Monday, July 23, 2007

1700 by 7

Another complete pictorial, the tale of my roundtrip by Caterham from NYC to the Tail of the Dragon at Deal's Gap, NC.

It turns out, you can get used to just about anything.

When Jon Cohen showed up on the morning of July 5th in his 2002 Caterham SV, my first reaction was panic. Admittedly, I’d been panicking lightly ever since USA7s Club president Al Navarro hooked me up with Jon for a ride from New York to Deal’s Gap, North Carolina, for a 50th anniversary meet of Lotus 7s and variants. But when I looked down on the thing while taking an overhead photo, I went into full “what the hell did I get myself into?” mode. Especially after Jon showed me how he likes to drive the day before, with a little dodge-and-weave action through Queens at super-legal speeds in his Impreza.

I’m not unfamiliar with small vehicles. I regularly drive an assortment of puny British things like the Lotus Europa, as well as early American cars, which tend to be intimate in their accommodations. A couple of years ago, I did spent a day rallying an MG TD, but we were talking about dicing it up with the semis on America’s superhighways through eight states in a car you can park—the long way—in the trunk of a Civic. A careless knuckle slipped out the window will meet the pavement, and conceivably get run over by the rear tire, which is more or less in the small of the back.

At least Jon’s car was an SV. Us big, fat Americans had been asking for something a little more accommodating than the original “Classic;” as a result, we had an extra three inches of width and four inches of body to play with. We still had to lash my bag to the rollbar, with a small camera bag jammed under the knees of the passenger. I worked my way over the sill and into the thin sport seat, and committed myself to the road.

Caterham started as a Lotus dealership, and began building their Lotus 7 in 1973, after Lotus discontinued it. Caterham Cars’ Graham Nearn, who saw his livelihood evaporating, negotiated with the factory to acquire the rights to the car, as well as portions of the tooling, and started producing a new Series IV Lotus 7, although they soon switched to the more popular Series III bodystyle.

A variety of engines have appeared in Caterham 7s over the years, mostly either small Ford or MG Rover inline-fours. Jon’s version continues that heritage, with a Ford Zetec two-liter, of Contour or Mondeo heritage, but backed up with a close-ratio Cosworth five-speed and a very, very high-geared rearend. Top speed is not where it’s at; getting to 60 in a heartbeat and then having all kinds of fun, is.

Thankfully, even Jon had to respect New York’s AM drive time, to the extent that any New Yorker respects any traffic. The tight, broken arterials taking us out of the city were a tease. It would have been ideal conditions for the car’s point-and-shoot abilities, but the badly broken pavement nixed thoughts of pushing any limits, so I held onto my teeth and enjoyed a view of the Jersey barriers from below. Your average Jersey barrier, by the way, is 32 inches tall.

As we passed into New Jersey, Jon opened it up a little. His SV is equipped with full weather protection in the form of a snap-on fabric roof with two steel bows, and lift-off molded doors with plastic windows. They make a huge difference at speed, but you still can’t hold a conversation over 60, and at 70 or so you’ll get your hat sucked off. We settled into a cruising vibe at 65, which is around 3,400 rpm in fifth gear. The nice thing about hanging out in that neighborhood it that there’s a lot of power on tap; on the downside, the nine-gallon gas tank empties within 200 miles.

So once we were out of urban traffic, and for good measure out of New Jersey, Jon flipped me the keys at a fill-up. He’s the third owner of the SV, but bought it with fewer than 1,000 miles showing. Before our trip, he’d added another 5,000, and we had to lift off the seat cushion and bang on the adjustment mechanism a few times before the seat slid back enough for me to fit in.

In this early generation of SV, Caterham hadn’t developed a separate body for left-hand-drive markets, and the driver’s side is actually tighter than the passengers. On both sides, it’s got a combination of your standard inertia-reel retractable seatbelts and four-point racing restraints. Almost unfailingly, the central lock of the harness ends up underneath you when you crawl in, so you have to fish it out and let it flop on your lap while seated.

I was fooled by the quick clutch takeup and short throws at first. No stalling, but not what anyone would call smooth. Jon pointed out that the key was driving fast and shifting fast. You don’t say?

Learning to live with the car’s height hadn’t been too tough, and fitting into the seat and tunnel merely required some yogic discipline, but driving with a useless passenger-side mirror, minute driver’s-side and totally obscured aftermarket rearview was a leap of faith. There was really only one answer: Drive like jerk and make sure there’s no one faster than yourself on the road who could come up in your blind spot, i.e., everywhere not in front of the car. That worked well for about ten minutes, then even with earplugs, I just couldn’t take the buffeting any more and backed off.

It’s not a bad car to cruise in, just loud and it beats the hell out of you, both physically and emotionally. There’s no dead spot in the steering, and it will follow grooves and anything else in the road wherever they lead. Wind from a passing semi? Not fun. But pay attention, keep your hands on the wheel and you can send it wherever you want. It’s a brick at speed but the gearing makes a quick passing shot into any gap easy. It’s not even as small as it seems: Wheelbase and track are comparable to a modern small car, it’s just that there’s no bodywork

It bakes your feet against the aluminum firewall, and the exhaust is on the driver’s side as well. The narrow footwell means no room for anything but pedals. When things are calm you can stick your left foot behind the clutch, but any time anything looked suspicious, I pulled it out and sat with my knee in my armpit.

The weird thing was, at some point after my butt went numb, I was watching the cycle fenders rise and fall and suddenly it seemed like a perfectly normal means of transportation. Why not drive one around all the time? People drove millions of early Beetles around all the time and they didn’t hurt you any worse than this. The SV even has heat. Lots and lots of heat.

We arrived at the 7s meet site around 2AM, Jon easing his way through thick fog on the infamous Tail of the Dragon to the Fontana Village resort. Sure, the weekend at the Tapoco Lodge was great, but I spent it behind the lens and not behind the wheel, aside from a single trip in a Miata-powered Westfield, so it was actually the trip back I was waiting for. I would have flown home if I’d known. Heck, I’d have settled for a scooter.

Three miles. We made it three miles.

It looked like a chunk of wood in the road; it turned out to be a chunk of one of the cliffs lining the road, but it didn’t matter. Jon swung right to keep it away from the oil pan, it whanged the alloy undertray but good, and the ignition cut out. It had ripped out the rear O2 sensor and about three feet of wiring, which the ECU didn’t like one bit. We pushed it back down the road to a pull off and waited.

Now, on the weekends, Deal’s Gap is lousy with cars, bikes, trikes and anything else. On a weekday, it reverts to the distant backwoods of the Smoky Mountains. This was Monday. After a couple of vain attempts to get somewhere bypassing the circuit, Jon flagged down a truck heading into town—the nearest spot with cel service was a good 20 miles away.

I’ve seen Deliverance. I know what comes next. I listened to the cicadas, I sweated profusely. A truck stopped to warn me there was “a great big bear” around the next corner and I shouldn’t walk that way. Flies…sweating…dead car.

A couple hours later Jon returned with a wrecker, and we pulled the fiberglass nose section off. The wrecker boys looked at the light tubing, the alloy radiator, walked around the car a few times, and decided it was a job for the flatbed, so they headed off to their HQ, about an hour away, to make the call. Three more hours passed.

Of course, while fate could allow one guy to stand by the side of the road for a couple of hours by himself worrying about bears, chiggers and heat exhaustion, two guys had each other for company. Thus the thunderstorms, one after another. We threw the top up and shoved all our gear inside, and retreated to the nearest tree. Eventually, the flatbed showed up and I got another ride down the Dragon, this one in a Ford F-350 to Robbinsville, North Carolina. The 02 sensor was a stock Ford part and we’d found enough bits that they could figure out what was what, so at noon the next day we headed north.

It had rained a little on the way down, and with light rain the answer, as it is with most 7 questions, is to go faster. That only works up to a point, however, and we played hide and seek (mostly seek) with another afternoon of thunderstorms all the way into Virginia. Putting the top up is a pain because we had to repack all the gear each time, but it only takes a couple of minutes. The problem is, it’s a hot car to begin with, and add two bodies, 90-degree external heat and a whole lot of moisture and we were longing for the cool, refreshing heat of a North Carolina noon in July.

Thankfully, we only had to do that eight or nine times. By midnight I was mixing with adolescent partygoers on the highway in New Jersey. I turned it over to Jon at our last gas stop before the city and we entered the Lincoln Tunnel at 4:08 AM, the car still alive and well, a perfect excuse to let it out a little and make the tile walls sing our four-cylinder song.

Destination, Times Square, 4:15 AM. Homeland Security or not, at that time of the night you’re welcome to park a car anywhere you want and if you see a utility truck that would make a good photo platform, go for it. Even then, we were answering questions from onlookers as we had for the last week. Yes, it’s a real car. Yes it’s fast, yes, it’s fun.

It’s more fun than you can imagine. Almost every 7 owner competes with their car, from autocross on up, but few spend more than an hour or two at the wheel at any given time. As the mileage on Jon’s car showed, that doesn’t add up to much. Thirty-odd hours in the car gives you a different impression. With better seats and maybe a little footwell ventilation, there isn’t anything a 7 won’t do. If you’re prepared to put up with a little discomfort and maybe bend yourself to the car, rather than the other way around, you can come to a sort of agreement: You agree to suffer a little, but the car’s part of the deal is that it will do anything you ask. I can live with that.