These simple things

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It’s now four decades since Britain’s archetypal sportscar went into production. Matthew Franey samples life in the Lotus Seven fast lane

Simple/‘simp(ǝ)l/adj. & n.•not complicated or elaborate; without luxury or sophistication.

“There wasn’t much to it really… It was the sort of thing you could dash off in a weekend.” Colin Chapman wasn’t known for his effusive manner or willingness to look back nostalgically on past creations, but his throwaway remark about the genesis of the Lotus Seven must surely go down as one of his greatest understatements.

Production of Britain’s most enduring sportscar continues to this very day – 40 years after Chapman’s burgeoning marque announced its lightweight machine in time for the 1957 Earls Court Motor Show. And there can be no greater proof of the success of the `keep it simple’ Chapman principles than the fact that today demand for the Seven is greater than it has ever been. In this world of homogeneous tin boxes, the Seven remains a constant reminder of what high-speed motoring can and should be.

But the evolution of the seminal sportscar of the post-war period was not the great magnum opus that you might imagine it to be. Chapman had only one thing on his mind in the mid-1950s and that was the evolution and growth of his road and racing car divisions. The Seven wasn’t quite a distraction, but it was, to quote another of his memorable observations, “really just a bread and butter line.”

In the cramped, spartan surroundings of the Lotus workshops in Hornsey, north London, his staff were already hard at work with the production of race cars and the popular, but expensive, Lotus Eleven. But demands for a replacement for the earlier Six continued to flow in and, with seasonal fluctuations in race car orders meaning quiet times for the company, Chapman realised that a low-cost car could offer him the expansion that he craved. In the Spring of 1957, he set to work designing the Seven.

The first pre-production car rolled out in September of the same year. Built for Lotus racer Edward Lewis, its chassis borrowed heavily from its predecessor, the Six, and the more expensive Eleven. Constructed around the bare minimum of tubing, the little open-wheeler was considerably more advanced than the first customer models, for Lewis had specified a de Dion rear axle and front disc brakes, along with a 75bhp Climax Special engine, to enable him to race it.

The sporting prowess of the prototype helped generate interest in the new car and Chapman quickly set to work finishing the first Series 1. The idea remained to create “the simplest, most basic, lightest, highest performance little car that we could come up with for two people at minimum cost” and Chapman consequently abandoned hopes of running trick axles and powerful engines for a BMC live rear end and basic 1172cc sidevalve Ford unit.

The first Sevens hit the road early in 1958 and Chapman, quick as ever to seize on any scam to increase sales, offered the little sportscar in kit form, thereby avoiding purchase tax. For the very unprincely sum of £536, a boxed and bagged Seven would be delivered to your door. Problem was, the Inland Revenue would not allow Lotus to provide its customers with a construction manual. Once again the wily boss overcame this fairly major hindrance by printing articles in magazines describing, in remarkable detail, how to strip down – and build – a Lotus Seven.

Sales over the coming years fluctuated, but Lotus stayed on top of the project, constantly evolving and improving the car. A Coventry Climax engine was made available, then an overhead-valve BMC engine from the Morns Minor. In 1960 the Series 2 was unveiled, the Series 3 coming some eight years later. The less-than-attractive fourth edition took production through until the end of 1972 when Graham Nearn, for so many years the most active supporter of the car from his Caterham dealership, stepped in and bought its production rights, at a time when Chapman’s interest in the Seven was gone.

The rest is Caterham history. The car was rebadged, dropping the Lotus name but keeping the model number, and Nearn nurtured and preened his acquisition into its present state, where it now produces a range of Sevens from the live-axled Classic to the ridiculously quick 470kg Superlight R.

But to find out how far the Seven has evolved in its four decades you need to shut the history books and head out onto the open road. On hand for the trip an immaculate example of a 1960 Series 1 from Neam’s own collection and the company’s latest 16-valve Rover-powered 1800cc model, appropriately dressed in ’40th Anniversary’ guise, to give a taste of what has changed.

The petite Lotus is everything you expect a Seven to be. Pared down to almost nothing, you feel like you could pick it up one-handed and carry it under your arm. Everywhere you look there is the thinnest gauge aluminium panelling or… nothing. Lift off the featherlight bonnet and, apart from the twin SU carburetted BMC block there is… nothing. Detach the rear seat rest for a quick exploration of the live rear axle and you are confronted with… nothing. This Lotus Seven is the living embodiment of Chapman’s aim, and it shows.

The modem Caterham, by contrast, carries many touches that you would expect from a 1990s car, but others that are obvious hangovers from its predecessor. Legislation has welded a roll-over bar behind the occupants’ head, but the march of time and technology are to thank for the comparatively enormous K-series engine with its electronic management box lurking under the nose. There are even aluminium honeycomb cockpit panels for side-impact protection something you don’t even want to mention as a joke when you are moving out to overtake a bus in the Lotus.

But the basics worked in 1957 and they work in 1997. Sure, the Caterham now has five speeds, not four, the drum brakes have made way for discs, and modem Bilstein dampers and double wishbones grace the front suspension. Nevertheless, you sit reclined and comfortable in both cars; the wheel and gearstick fall immediately to hand and the tiny footwell houses perfectly placed pedals. Perfect, that is, if your mother was one of those kind Chinese ladies who bound your feet for the first 10 years of your life.

Boots are not the ideal footwear for a Seven, but then neither are your bedroom slippers. The modern car has made some concessions to your ankles in terms of comfort, the steering column now routed above the pedals rather than through them, but driving the Lotus is most definitely a one-shoe experience – the gap between the clutch and column the exact width of my stockinged size 10s.

Shoes or no shoes – Chapman would probably have argued that it was a weight-saving device anyway the earlier car is as easy to drive as it was to construct. It fires with a press of the starter and the light and short-travelled clutch marries perfectly with the four-speed Austin A30 gearbox, although the long throw is one of the most persistent reminders of the car’s age.

Steering is crisp, light and also surprisingly accurate for a modified Morris Minor rack-and-pinion unit. There is a bit of play through the wheel but one of the most obvious advantages of having bicycle wings mounted over the front wheels is the opportunity you get to aim the car by sight -just wind on or off the lock as the angle of the Goodyears dictates.

In all the above areas the Lotus is reassuringly efficient. Admittedly the Caterham does them all far better, but the evolutionary trail is an easy one to follow. The modem steering is tighter still with just over two turns lock-to-lock and a chunky racing wheel.

Every gear change is quicker and more pleasing, with a thunk as you snick through the shortest possible ratios. This car produces 122bhp at nearly 6000rpm and in damp conditions it is gloriously easy to get lurid power oversteer in third or even fourth gear.

By direct contrast, the Lotus may handle as sweetly now as it did in 1960, but kicking the tail out is sadistic work. With its 948cc coughing out a modest 55bhp, the trick is to keep speed up, not scrub it off. Words like torque and power do not sit happily with the wheezing green block hidden in the bows, and you have to keep it simmering away happily to make any forward progress. Oversteer, however, is not an unachievable dream, rather the result of well-balanced hard driving, but push the Seven over its limit and the skinny Goodyears over theirs and understeer is the order of the day. The old coil springs feel as if they are sagging as the cornering forces increase and no matter how quickly you spin the wheel, you bounce off line.

It’s not a heinous failing, though; this car would live quite happily with most modern hot hatches through the twister sections of your favourite B-road. Where it will let you down, however, is with its ride quality. At lower speeds you can even be fooled into thinking the front end has ample grip, not because it works so well, simply because the rear end does not Every bump and hole twists and jars the rear axle, forcing the transmission to wind up just when you least-need it and the car to jump all over the place. The car’s balance is almost absent at times and it is this jerky momentum that tends to unstick the front end, too. To call the Lotus Seven a boneshaker is a tad unfair, but sample life from the relative luxury of the Caterham and the difference couldn’t be more stark.

Ride is considerably firmer and the de Dion axle knocks the bouncy rear end into submission. The resulting performance is as pure and unsophisticated as you could ask for. Comfortable bucket seats grip you tightly and if you are really going for it then the transmission tunnel and side panels provide that extra bit of much needed support.

Low profile Michelin rubber sticks the front of the Caterham effortlessly to the ground, only really high speeds creating any loosening of the steering wheels. And the added power of Rover’s high-revving engine means that you have all the torque necessary to drive it as it is meant to be driven. After all, how many cars have you driven which can do a spin turn from standing? Yes, a modern Caterham will bring out the Jean Alesi in each and every one of you.

It stops like you would imagine, too. Weighing in at around 550kg – barely 100 more than a Formula One car – the 228mm discs shed speed as quickly as you can put it on. In fact the retardation business in both cars is efficient and without dramas even the older Lotus slowing as well as can be expected with its all-round drums.

The Seven is as refined a driving experience as you can get by standards modem or old. While both the Lotus and the Caterham have their plus points and negative sides they remain, far and away, the closest thing you can get to a racing car for the roads. Graham Hill raced them at their birth, Jonathan Palmer built a ‘JPE Special’ for some light amusement and Eddie Irvine has ordered one for shopping trips into Dublin. If they are good enough for Grand Prix drivers, they are good enough. It’s really as simple as that.