If the late actor Patrick McGoohan, the figure six and the statement “No man is just a number” mean anything to you, then the Lotus Seven will need no introduction. For those to whom all of the above is completely meaningless, I am referring to the cult 1960s television series The Prisoner, in which McGoohan played a freshly resigned British agent who was captured and incarcerated in an isolated seaside town known as “the Village”. While still a free man, “Number Six” – as he was called in the Village – flashed about London in a green and yellow Lotus Seven carrying the now-legendary registration number KAR 120C.
To say the Seven is an icon of sports-car design is, for once, no exaggeration. It was created by Lotus founder Colin Chapman in 1957 as a low-budget, road-legal club racer, which was sold either road-ready or in kit form, the latter being exempt from the purchase tax that applied to complete cars. But since the rules stated that the inclusion of assembly instructions negated the tax-free status, the lateral-thinking Chapman sold Sevens with directions on how to dismantle them – which buyers simply had to follow in reverse. Despite being bare-bones basic (luxuries such as doors and a heater were eschewed), the car attracted a strong following among enthusiasts who embraced its excellent handling, decent power-to-weight ratio and, above all, the fact that it provided a true, seat-of-the-pants driving experience.
Lotus carried on building the Seven until 1973, by which time Chapman had become more concerned with the racing exploits of Team Lotus and opted to sell the rights to produce the Seven to the car’s UK agent, Caterham Cars, which has continued to make them ever since. Although Caterham has developed the Seven over the decades, it has been careful to maintain the raw appeal that made the design such a success in the first place, while improving performance and efficiency through the use of a wide range of modern components. Buyers can now choose from various combinations of engines, gearboxes and suspension setups to essentially tailor-make a Seven to their own requirements – be that for long-distance touring, occasional weekend blasts or all-out competition.
Until now, the ultimate Caterham Seven was the Superlight R500 (from £42,495), which features a 263bhp, 2-litre Ford engine, making the car capable of 150mph with a 0-to-60mph time of an eyeball-searing 2.8 seconds, thanks to a remarkable power-to-weight ratio of 520bhp per tonne – making it a match for some versions of the Bugatti Veyron 16.4 hypercar.
But if that isn’t enough, Caterham now presents the maddest, baddest, most thrill-inducing Seven of all time: the utterly barking 620R, with a supercharged 2-litre Ford engine producing 310bhp, which is transmitted to the rear wheels through a six-speed, race-car-style sequential gearbox. The top end is electronically limited to 155mph, and the 0-to-60mph dash is even quicker than that of the R500.
It was a grey day when I arrived at Caterham’s main showroom – situated, rather unexpectedly, bang in the town centre of Crawley, West Sussex – outside of which was parked the 620R that I was about to test.
“Are those the only shoes you’ve got?” asked the firm’s sales executive, Dominic Lee. “If so, you won’t be able to drive it – they’re too wide.” This wasn’t so much an affront to my choice of footwear, rather a reference to the fact that the 620R is designed with no concessions to comfort or convenience. The clutch, brake and accelerator are so close together that the trimmest possible shoes must be worn in order to operate them.
Once I was correctly kitted out, Lee demonstrated the proper technique for getting into the vehicle (it really is a tight fit in there) harnessed me up and wished me luck. “Oh, and if it starts to rain, I wouldn’t recommend putting the roof on,” he said. “The heat from the engine will just steam up the windows.” At least there was the optional windscreen…
I was just about to fire the thing up when out of the showroom walked none other than John Lyon, the legendary high-performance driving instructor and winner of no fewer than 96 motor races. “Have fun in it, but I do advise considerable caution,” he warned. “It’s perfectly capable of spinning the rear wheels in third gear, and that’s on a dry road...”
Point taken, I gingerly flicked the start switch, depressed the clutch and engaged first with the characteristically loud, mechanical clunk of a sequential gearbox, which, instead of using the conventional dog-leg pattern, simply requires the lever to be pulled directly backwards to change up and pushed forwards to change down. In the 620R, gear changes can be effected under full acceleration without using the clutch. Slipping out into the traffic as the first spots of drizzle began to fall, I actually felt slightly foolish being strapped into this spartan, road-going racer without a roof, when everyone else seemed to be going about their Saturday-morning business in the comfort of their sensible saloons. But once beyond Crawley’s limits, the point of the 620R quickly revealed itself: this is a car that’s designed for the pure joy of driving, nothing more and nothing less. Its open cockpit gives the feel of a vintage aircraft, its truly blistering acceleration surpasses that of many a superbike and its handling limits are clearly way beyond anything likely to challenge it on a public road.
Despite having Lyon’s warning echoing in my head, I gradually began to explore the car’s upper rev range to the accompaniment of an ever-louder howl from the side-mounted exhaust pipe, which terminates about 25 inches below the driver’s ear.
I soon discovered that the 620R joins together corners like nothing I have ever driven before, providing a fabulously engaging antidote to the somewhat cosseted progress of the typical 21st-century supercar. Every lump in the road is felt – both through the steering and the driving seat – and the sense of connection with the pure, electronically unhindered mechanics of the thing is enhanced by an ongoing series of whirrs, crackles, pops and clunks that emit from the engine, the supercharger and the gearbox.
My 120-mile round-trip in the car took me via the home of a friend who shares my affliction with loving any car that is overly fast, utterly impractical, compellingly low-tech or generally unnecessary. Despite being beyond pensionable age, he didn’t need to be asked twice to take the wheel. When we returned to his driveway, he killed the engine and stared silently at the car’s spartan, carbon-fibre dashboard. “Well, what do you think?” I asked.
“In a word? Frightening. In two words, absolutely terrifying,” came the considered reply.
“So, you wouldn’t want one, then?”
“Of course I would.”
“Even at £50,000?”
“£50,000? For a machine that gives you all the thrills of driving, flying and motorcycling? And with only one fuel tank and one lot of maintenance? That, my boy, is what’s known as a bargain.”