“I like nonsense, it wakes up the brain cells. Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living.”
― Dr. Seuss
Colin Chapman. Automotive fantasy, personified.
Winter in Cape Town is supposed to be about wet weather and warm fires in one of the finest wine tourism regions in the world. Although the prior few years didn’t bring the rain that the city is accustomed to, 2018 has been different, with dams being replenished and a feeling of relief literally washing over the Western Cape.
Thankfully, on this particular morning, the rain has stayed away. Drought or not, it’s not every day that you get invited to drive a genuine Caterham.
Excitement grows as we drive from Milnerton towards Constantia, with the sun starting to appear over Durbanville Hills. A freezing cold experience lies ahead, but an exhilarating one as well. We are on our way to drive the legacy of Colin Chapman, founder of Lotus Engineering.
A Lotus Seven has been described to me (admittedly by a retired English teacher) as an “elaborate golf-cart” – Mr. Chapman would probably have been more offended by the former part of the description, rather than the latter. His well-known mantra of “simplify, then add lightness” has inspired car designers for decades. “Elaborate” was never in his vocabulary.
Astonishingly, part of the Lotus Seven story is rooted in tax structuring. Cars supplied as “completely knocked down” or CKD did not attract a tax surcharge at the time, which would have applied if sold in assembled form instead. In a somewhat cheeky move, the tax rule that assembly instructions could not be included with the CKD was circumvented by including disassembly instructions, allowing enthusiasts to follow the instructions in reverse!
With the introduction of the VAT system in 1973, the tax advantage of the kit-built Lotus Seven was lost and Lotus decided to change strategy, focusing on limited series motor racing cars instead. Remaining kits were sold to Caterham Cars in England and Steel Brothers Limited in New Zealand. The last ever Lotus-badged Seven was produced in New Zealand in March 1979.
In an ironic corporate evolution, Steel Brothers Limited today manufacturers heavy vehicles and cranes.
But, what of Caterham? They still manufacture cars. Fast, light ones.
The garage door opens as we enjoy an incredible view of the Southern Suburbs of Cape Town from our position on the ridge just before Ou Kaapse Weg, the beautiful road connecting the Southern Suburbs to the Peninsula. Cape Town is a special place, but even her beauty cannot distract us from the sight in front of us.
Three genuine Caterhams. As if that isn’t enough, a Lotus Excel awaiting a restoration also contributes to a collection that would get any petrolhead excited.
We were tossed the keys to a Caterham Roadsport Prisoner edition. A strange name indeed, but it makes a lot more sense when you learn that it is named after the 1967 TV series, “The Prisoner” where an S2 Lotus Seven featured in the opening titles. On a freezing cold morning, you don’t feel like a prisoner in the Caterham. In fact, you might be wishing for solid walls.
Solitary confinement also starts to become appealing, as the tiny frame of the Caterham doesn’t lend itself to a spacious cabin. The phrase, “rubbing shoulders with people” takes on new meaning in this car.
A nervous start would see us get lost while trying to navigate our way out of the security complex. A handful of very famous South African cricketers apparently live in the same complex. How many people can say they woke up a celebrity with the sweet sound of a Caterham at 6:45am on a dark Sunday morning?
With nerves duly settled and hands already numb from the cold, we embark on the short journey to Capricorn Park, where a group of enthusiasts would be meeting for a photoshoot for a print publication.
Lotus Seven replicas adorn the parking lot, creating a colourful display of petrolhead nirvana. Beanies, gloves and red faces are everywhere, with the welcome smell of coffee emanating from the reception area of our hosts for the morning.
The swarm of Sevens is accompanied by a handful of more recent Lotus creations, including a Europa and an Exige S. A few Harper Type 5s, manufactured by Noordhoek-based Harper Sports Cars as barely road-legal sports cars, take the power-to-weight ratio equation to more extreme levels. A magnificent Jaguar D-Type replica rounds off the celebration of British-inspired engineering.
Dr. Seuss likes nonsense and fantasy. His storytelling appeals to the child in every one of us. We think he would approve of Lotus and of Caterham as Chapman’s true custodian.