What do you do if you’ve got a Caterham at your disposal for a day? Go in search of a stonking bit of blacktop, of course.
In northern England, that would be the Buttertubs Pass, a short, but wild, rollercoaster ride through the stunning scenery of the Yorkshire Dales National Park. (The name allegedly comes from the 20 metre deep, hollow limestone rock formations into which farmers on their way to market would lower their tubs of butter and cream to keep cool in warmer weather).
Long time a favourite of sporty car drivers and bike riders alike, the secret to this little piece of driving nirvana was let out to the world at large by none other than J.C. (no, not that one; the other bloke, Jeremy Clarkson) who reportedly praised it as being “England’s only truly spectacular road”.
You don’t so much as fit into a Caterham, as wear it, particularly the Roadsport 125 model that I’ll be steering. This is the one used in the one-make Caterham Academy race series. As such, it’s light (even for a Caterham) and narrow bodied so as to offer up subliminal handling dynamics.
Supposedly able to accommodate drivers up to about 182 cm (6 ft) and 95 kg (15 stone) – which is exactly my dainty proportions – I’m finding the 125 a bit tight, particularly in the pedal box area. Things are more restricted here than I remember in any Formula openwheeler I’ve driven – Ford, Vee, First or Renault.
Under the long bonnet is a Ford Sigma 1.6-litre donk. In standard form, the little four-pot puts out 74 kW (100 bhp), but through retarding the inlet cam Caterham has managed to screw out another 25 percent of power, making for 91 kW (125 bhp) – 7 kW (10 bhp) more than the long-running K-series powerplant it replaces.
A dry weight of 90 kg means the Sigma is a useful 10 kg lighter than the K-series, but the standout improvement is by way of a fatter and bigger spread of torque. Whereas the K-series peaked with 147 Nm (107 lb ft) at 3000 rpm, the newcomer stays strong from 3000 to 5350 rpm, peaking at 163 Nm (120 lb ft).
These sort of power and torque figures aren’t really worth writing home to Mum about, but ‘add lightness’ of just 525 kg all up and the 125 shapes up impressively in the all-important power-to-weight stakes. A claimed 0-100 km/h time of 5.9 seconds sounds well-and-truly credible.
Twist the key and the Sigma kicks into life. Blip the throttle and there’s a suitably sporty, and surprisingly deep, note burbling from the exhaust that now snakes along the driver’s side.
With four-point race harness done up, hood down despite the indifferent weather and daft caps on, we set off from Roadsport Hire (www.roadsporthire.com) – our vehicle provider in gentile Stamford Bridge outside York – and the town of Hawes punched into our borrowed Tom Tom (yes, the Caterham does have an auxiliary power socket).
The trusty sat nav leads us the quickest route, which means Motorway. Not a good idea in something as open and low as a Clubman car. The tyre roar of hordes of cars around us pulling 110-120 km/h is overpowering, not to mention the monstering presence of one semi-trailer after another. Being able to read the tyre size on the sidewalls of these muthas as we blow by is a little too up-close and personal.
So, we pull off the A1 (M) in search of some good A and B roads – and find them. First, the B6164 that takes us to Harrogate and then the A61 to Ripon. Harrogate looks so inviting with its manicured parks and well-kept, honey-coloured sandstone buildings that we wish we had to time to stop, but we’ve underestimated how the pace can slow chronically when stuck behind the hay-carting tractors that proliferate the English countryside in summer. But stop we have to, just outside the city, when dark clouds overhead dump on us and it’s a race to put on the Caterham’s top.
A long time ago, I used to own an MG Midget, which holds many a fond, mellow, sepia-toned memory for me.
But standing by the Yorkshire roadside, trying to get my fingers to work in clipping the top into place on the little 125, cold raindrops trickling down inside my coat collar, brings the inconvenience of this infuriating aspect of classic soft-top motoring flooding back. Give that man who designed the modern, powered, folding hardtop a pay rise.
Of course, the rain clouds pass just as quickly as they came and in no time we’re able to drop the top, which was just as well, as the screen’s misting up and it’s getting a little too toasty inside.
Ripon comes into view, its cathedral spire a landmark across the rolling countryside. There, we pick up the A6108 to Leyburn, and then head left on the A684 to Hawes. On entering the town, we’re expecting to find a sign along the lines of ‘Buttertubs Pass – this way’, but there’s nothing. So it’s into the visitor’s information centre for assistance. Hardraw Road is the signpost we need and then it’s time to see just what the 125 has got.
The road winds between well-weathered drystone walls on each side; the occasional farmhouse and barn perilously close by and over an arched bridge barely wide enough for 1.5 cars. Then the perspective through the tiny windscreen changes from blinkered to big screen 180 degrees as we break into open countryside where ubiquitous black-faced, long-haired Swaledale sheep feed alongside the road and wander at will. The thought occurs – what would Roadsport Hire say if we return their car with half a hogget on board?
Despite the menace of these roving roasts, the visibility is good so I back myself and guide the Caterham’s smooth aluminium, ball-topped, sweet-shifting, stubby gearshift up through the gate into top (fifth) and go in search of peak power just the other side of 6000 rpm.
The patchwork quilt blacktop asks questions of the Caterham’s bump absorption and I’m quickly reminded of the little 125’s smooth, hot mix suspension set-up. However, the moment the open-radius, gentle curves give way to tighter twists, these same track-biased settings and latest generation’ metric chassis’ (some 12 percent stiffer) enable me to reach into the Caterham’s performance envelope and power into, through and out like there’s no tomorrow.
Grip from the super-sticky Avon CR500 boots (fitted to R300 Anthracite rims) is prodigious. But, keep the Sigma firmly within the sweet spot of its torque band – between 3000 and 5350 rpm – in second or third gear, pre-set the tiny steering wheel with a smidgen of lock attacking a corner and it’s possible to kick the back out into what feels like a perfectly neutral and natural slide.
That said, I resist the temptation to push too hard. With the pedal box area so cramped, I’m not confident of finding and modulating the middle pedal the way I’d like. More feel of retardation would be nice, too.
The road twists and turns, falls and rises, but the actual Pass is all of about 5 km, so like a lot of things in life, a drive along it is over way too quickly. The great thing is, when you get to a T-junction at the B2670 – from where the choice is left to Thwaite or right to Muker – you can throw a U-turn and go back and do it all over again. And I do.
Approached from this direction, it’s an even better drive because the road initially climbs rather than descends, inviting plenty of satisfying, second gear drive out of the corners.
But, beware. Going this way takes you literally to the edge of the Pass, where there’s only an ominous looking metal cable ‘safety’ fence between you and what seems infinity. And in something approximating a Clubman car’s height, said cable is alarmingly about head level. Goof up and, in all likelihood, if the cable doesn’t take you out, the inevitable plunge into the valley far below will.
Eventually, the gathering gloom of another heavy shower approaching, and shrinking fuel level, regrettably bring about an end to our passes along and back the Pass. Adrenalin siphoned off into the overflow catch tank, the drive ‘home’ provides the time for reflection and two things, in particular, came to mind.
One, that with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, I should have opted for the comparative comfort and convenience of Roadsport Hire’s second Caterham, the wider-bodied 1.8-litre SV model which can reportedly accommodate up to 196 cm (6 ft 5”) and around 108 kg (17 stone). Despite the larger dimensions, the driving sharpness is said to be undiminished and straight-line performance actually enhanced.
And two, punting something like a Caterham is an uncompromising experience. The top is a pain to have to put up and down in a hurry. Ditto doing up a four-point harness instead of a retractable lap/sash belt, meaning you really have to plan your drive so that you don’t have to get in and out more than the once.
That said, this is a car that connects you absolutely with the road. And when that road is the Buttertubs Pass, life doesn’t get any sweeter.