This article is reproduced from the June 11 1977 issue of Autocar.
WITH SUMMER here, many motorists feeling hot and sticky in their modern saloon cars yearn for the joys of open-air motoring. Convertibles from big manufacturers are now almost non-existent, but there are a number of small, specialist firms offering packages that give — after some do-it-yourself work — open-air motoring in a sporting-looking car at a realistic price. In our issue of 27 November 1976 we wrote about three makes in this field - Gentry, Magenta and Spartan. In this article we examine three others Arkley SS, Dutton and Caterham Super Seven.
These three machines all involve varying degrees of DIY completion. The Arkley has been around since 1970, sold by John Britten Garages of Barnet Road, Arkley, Hertfordshire, in various forms from a kit of body panels right up to a brand new, ready-built car. Nowadays only the kit is available, a £215 bundle of glass-fibre body mouldings to bolt and bond to anyone of the ubiquitous Spridget - MG Midget or Austin-Healey Sprite models. The construction process is fairly straightforward. Mechanically, the ugly old Spridget remains untouched, though, thankfully, the body doesn't. The one-piece, forward- hingeing Arkley front bodywork bolts on in place of the standard steel assembly, needing only some trimming of the inner front wings to allow a clear passage. At the rear, the unwanted Spridget bodywork is cut off and replaced by another one-piece moulding, which needs to be bonded on using glass-fibre strips applied from the inside. Doors and interior thus remain unchanged, and the result is a revitalised, sparkingly-different fun car.
Often referred to a Noddy car (not that type) the Arkley invitingly cheek appearance, and driving it quickly brings a sparkle to the eye, The manufacturer's current demonstrator is based around a 1975 MG Midget with a Triumph 1,500 c.c. power unit. Despite the re-clothing, which has resulted in a weight saving of about 70 lb, progress could be described only as satisfactorily gradual. One pilots this wide, stubby car in lighthearted fashion with scarcely a thought for performance. Maybe I'm thinking of Arkley in the hands of the young female schoolteacher, scarf flying in the wind; whoever is at the controls, it is certainly fun to drive. With some stirring, the excellent standard gearchange inspires propulsion amply suited to the rigours of open-air motoring. In this mood one tends not to explore the handling as one might in a more powerful machine. Even so, the test car's wide tyres could only assist the already capable handling. Above all, the Arkley seemed very safe and sure.
I doubt whether the typical Arkley owner would be truly concerned at the loss of the Spridget's conventional boot, for plenty of luggage can still be stuffed into the same area through the rear cockpit's removable panel. He might, however, be concerned at today's prices of the wide wheels and tyres - which are necessary to fill up the capacious wheel arches and make the car look right. In the final reckoning, though, an Arkley needn't be expensive. A wisely bought secondhand Spridget, Arkley body panels, and wide wheels might only need a £1,000 outlay. Even allowing for some sweat, that is surely a small price to pay for transforming an outdated, uninspired two-seater. The result is a standard car, complete with that satisfying clunk as the steel doors close, rorty exhaust note, and highly individual bodywork almost a mass production special.
The basic body/chassis costs a very reasonable £295 plus VAT. Having acquired this, the builder can then find his own Triumph coil spring and wishbone front suspension units, and coil spring, panhard rod-and radius arm, rear suspension units, or have these supplied by the factory as new parts at extra cost. He'll need to supply his own Ford or Morris 1000 live rear axle, anyway, but several other items such as brake ,pipes, exhaust system, upholstery, petrol tank, and electrics are all available from Dutton. Probably the best compromise is to have some of these parts fitted by the factory to save time and trouble on assembly.
The car can be tailored by the factory to take a bewildering array of engines - BMC A or B series; Triumph four or six cylinder; Ford 1600, V4, or V6; and even Alfa Romeo, Fiat, or Chrysler units. Suffice it to say that the Ford 1600 is probably the most popular. From this great variety of options, it can be seen that the car is very much the do-it -yourself man's dream. Unfortunately, this has led to several of the intentionally basic machines ending up rather more basic than even the most weather-beaten enthusiast would like. Equally so , a great many really nice Duttons have been completed, and, with 10cwt of car, the Ford 3-litre V6 gives stunning performance.
There's no denying that the Dutton is the poor man's Seven, with neither the Seven's style, nor its breeding - nor its price! But in typically basic fashion , the Sussex company's current development car proved a lively, entertaining, solid riding, and noisy projectile, endowed with amazing rail-like cornering powers. This car was a new prototype, but with its attractively masculine exterior of Malaga front bodywork and B-plus rear, it looked a perfectly standard Dutton, if there is such a thing . The car has no pretensions towards comfort and sophistication. It' s right down to earth, looks the part, and feels it .But it' s very do-it-yourself so be prepared.
If the Arkley is a cosmetic exercise and the Dutton a throwback to the days of the special, then the Super Seven from Caterham Car Sales of Caterham, Surrey, is the real thing. It's shatteringly fast, relatively comfortable, beautifully finished, race-car bred, and priced accordingly. It' s the stuff of which legends are made and driving impressions were published in our 9 April 1977 Sports Car issue.
It's well known that Caterham Car Sales reverted to producing the never forgotten Seven Series 3 in mid-1974, and chose the 126 bhp Lotus big-valve, twin-cam engine to round its hairy character off. Nowadays , the company's well organized and tidy workshops of approximately 5,000 sq. ft. handle the construction of about two or three cars per week, in both complete and kit form.
A relaxed atmosphere is apparent, and six employees work on the shop floor directed by a workshop manager, and overlorded by company director David Wakefield, Six cars might be under construction at anyone time. If several cars leave the works in on e batch. an organized miniature production line can be laid down with the next batch of chassis, enabling each mechanic to do a specified job on each car. Almost preferable though, is the more common situation where.one man build's a whole car himself, from scratch to turning the ignition key. It's a very much more satisfying job that way.
Apart from the rolling chassis option only complete component cars are available in the UK. These , have all parts loosely installed except for the front wings, lights, exhaust system and minor sundries, and need only a few hours work to screw to get her. This is a situation enforced by current UK type-approval legislation but the customer certainly saves money by relieving Caterham of needing to make further labour charges. For export markets Caterham supply mainly fully completed cars. The exception is the USA where kit Sevens can be imported perfectly legally as automobile spares, preferably in two or more consignments. It's the only way if you must have a Seven in America.
Basic Seven body/chassis units come to Caterham from the famed Arch Motors, who supply virtually every fabricated component on the car. All aluminium, exterior body, Interior trim, and dash panels are ready fitted to the spaceframe, and over the next fortnight the car takes shape. Engine supplies begin their life as kits at Lotus, and go directly to Vegantune at Spalding, Lincolnshire, for building, testing , and eventual despatch to Caterham. But some time ago Lotus began to run out of certain components for the engine (which they no longer use) so David Wakefield has gradually sorted out his own supplies. Already buying their own gearboxes (early Ford Corsair semi-close-ratio with remote gearchange), Caterham are slowly but surely becoming the manufacturers of that lusty engine themselves. All other components come from an organized stores department.
The Caterham name originally became synonymous with the Seven through the company's second hand car and repair dealings. The workshops have maintained the repair trade in a section of the premises which deals with a constant supply of bent Seven arriving from all over the world at just about the only address that can do the job properly. The supply of saleable secondhand Sevens is nowadays very limited. Gone are the days when 20 could be in stock during the winter - only one unsold car was to be seen while I was there. Such is the enthusiasm for the marque . Replacement glass-fibre panels and complete bodies are still available for crashed Series 4 cars, of course. Constant development has always been the password at Caterham. My test car represented further recent advances with new 6in.-wide, GKN alloy rims, 185 x 70 Goodyear Grand Prix tyres, Spitfire Mark 4 front upright assemblies, stainless steel exhaust system, chromed roll-over bar, and special 3.5-to -1 differential. Complying with the different markets' requirements , the Seven nowadays even features such delicacies as electric screen washers, hazard warning lights, collapsible steering column, and a steering lock. One cringes at the thought of it one day needing rubber, energy-absorbing bumpers.
The Seven, Dutton and Arkley— three cars, then, with which touphold fun motoring. The grandaddy and the two adopted sons,one a bit superficial and one on the right track but needing (literally) some knocking into shape. Taste and try before you buy, but there's no substitute for the real thing if you can afford £3,357. None except the Dutton with Ford 3-litre V6 power, that is.