Caterham Seven: the definitive British sports car turns 60
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It’s difficult to think of a new car today that has changed as little in 60 years as the Caterham Seven has, or Lotus Seven, as it was back in 1957.
This strange, beguiling, simple, lightweight, British two-seater sports car has held true to its roots in a way that Mini failed to after it was bought by BMW Group. Perhaps Morgan offers the closest comparison.
The design of the Caterham Seven, its character and its founding principles of minimal creature comforts, simple engineering and light weight are the same now as they were all those years ago, when the Lotus Seven Series 1 was launched as a budget car for motoring enthusiasts.
At the time, the press hailed it as “the ideal road and race car”. Few might argue today, least of all me: I ran one as a race car in the Caterham Academy and as an all-year round road car, happily commuting 32km a day through London’s choked streets to the Telegraph office.
Its popularity this year is as strong as ever: the 60th anniversary special Sprint edition, limited to 60 examples, sold out within seven days of the car’s unveiling at last year’s Goodwood Revival. And now Caterham has let journalists lose on many of its most prized possessions to help get the birthday celebrations underway, at its Crawley HQ, which is essentially a huge toy box of choice playthings for enthusiastic drivers.
We started the day at the beginning of it all, behind the wheel of an astonishing 1958 Lotus Seven Series 1. Astonishing because so little has changed, and this car feels so like a modern-day Seven to drive. Under the familiar long bonnet of its all-aluminium bodywork, which is lower to the ground in the first generation, sits a BMC A-series 948cc engine, capable of about 38bhp back then, linked to a Morris four-speed gearbox.
“How much does it weigh?” I ask the engineer who restored it after it sat unused for eight years. “Next to nothing” he laughs, as we sit side by side on the red leather bench seat. Apart from new spark plugs, filters, and oil, and cleaning out the inside of the carburettors and drum brakes, this car is entirely original.
I squeeze my left foot past the steering column which feeds down between the clutch and brake pedals, select the tight first gear and depress the tiny thin metal throttle lever. We’re away and it feels… like driving a Caterham. There are the same pop-up lamps, the same sounds and smells… it’s incredible and the car drives beautifully, with supple suspension and linear steering.
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Next up is a car a decade older: one of only 13 Lotus Seven Twin Cams ever produced in 1969. A customer fitted his Seven with a twin-cam engine, despite Caterham saying it wasn’t possible, which inspired the company to squeeze one in the engine bay, making it heavier than a standard Series Three, with a big bulge in the bonnet for the air filter.
To accommodate the twin-cam, the Seven’s nose cone was raised, so the view from the driver’s seat is more recognisably “Seven”. With both carburettors and exhausts burbling, it’s full of noisy, joyful character, although the low sump drags painfully over any ruptured road surfaces. Thankfully, with disc brakes on the front for what was essentially a performance upgrade, you don’t have to anticipate your braking quite so far in advance.
Lastly on our short heritage tour, we hopped into one of the early Nineties Caterham Seven VVC replicas, or “Caterham Seven Prisoner” cars. While from the front the public would struggle to differentiate between this and a 2017 Caterham, inside there’s a hideously ugly gear knob for the six-speed box that looks like it’s been taken from a Nineties Fiesta, and a thick steering wheel.
But that 1.8-litre K-series engine under the bonnet is good for about 140bhp and it’s been lovingly looked after, the big chromed headlamp backs reflecting the front suspension springs jumping up and down in the sunlight, the exhaust chattering away.
What I wouldn’t give to own one.