The Lotus Seven was designed by Colin Chapman in late spring 1957 as the “entry level” Lotus model. Supposedly encouraged by his wife Hazel, Chapman noted about the design of the Seven: “There was nothing that was new on it. It was simple and just kept going. The sort of thing you could dash off in a weekend.”
Except that no one else but he ever did dash off such an enduring design. Comprised of a frame of square tubing very similar to that of the Lotus Eleven, though with the suspension from the Lotus 12 Formula One car at the front and a solid axle with trailing arm location at the rear, the Seven was a car a chap could use to get to work during the week and take to the track for club racing (750 motor club in the UK) on the weekend. It featured an all-aluminum body with beautifully formed curvaceous nose and rear wings polished to dazzle. The Lotus Seven S2 followed in 1960. It was an attempt by Lotus to improve performance and take some cost out. Therefore it used fiberglass nose and wings, both of simpler shape, as well as a Ford 105 engine of 1,340 cc capacity. It was at once faster and less expensive. Still in its Series 2 designation it was supplemented by the Lotus Super Seven S2 in 1961. The Super Seven initially used the Cosworth modified 1,340cc Ford Classic engine and later examples were fitted with larger 1,498cc Ford non-crossflow engines. It was this version that the Sports Car Club of America accepted, and then banned, as it was too good… winning virtually every time it ran even though classed in “C” production with cars whose engines were far bigger.
Due to their extremely light weight (around 1,200 pounds) Sevens have excellent acceleration, especially up to 70 mph. For their time, the original 1950s Sevens could beat most contemporary British GT cars—and by the early 1960s, with improved Ford-Cosworth engines could take on most high performance sports cars with 0–60 mph time below 7 seconds and leech like road holding. An S2 Lotus Seven (registration plate “KAR 120C”) was also the car that became famous, driven by Patrick McGoohan, as it appeared each week in the opening sequence of the 1967–1968 television series “The Prisoner.” It was exposure to this show that acquainted so many with the Seven. McGoohan said he originally envisioned an E Type Jaguar as the right car but then came across the Seven at a motor show and realized it was the perfect expression of non-conformity, speed and distinctive style required by his character, all embodied in one car.
The Seven S3 was released in 1968 as an update of the theme, with the Ford Cortina 1,600 cross flow engine standard and the Lotus twin cam (offered in only 13 cars by Lotus). The less powerful S1 and S2 models had drum brakes all round, while the S3 had disc brakes at the front for the first time on a production Seven, though race cars had them homologated earlier. In 1970, Lotus radically changed the shape of the car to create the slightly larger sized Series 4, with a molded fiberglass shell replacing the aluminum bodywork. The rear wings, scuttle and dash were integral moldings. The S4 had a roomier cockpit and a bigger storage compartment. It also offered some luxuries as standard, such as an included heater, but had a sort of “beach buggy” look that was quite different than that of all the previous Sevens. It was also offered as a complete car from the Lotus factory rather than the kit car previously available at option.
In fact, it was this ability to buy a Seven in pieces that provides one insight into Lotus ability to make the rules work for them and has left us with a wonderfully apocryphal story. Under the Purchase Tax system of the time cars supplied as a kit (known as “completely knocked down” or CKD) did not pay taxes that would apply if the car were bought in assembled form. The Inland Revenue tax rules, however, specified assembly instructions could not be included, or the tax would be incurred. So Lotus published an article in Sports Car & Lotus Owner magazine which described in extraordinary detail instructions on how to disassemble a Seven for thorough inspection of all the systems in the car. All the kit buyer had to do was to follow them in reverse to build his car. However, once the Value Added Tax system was adopted on January 1, 1973, the tax advantage of the kit-built Lotus Seven came to an end.
Graham Nearn of Caterham was closely involved with Lotus from 1959 as the premier sales agent for the Seven. It was always his favorite Lotus so he specialized in building them from kits, sales of completed cars and kits, as well as parts and service for Sevens. Nearn was instrumental in the revisions to the S2, primarily based on feedback from his customers, which resulted in the S3. It was Caterham Sales that sold more of them than all other concessionaires combined. Nearn had a Land Rover with a trailer that held four Sevens and would make almost weekly trips to Hethel in Norwich for cars. At each trip he would take time to visit with different managers to see what was coming next. It was this habit that provided him with advanced notice of Lotus intent to change course with regard to the Seven. In 1973, Lotus decided to shed fully its “tax avoidance system” inspired image and concentrate on more upmarket cars such as the about-to-be unveiled Elite and Esprit. As part of this plan, Lotus sold the rights to the Seven to its only remaining agents Caterham Cars in England and Steele Brothers Ltd in New Zealand. Caterham built its remaining Lotus Series 4 kits by June of 1974. When these were completed, in accordance with their agreement with Lotus, Caterham introduced its own version of the Series 3. With the demise of Steele Brothers, Caterham is the only company authorized to produce the Seven as Lotus successors. They have been manufacturing the car ever since as the Caterham Seven, the legitimate continuation of the original Lotus 7.
Caterham has continued to not only manufacture the Seven, but improve it too. Inside the dictum that the Seven shape is inviolable, there is a lot of room for clever engineering. From the basic Ford 1,172 cc sidevalve engine with a tiny one barrel carburetor, to the latest engine with four valves per cylinder, variable valve timing and fuel injection through individual throttle bodies, the horsepower has gone from below 40 to over 300. The rear suspension has evolved to DeDion for base cars, or fully independent on the CSR model, and disc brakes all round is standard for all models. In April 2004, a Caterham R 500 evolution was tested from 0-100 MPH-0 in 10.73 seconds…faster than a Ferrari Enzo. This is a car that has kept pace with the times in every sense of the word! Additionally, in the mid 1990’s the cockpit was lengthened by three inches for base cars to give additional leg room for drivers up to 6′ 2″, and an additional version, the SV, with even more length and width was added to accommodate drivers up to 6′ 6″ in height.
Sevens are not only wonderful winding road cars either, having proved themselves at the race track. There are a number of series strictly for Sevens that accommodate amateur and pro, rookie and veteran across the globe. There is even a school in England conducted by Caterham for those who have never raced… buy an Academy car from Caterham and it comes with a sealed engine, all necessary race equipment already installed on the car, all the necessary application paperwork for race license and entry into the academy where instruction and race experience await.
Now you may begin to understand this wonderfully seductive cult of the Seven, a car which has been in production in its recognizably original shape for over 62 years – longer than any other car except for the Morgan Plus 4. Longer than the Porsche 911, longer than the VW Beetle, longer than the Citroen 2CV and even longer than the Morris Mini. Those who have a Seven, or have tested them for magazines and media wax with superlatives about it, and those who want a Seven almost always get theirs no matter how long it takes.
Not bad for “The sort of thing you could dash off in a weekend” is it?