From Lotus to Caterham: Why the Seven Is One of the Best Driver’s Cars Ever
Today, we have a small but vital segment of open air, semi-open wheel, hell for leather sports cars. These models gleefully occupy the space between motorcycles and cars, often drawing the ire of safety groups and government regulators, and undying love from drivers. They’re not high-displacement bruisers like Shelby Cobra continuation roadsters, or powerful science experiments for the ultra-wealthy like the Bugatti Chiron, but they’re about as close as you can get to Hunter S. Thompson’s description of “the edge” without being on a bike.
These cars eschew everything that isn’t essential — including things like airbags, traction control, and even bodies in the pursuit of speed. So what you’re left with is a flyweight machine that’s able to go as fast as its driver’s skill can handle. This rarefied bunch includes the Ariel Atom, Polaris Slingshot trike, Morgan Three-Wheeler, and the grandaddy of them all, the Caterham 7.
When we’re talking lightness in the pursuit of speed, British sports car builder Lotus is almost always involved, and it’s no different here. Because while Caterham has been building the 7 since 1973, for 15 years before that, it was designed and built by Lotus, and sold as the Seven. So for nearly 60 years, whether assembled in Hethel, Crawley, or in garages around the world as a kit car, the 7 has been in continuous production — an astonishing feat for any automaker. And today, it’s just as vital as its ever been.
The roots of the Seven actually predate Lotus. In 1948, Colin Chapman graduated from engineering school and built his first car, a wood and aluminum trials racer based on an old Austin Seven, the affordable compact that served as the Model T of England. Trialing, a type of off-road uphill racing, was reaching the height of its popularity, and Chapman’s car made something of a splash. A second Austin-based car followed suit in 1949, and by 1952, Lotus Cars, Ltd. was in business.
But while the company quickly turned its attention to formula one and grand prix cars, Chapman never quite forgot his trialing roots. The Lotus Mk. IV through Mk. VI were improvements on the first few cars, only now, they incorporated more of Lotus’s proprietary engineering. Throughout the mid ’50s, Chapman kept tinkering with a spare Mk. VI chassis until he believed he found the perfect expression of the Lotus philosophy.
Thanks to its work focusing on racing, Lotus began to develop an outlook that set it apart from other manufacturers. At a time when raw power was thought of as a solution to most problems, Chapman wisely understood that tiny Lotus didn’t have the resources to design big, advanced straight-sixes like Jaguar or Mercedes-Benz. Instead, it relied on cutting-edge engineering to keep its cars as nimble and focused as possible. “Simplify, then add lightness” became Chapman’s mantra to his engineers, and they followed it almost fanatically. In 1957, it reached its ultimate expression in a new car, the Mark VII, or Lotus Seven.
But there’s another wrinkle to the Seven’s story: Britain was still emerging from postwar austerity, and luxuries like new cars came with a 25% tax, something that hurt the sales of small automakers like Lotus. So Chapman felt that if he sold the Seven as a kit car, it would circumvent the tax laws. It worked, and within a few years, Lotus became a presence at races all over the world.
The Seven had a lot in common with a trials car — long, narrow hood, tucked-in tail, bicycle-style fenders, two seats, and absurdly light weight — but it was built for the road. The thin, angular aluminum bodywork covered a rigid tubular space frame. Power came from a Ford inline-four that only made 40 horsepower, but thanks to its astonishingly low center of gravity (top of the windshield was only 3 feet of the ground), near 50/50 center of gravity, and wheels on all four corners, it could out-handle just about anything else on the road.
The S2 car appeared in 1960 with a simplified frame, and the even more performance-oriented Super Seven appeared with its Cosworth-tuned Ford four in ’61. In 1968, the more powerful S3 bowed with a larger Ford mill, but it was quickly replaced with the S4 in early 1970. That car was larger with a bigger engine and fiberglass body parts to supplement the costlier aluminum panels.
By 1973, Lotus had sold over 2,500 Sevens around the world, and they were raced, hot rodded, and driven in anger all around the world. But Chapman wanted the company to shift away from kit cars and move upmarket to focus on exclusive sports cars and racing. What’s more, England’s entry into the EEC, the closing of the kit car tax loophole, and the institution of the VAT, all pointed to the end of the Seven. Luckily, it quickly found a savior.
Since the 1960s, Caterham Cars had been a major Lotus dealer, and it didn’t want to lose business once the affordable Seven disappeared. So it bought the rights to build the car, and in 1973 began selling S4 cars. But these larger, fiberglass heavy cars weren’t as popular as earlier aluminum-based models, so in 1974, it launched an updated S3 model, and it’s been the basis of virtually every 7 since.
Over the past 43 years, Caterham followed in Lotus’s footsteps by largely using Ford four-cylinder engines. But as engines have become more powerful, it’s begun to diversify. The early 1990s saw the use of engines from MG Rover, GM/Vauxhall, and today, even Suzuki. Most engines, however still come from The Blue Oval.
Today, the Seven still lacks even the most basic creature comforts, and you can have performance as close to Chapman’s ’50s design or a modern supercar as you’d like. The base 160 model uses a 660cc Suzuki turbo three for a top speed of around 100, and a zero to 60 time of just under seven seconds. The top dog 620R doesn’t look all that different, but it will rocket you from zero to 60 in 2.9 seconds and top out at 155 miles per hour, thanks to a supercharged Ford Duratec four. Curb weight: 1,200 pounds.
In the automotive world, it’s virtually impossible to achieve perfection, but for thousands of drivers around the world, the Seven is, was, and always will be as good as it gets. Its ’50s-era design (itself a throwback to 1930s trial cars), lack of creature comforts, and otherworldly handling combine to deliver one of the greatest driving experiences in the world. Seven decades of automotive evolution have done a lot for us, but at the end of the day, Chapman’s basic principles have kept the Seven a vibrant driver’s car, and it’s still inspiring groups of true believers to build cars that follow in its footsteps.