Sometimes, automakers use legal loopholes to skirt emissions and crash-test standards. Other times, it’s those very standards that keep some very sweet wheels out of our hands. This means, usually if you want a non-US-spec vehicle like a Nissan Patrol, Toyota Century, or Toyota Celica GT4, you have to wait 25 years. However, there are some automakers that have taken advantage of loopholes to bring exciting cars to our shores. 2 British sports cars, the Morgan Plus 4 and Caterham Seven, stand out in particular. And luckily, it may not be long before more of them are coming to the US.
Morgan Plus 4: a modern classic British sports car
Morgan has been in business for 110 years. At first, the company made 3-wheelers with motorcycle engines. But in 1936, as Road & Track describes, the company created a new steel chassis and began making four-wheeled cars. And while Morgan is switching to aluminum later in 2020, according to R&T, Automobile Magazine reports most of the carmaker’s lineup still uses British ash wood frames.
At first glance, the Morgan Plus 4—like the recently-reintroduced Morgan 3-Wheeler—seems like a romantic throwback. For instance, the only safety feature are seatbelts. There’s no ABS, no power steering, no trunk, and no doors. It has a solid rear axle and sliding-pillar front suspension that hasn’t really changed in 70 years. But this isn’t merely a restomod. These British sports cars are made brand-new, by hand.
And despite the very old-school styling, the car has some modern concessions. There’s modern switchgear, heated seats, and a radio with Bluetooth. The engine is a Ford Focus 2.0-liter four-cylinder making 154 hp and 148 lb-ft, according to Car and Driver, controlled through a Mazda Miata 5-speed manual. That may not sound like a lot of power, but the Morgan Plus 4 only weighs about 2150 pounds.
On the road, the Plus 4 rides fairly stiff, which Automobile Magazine reports is also an apt description for the brakes. It squeaks and rattles, and if it rains, the top is significantly more difficult to put up than a Miata’s.
But there’s a reason Morgan has a 3-year waiting list. The light steering transmits tons of feedback, and it delivers a driving experience that Car and Driver called “wholly analog and elemental.” The Morgan Plus 4 is a British sports car that looks and drives like nothing else on the road.
Caterham Seven: a simpler Miata
As Road & Track explains, the Seven was originally a Lotus, developed by Colin “Simplify, then add lightness” Chapman. If the Morgan Plus 4 is driving nostalgia, the Caterham Seven is about the closest thing to a four-wheeled motorcycle. It’s not just unfiltered, it’s straight-up raw.
Like the Morgan, R&T reports, the Caterham has no doors and no safety features besides seatbelts. The windshield is even removable. The cabin only has a few gauges, and some lights and switches. It’s even lighter than the Plus 4. Matt Farah of The Smoking Tire drove one that weighed 1250 pounds.
R&T described the around-town driving experience as “mildly terrifying.” Superformance, the US Caterham distributor, offers the Seven with a variety of engines. The slowest Seven 270 has a 1.6-liter four-cylinder Ford engine making 135 hp. The quickest is the Seven 620R, with a 310-hp supercharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder. The only transmission is a 5-speed manual. Even so, the 620R can go 0-60 in 2.8 seconds. Caterham used to make another version called the R500 that beat the Bugatti Veyron around the Top Gear test track.
While there is an optional roof, R&T reports it functions more like a sun-shade and a wind-noise intensifier. The car is so low, you can basically reach down and touch the pavement. And the car’s so compact, you’re baked by the transmission and engine heat. Again, four-wheeled motorcycle.
But all this abject minimalism makes for an exhilarating British sports car. You can see exactly how the suspension reacts, how your steering input moves the wheels. The shifter has short throws, and some models get limited-slip differentials. It’s also surprisingly comfortable, according to Farah.
Getting these British sports cars is easier than before
Considering neither of these British sports cars feature airbags, you might be wondering how they’re legal to purchase. That’s because they’re technically sold as kit cars. Morgan, for instance, ships the Plus 4 without an engine or transmission; those are installed here. The 3-Wheeler gets a pass because it’s technically considered a motorcycle.
The Caterham Seven, meanwhile, was a kit car from its inception. That’s actually part of the brand’s appeal. R&T is even putting a Caterham Seven 310R together right now, as of this writing. Build time reportedly runs from 80-100 hours. Luckily, you can ask for a heater.
However, both of these cars may soon be easier to purchase. Back in 2015, Automobile Magazine and Car and Driver explain, the NHTSA passed the Low Volume Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Act. When this fully goes into effect this year, this will allow low-production manufacturers to be exempt from certain safety and emissions standards. Meaning, Morgan, and Caterham won’t have to import their cars like Lego kits.
To be fair, neither of these British sports cars is cheap. A new Plus 4 starts at $69,995 before options. And as of this writing, California dealer Hillbank Motor Corporation have a Caterham Seven 360 available for $59,950. There are cheaper ways of going fast.
Then again, if you’re after what’s perhaps the purest sensation of driving, it’s tough to top these British sports cars.
Follow more updates from MotorBiscuit on our Facebook page.