My love affair with Louis

With Maggie Chaplin

It was lust at first sight! One look at the classic lines and sleek body and I knew that one day I had to own a Caterham 7. I’d never seen a car like that on the road before, but there it was on a public highway, all gleaming chrome and shiny racing green paintwork. I was smitten!

There were major obstacles to the dream – primarily cost and sheer impracticality. A Caterham is a not-much-modified Lotus racer, built for fun and to get the adrenalin flowing, with not a sensible rivet in its body. At that stage in my life I needed a workhorse; a serviceable, no-nonsense vehicle that could cope with varied terrain and all weathers. The open-top Caterham with its slow-slung body could do neither. I parked the idea in the “impossible dream” compartment of my brain, time passed and I waited. Practical cars came and went.

One day a chance visit to the National Motor Museum at Gaydon re-ignited the passion. Several classic cars owners were offering visitors the opportunity to pay to be taken for a spin round the local roads. The attention of most of the petrol-heads was focused on one of the other options, an AC Cobra, which at that time was probably the fastest road-legal car, but I only had eyes for a sky-blue Caterham 7. It meant the weekend spending money was blown, but I had to go for it

If the young man whose car it was had any reservations about taking a middle-aged woman as his passenger, he hid it well. We were to be let out of the Museum site at ten minute intervals and just sitting in the car in my red Caterham-emblazoned safety harness waiting for the “off” was exhilarating. Until the accident.

Our time slot was next behind the Cobra but there was a holdup. We didn’t realise at first, but the Cobra had turned over just as it was shooting out of the site onto the road.An ambulance was called and both occupants were taken to hospital. It wasn’t serious; the car was more badly injured than the people, but it caused the merest flicker of anxiety in my mind. That didn’t last long and as soon as we were on the road I forgot about everything but the ride.

My chauffeur drove as you would expect a guy who was showing off his shiny blue sports car to drive – fast. We sped past the other vehicles that had the temerity to be on the road at the time, overtaking them as if they didn’t exist – scary, but fun! I shouldn’t have wanted to be a normal weekend driver in the vicinity of Gaydon that day.

That fix abated my passion – for a while, but I’d already decided on my next birthday present. Reluctantly, my husband hired a Caterham 7 for a day. He probably hoped the experience would dampen my enthusiasm – and it nearly did.

“Explore your favourite roads in a Caterham and nothing you drive will ever be the same again,” runs the company slogan. Well that’s true. These cars are built for tall men with snake hips. I’m short – 5’ 2” on a good day, and couldn’t floor the pedals even with the seat as far forward as possible, and of course, I hadn’t noticed (or wanted to notice) this minor difficulty when flying round the roads of Gaydon as a passenger. So husband drove.

We set out for the day with a starter allowance of fuel in the tank. Naturally we had to top up and that was when the chauffeur ran into problems. At 6ft 3ins my husband is tall enough to operate the controls, but did I mention the requisite snake hips? He is not by any standards fat, but during the short drive to the petrol station his pelvis had become wedged in the narrow seat space and he had great difficulty extricating himself from the car. I maintained the low profile that sitting in the passenger seat of a ground-hugging sports car imposes. We had a good day, but the sparkle had dimmed.

Common sense and reality were beginning to gnaw at the edge of my fantasy. The image of me swanning around the countryside, wind in the hair and all that, was rapidly fading. It was time to grow up, so reluctantly I abandoned the idea of ever owning a modified Lotus racer. The love affair was over – until . . .

I discovered the Westfield. Chris Smith an engineer and former Grand Prix competitor had decided to design and build a replica of the 1956 Lotus XI Le Mans car. He built it with a slightly wider body – snake hips not essential. This also meant the driving seat was more adjustable. Apparently there were other people out there who were keen to drive a car like the Caterham but were not anatomically suited and he was inundated with requests for what was originally sold as a kit car.

So I test drove a Westfield. Here was a car I could drive that my husband didn’t get wedged into. Sure I needed a cushion – well two cushions, one under and one behind me, and I found the seat belt a bit awkward and uncomfortable, but when you’re besotted you dismiss these problems as minor difficulties, and I was certainly besotted.

It was in the days when I could recognise most of the components that I could see under a car bonnet, before the time when even professional car mechanics have to use a computer to diagnose a vehicle’s ills. The idea of building my own car was tempting, but realistically I wanted to be able to drive it this side of my dotage. No more holidays or meals out for a while, because I ordered my very own Westfield sports car: light fibreglass body, 2 litre Ford Zetec engine, acid yellow paintwork. Wow! Plus I could visit the factory in Kingswinford and watch it being made.

I christened my car Louis, because his registration began LUY and for a while my infatuation was unabated. He was sleek and fast but attention to creature comforts was rudimentary. If you drive one of these models on a race track you don’t need space to stow a packed lunch or even the soft top, and you have no need for sophisticated indicators or heater, so you can’t expect such fripperies on a road model. A tiny switch on the dash worked the indicators and the basic heater struggled to keep your feet warm.

And what about security?  Racing cars are not left out in the open unattended, but sometimes Louis was. A more than averagely capacious handbag proved to be the solution. The Westfield’s steering wheel was no more than a foot across – and detachable! It’s hard to steal a car with no steering wheel.

We often misjudged the weather and left the soft top at home – it was more than a two minute job to fit it anyway – so soakings weren’t uncommon. Getting drenched didn’t in itself dim the passion but cracks were beginning to develop in the relationship. Louis was temperamental. I didn’t drive him every day, and sometimes he needed a lot of coaxing to start. Prolonged foreplay in the garage at home is one thing, but turning awkward when you’re a hundred miles from home is altogether different. I might know a spark plug or a fan belt when I see one, but I have zero interest in motor mechanics.

Then there was the safety issue. My anatomy and the design of the cab were sufficiently at odds that despite having a specially designed squab as the manufacturers called it (cushion to me), I couldn’t achieve a comfortable driving position and I felt that in the event of an impact I might just slide under the safety harness. Divorce was inevitable.

Louis was advertised on the dating site for worldly goods – ebay. Naturally the potential buyer wanted a test drive. Sensing the likelihood of technical questions I sent my spouse out as passenger. When he came back it wasn’t just his knuckles that were white. If, however, cars could smile, Louis would have had a silly grin plastered across his radiator. That was the sort of drive he was built for and his new owner was happy. After all how often can you buy a racing sports car with little more than a thousand miles on the clock, and “one careful lady driver”?

It was a love affair that I wouldn’t have missed, but there’s a lot to be said for cars that start, heaters that work and air conditioning that isn’t a euphemism for the wind whipping round your ears. It’s good too to have room to take pets or a picnic with you, and to be able to downsize the handbag because you don’t need to tote a steering wheel!