January 27, 2013

News & Features

Father-son project yields two roadsters, several life lessons

Special to NWautos


Riley Strong sits in the Caterham Superlight R model roadster that he and his dad, Hal Strong, built from a kit. The two later went on to build a second Caterham. (Hal Strong photo)

The story of how Hal Strong came to own two British roadster kits doesn't start with a lust for exotic sports cars, as you might expect. It began with a search for a good father-son project.

His son Riley, 15, had shown a knack for engineering at a young age, and Strong was on the lookout for something to encourage his son's mechanical aptitude. The Caterham, a kit-built roadster with a Lotus racing pedigree, seemed the perfect choice.

"The first time I saw a Caterham I didn't know they existed," says Strong. "But I saw one in Kirkland one day, and I thought, 'Wow, what is that?' " He did some research and learned that Caterhams are shipped to the United States in pieces and assembled by a local dealer or as a do-it-yourself kit.

Build your own
  • Basic Caterham kits can be purchased locally from Woodinville-based dealer Beachman Racing for $35,000 to $61,000, plus the cost of the engine (usually a Ford Duratec). Due to import rules, the engine is sold separately from the chassis.

  • Customers can mix and match accessories such as seats, dashboards and a variety of components at the time of order.

  • Assembly requires no special skills and will generally take 70 to 90 hours for those with basic mechanical knowledge. Beachman will assemble a Caterham in four to 10 weeks for an additional $5,000 to $6,000.

  • To schedule a viewing and test drive, contact the company at 206-774-0852 or beachmanracing@mac.com.

Modern Caterhams are descendants of the legendary Lotus 7, which has been in production for more than 50 years. They trade power for balance and quickness and still embrace the original concept of "adding lightness" by using a simple design, stripped of all but the most critical components.

Strong had discovered the perfect project, but there was only one problem. "I had no experience with cars," he says. "Absolutely zero."

Undaunted, he ordered a basic Superlight R model from Caterham, purchased an engine hoist plus a few basic tools, and, with Riley, spent 160 hours during the next six months figuring out the instructions.

"I would read things like, 'Connect the coolant hose to the submarine hose,' and I had no idea what that was," says Strong.

They taught themselves to wire the electronics and rivet the paneling. By the time Riley turned 16, the father-and-son team owned a lightweight speedster capable of taking corners like a video-game car.

Caterhams are famous among sports-car enthusiasts in the UK for their tight cornering and maneuverability. "There's no power anything," says Strong. "No power brakes, no power steering. You can tell when it hits its limit, and you can control it. That's why I love it. I don't know any other car like it."

Tragically, only nine months after Strong and Riley finished their car, a winter storm flooded their Whidbey Island home. They returned home one night to find the Caterham under 3.5 feet of saltwater, and totally ruined.

Though heartbroken, the pair used the insurance money to import a second kit -- this time, a CSR 260 specifically designed for the track. They paid the dealer to help with the assembly, and were able to cut their build time to only two weeks.

Though it's street legal, the car doesn't see public roads very often. "It can get you in trouble really fast," says Strong. "It's such a capable car. It can hit zero to 60 in 3.1 seconds."

Father and son admit they weren't major car enthusiasts prior to building the Caterhams, but the experience has made disciples out of both.

"When I'm on the straightaway [at Pacific Raceways], Corvettes and anything with a V-8 will blow by me. But there's nothing faster in overall lap time," says Strong. "It only weighs 1,350 pounds, but it has 260 horsepower.

"The handling is great. If you want to be precise, this is your car."

Giving your teenage son the keys to a sports car may seem like a bad idea to many parents, but Strong says he believes building the car kits has taught Riley ownership and pride -- and he wouldn't dare risk wrecking their car by driving recklessly.

He has also learned respect for speed, Strong says: "My son knows you drive fast on the track, [and] not on the road."


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