THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN
Graham Bell charts half a century of this iconic sports car
However, contrary to what many people seem to think, the Seven wasn’t the first car of this type (that was the Buckler Mk5 of 1947) though it is undoubtedly the best known. That’s partly because the company who originally made it also made championship winning Formula 1 cars, and partly because it’s the only one that’s been in production for 50 years.
Inevitably the demands of competition soon called for more, so the following December saw the first Super Seven. Powered by a 1097cc Coventry Climax engine producing an impressive 75bhp, this turned the little Lotus into a real giant killer on track.
In 1959 the ‘standard’ Seven became available with BMC’s 948cc A-Series engine, enabling Lotus to sell it in the US where the similarly powered Austin Healey Sprite was proving popular; US cars getting the 43bhp twin carb engine instead of the 37bhp single carb engine used in the UK.
A few months later the Coventry Climax engine was replaced in the Super Seven by a 1340cc 109E engine tweaked to produce 85bhp by Cosworth. Capable of reaching 60mph in less than 8 seconds, only the fastest Ferraris, Jags and Mercs could match it. And when Ford introduced the 5-bearing 1500cc 116E engine in 1962, Cosworth endowed the Super Seven with 100bhp for road use and 125bhp for racing to give the competition an ever bigger headache.
1968 saw the introduction of the Series Three, which once again saw minor updates to the established formula. By then the standard engine was Ford’s 84bhp 1600GT crossflow, though a 120bhp Holbay tuned version soon became available as did the option of Lotus’ twin-cam engine with up to 125bhp.
As the 1970s arrived so did a radical change to the Seven, with the Series Four ditching the traditional styling and aluminium panelling in favour of all-new square-edged fibreglass bodywork, though what was underneath stayed largely the same.
However, there was still a demand for the Seven’s raw driving thrills, so rather than kill it off Chapman sold the production rights to Caterham Cars, who by then had become the Seven’s sole distributor.
While there have been many changes under that familiar bodywork since then, for the first ten years or so Caterham adopted the ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ approach and stuck with the simple Ford pushrod engine and live axle formula that had proven so successful.
Caterham’s first major change to the Seven came in 1985 with the introduction of the optional De Dion back axle, while the following year saw the Seven’s most powerful engine to date with the 170bhp Cosworth BDR fitted to the Seven HPC. It also saw the saw the Seven take to the track for its own single make race series.
Then in 1990 Rover introduced a new engine whose compact lightweight design suited the Seven ethos perfectly – the K-Series. Although probably nimbler than any previous Seven,
No such problems for Caterham’s 1992 JPE (Jonathan Palmer Evolution) which thanks to a manic XE producing 250bhp at 8,000rpm beat every supercar of the day to establish new world records of 3.44 seconds for 0-60 and 12.6 seconds for 0-100-0.
Working on the principle that the only thing better than more power is more power combined with less weight, in 1996 Caterham then launched the first of the Superlights. Using lightweight materials to get the weight down to just 470kg along with a 1.6 K-Series tweaked to produce 140bhp, the result was 0-60 in 4.6 seconds, 129mph and supreme agility.
When Porsche broke this two years later with their new 911 GT3, Caterham responded by fitting an even more highly tuned 230bhp K-Series built by Minister Racing Engines to produce the Superlight R500. Such was the performance of this car (0-100 in 8.2 seconds) that even on a damp track in traffic it still posted a time a full second under the Porsche’s at 7 minutes 55 seconds.
Two years later at the same race, Caterham’s K-Series powered R400 blitzed a host of Porsches and BMWs to win its class by 10 laps, leading the authorities to ban the Seven from racing again. But did that stop the Seven embarrassing more expensive big name marques?
2004 also saw the most significant chassis development in the Seven’s history, the CSR featuring a new stiffer spaceframe with inboard front and independent rear suspension. It also renewed the Seven’s association with Cosworth, who supplied tuned Ford Duratecs offering a choice of either 200bhp or 260bhp, the latter giving 0-60 in just 3.1 seconds, 155mph and a time round Top Gear’s track around half a second quicker than the 800bhp Koenigsegg CCR at 1.17.04.
Another aspect of today’s Seven that reflects its beginnings is its continued effectiveness as a clubman’s racer. Since the Caterham Academy was founded in 1995 over 500 novice drivers have cut their racing teeth in a Seven, and Caterham’s one make series now attracts over 700 owner-drivers in 11 countries.
Colin Chapman might no longer be around to see it, but thanks to the continuing success of his most enduring car at least he’ll be there in spirit.