For fast, four-wheel fun at a modest price very few cars, if any, could claim to beat the old Lotus Seven, particularly in the days before kit cars were taxed. With Lotus’s changing image and the streamlining of production, there was no place for the Seven at Hethel. Thankfully for hardy enthusiasts, Graham Nearn, of Caterham Cars Ltd., then distributors for the Seven, and now sole spares stockists, rescued this spartan classic and with co-director David Wakefield started Seven Cars Ltd., to continue manufacture at their Town End, Caterham Hill, Caterham, Surrey, premises. Under their jurisdiction the 18-year-old Seven shows every sign of continuing for posterity in much the same vein as Morgan, a traditional throwback to the days when motoring could be almost uninhibited fun.
In their last few years of Seven production Lotus made only the Series IV, a sort of plastic bath-tub on wheels, a little too beach-buggy-like for the purists, but roomier, more comfortable, almost civilised compared with earlier series. But production of the IV was impractical for Nearn and Wakefield, difficulty with component suppliers sounding the final death knell. Instead they revived the Series III Super Seven, to them the true Seven, simpler to make, spartan and eye-catching, practically a polished-aluminium, road-going clubman’s racing car. Now they’re hand-assembling three Super Sevens a week, trying to cope with an almost insatiable demand, particularly from abroad, and a six-month waiting list.
Caterharn’s vehicle is known purely as a Super Seven, though our test car’s ancestry was evidenced by a Lotus badge on the steering wheel and a “doctored” badge on the nose, “Lotus” changed to “Seven” and Chapman’s initials to “CCS”—Caterham Car Sales.
The standard specification includes the Lotus Big-Valve Twin Cam engine, 126 b.h.p. in 11 cwt., which means that the Super Seven is fast, very fast. Maximum speed is a shade over 120 m.p.h., while a 0-60-m.p.h. time of about 5.8 sec. puts its acceleration in the league of the super-cars. In a world where prices of everything are going crazy, it seems amazing that such performance can be bought for about £2,000, surely the finest ratio of pound against performance in the four-wheeled world. The basic price with taxes is £1,979. Essential or desirable extras on the test car— seat belts, Goodyear alloy wheels, Maserati air horns, Smiths heater kit—lifted its price to £2,084, just £15 cheaper than a BMW R90S motorcycle, one of the few production vehicles capable of out-accelerating it. One small drawback—to overcome certain legal technicalities the Super Seven is delivered in kit form, though nowadays this does not avoid payment of Car Tax and VAT. All mechanical and electrical components are ready-fitted, but the glass-fibre wings need bolting on and suspension bolts need tightening, just a few hours’ work.
Though it looks the same as the old Lotus product, Caterham have put a great deal of additional development into the Super Seven. Particularly, they’ve fitted a strong transverse mounting bracket for the Triumph Herald steering rack, added several extra diagonal bracing tubes in the Arch Motors-manufactured, space-frame chassis to prevent it flexing like a ripening banana, as did ageing Lotus Sevens, and re-positioned the Exide battery to avoid the traditional shorting across the terminals by the bonnet. The impossible hand-brake remains underneath the passenger facia, useful for frightened passengers, fairly useless for the driver.
You’d need to be a very hardy masochist to use a Super Seven as sole transport 365 days a year, but in the heat-wave of the test period it was perfection. Fully open, with the sidescreens removed (left at home, in fact, because there’s nowhere to stow them safely), is the best way to enjoy the Seven, elbow dangling over the cut-away side, right nostril flared by the wind which batters round the small screen, the outside exhaust crackling and banging on the over-run, the bark from the two unsilenced, twin 40-mm. choke Dellortos waking up the dawdlers. Two thunderstorms forced the hood to be erected, a couple of minutes’ job— then another two minutes contorting myself into the cockpit! Once in it was quite cosy, but there were leaks. There’s just room for a small case and oddments in the well above the 8-gall. tank behind the fixed seats. The tunnel and floor are carpeted, and the functional facia well-instrumented by Smiths, with speedometer plus trip, tachometer, fuel, oil pressure and water temperature gauges and ammeter. The fixed driving position, legs out-stretched towards the close-coupled pedals, was ideal for me, but might be torture for tall people. A tiny, cranked, gear-lever sits within an inch or two of the small, thick-rimmed wheel controlling the Ford 2000E gearbox with its gear speeds of 40, 60 and 80 m.p.h. in the intermediates at the 6,500-r.p.m. red line. In the hot weather in London traffic the single electric fan struggled to keep engine temperature below 100° and my feet cooked for lack of insulation between them and the engine bay.
You don’t really drive a Super Seven, you think it along, aiming out over the gunsight headlamps, just twitching the wheel to send it scurrying round corners at incredible speed, pouring on more power to tighten the line. There’s little roll to overcome, simply high G-force, but you’re clamped in the tiny cockpit. It can be flicked around like a toy on the throttle and steering, the tail twitching if pushed hard enough. The Ford live rear axle, suspended by coil-spring/damper units, trailing arms and an A-frame, fights with bumps taken fast, but sorts itself out quickly enough. Triumph uprights are used at the front, with coil-spring/damper units, fabricated bottom wishbones and an anti-roll bar. Such light weight means that the disc/drum brakes generate enormous stopping power. The overall feeling is of a lithe, superb-handling racing car, at its best on smooth, winding A and B roads, conditions in which its cross-country times must be practically unbeatable. This tiny, rapid, beautifully made car eats its way through traffic like nothing else on four wheels.
The Super Seven is crude, uncomfortable over long distances and thoroughly impractical, but its magical performance and handling would make it a “must” in my mythical stable of ideal cars. The Super Seven is not just a sports car, it’s the definitive article.—C.R.