The devil rides out in the Caterham Seven R500

You’re looking at Top Gear’s car of the year 2008. If you saw the special episode last month, you’ll remember none of the presenters actually wanted a Caterham R500; they said it was for car nerds.

But it lapped the track faster than a Bugatti Veyron, looked dead exciting doing it and only costs 38 grand, so they couldn’t deny it the top spot. Within five minutes of starting the engine, I knew they’d made the right decision.

  Enlarge   James Martin and the Caterham Seven R500

The Caterham Seven R500 takes a few minutes to get started. You have to clamber in, belt up, reattach the Momo steering wheel (you have to remove it to get in) and press some buttons in the right order as there's no key

Still, does the world really need a 520bhp-per-ton-sports car from Surrey?

The R400 I borrowed two years back was 400bhp-per-ton and that was mental enough – why have we always got to push things further?

It’s the same thing with hotels. We all know five-star hotels are good: that’s the top rating you can get. But then a couple of years back, people started boasting about ‘six stars’. Well, we should have stopped that nonsense when we had the chance. Because now it’s getting ridiculous.

I’ve just stayed in the world’s first ‘seven-star’ hotel, the Burj Al Arab in Dubai. I’ve not just won the lottery: I was there to work, so the organiser put me up in the Burj. This is a place that costs a tenner just to come in and look at the reception – so have a guess what a club sandwich costs? Eighty quid. Eighty English pounds for three poncey slices of bread and a bit of chicken. You don’t want to know what they charge for a suite.

I was in a suite. It had two floors, a great view of the ‘Palm’ archipelago, a desk and a sofa – four sofas, actually – plus a gold-framed TV and remote-controlled everything. As I trudged up the grand staircase, exhausted from my flight, I noticed that the bathroom was bigger than my house. There were two baths in there, a shower, countless sinks and a bidet with a firehose-sized nozzle. I crashed out and woke up a few hours later to the shock of my life: not the TV turning on and curtains opening automatically, but me, stark naked, staring down at myself from the ten-foot, gold-framed mirror on the ceiling. I nearly died from shock.

Detachable Momo steering wheel

Detachable Momo steering wheel

From left to right: Exhaust manifold; and dashboard controls - (top row) hazard lights, windscreen heater, windscreen wipers, (centre row) brake fail indicator, fog lights, windscreen washer, horn, (bottom row), warning alarm light, heater fan, main beam, start button

It got weirder. You can walk out and wander down the beach, but if you want to come back in it’s like entering Fort Knox. I slipped past two security gates, but then came the ID check – room key, driving licence, passport, blood group and DNA sample (pretty much) before the butler would consider letting me back in my room. Oh yes, there was a butler.

So would I go back? Hell, yes. It’s insanely over-the-top, but that’s what I loved about it.

And that’s how I feel about the Caterham. It’s swifter than Bugattis, Enzos and McLarens but you could never call it practical. The carbon race seats were designed to fit a child – well, not someone my size, anyway. I could only fit my fat backside into them by removing the doors and stowing them in the boot, which leaves about a wallet’s-worth of luggage space.

Looking around, you don’t get much else in the way of extras: carbon wheel arches, yellow paint and a little numbered plaque that sets you aside from all the other Caterham owners in the world. Mine was only the second R500 off the production line.

Enlarge   James Martin at the wheel

James at the wheel

It takes a few minutes to get started. You have to clamber in, belt up, reattach the Momo steering wheel (you have to remove it to get in) and press some buttons in the right order as there’s no key. Keys weigh a couple of grams after all, which just wouldn’t do. But don’t worry about all that, because there’s nothing – I repeat nothing – that will beat this in a point-to-point journey.

Floor it in first and the wheels immediately light up, continuing to shimmy around as the gear-change indicator flashes and you shift into second. The power slide keeps going even in third. I was cackling like a madman.

Straight out of the door I hit… well, I don’t know what I hit because the digital thingy wasn’t in speedo mode, but let’s say Star Trek Warp Factor Nine. The official figures say 0–60mph in 2.88 seconds, but all I remember is mind-scrambling noise, vibration,

speed-blur and the sense that you’ll keep accelerating until you’re travelling faster than light. Actual top speed is 150mph but you’ll leave Sunday lunch in the passenger seat way before then.

If all this sounds scary, it is. Terrifying on public roads, in fact. The brakes are hefty, but not enough to haul the tremendous speed off. With paper-thin side panels and no modern driver aids (they’d weigh too much) your brain and body get flooded with survival chemicals, which is draining – but on a track that’s exactly what you’re after. Cornering is as immediate as the acceleration: just throw it in and it goes round, although it’s up to you what happens next.

When the Stig took it round the Top Gear track he was drifting on every corner, just a hair’s breadth from spinning out, and that’s what Caterham customers want.

Which is a bit uncool, to be honest. This car so far exceeds most people’s driving abilities that most of us would give up. It takes a certain kind of ego to want to master it. Not the kind that women find attractive, either: if shaving half a second off a lap time is more important to you than having a windscreen, they’ll find someone else to drive them down the shops. Even some Caterham fans would question whether this is worth £37,000 when a 290bhp-per-ton Superlight is only £21,000.

But I guarantee that if you owned one of these things you’d love it. Thank God there are some car-makers on the planet sticking two fingers up at the recession, the oil crisis and global warming.

The R500 is excessive, unnecessary and probably the work of the devil – but in a race, the red bloke with horns will kick your a*** every time. I’m on his side.


Enlarge   Racing harness and buckle seat

Racing harness and buckle seat


Engine 2.0-litre Ford Duratec four-cylinder engine with Caterham Powertrain (CPT) tuning

Transmission Six-speed manual

Power 263bhp

Max torque 240Nm at 7,200rpm

Top speed 150mph

0–60mph in 2.88 seconds

Kerb weight 506kg

Standard 13in alloys with race-developed Avon CR500 tyres, superlight suspension, limited slip differential, carbon dash, nose cone, wings, seats and wind deflector, four-point harnesses, quick-release Momo steering wheel, change-up lights, Stack scrolling digital dashboard, keyless ignition, ventilated front brake discs with four-pot calipers

Optional track modifications Sequential gearbox (£2,950), launch control (£350), carbon induction airbox (£450), suspension package including Eibach springs and dampers (£1,250)

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By Simon Lewis

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