Most Caterhams are confined to weekend use, and blasts in the countryside on highdays and holidays.
But not Eugene, Steve Shaw’s treasured Seven that’s covered a barely credible 400,000 miles during more than three decades of ownership as track car, commuter car, shopping car, wedding car, and long-distance touring car.
The tiny roadster can turn even the most mundane run to the shop for a pint of milk into a fun-drenched adventure.
It’s been the choice of motorists looking for no-frills thrills ever since Colin Chapman sold Caterham the rights to the original Lotus Seven in 1973.
And to then-teenager Steve Shaw, with the proceeds of six months working in Los Angeles burning a hole in his pocket, there was nothing on the road that came close for the money.
The car is a lot like Trigger’s Broom
That was in the mid 1980s and, while almost every part of the car he bought has been replaced or modified since then, it carries the same racing DNA as when it rolled out of the Surrey factory.
“The car is a lot like Trigger’s Broom,” says Steve, who lives in Hertfordshire. “It’s on its fourth engine, it’s had three or four gearboxes and the chassis was replaced about 20 years ago.
“The seat covers, steering wheel, a couple of gauges on the dash plus the bonnet are the only original bits left. So bits of it have done that mileage, while other bits have done a lot less.”
Over the past three decades, Eugene – named after its registration number A470 UGN – has woven itself into the very fabric of Steve and his family’s lives and left a catalogue of precious memories and unforgettable experiences.
From soakings in the Pyrenees to tours as far afield as Portugal, the little Seven has become more than just a car; it’s become a way of life and a door to long-held friendships.
You can’t help but smile
“I would absolutely never sell it,” says Steve, now 53. “You can’t help but smile when you get out at the other end.
“It would be almost impossible to get another vehicle that gave the same ratio of smiles per pound.
“It’s the ability to accelerate from 30 or 40mph to the legal limit in a way that’s mind-numbing. You can make rapid progress without being stupid or breaking obvious laws.”
The factory-built car was a year old when Steve returned from working in the TV and film industry in LA in the mid 80s, determined to buy a “real sports car” after owning first a VW Golf, and then a Triumph TR7.
“The Golf was fine and dandy but I decided I wanted a sports car and stupidly went and bought a TR7,” he says.
“It didn’t really meet the requirements of a sports car and had been bodged by a previous owner. I spent the next year rebuilding it from a bare metal chassis, resprayed it and put a new, rebuilt engine in it.
“A friend who was a professional welder did the welding for me. My parents’ electricity bill went through the roof that year, with me running halogen lights in the garage constantly of an evening. All the house lights used to dim when the spot welder was in use.”
When it was finished, the TR7 was sold on before Steve embarked on an extended stay in the US, working as an engineer for high-end graphics specialists Quantel.
“When I came back I had accumulated, for my age, a big lump of disposable income and decided then and there I was going to buy a Seven,” he says.
“I had seen years previously in an article that you knew you were in a real sports car when you had a manual, non self cancelling indicator.”
Steve put in a call to Caterham in Surrey to see if they had any used cars in stock.
“I wanted it there and then – I didn’t want to wait to build one,” he says. “They said yes so I said I’d be down there as soon as I can.
“My mates took me down there and I went for a test drive in this one, though they wouldn’t let me drive because I’d come back from the States and didn’t have any insurance.
It just felt unbelievable
“To go for a drive in a Seven with a 110bhp Crossflow just felt unbelievable – it was just in a completely different league to anything else. I bought it there and then and picked it up a couple of days later.
“A bunch of my mates came down and one of them came back with me in the Seven. We went down in two cars and came back in a gaggle.
“They were amazed that one of their mates had bought what was one of the outstanding cars of all time, without getting stupid and into Ferraris and Lamborghinis and all that rubbish.
“That was the first time I drove it, in the rain from Caterham to where I was living in Newbury in Berkshire.
“It was like chalk and cheese compared with the TR7, which was great but a bit of a joke as a sports car, realistically.”
It was the start of a 34-year love affair with the little roadster with a big personality, the ultimate road-going race-car weighing a miniscule half a ton.
At the time, the £8,500 Caterham was running a Supersprint 1600 Crossflow engine, mostly used in the Ford Escort, and dressed in bare aluminium and red fibreglass, with clamshell wings.
Eugene was immediately pressed into service as an unlikely daily driver, with the odd track day thrown in for fun.
“It was my only car for a very long time until I got a company car in my mid to late 20s,” says Steve.
“Initially I was very sensible and drove it very carefully. We did track days in the early days to get to know the car, but to be really honest I got bored with them – ‘oh, it’s that corner again’ – and the idea of shaving off a 10th of a second while getting through a set of tyres in the process was just not my thing.
“On the road, it was used daily. Maybe the weather really has got worse, but I remember very rarely using the roof, even in bad weather – it was not really worth the hassle for a few spots of rain.
“I used it on the commute, back and forwards daily from North Herts to London, down the A10, around the North Circular and into the office.
“I was running aeros so there was never a roof. The office building had a back room and quite often my seats and carpets would be in the back room drying out. I’d just be dripping wet!
“These days, I quite often get customers who come to visit at work enquire the day before if I am bringing in the Seven because we’d often go and have lunch somewhere and they wanted to come for a run to the pub in it.”
Soon after buying the car, Steve embarked on the first of many European tours that would provide him with enough anecdotes to fill a small book.
Across the Pyrenees in a torrential downpour
“I went with a guy called Steve Porter, starting at Le Mans for the race, down the west of France, across the Pyrenees in a torrential downpour, across the north of Spain and over to Switzerland, all with a map of Europe no bigger than a napkin,” he says of those pre sat nav days.
“We got lost loads because the map was that bad there would be roads going into a blob, being a town, and we’d fall out the other side and work out how to get back on to the route. It was hysterical.”
Steve already had the car when when he met his girlfriend, now wife, Sarah, who was left in no doubt about the Seven’s place in his affections as their nuptials loomed.
“As she will tell you, when we got married it was very much ‘love me, love my car’,” he says. “Our wedding photo is with the two of us sat on the back of the Seven.
“A Triumph Vitesse convertible was the bride’s wedding car, with myself and my best man turning up in the Seven in top hat and tails.
“In those days she had as much enjoyment out of it as I did. We went on trips to Switzerland, Le Mans, and did the Beaujolais Run a couple of times and she did as much driving as me, if not more.
“She will drive it now but hates the fact I’ve removed the windscreen – she thinks I’ve done it to keep it all to myself. She’s now got an Elise series I as her fun car.”
When the couple’s daughter, Annabel, arrived in 1994 she was almost immediately indoctrinated into the joys of a Caterham.
“She would go in it in her baby seat,” says Steve, who now runs Light Illusion, providing hi-tech colour management for the film, TV and home cinema industry, with customers including and Disney, Warner Bros and Technicolor. “Because I’ve still got the old-style bench seats, the baby seat would strap in no problem.
“When she was four or so we would go on holidays to France with a friend of mine, Mike Ebery, who has a Seven as well. We would take one sensible car and one Seven, alternating each year. This year it was my turn to take the Seven and she was in the passenger seat all the way to the gite in France.
“Quite often when she’s back home we will sneak out and escape for a quick drive.”
After three years, Eugene underwent its first metamorphosis, with a 1700cc Roger King Crossflow replacing the 1600cc unit and the red nose and tail making way for black.
“I wanted a bit more horsepower and a guy was selling a secondhand race Crossflow with forged pistons, which took the power from 110bhp to 145bhp,” says Steve.
A major rebuild followed after an accident that left the rear end somewhat mangled, with the end result the red and black colour-scheme you see today, with mudguard-style wheel arches and aero screens.
When oil consumption met petrol consumption on the Crossflow, another replacement engine was fitted, a Vegantune twin cam Steve had specially built.
It was brilliant – I loved that engine
“It was brilliant – I loved that engine, but it blew up on the M25 at about 3am!” he says.
In its place came the 2-litre, Raceline-modified Ford Zetec, married to twin Weber 45s, that powers the car today, taking the power up to 210bhp, nearly double the car’s original grunt and good for a sub-three second 0-60 dash.
A lightweight but strengthened Ital live axle with a limited slip differential makes for “a more involving drive” than the De Dion set-up more commonly favoured on Caterhams, while R888R semi-slick tyres are “super sticky and surprisingly good in the wet”.
After several years in the official Caterham Owners Club, Steve and a group of like-minded Seven owners decided to launch their own website, 7-DNA, catering for all Seven-derived vehicles including Westfields, Duttons and Robin Hoods.
As well as monthly pub meetings and UK tours, the group plans one, marathon European tour each year, with this year’s outing covering more than 2,000 miles over two weeks, by boat to Bilbao, on to Portugal and then across Spain and up through France to home.
“We plan the route intricately so we know we’re on good roads, nice winding roads – the beauty of Europe is you can find roads that are empty,” he says, with 10 Sevens, including one Westfield, departing Portsmouth in late June.
Following damage from a huge hailstorm on this latest adventure, Eugene has undergone yet another makeover (see final three pics in the gallery). Click on the video below to view the mayhem.
It’s these trips, along with the regular Beaujolais Runs, that have given Steve’s Seven ownership its richest memories.
“We’ve done so many trips there are so many memories,” he says, with fog, rain and excitable Frenchmen, who clearly love a quirky car, usually featuring prominently.
A fog-bound and freezing Beaujolais Run descended into French farce when Steve and Mike Ebery found themselves unable to continue in the gathering murk.
“The fog was so bad we could not see the edge of the road and were following the white line, Scalextric-style,” says Steve.
“We gave up and decided to pull over into a layby for a few hours to see if it would lift. We could not see anything around us.
They thought we were crazy
“We got out our sleeping bags, Mike tried to lay in the passenger seat and I lay down next to the car on the floor. When we woke up we realised we were in a bus stop in the middle of a town and people were queuing to get the bus for work. They thought we were crazy.”
But it’s the reaction and all-round bonhomie the car generates that makes touring in the Seven something a little bit special, injecting a joie de vivre into French police and bar staff alike.
On one trip through France en route to Switzerland, Steve and his friend Pat Coneley pulled off the autoroute one Monday afternoon to try to find some food.
“We pulled into this little town off the motorway, drove past this bar and parked round the corner,” he says.
“We walked back to the bar, organised a round of drinks and asked if there was any possibility of food. They laughed, pointed to their watches and shrugged their shoulders. It was typical France, nothing stays open on a Monday and they’d stopped serving food at 2pm.”
The mood changed dramatically, however, when two parking spaces opened up on the road outside the bar, and Steve and Pat moved their Caterhams so they could keep an eye on them and their luggage.
“We carried on sipping our beers and all of a sudden another round of beers turned up accompanied by a huge platter of meats,” says Steve.
“The owner started chatting about the cars, had the bonnet off and all the rest of it. He asked ‘will you take us for a run?’ so we took the owner and his barman through the village.
“I had the owner and he kept shouting ‘faster, faster’ and I was saying ‘what about speed limits and the gendarmerie?’ He just said ‘brother in law’! So we stormed off through this village and there was another bar we had not seen right up the other end of the village, obviously his competition.
“We go storming past this bar, and as we’re going past he’s saying ‘horn, noise, horn, noise’. So we storm up past this bar and round and back down honking the horn.
We got the whole lot for free
“Shortly after we got back all the people in the other bar turned up in this bar – they’d all bundled out and followed us. We got more drinks and got the whole lot for free!”
A convoy of four Caterhams got a similar reaction, this time from the local police, in a small town near Lyon on the Beaujolais Run.
“We got halfway down and decided to stop for the night,” says Steve. “On the way down into the town we went passed a posh hotel, which looked too much for us.
“We could not find anything else, and one of the guys who spoke French to a degree stopped outside the police station and went in to chat to the police. A whole bunch of them, five or six coppers, came rushing out to look at the cars.
“They proceeded to jump into a Renault 5 with lights flashing to escort us to a hotel, which just happened to be the hotel that we had just been past. It was one of the copper’s uncle’s brother’s sister’s dogs or something who owned or managed the hotel. They gave us a good deal and it was very, very nice. We’ve been back there a few times since.”
Special treatment and special attention are clearly never far away in a Seven, especially in the rain.
“I remember one year in Arnage near Le Mans on the Friday before the race – it was peeing it down and two of us with aero screens and no roof were driving along trying to hold umbrellas through town,” says Steve.
“Because it’s Le Mans they put up lots of covers on the street so people can sit outside. We pulled up outside one of them and the bar staff came running out and pulled all the tables and chairs out from under these tents so we could use it as a garage.”
These boys tours were christened Le BOG Club by the owner of Le Bounty where they camp for Le Mans, standing for Breakfast Orange (a vodka orange) and Gravillons, which are French road chippings that routinely find their way into a Seven’s cabin.
There are so many memories
“There are so many memories,” says Steve. “The car gets used so much for everything – every time it’s another memory. The trips with the boys are great, very much focusing on the fun side.
“But the Seven makes just going to shop to buy a can of baked beans so much more entertaining. Every time it just puts a smile on your face.
“I’ll never part with it. I’m not trying to have the biggest, fastest, most powerful one ever. It suits my needs and over the years it’s been modified to the nth degree to suit me.”
Long-term Seven ownership is a rare thing as the arrival of children often forces a sale on practicality grounds, but Steve has never given up on that teenage dream of owning a “real sports car”, and never will.
Photographs by Simon Finlay Photography.
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