What we learnt while building a Caterham

What we learnt while building a Caterham

It’s one of those things that appears on many people’s ‘bucket list’ – build your own kit car. Like many others before me, I’ve always had the desire to build a kit car too – and the unshakeable belief that it’s something within my skill set, despite a driveway full of part-dismantled vehicles at home attesting otherwise.

Arguably the most well-known of the kit cars is Caterham. With myriad different options to choose from depending on your bravery levels – stretching from the basic Sport 160 to the absolutely barking mad 375bhp/tonne 420R – there’s a Caterham for all tastes, so long as you can fit in the rather tight cabin.

Caterham advises that it should take between 80 and 100 hours to assemble one of its cars and my colleagues thought it would be amusing to challenge me to do that.

I was set the task of assembling a road-legal car from parts delivered in a selection of cardboard boxes before the 100-hour time limit expired.

With the space cleared in the Workshop workshop, I spent four solid 15-hour days and then a few lunchtimes and evenings screwing, bolting, clipping, swearing, reading, glueing and clipping the Caterham with one eye on the clock before the car eventually rolled out of the garage, inside the time allotted.

Caterham collects and inspects kit vehicles before putting them through the vital IVA test required for registration and happily we did end up with a roadworthy and road-legal car at the end of the process. Having never done it before, it was something of a learning curve, and here’s 10 things I know now for the next time I get spanner-happy.

1. You don’t need as much mechanical knowledge as you may think

The car arrives with a pretty chunky build manual. It might come as a surprise, but if you can follow the instructions for building flat-pack furniture, you can probably follow the Caterham’s manual.

2. The instruction manual is not a Bible, though

There are quite a few variations of the Caterham, and occasionally I found gaps where it wasn’t obvious what my particular car needed. The images are a little hit and miss too, so if you have some mechanical knowledge or improvisation skills the process will be a lot smoother.

3. The internet is invaluable

Whatever problem you experience in the build, someone else has experienced it too – and posted it in a blog of their Caterham build. These are a great auxiliary resource.

4. Parts aren’t necessarily in the obvious boxes

Some things are kept together, but others are spread across many boxes. If I did it again, I’d get everything out and lined up on a proper workbench first before building anything. Especially all of the fasteners.

5. In some areas, the car’s tolerances are surprisingly lax

Ultimately, the Caterham is based on a 60-year-old design, and every now and then you’ll find that a bolt doesn’t quite go in straight. For the most part it’s just a quirk, but with the 11-inch-long differential mount bolt it can lead to a lot of frustration!

8. You’ll still need a few extra bits and bobs

An engine crane is a necessity of course, but items such as lights, your own jacks, a good selection of greases (rubber lubricant, copper slip, molybdenum grease) and even a hand drill or multitool will make your Caterham build go more smoothly.

9. You need more than just mechanical skills

A lot of the wiring is done for you, fortunately, but the build will test your electrical, plumbing and even upholstery skills.

10. Doing it on your own is insane

Even if it’s just extra eyes when the powertrain is going in, extra hands to hold things or another brain to work out which of two seemingly identical washers is which, this is a two-person job. I was (even more of) a physical wreck after doing it by myself!

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