PH Carpool: Caterham 21
A Caterham twenty-what?
Jack Morgan-Smith, AKA jack_and_MLE
One of the 47 Caterham 21s ever built powered by a tuned K-Series 1.8 VVC engine, known as Emily because of the last three letters of its number plate MLE.
Nothing special, really. The first was a Rover 214 (box version). The 21 is the second car I have owned. At the same time I bought it I also had a 205 diesel. I currently also drive a 2003 Audi A6 Avant and a Toyota Hilux pickup.
Why I bought it
I fell in love with the aluminium-bodied version in 1996 from an article in a car magazine. On that day, the 21 became my dream car. I promised myself it would be my 30th birthday present to myself. The first time I saw it in the metal it was at the Earl's court motor show in 1998.
I started saving up for and hunting for one in 2001. I found it in Cambridgeshire. It was a lovely example and the owner was selling it because of lack of use and two kids. Within the first few seconds of the test drive I decided I was going to have it. The only issue was the money part.
Fortunately I was made redundant, so I spent the redundancy money on MLE. I was just 25 at the time.
What I wish I'd known:
That Upgraditus is a very expensive but satisfying disease, which made me slowly improve the car, an on-going process. The first item I changed was the throttle body, going from a 48mm to 52mm. Then I had an LSD fitted, new exhaust and finally, after one of the pistons decided to let go, I had the engine breathed upon. It is now a 1.8 VVC with throttle bodies, head ported, etc, and a lightweight flywheel.
I also wish I had taken some proper driving lessons to be able to feel more confident and enjoy driving more.
Things I love:
It's my dream car, so that's obviously a good thing. The best part of owning a 21 is being the owner of a very rare beautiful car - I love being asked what it is - but I've also met some great people through the Caterham 21 owners club and the Lotus Seven owners club.
I also love tinkering with it; it helps with relieving work-related stress.
Things I hate:.
I can't think of a great deal to write about here. The car used to be difficult to drive due to heavy steering and front suspension set-up. Since that has been sorted it's a joy to drive.
Something got sprayed on the bonnet (only re-sprayed last year) when I took it out one evening a couple of weeks ago, which blistered the paintwork. The state of the electrics is also a frustration. One of the headlamps is not having the full 12v, which makes it rather dull. That's something that will need to be sorted for the MOT.
Most of the parts are standard Caterham, or a mix of Vauxhall, Rover and Ford parts. The fuel tank can hold 60 litres, which means I could do 600 miles and have some spare fuel before the engine modification. So it is quite economical for a car that's this fast and this fun.
I am also quite lucky where I live as I have a friendly garage (Hall's) who sorted the rear brakes. The owner is a petrolhead and does MoTs for most of the Sevens around Abingdon. We are also not far from Frontline Development, who have been very kind in helping me with the car last year and know the K-Series inside out.
Where I've been:
Before we got married, my wife and I toured the UK and France.
The longest trip we did was about 2,000 miles touring France, where my wife was the best navigator I ever had. We discovered some lovely roads and lots of pretty places to stay too. The boot is big enough to accept enough luggage for two people with no issue.
I have been to the Le Mans 24 for my stag do, which was a good experience. I would like to go the Le Mans Classic, but with two very young daughters it may need to wait a bit longer.
I don't think there is another car that has this magical blend of uniqueness, practicality, rawness, smallness and an open top. I'm thinking of a V8-powered car, however I don't know of any which are as small, light and nimble as a 21. Would a V8 fit in, I wonder?!
But the 21 itself is an ongoing project, even if the to-do list is getting shorter. The back suspension needs firmer springs, the headlight looms need to be re-done, the driver's seat replaced, the interior given a refresh, and the bonnet a re-spray.
Maybe if I have the time I would like to build a 1.8VVC supercharged. It would be an interesting engine...
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