Cult Cars Road Tests

Cult Car: Caterham 7

Time 2:22 pm, August 18, 2010

caterhamLOTUS is moving upmarket. The firm has signalled its intention to aim straight for Porsche, Ferrari and Aston Martin in the future.

Bold stuff? Well, it’s a move up from where the firm is today. But not without precedent… Let’s go back to the 1970s, and the glory days of mercurial owner Colin Chapman.

He was ruling the roost on the Formula 1 racetrack and, thanks to cars such as the Elite and Elan, was doing the same on the road, too. These models really were cult.

One of his earliest road cars, however, remained on sale. The Lotus Seven. By then, it may have been on its fourth facelift, but it was still fundamentally the same as the 1950s original. And, thus, a long way from the ever-increasing sophistication Lotus road cars were beginning to offer.

Indeed, in 1975, the most sophisticated Lotus yet was to arrive – the famous Esprit. In Chapman’s mind, there was no way such a premium and posh car could share showroom space with the aged and basic Seven. So, he gave it the chop.

Really, that should have been that, much as the car remained brilliant fun to drive. But Lotus didn’t bargain on the entrepreneurial spirit of one of its dealers. Caterham Cars. Boss there was Graham Nearn, who loved and rated the Seven more than few others. Indeed, loved it so much, he bought it.

By ‘it’, we mean rights, production machinery, jigs, detailed plans, everything needed to resume production of The Prisoner’s choice of wheels. In 1973, he did just that, too. The Lotus Seven was back: called, unsurprisingly, the Caterham Seven.


Initially, it was sold with the blocky, ugly Series 4 bodywork. Customers loved the drive but hated the looks. Thus, a year later, Nearn went back to the look of the 1968 Series 3. Things have not changed since. Here is the reason why the Seven is so unique, and why it is such a true cult car.

See, the Lotus Seven was launched in 1957. It predates the original Mini. Not only that, it is perhaps the purest expression of Chapman’s ideals you could buy. Simple, pure and very light in weight, the same thinking that went into making Formula 1 cars handle also helped create it.

caterham3Chapman couldn’t better the fundamentals during the time he built and sold it; the basics were pretty much perfect as they were. This is why it was so canny for Caterham to buy it. The only reason Lotus was stopping it was to concentrate on higher-margin motors; there was thus no reason why a Caterham version would be any less epic to drive. And so it proved.

Caterham hasn’t just built facsimiles of the original though. It has made its own improvements through the years, most notably to engines and rear suspension. In time, a wider SV version has also been launched, giving more space for modern-day adults in the process.

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You don’t need a big engine in a Caterham to have a blast. The most basic 1600cc Ford unit is good enough for hot hatch humbling acceleration, plus handling, steering feel and manoeuvrability like no other car (and just like a Formula Ford race car).

That hasn’t stopped Caterham over the years, mind; the current range-topper is the R500, complete with 263bhp for 0-60mph in 2.8 seconds (yes, 2.8 seconds) There’s also the CSR, with supermodern suspension and – get this – a vaguely contemporary dashboard! All are helping Caterham boast some of its biggest production order banks in years. Far from fading, the company has never been in ruder health.

Now, five decades on, the brainchild of one of Britain’s brightest car talents remains in rude health. Over the years, there have been 14,000 sold, and with more than ever being added to this now, it’s only set to broaden in appeal. Cult? Most certainly. And one that’s going to be with us for a long while yet.

James Baggott's avatar

James is the founder and editor-in-chief of Car Dealer Magazine, and CEO of parent company Baize Group. James has been a motoring journalist for more than 20 years writing about cars and the car industry.

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