When Colin Chapman pulled the covers off his dainty Lotus 7 at the Earl’s Court Motor Show in 1957, we doubt that even in his wildest dreams he’d have imagined that it would morph into anything like this.
At the time you might have laughed at the thought of that humble design which placed fun high above comfort ever turning into such a hardcore road-rocket/track toy as the Caterham Superlight R500 – perhaps the ultimate evolution of the design.
Let’s face it, weighing just 506kg, the R500 would have pleased Chapman. No need to ‘add lightness’ here. There was hardly any weight to start with!
Okay, the R500 model, of which Caterham assembled 175 between 2008-2014, is a far cry from those early Lotus 7s. But it certainly has the lineage.
When Lotus felt it wanted to shake off its kit-car image in 1972 with the aim of going more upmarket, Chapman opted to sell off the rights to the 7 design to Caterham Cars, then his sole remaining UK dealer. And so began the story of Caterham as a manufacturer, faithfully recreating the original template in either kit form or as a complete car – but the company also never stopped improving the design.
As engines developed – early cars used a Lotus twin-cam unit, then everything from a Rover K-Series to a Suzuki Hayabusa motorbike engine – so did the chassis. While the skeleton underneath remains essentially the same spaceframe design as the Series 3 Lotus 7, it has been updated in terms of materials and strength. Same with the suspension. What started out as the live rear axle from a Ford or a Morris Ital has now become adjustable double wishbones and de-Dion rear axle.
While the bulk of Caterham’s production focuses on the entry level Roadsport or 7 models, there was room at the top for hardcore madness, and it arrived with the R500.
Out went the smaller, economical engines and in came a highly tuned 2-litre four-cylinder Ford Duratec unit, tweaked to produce 263bhp and pull right through the rev range. It could propel the R500 from 0-60 in 2.88sec.
The bodywork received lashings of carbon fibre to trim an extra 9kg off the frame and there were options for track-only suspension packages, a six-speed sequential racing gearbox and even more carbon, designed to lighten the wallets of those brave enough to opt for them.
The finished package gained rave reviews. Many of the cars were exported to countries such as Japan, Italy, Germany and France. When Caterham replaced the model with the current supercharged 620R, it did away with the standard six-speed manual gearbox of the R500. While the newer car may ultimately be faster, many purists lament the loss of the oldschool manual, which only adds to the appeal of the original King of 7s.
One for sale
2012 Caterham Superlight R500
A prime example with only 6000 miles, and wisely never driven in the wet.
Caterham Superlight R500
- Price new £36,995
- Price now £27,000-£55,000
- Engine 2-litre 4-cylinder Ford Duratec
- Rivals KTM X-Bow, Radical SR3 RS, BAC Mono
- Verdict The original hardcore Seven’s timeless design has been pushed further and proved utterly captivating