James May

James on the Caterham R500

James and the Caterham R500

We spend a lot of time on Top Gear talking about speed, but most of it is hogwash. Figures like 180mph are all very well, but, in the real world, speed is simply distance divided by time, which makes the Caterham R500 quite a slow car.

This is because it took me half an hour to get in, and that has to be included in the final figure. I stood on the seat, as usual, extended my legs forward, and my jacket slipped over the headrest, so I looked as though I'd put it on without removing the hanger first. So I got out again.

Next time, I went all the way in, but now I'd sat on the harness, and because the driving seat is actually narrower than me, I couldn't get to it without getting out again.

Now more experienced, I managed to climb in with the straps dangling over the edges, but when I came to put them on, I realised I hadn't slackened them off enough, and I couldn't reach the adjustment tabs because they were underneath me. So out I got.

I can't now remember why I had to get out again for the fourth time, but I think it was something to do with the steering wheel. When I was finally in and buckled up, I noticed that the steering wheel comes off to make getting in easier. I wish I hadn't noticed this, because I'm always overcome with a strange urge to take it off while I'm driving along, to see if I can get it back on before I crash.

Now I was on my way, and something struck me. It was a large piece of gravel. The R500 has no windscreen, but why, I'm not sure. A windscreen can't be that heavy, and even though a Caterham windscreen is just a flat section of cast-off house glazing, it can't slow the car down by that much. No more than my head, I reckon, judging from the turbulence around my Peter Fonda sunglasses and the almost-instantaneous loss of my hat.

After some miles - I didn't record how many, because I was concentrating on looking for low-flying sparrows and scaffolding poles falling from the backs of builders' lorries - it occurred to me that I was probably supposed to drive the R500 in a crash helmet. That would be a good idea, because it would hide my face, for while Caterhams are undoubtedly great fun, you don't want anyone to see you in one. They're like fat people and mopeds*, if that terrible old joke is to be believed. But I'd still feel like a plonker, so I carried on as I was, using my face as protection.

"After some miles it occurred to me that I was probably supposed to drive the R500 in a crash helmet"

The R500 is a sort of extreme interpretation of an already fairly extreme car. The straight-cut gears and clutch make a noise like someone searching for a spanner in a toolbox. The bucket seat seems to be, quite literally, a bucket. There is nowhere for your arms. And there's no windscreen. For some reason, the buttons for the wipers, washer and screen-heating element remain, and these mock you from the dash as you go. After 20 miles, they assume the proportions of dinner plates.

This is not a quiet car. It makes the mechanical noises your car would make if they weren't cynically suppressed in the name of so-called refinement. You are reminded of what's going on underneath with every gearchange, so it's sort of educational.

So the R500 does make sense, if you're looking to satisfy some desire for the tactile and visceral pleasures of driving around, and, to be honest, it's not good for much else. Caterham is quick to quote Chapman's old mantra that power makes you fast on the straight bits, but lightness makes you fast everywhere else. The R500 weighs about the same as a late Seventies F1 Lotus, which can be expressed mathematically as the square root of sod-all.

Other supercar makers boast of having made a superleggera by removing the carpets and the electric window motors, but a Caterham really is stripped out. Or, rather, it isn't, because none of it was ever there in the first place. Except the windscreen. Since this Caterham is very light and has power as well, it's fast all over the place.

Eventually, and to my deep distress, I had to admit that I was rather enjoying myself. This clearly wouldn't do, so I returned home, roused Woman and installed her in the passenger seat. Here is someone who thinks the Nissan Z-car is "horrid" and the Ferrari F430 is "pikey". She thought the Caterham was brilliant.

And it is, and for the simple reason that it's funny. In fact, this may be the only funny supercar in the world. I think I want one. 

* Good for a ride, provided no one finds out


James May, Column

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