When Colin Chapman launched the Lotus Seven in 1957, he could scarcely have imagined it would still be in production 60 years later. Today, this back-to-basics sports car is built by Caterham Cars, a tiny British company with big ambition. We visited Caterham’s flagship showroom in Crawley, West Sussex, to see some of its greatest hits (and misses).
Read our world-exclusive first drive of the Caterham Seven Sprint
Top Gear track star
This Seven Superlight R500 takes pride of place in the Caterham Cars’ foyer. It’s the very same Seven that blitzed the Top Gear test track in 1min 17.9sec in 2008 – earning the team’s Car of the Year accolade in the process.
Endorsed by Hammond – and the Stig
With a 267hp 2.0-litre Ford Duratec engine, the R500 explodes to 60mph in just 2.88sec. Richard Hammond remarked: “The Caterham is faster than the £1m Veyron. What an amazing little car!” The Stig, meanwhile, declined to comment. But we suspect he approved…
The bare essentials
Inside, the Superlight lives up to its name, with nothing but the essentials for fast driving. Note the racing-style Stack instruments, gearshift indicator lights above the steering wheel and six-speed sequential manual gearbox. Serious stuff.
New Caterham Seven Sprint
At the opposite end of the Seven spectrum is the new limited-edition Sprint. Only 60 examples of this retro-look roadster will be made, to celebrate 60 years of the Seven. Launched at the Goodwood Revival, it was sold-out within a week.
The Sprint resembles the original Lotus Seven, with flared front wings, a powder-coated grey chassis, cream steel wheels, a polished exhaust and classic-style badges. Underneath, however, it has a modern three-cylinder Suzuki engine.
Into the red
Inside, the Sprint boasts sumptuous scarlet leather, retro Smiths gauges and a wood-rimmed Moto-Lita steering wheel. The only options are armrests, a tonneau cover, stainless steel rear wing guards and a lower floor for extra cabin space. Squint and you could be in a Jaguar E-Type – or any other 1960s British sports car.
Plaque in black
There’s also a numbered plaque in front of the passenger showing which of the 60 cars is yours. The Sprint is a surefire future classic, so little details like this matter. Note that Caterhams are now built in Dartford, Kent – rather than their original home of Caterham in Surrey.
Caterham AeroSeven concept
Fast-forwarding into the future, here’s the fabulous AeroSeven concept car. It was unveiled at the Singapore Grand Prix and could have been the replacement for the ageing Seven. However, budgets were tight and customers weren’t convinced, so the Seven lives on.
Packed with F1 tech
The AeroSeven featured plenty of tech from Caterham’s F1 exploits, including inboard pushrod suspension, launch control and advanced aerodynamics. It’s powered by a 240hp Ford Duratec engine and reaches 60mph in ‘less than four seconds’.
We love all the naked carbonfibre inside the AeroSeven, although it doesn’t exactly look cosseting. Still, who cares about fripperies like a windscreen when you’re driving something this cool? We want one.
The stillborn 21 is another Caterham that could have replaced the Seven: indeed, most used the same Rover K-Series engines. It was launched in 1994 and remained in production for five years, yet only 48 cars were made.
A softer Seven
The 21’s interior is certainly more accommodating than a Seven (not hard, admittedly) – and it’s more practical, too. However, the shape of the doors means the windows don’t wind down. If you want a side-draught, you need to remove them altogether.
It’s the Mondeo, man
An extra point if you spotted that the 21’s tail lights come from the Ford Mondeo. It also used front indicators from the Suzuki Cappuccino and wing mirrors from the Rover 200. Such parts were simply too expensive for Caterham to make in-house.
The Lotus position
The main reason for the 21’s failure was the launch of the Lotus Elise soon afterwards. The car from Norfolk was better resolved and more fun to drive: the Caterham didn’t stand a chance. Ironically, Caterham Cars had this lovely S1 Elise for sale in its showroom. A trade-in against a new Seven, perhaps?
Hardcore, you know the score… This is the track-only Caterham SP/300.R, a joint project with British racing car constructor, Lola. With a supercharged 300hp engine (355hp on overboost), this four-wheeled weapon will reach 170mph. If you’re brave enough.
The ultimate track-day toy
Caterham says of the SP/300.R: “The feeling of the car beneath you, inspiring you to push boundaries. The aggression of the forces acting on your body. The satisfaction of placing the car with absolute precision. The way the car communicates with you, constantly feeding a stream of data to every sense, synapse and nerve ending. Only a true driver knows these feelings. This is driving.” Well, quite.
The wheel deal
The SP/300.R’s steering wheel is pure racing car, with gearshift indicator lights and a button for calling the pits. Spot the yellow ‘Pass’ button the right – used to give an extra power boost for overtaking. The sequential gearlever is also to the right of the wheel.
Prisoner of phwoar
A classic Seven in for a service. It’s painted green and yellow – the same colours as the Lotus Seven that famously featured in 1960s TV drama series, The Prisoner. Interestingly, the ‘KAR 120C’ registration plate of the Prisoner Seven is still owned by Caterham Cars.
Caterham Seven Classic
This lovely 2006 Classic would make a great starter Seven, with a 120hp 1.4-litre K-Series engine and just 7,441 miles on the clock. It’s advertised at £14,995 – further proof that Sevens simply don’t depreciate.
Kamui Koybayashi Edition
Just 10 examples of this lightweight, single-seat Seven were made. Designed by Caterham F1 Team’s Japanese driver, Kamui Kobayashi, it boasts a limited-slip differential, plenty of carbonfibre and a dashboard signed by Kamui himself. Yours for £34,995.
Want to make your Seven even lighter? Why not remove the bodywork altogether? In truth, this stripped-down 160 is a show car – designed to reveal the inner workings of the Seven. A lot has changed since 1957…
Powered by Suzuki
That 660cc Suzuki engine might be small, but it still looks a snug fit beneath the Seven’s low-slung bonnet. No wonder all those louvres are needed to keep it cool. Imagine how hot the 306hp 620R parked next to it must get.
Here’s a closer look at the Seven’s double wishbone suspension, which delivers taut handling and keeps weight to a minimum. A variety of set-ups are available, for road or track use. The cheaper Seven 160 and Sprint models use a live rear axle.
Do it yourself
If you’re handy with a spanner, you can save around £3,000 by building a Seven yourself. Caterham supplies a painted chassis with wiring loom, dashboard, fuel tank, fuel lines, brake pipes and pedal box already fitted. Reckon on 80-100 hours to complete the job, after which your car will have to pass an Individual Vehicle Approval (IVA) test.
Lotus Cosworth T127
Like the Seven itself, the short-lived Caterham F1 Team began life under the Lotus banner. This Lotus T127 has a Cosworth V8 engine and was raced by Jarno Trulli and Heikki Kovalainen in the 2010 season. Sadly, it never managed a podium finish.
The car that became a Caterham
Team Lotus was rebranded as Caterham F1 Team at the end of 2011, at the behest of Caterham’s charismatic owner, Tony Fernandes. The decision followed a legal battle between Team Lotus and the rival Group Lotus over the use of the name in F1.
Caterham F1 Team made its debut in 2012 with the CT01, powered by a 2.4-litre Renault V8 and piloted by Heikki Kovalainen and Vitaly Petrov. Its best result was an 11th-place finish at the final grand prix of the year in Brazil.
Going with the flow
Just look at the design of the Caterham CT01’s carbonfibre front wing. It ain’t pretty, but it sure is effective. The car hits 100mph in 2.5 seconds, with a top speed of 225mph. No Seven even comes close.
If all that sounds a bit intense, we also discovered this rather cool Caterham-branded kart in the corner of the showroom. Cue cliché about ‘go-kart handling’, etc…
Speaking of racing, Caterham runs no less than six Seven-based series, depending on your talent and budget. The Caterham Academy is the first rung on the ladder, with road-legal cars and seven points-scoring events throughout the year. This 2011 Academy racer was for sale at £17,995.
Caterham Tracksport racer
Tracksport is Caterham’s mid-range racing championship. The number of rounds increases to 14, with each race lasting 30 minutes. The cars are no longer road-legal, so you’ll need a trailer as well.
One careful owner
For serious Seven racers, there’s the Superlight R300-S Championship. A car alone will cost you £38,000 – and you’ll spend plenty more on consumables and travel. This particular R300-S was driven by Dan Prosser, a motoring journalist for EVO magazine.
Simplify, then add lightness
The ghost of Colin Chapman looms large at Caterham Cars. Indeed, his famous mantra: “Simplify, then add lightness” is writ large on the wall. Ironically, this is actually a heavier Seven SV: the wide-bodied version for drivers with, well, wider bodies.
Out of the blocks
This year, the Seven has been replicated in Lego as part of a new 770-piece kit. It includes fully-detailed engine, removable nosecose, opening boot and axle stands that allow the wheels to be removed. One for the Christmas list.
A simple formula for success
The Caterham Seven might look old-fashioned, but don’t be deceived. A process of continuous evolution has kept this much-loved icon at the top of its game – putting smiles on faces and embarrassing Bugatti Veyrons along the way. Let’s hope it’s still going strong in another 60 years.
Caterham in Crawley
Caterham Cars’ showroom in Crawley is open to the public if you’d like to see these cars, and many others. They can also arrange test-drives if you are looking to buy. Just don’t expect to drive a Seven and go home without wanting one…