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The Glove Box: Lotus Se7en

The Glove Box: Lotus Se7en

The catchphrase “fun to drive” gets thrown around quite frequently these days. Strangely enough, as cars nowadays are designed with the piling on of safety, convenience, and efficiency technologies, they’ve evolved to need less involved piloting. Are journalists and marketers losing bearing on what really makes a car fun? True, every car is a compromise between many different qualities, only one of which is fun, but what if we were to skew that balance almost entirely towards the joy of driving? We would get a track toy, the original and most elemental of which is this week’s car.

The Seven (affectionately the Se7en), produced by Lotus from 1957 to 1973, is one of the world’s most replicated cars. It originated the basic idea of a small, lightweight car for utmost driver involvement, an affordable race car for the street. Since Lotus itself stopped making the Seven, Colin Chapman’s masterpiece has inspired a constellation of enthusiasts to emulate the timeless fun.

A 1961 ad from Car and Driver, featuring the world’s best sans serif font, Akzidenz-Grotesk. Sorry, I got distracted. Scan from SenseiAlan on Flickr.

Another catchphrase we hear a lot is “track toy.” Lately, it has been affixed to prohibitively expensive and already-sold-out-when-they-arrive specials like the BMW M4 GTS and Aston Martin Vulcan that, despite the luxury cred, are too harsh or illegal to drive on the street and as such see extremely limited use, mostly on racetracks. You can drive a Seven on track, too, and keep up with all manner of Porsches (not to mention blow Miatas away), but it is fully street legal and costs a fraction of what those crown jewels do. Not a cherished bauble, then, but a toy, one you use and enjoy with the giddy smile of a child.

I could fill a page with a list of all the companies and grassroots garages that sell Seven-inspired vehicles, but there’s little point to that. (Scroll down on this page if you care to see an exhaustive list.) Basically, if you want a timeless little track-focused fun car, you will be able to find whatever combination of attributes you need. Of course, you or someone else will have to build it, because these are legit kit cars, more so the further down the cost ladder you go. You get a premade chassis unique to the manufacturer you choose, and then a bunch of drivetrain and running gear components, often sourced from a variety of other cars. You have to find your own engine. Building a Seven will teach you wrenching skills out of necessity.

Of course, Caterham is the best known of the Seven manufacturers, in large part because it actually owns the rights to Lotus’ official Seven designs. Caterham is also one of the few that will build your Seven in house. This was actually not the case due to safety regulations in the United States, but Superformance (which also makes replicas of famous American cars such as Cobras and GT40s) stepped up a couple years ago to distribute Caterhams here. The channels should be smoother now, enough that you can buy a Caterham almost like a normal car.

Originally a dealer deemed robust enough to receive the Lotus seal of approval, Caterham has since developed and refined its Seven. The privilege of having the original designs means customers are willing to pay more for a faithful interpretation of the Seven, including the additional cost of factory assembly, so unlike essentially any other manufacturer of Seven-inspired vehicles, the mainstream automotive press often covers Caterham like a normal manufacturer. Recent successes for Caterham in various forms of prototype racing have elevated its image and boosted sales.

The 310, the sweet spot of the Caterham range. Photo from CAR Magazine.

The current Caterham lineup in the US ranges from plenty quick (270) to nuclear (620R). Prices are not widely advertised, but $30K should get you a comfortably equipped 270 or 310 and even a selection of optional extras will not push the hypercar-pestering 620R past $75K. Of course, other markets get other configurations, and if you ask the folks at Superformance nicely enough, they will probably send you one.

My personal favorite would have to be the 160, made primarily for Japan but sold elsewhere as well. To conform with Japan’s tax exemptions for very small (kei) cars, the 160 is narrower than other Sevens—it was already short enough!—and has only 66 horsepower from a 660-cubic-centimeter Suzuki engine. Elsewhere, that goes up to 80 horsepower, which would be insufficient in any other modern sports car, but the Caterham frame is so unfathomably light that the 160 will still keep up with a previous-generation Mazda Miata to 60 miles per hour.

The 620R, meanwhile—well—I think the description on Caterham’s website says enough. Whoever wrote that page was very excited. “We’ve created a monster. A very special monster.” “We have done the automotive equivalent of attaching a rocket to a missile. We’ve taken something really fast and made it really fast.” Truly, the 620R, in its supercharged glory, will shame supercars on a tight racetrack (not to mention a public road), but it requires the utmost attention to be driven at all, let alone fast. Better for the casual fun-seekers to stick to the 310 and its ilk.

CAR Magazine’s long-term Seven 160 rediscovers its trials roots on a dirt road.

So, whose idea was it for these cars to be so light and simple? None other than Anthony Colin Bruce Chapman, a Briton who famously, nay mythically, once said that his strategy to make good, fast cars for road and track was to “simplify, then add lightness.” This is still Lotus Cars’ mission today. For the mainstream cars subject to it, modern technology challenges the former part of his decree, but the latter part can be done by a dedicated enough team of engineers. For example, the new Mazda Miata (to bring it up yet again) has holes strategically cut in parts of the chassis to reduce weight.

Colin Chapman’s first car project was a modified Austin Seven that he built in 1948 to compete in trials, a sort of rugged, run-what-you-brung hillclimb challenge on mostly dirt roads. Of course, he took the Seven (no relation), a sort of late-1920s economy car, and removed components for weight reduction and fiddled with things here and there to give it the Lotus treatment. Soon enough, Chapman realized his formula was producing considerable success, and he formed the Lotus Engineering Company to continue building simple yet competitive racing cars. One source cites that he chose the name for the great amount of detailed work he chose to put into his designs, as though making a lotus flower.

Since he numbered his production models sequentially, the Seven was the seventh. Originally, it would have been the Mark VII, but it has endured much too long for that. Chapman chose parts to use based on what would serve him best or was cheapest, but the core of the Seven was a proprietary steel spaceframe, like a car-shaped version of a geodesic dome you might see at a playground. While other makers use different strategies, Caterham especially has remained faithful to this chassis structure. Besides that, engines, axles, and transmissions were usually volume models from Ford or BMC. Caterham continues to use Ford engines, obviously in more modern and powerful form.

An early Seven, delectably simple. Photo from Lotus Club Queensland.

The brilliance of the Seven was its simplicity. Other cars I feature in this series frequently excel for their focus of engineering, but they pale in comparison to the Seven. Every component existed for a reason, and those that were unnecessary were thrown out. Need a windshield? No? Why bother, then? Nowadays, you can fit your Seven with a few convenience features, but the emphasis is on the “few.” You buy a Seven for the purity of the driving experience, and you live with the often severe compromises because it is so worth it.

Lotus has always had racing success throughout its existence and across disciplines, a legacy built with the help of the Seven’s chassis. But the cash that came with race wins meant more and more sophisticated cars, starting with the 1962 fiberglass Elite. Lotus’ more conventional (read: with full fenders and doors, windows, etc.) sports cars for the road have always been impressive designs with a few exotic features, but at a more reasonable price than the Porsches and such that they can frequently leave behind on a racetrack. The Elite was no different, with the added bonus of a degree of comfort for cruising. It makes sense, then, that Chapman wanted to shed the Seven and the kit-car connotations to move upmarket; hence, he sold the rights to the Seven to Caterham in the UK.

Modern-day competitors to the Caterham Seven include those from all other Seven-imitating brands, but also more upmarket rivals like the KTM X-Bow and Ariel Atom. Lately, a new British firm named Zenos has made a compelling Caterham alternative, the E10, with more modern looks. It is one to watch. Any car enthusiast should find an opportunity to drive a Seven of some sort within their lifetime, though: there is nothing else quite like one.

 

(Cover photo from POTIER Jean-Louis on Flickr.)