This page last updated: November 15th, 1998
My Caterham 21: The story of the first year
Rather than telling the story of the 21's development, I'll stick to how
I went about getting Emily and what we've been up to since. This page gives
details of the first year, for the latest news see
An idea forms
The story starts at the back end of 1994 when Caterham annouced a concept
car to celebrate 21 years of making the Super Seven. I read about this
"one off" and saw the review on Top Gear; there was talk of it
going into production. At the time I was not looking to buy a sports car,
but I was interested all the same. The Seven had not really had that much
appeal, but the 21 looked good. Of course, the polished aluminium body and
JPE-specification Vauxhall 16-valve engine would be unlikely to make it
to the real car...
As 1995 progressed, it became clear that the 21 was going to be put into
production and I started to get the idea that I wanted one. Then came the
rumour of Caterham going "supercar chasing" using a 100bhp-per-litre engine
and six-speed gearbox in the 21. And the car was yellow...
Caterham formally launched the 21 at the 1995 Motor Show, held at Earl's
Court in London. I went there on Wednesday 25th October 1995. I didn't take
my cheque book with me because I didn't want to make any hasty decisions.
As soon as I arrived I made a bee-line for the Caterham stand. There I
queued and eventually got to sit in the car. It was a blue pre-production
model (which is still in Caterham's showroom), while a green car was put
out of harm's way - hardly surprising given it was a customer car.
After leaving the Caterham stand the rest of the show was a bit of a let
down. I mooched around the classic car bits for a while and then went
back to see Caterham. I didn't bother queuing this time, just admired the
car from a distance, imagined what it would look like outside my house
and pitied the people queuing up who would not own one. I had made up
my mind - I had to have one.
The countdown starts
I delayed going to Caterham's showroom for a little over a week, waiting
until Saturday 4th November 1995 until I was sure I knew what I was doing.
I talked with them for a bit, was taken out for a drive in a K-series
Seven, and then wrote out the deposit cheque. Hopes were high of a "next
summer" delivery and I had managed to get my name near the top of the
list (I was quoted chassis 16, customer number 11). Although details were
not clear at the time, I told them I was interested in the VHP option
and would be happy to take part in the development process if needed.
As the winter turned into spring, it became clear that Caterham had set
themselves a much harder task than expected. By March 1996 they had
revised the "summer" delivery to "hopefully by the autumn, in time for
the Motor Show at the latest". Rather than waste the summer, and to get
a chance to learn Caterham ownership, I asked about their suggestion of
getting a Seven as a "stop gap" measure.
On xx April 1996 I went back to the showroom and checked out the second
hand cars in stock. One seemed most suited to my needs, being cheapish
and with features I wouldn't have on the 21 (such as carbs and a five
speed gearbox). It also had flared wings, but the choice was limited.
On xx April, I picked up my Seven - a red 1600 Sprint. I would put more
about the year I spent getting hooked on the Caterham experience, but
this is Emily's tale...
I had my 21 test drive on Saturday 16th November. By this time, delays
meant that the first customer deliveries were not to start until the end
of 1996, so I knew mine wouldn't be delivered until late spring. Even with
my Seven to pass the time, I knew that waiting for my 21 would be hard.
News of the VHP engine was thin on the ground, with the possibility it would
be offered only as an "upgrade" after delivery. Tales of 5-second nought to
sixty times did not put me off...
I went to the 1996 Motor Show, this time at the NEC in Birmingham, on October
23rd and there were a couple of cars in final production form on the Caterham
stand. Things looked good, and once again I got to play the great game of
"pity the people queuing". However, this time I did take a look at most of the
rest of the show, including being turned away by staff at the Lotus stand.
Perhaps they would have been more interested if they had known what I had
on order, but then again they might not.
A lucky find
It was thanks to a review in Autocar just one week later, that I found
a source for the (very rare) Rover VVC engine. Tangent Motorsport managed to
get a small supply of VVC units, most of which they were fitting to Sevens.
A quick phone call, and a deposit cheque, and I had secured one for my 21.
Not only that, Tangent wanted to build my car as it was easier than converting
it later. Suddenly, the VHP option was out the picture. As great as the F355
chasing specification would be, the VVC would be best suited to my intended
use of the car. Only one thing hadn't changed, she still had to be yellow...
The wait continues
By this time I had started on the famous High Performance Course run by
John Lyons, and it was becoming clear that I still had much to learn about
the real skills of driving.
Almost exactly a year after getting my Seven, I sold it back to Caterham.
Kit car show at Stoneleigh
My timing was none too great as I was soon to find out. Not only was the
weather too nice to be without a Caterham, entry to the Kit Car Show held
at the National Agricultural Centre in Stoneleigh is free if you arrive in
a kit car...
Anyway, having paid to get in, it was not far to go to the Lotus Seven Club
stand - it was right next to the entry gate. As well as a good showing of
Sevens, Dave Fender's 21 was also on show. Finished in the same dark blue
as the press car from the Motor Show and brochure, Dave's car was the first
"customer" car to be delivered by Caterham. Seeing a 21 in the real world
was all the confirmation I needed that I had done the right thing. Oh, and
the rest of the show was worth a visit too.
Delivery and the work starts
My 21 was delivered to Tagent Motorsport's workshop on June 11th 1997, a total
of 575 days after the original order was placed. My first opportunity to see
the "finished" car was a day later, Wednesday 12th, when I took the day off
and went to start work. This first session was basically to familiarise myself
with the car, meet Jason (the guy at Tangent doing most of the work), check
the kit contents had arrived and take the first photos. Only major omission
was the engine (not needed because of the VVC conversion) and a failure to
spot the bonnet/boot badges; the latter were found on a later visit and the
engine ended up staying at Caterham once delivery was possible. Final task
was to read through the assembly guide and confirm with Tangent when I would
be coming back.
The second trip out was on Thursday 19th, and by this time Jason had managed
to fit the diff, propshafts and the rear suspension. He was working on the
rear brakes when I arrived and I soon got to work fitting the handbrake. This
was a little harder than expected, not least due to the panel in the tunnel
having been fitted by Caterham - the guide says this is not to be fitted until
after the handbrake is done.
Next major task was fitting the fuel tank, and a major task it was indeed.
After much straining and eventually resorting to a rubber coated, dead
hit mallet, we came to the conclusion it would never fit. A phone call to
the factory and a bit of measuring later and we knew why; a new tank was
ordered and that was that for now.
Final work that day was to prep the gearbox for fitting (but without the dry
sump kit being available, that was a limited job) and remove the panel which
hides the ECU, immobiliser and starter relays. The first two of these will
need changing as part of the engine swap. I didn't try taking them out myself,
it looked to be a bit tricky!
The third trip was just under a week later on Wednesday 25th. By now the new
fuel tank had arrived, the engine was being prepared and the ECU/immobiliser
had been sent off. My first task was to attack the new fuel tank - quite
literally, using a file to smooth off one of the seams - and eventually get
it to fit. After that the filler needed to be added and the pump/sender unit
(prep'ed during my previous visit) installed. This latter task was not as
easy at it first seemed and I ended up half dismantling the hood to make sure
I had enough clearance. Once it was in, the fuel supply and return pipes were
a doddle to fit and the wiring just clipped in.
Next up was rear lights (seeing as how nothing else needed to be fitted in
the boot at this stage). The light clusters are from the old-model Mondeo
saloon and were simple to fit and connect up. The number-plate light was a
slightly harder task, using self-tapping screws rather than bolts. However,
the lighting was the easiest task so far.
Off to the front and a chance to start on the cooling system. The fan went
on the radiator without problem, but the radiator bobbins were for the Seven
rather than the 21 and would not fit. Leaving that aside until the correct
parts arrived, I fitted the engine mounts and earth strap, and then the twin
horns. With them in, the steering rack was next, though all the bolts were
left loose to aid adjustment once the front suspension is done. Not much more
could be done without the engine/gearbox in place so it was off home again.
Despite the end of July looming and the new R-plate registrations becoming a
possibility, I pressed ahead and got Tangent to complete and register my 21
as a P-plate. Not only would this provide a couple more weeks of motoring in
the summer (hey, it was sunny and I had waited long enough), I also felt that
having one of the early 21s was worth advertising. Given that the DVLA have
a bizarre policy of which numbers are available for their select registeration
scheme (i.e. 1-20 and 22 are available, but not 21) I settled for a "normal"
registration. It was a good thing too, as it was from this that Emily got
her name. If you see my car, it might become obvious how...
Collection day was not that special weather wise, but was very special in
other ways. A lift over to Tangent's workshop by a friend was welcomed, and
seeing Emily finished was even more so. After a fair bit of shuffling of
Sevens and other cars in the workshop, Emily was at last free to be driven
away. Not before I had stalled her once and taken some pictures. The stall
is worth mentioning as the clutch was rather sharp and caught out most of
the (few) people who have driven her.
The drive home was rather nasty due to the heavy traffic. A new Caterham
clutch is not ideal for stop-start motoring and it didn't take long for my
left leg to start suffering. However, the few occasions when there was a
big enough gap to be able to "open her up" quickly put a smile back on my
face. With tall gearing, it's amazing how fast you can go a just 4000rpm!
Just one day later and Emily was providing me with fun transport to an
evenings kart racing. Got there and what should be in the car park? A nice
new Lotus Elise. Couldn't resist parking next to it and showing off my VVC
And realising that I had fogotten to put the cap back on the header tank of
the cooling system before setting off. A fairly major panic was narrowly
avoided when said item was found nestled in part of the intake manifold (a
sign that I lead a blessed existance). In fact, it was one of the VVC gizmos
which had stopped it falling off the top of the engine and being lost for
ever. Lesson learnt, always double check caps are replaced and show off the
engine whenever possible :-)
The post delivery inspection...
The drive to Dartford was surprisingly good, and Emily showed that she had
better motorway manners than my (carb) Seven. With only a few miles on the
clock and a running-in limit of 4000rpm, plus a reasonable level of traffic,
meant not too much fun to be had. Enjoyment, however, was very high.
Hanging around at Caterham for six hours while they checked Emily out and
took car of a couple of minor matters (such as replacing the rear wheels
which had been supplied damaged) was one way of passing a Monday. Mostly
good news from Jez, especially that he thought the VVC was ideal for the 21
(just a shame Rover don't see it that way).
The drive back was much like the drive there. It's all just a pleasant haze
of M25 motorway and people staring.
Joining the sevens at Loesley Park...
The first eight hundred miles...
Standing quarter at North Weald...
The 40th Anniversary event at the L7Club International Meeting...
More info to come on this, but just to say don't believe everything you read
in Low Flying about my car. Sure, there were problems with the starter, but
that has since been fixed (and has been a problem with Sevens too). As for
the tale of bits falling off under the bonnet, the near-side retaining catch
worked loose, but it was re-attached in seconds with little drama and has
not proved a problem since.
Holiday in Scotland
During the Autumn
Back to visit Jez...
Between Tuesday December 9th and Friday December 19th, Emily was over at the
Caterham factory in Dartford. Main task was the fitment of high level air
vents (as per new 21s), though I added a number of remedial and improvement
items to the work list. I now have a new (and working!) starter motor with
a heat shield (also now standard), a battery master switch, new glovebox
lock (with 3 keys) and a cigar lighter (i.e. a power outlet). Others fixes
were for the reversing lights and slightly sticky passenger door lock. The
corrected fuse diagram is still to be supplied, and I'll ask if I can publish
it on the Register site when I get it.
What happened to Winter?
Not only was the weather mild in December, by mid-February it was warm enough
to venture out without a jacket (and, yes, I did have the top down). Went off
to a Sevens mailing list organised meeting at a biker gathering in Box Hill,
just north of Dorking in Surry. What a CRAZY place, but quite a laugh
and well worth going. Next time, however, we need to organise better parking
arrangments so we don't get told off again.
What happened to the Spring and early Summer?
After glorious weather at the start of the year, the second quarter was a
real disappointment for open-top car drivers. I was lucky with the trip to
the National Kit Car Show at Stoneleigh and it stayed dry, and the day of fun
at Brooklands stayed nice, but come the Le Mans trip - nothing but rain.
Read more about that in the second year's story...
Return to My Caterham 21 VVC page or
read about what's happened since.