fiberglass. They are extremely light weight.

Note - the cars move on little rollers down the assembly line.

Only essential things are under the hood. No AC - no emissions controls - just raw power.

This one is painted in Lotus race car colors - green and gold - one of my favorite combinations.

The factory is in a little industrial park in Dartford. Two small signs is all that shows what goes on in there. I had lunch at a little bar room about a half mile south - the bar maid had on idea what I was talking about. I showed her the sales book - she had amazed. I told her to walk up the road - and take a peek.

Dartford is 20 miles east of our flat in London. I took the tube and then a train - everything on my Oyster card. Mick Jagger lived in this town and went to two schools here. Sharon - my guide - is a big Rolling Stones fan and loved Mick in her youth.

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