Se7en history
Today, the Caterham Seven is held up as a prime example of the minimalist engineering style of Lotus founder, Colin Chapman. With its steel tube, aluminium clad chassis, it epitomises the philosophy of “less is more”. Over forty years after the original Lotus Seven Mark 1 was launched, it is still the benchmark car for comparison when it comes to evaluating handling, balance, grip, steering and acceleration and all the other attributes of “sporting” cars.

Series 1 Lotus Seven 1958

The car itself was formally launched at the 1957 Earls Court Motor Show although no actual vehicle was provided for the display stand. The Elite took pride of place, the Seven being displayed only as part of the Lotus brochure; sufficient evidence of Chapman’s priorities if any was needed. The basic cost of a Seven was £1,036 fully built and £536 in kit form. Almost inevitably, most were sold as kits, the huge price differential being due to the swingeing Purchase Tax charged on fully built cars. Car components were totally exempt. In fact, the burgeoning kit car industry which emerged in Britain in the 1950’s was very much a product of this tax loophole.

The revised Seven Series 2 emerged in 1960. The main differences compared to the Series 1 were, reduced tubing in the spaceframe, replacement of the aluminium nosecone and wings by fibreglass items, replacement of the Nash Metropolitan rear axle by that from the Standard 10.

The Series 2 sold better than the Series 1. The car became more known to the public at large, partly because of its appearance in the TV series, “The Prisoner”. However, Lotus as a business was gradually moving away from its roots as a specialist/kit-car manufacturer. By 1966, they had won the Formula One World Championship twice (1963 and 1965), were producing the successful Elan (they never really sorted the Elite) and had moved to a new factory at Hethel in Norfolk. Chapman, who had always “tolerated” the Seven rather than enthusiastically supported it, was now of a mind to discontinue production. It was at this point that the importance of Caterham Cars and Graham Nearn came to the fore. Almost from the inception of the Seven, Caterham Car Sales had been very involved as dealers of the type. It was Caterham’s undaunted support for the car which prevented its demise in 1966 and, in 1967, they became sole distributors, effectively taking over marketing, promotion and sales from Lotus. However, by 1968, it was seen that the Seven was in need of further updating and plans were afoot to design the Series 3.

The Prisoner, driving the most famous Series 2 Lotus Seven

The main external difference between the Series 2 and 3 was the widening of the rear wings to accommodate the new, wider axle. The performance of the Series 3 Sevens was dependent on the engines installed. The 1600cc Crossflow equipped car’s 0 to 60 mph time (in 84 hp single carb’ form) was given as 7.7 seconds. The cream of the bunch however was the Twin Cam Seven SS. Fitted with the 1,588 cc Lotus Twin Cam from the Elan, this Seven pushed out 125 hp and was capable of 0 to 60 in 6.2seconds. It was the most powerful, most expensive (cost was £1,225 - in kit form!) and fastest Seven to date. Only thirteen of the Twin-cam versions were officially built and they are recognised today as probably the most desirable of the Lotus built Sevens. By the end of 1969, however, the future of the Seven was again under discussion at Lotus.

Stirling Moss in a Series 4 Lotus Seven

On this occasion, the perceived wisdom at Lotus was that the market for a “Clubman” type road going racer had reduced and what was needed was a more “lifestyle” orientated car. A car more properly aimed at the new “Jet - Set” or “Beautiful People” generation perhaps? Certainly the emergence of “fun” vehicles such as Bond Bugs, Beach Buggies etc in the late 60’s must have influenced the decision making process at Lotus. What emerged was something of a hybrid. Although designated as the Lotus Seven Series 4, the new car had very little in common with its three predecessors, apart from maybe a continuation of the lightweight and minimal comfort philosophy.
In fact, officially the car was given a different Mark number, its correct designation being the Lotus 60. Gone was the steel spaceframe and aluminium body. In its place was a steel backbone chassis, based on the Elan design, and an all fibreglass shell. The bonnet was now hinged rather than lift off and the driver and passenger were more “cosetted” (not a word normally associated with Sevens)
Existing Seven fans were somewhat disgruntled by the departure from the original concept but it must be said that most of the magazine reviews of the car were favourable. The motoring hacks looked on the 4 as a distinct improvement and, what’s more, the sales rate actually increased, lending some credence to the basic assumption of the changing customer base. Engine options were retained from the 3. Performance figures showed only slight reduction on the earlier mark, mainly due to the higher basic weight of the car. Yet again, however, problems were emerging for the Seven. Although the sales rate of the Series 4 was higher than for the Series 3, it was not high enough to recoup the development costs which had been greater than anticipated. The curtain was finally coming down on Lotus’ involvement with the Seven.
It was now 1971 and Colin Chapman had finally decided that the Seven’s days were definitely numbered. The Series 4 was selling better than its predecessors but the model did not really fit into the image of a “supercar” manufacturer. Almost as important, however, was the upcoming introduction of Value Added Tax. VAT was being introduced in April 1973 as part of Britain's entry into the EEC. Unlike Purchase Tax, which it was to replace, VAT did not differentiate between fully assembled cars and cars sold in component form. VAT would apply to both. The last incentive for Lotus retaining a “home assembly” car in their line up was going. However, Chapman did recognise Caterham Cars’ involvement in the Seven. Indeed, the Seven had become that company's main line of business. In 1971, Chapman offered Graham Nearn first option on taking over production of the Seven when the time was right. That time arrived in June 1973 when the manufacturing rights for the car were formally handed over to Caterham Cars. If the future of the Seven seemed secure, this was not the case as a number of difficulties had still to be overcome. Obviously, the version of the Seven Caterham were committed to produce was the current model i.e. The Series 4. Once the stock of former Lotus components were used, Caterham ran into a problem. The suppliers of the windscreen and hood were unwilling to supply Caterham with the rather small numbers of components required, they were more used to dealing with much bigger orders. Yet again the Seven looked like it had reached the end of the road. This time, the saving of the car were the original “enthusiast” contingent. Caterham cars had realised that there was a healthy second hand market for the Series 3. It did not take them long to recognise that new production Series 3 cars, provided they were built in the correct numbers, would find a steady market. A quick check with the old suppliers of the various Series 3 components confirmed that all the original tools and jigs were still in existence and that the components could be supplied at economic rates. The Series 4 became history and, without fanfare, the Series 3 came back into production.
Initially, the Caterham Seven Series 3 was indistinguishable from the Lotus Seven Series 3, save for the badge. Caterham even offered a Lotus Twin Cam version. In line with the previous history of the car, changes were implemented when critical components became unavailable.

The next major change for the Seven was the introduction of the new technology Rover K series all aluminium block engine. Initially available in 110 hp 1,400cc form, it is now available in both 1,600cc and 1,800cc versions and in various states of tune. In 1,800cc form, the standard “K” delivers 122 bhp. In its most highly tuned version the “K” can produce 230 bhp. This, when coupled with the stripped down Superlight chassis, gives the car a phenomenal performance. Caterham claim a 0 to 60 of 3.4 seconds in their current brochure.

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