One year ago, while on vacation in Colorado, I talked my family into a visit to Caterham's U.S. headquarters in Denver. I expected to be turned away as a nuisance, but was instead welcomed as a fellow enthusiast.
I would like to share my experience, which includes pictures of the first stateside R500 in the process of assembly and otherwise unknown details of a certain British programme's Caterham blunder.
We pick up our tale just after having left Rocky Mountain National Park…
After spending a week at 9,000 feet we decided to ease ourselves back to sea-level by staying in Denver for a couple days. Out of sheer luck, our hotel was only ten minutes from Caterham USA headquarters.
If you're not familiar with these cars, they're the result of years spent perfecting Lotus' Seven roadster. In the early ‘70s Caterham, then a Lotus dealer, purchased the production rights to the super light-weight Seven when Lotus decided to discontinue their own manufacture. Not much has changed in the original design.
I just had to see if I could visit, so I picked up the phone and called Caterham USA. I spoke with Ben Wofford, part of the father-son team that manages both Caterham's US operations and Rocky Mountain Sportscars. He said they really didn't have what you would call a showroom, but something much better.
I entered their sales office and continued through an open door into the garage, the closest thing to a Caterham Mecca this side of the Atlantic: Inside there was a brand-new Caterham in various stages of assembly, a pre-owned Roadsport SV, a stripped-down Lotus Seven body, and a Lotus Type 61. As I walked in Ben was finishing up work on one of the cars. For the next hour we talked as I made my boyish obsession with the cars more than obvious.
Following are the more interesting bits of our conversation:
Sam: Whenever I see the price of a new Caterham, it says without an engine…
Ben: Because it's a kit, you can't bring it in with an engine, because of the EPA regulations. If it has an engine with it, and it's disassembled, it's considered a vehicle and has to pass all the EPA and NHTSA requirements. So then we have to have six airbags, we have to have five mile-per-hour bumpers, we have to have full emissions certification. Whereas these pass an emissions tail-pipe test, they don't have the certification, which is pretty expensive to get. So, we sell them as kits and then you can buy the engine from your Ford dealers. They're about $3,000 brand-new, or you can get one used for $600 or $700. We sell everything but the engine, so all the parts that are on this engine, all the covers, nuts and bolts, tensioners and belts, everything all from the kit. You just need to buy the aluminum engine from Ford and then put the Caterham parts on, and it's ready to go. And it doesn't include the transmission. It's just the Caterham six-speed or the five-speed, which you can find from all different sources. Five-speeds are around $1,100. Six-speeds, with the exchange rate right now, there probably around $3,400.
Sam: I remember there was this one Top Gear episode where they tried to assemble…
Ben: Where they built one before the Stig got there, yeah. My buddy, who's the sales technician, he does car delivery, inspections, all the press cars, he said that chassis had to go back to the fabricator to be re-skinned, those guys messed it up so bad.
Sam: They did!
Ben: They just trashed it, yeah. They said that car had to go back to the guys who built the steel space-frame. So they took all the aluminum off, re-blasted it, re-powdered it, re-skinned it, and started over…
CB: Because, I remember, Clarkson kept on taking the washers and hiding them so that James May couldn't put it together the right way, which would take more time. I thought it was hilarious.
Ben: Yeah, those guys are pretty, pretty goofy. I think the sales office wasn't too pleased with that one.
As I later found out, the new Caterham I saw as I walked in wasn't some run-of-the-mill model: It was the first US-spec R500, the fastest Caterham yet, which can accelerate to 60 mph in less than three seconds. The average price for a new Caterham is $50,000, and since new ones sold in the US each year number in the tens, the rarity is above and beyond a comparable exotic.
What really sets a Caterham apart is the level of exclusivity. While driving one in Britain will undeservedly single you out as a kit-box gear-head, driving one down an American street will elicit two different outcomes: Admiring car buffs will know what you're in, while the clueless will gawk out of amazement.
2,000 cc 4-cylinder, RWD
263 bhp, 177 lb-ft
150 mph top speed (governed), 0-60 mph in 2.9 s
* When the first US-spec R500 goes up for sale, expect it to fetch about $80,000
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