CATERHAM SE VEN AT 60
It’s almost impossible to distill the thrill of driving into a more potent form than that offered by the Caterham Seven. On the model’s 60th birthday, we drive the cars that bookend the current range and trace their heritage all the way back to 1957
How best to honour the Seven and its six decades of existence? Take the cars that bookend the range back to their origins
FOR MOST PEOPLE, THE arrival of a 60th birthday is usually a sign that it’s time to slow down a little. Maybe even consider retirement. However, after six decades on sale, the Caterham Seven has no intention of kicking back.
Three-score years on from its debut as the Colin Chapman-penned Lotus Seven, this lithe and lightweight machine is still setting the standard for drivers seeking hardwired driving fun. And it shows no sign of settling for the pipe and slippers just yet, with ever-faster versions and technical innovations keeping it fresher than its 1950s styling cues would have you believe.
In an age of autonomous vehicles, the Caterham remains an ever-present reminder of the joys of being in total command of a car. This is driving in its rawest and most rewarding form. So what better way to celebrate this remarkable car’s success than with a road-trip that takes in landmark locations that have played an integral part in the history of this resilient machine? And what better cars to choose than the models that bookend Caterham’s range today – the entry-level 160 and the deranged 620R. The former is the embodiment of the 1957 original, with its focus on lightness, simplicity and affordability, while the latter is a vivid demonstration of just how far the Seven concept can be stretched. Both are widely different in their approach (and price), yet each is spun off the same underpinnings, which have been carefully and constantly evolved over the decades. Our first stop is Caterham’s current sales and service HQ in Crawley, West Sussex, where we have an appointment with these two machines, which will be our mobile homes for the next couple of days. Caterham moved into this large grey building in 2014 after its original premises (more on which later) burst at the seams with the sheer volume of Sevens being produced. The industrial unit is no-nonsense on the outside, but step inside and you’ll discover a spectacular shrine to Caterham. The reception area is home to the original Duratec-engined R500 press car, the Aeroseven concept from 2013 and the short-lived, slicks-and-spoilers SP/300.R trackday tool. There are more nods to the brand’s history in the vast showroom, where there’s a Caterham 21 ( just 49 examples of this badly timed Seven-based, Elise-rivalling roadster were built between ’94 and ’99) and an F1 racer from the marque’s short and ill-fated spell at the top of the motorsport tree.
We could stay for hours poring over these vibrant machines, but our reverie is shattered by the hard-edged blare of the 620R sprinting from the workshops to the front of the building to meet a waiting 160.
We plot a course for our next destination, which is on the other side of London, in Cheshunt, Hertfordshire. What lies there isn’t the very beginning of the Seven story, but it’s where the car’s success was first realised. It’s a short blast up the M23 and then clockwise around the M25, and given that it doesn’t look that far on the map and the sun is shining, I take the plunge and lower myself
into the 620R. I should really start steadily with the 160 and work myself up to the unhinged 620, but the lure of its bright yellow paint and invigorating performance is too much to resist.
It’s been around for four years now, but the 620’s mechanical make-up is still worth repeating. At its heart is a 2-litre four-cylinder Ford Duratec that uses a supercharger to boost power to 310bhp and torque to 219lb ft. Both these figures are delivered way up the rev range (7700rpm and 7350rpm respectively), which gives a big hint as to this car’s fast and frantic character. This impression is further enhanced by the standardfit six-speed sequential gearbox, which drives the rear wheels through a racing-specification paddle-clutch.
The trackday focus intensifies with the suspension, where you’ll find the springs and dampers have been stiffened. There’s also a wider front track and Caterham’s more sophisticated De Dion rear axle. Tiny 13-inch alloys are standard, while the tyres are Avon ZZRS, which are effectively cut slicks. Let’s hope the rain holds off.
As we crawl out of Crawley, it’s the noise and vibration that strike you first. Even clean getaways result in a juddering from the driveline, while the rear suspension and differential are constantly clonking away. If you’ve just stepped out of a soft-centred saloon then you’d be convinced something was broken. However, you soon realise that this is just the price to pay for the 620’s ability to form a telepathic link with the driver when the road gets interesting or you hit the track. There are no rubber bushes here, and ‘NVH’ was clearly a dirty word (well, initialism) during the development process.
Yet despite all this, the 620 proves to be far more composed than you’d think. The carbonfibre bucket seats are hugely supportive, while the low-slung, laidback driving position is surprisingly comfortable. The wind deflector also does a good job, and providing you wear glasses there’s little need to don a helmet when cruising on the road. You’ll get the odd fly in the face, but it’s a small price to pay for the panoramic visibility. There’s also plenty of heat-soak through the floor and transmission tunnel as that tuned 2-litre tries to keep cool in the hot, still air. The haze rising off the bonnet makes the view ahead look like the beginning of a dream sequence in an ’80s soap opera.
Before long we’re peeling off the motorway and heading towards Cheshunt. It’s here, on a scrappy industrial estate, that we find the old Lotus factory on Delamere Road, which the company moved into in 1959 when the success of the Seven and the firm’s increasingly ambitious motorsport activities meant the original facility in Hornsey, north London, became too small.
Designed in 1957 as a simple and affordable sports car, the Lotus Seven featured a tubular spaceframe chassis, aluminium body panels, a live rear axle, drum brakes and a 1-litre four-cylinder engine from the Ford 100E saloon. Complete cars cost £1036, or buyers could wield the spanners themselves – and save on the purchase tax, which was a forerunner of VAT – for £536.
We find the Cheshunt factory buildings intact and still in use. The shed where the Seven was assembled is now a gym, but its façade still features the same large door on the second floor, where complete cars were craned down to the ground. The larger unit next door is also in one piece, including the concrete ramp that was used to carry Elites and Lotus Cortinas off the production line. As we poke around, it’s not hard to imagine the sound of a twincam motor reverberating among the red brick walls.
Less than a year after setting up in Cheshunt, Lotus launched the Series 2 Seven. Featuring a wider track, glassfibre panels and a simplified chassis for easier and cheaper construction, the newer car looked much like the modern-day Caterham. Under the bonnet was the choice of a newer 1-litre Ford engine from the 105E or Austin’s A-series unit. Later came 1.3- and 1.5-litre Ford Kent motors, which when tweaked by Cosworth could deliver 85bhp and 95bhp respectively. Luxuries such as a heater and sidescreens also became available, as did the option of front disc brakes.
The Seven’s popularity grew further, and with the birth of the hugely desirable Elan and Lotus’s continued Formula 1 success, it wasn’t long before another move was on the cards. In 1966 Chapman upped sticks to Hethel in Norfolk, which is our next port of call.
For the trip north I choose the slightly more sedate 160. With its windscreen, doors and padded seats, it feels like the height of luxury after the 620. We initially follow the path of least resistance, spearing up the A11. But snapper Dominic Fraser is a former Norfolk-er and before long he’s plotted a cross-country route that takes in Thetford and Wymondham.
These B-roads are just wide enough for two cars and mix fast corners with challenging blind bends. Perfect Caterham country, in other words. Better still, they’re deserted, which makes the 160’s retro feel all the more fitting. With its live rear axle, skinny 155-section tyres, a view down the bonnet that ends in a pair of chromebacked headlamps and those front wheels bobbing up and down in rhythm with the road, this is as close to original Seven motoring as you can get. Only the occasional chatter from the wastegate of the 660cc turbo three-cylinder Suzuki unit pulls you back to the present.
It’s nowhere near as breathlessly quick as the 620, but with a dry weight of just 490kg, the 80bhp triple can crack 0-60mph in 6.9sec. There’s plenty of torque too, and you’re soon making brisk progress, flicking the stubby gearlever around the gate to make the most of the smooth and thrummy engine’s limited output.
Narrow tyres mean the 160 moves about more than other Caterhams, but the handling is beautifully progressive and any slides happen at such modest speeds that they prove to be hilarious rather than heartstopping. Sharp bumps can upset the old-fashioned rear axle, but the resulting hops and skips are well controlled by the dampers. I’m grinning ear-to-ear by the time we turn down Potash Lane and arrive at Lotus HQ. The British sports car brand has recently been bought
‘ With its live rear axle and skinny tyres, the 160 is as close to original Seven motoring as you can get’
by Chinese giant Geely, and the collection of modern, glass-and-silver-clad buildings is a far cry from the ramshackle setup of ’66.
Chapman’s ambitions for Lotus were greater than ever by that point, and with two F1 constructors’ titles under its belt, the firm wasn’t necessarily that keen on its association with the anachronistic Seven. Even so, in 1968 Lotus pulled the covers off the Series 3. The biggest change was the option of a larger, 1.6-litre engine, which could be tweaked to deliver up to 120bhp. As a result, disc brakes were now standard, while other additions included a standard rev-counter, direction indicators and, for the first time, a fuel gauge.
However, Chapman’s desire to modernise the Seven resulted in the controversial Series 4, which debuted in 1970. Essentially an all-new car, it featured angular glassfibre bodywork, double-wishbone front suspension from the mid-engined Europa and a choice of Ford 1.3and 1.6-litre engines, or Lotus’s own Twin Cam. Purists weren’t impressed and Lotus, eager to promote itself as a thoroughbred sports car manufacturer and not a producer of cheap kit-cars, pulled the plug in 1972.
This was far from the end of the road for the Seven, though. Since 1959, a Surrey-based workshop called Caterham Cars had been a sales agent for the car and over the years had become the centre of the Seven universe. It was run by businessman Graham Nearn, who’d spotted the little Lotus’s potential and made numerous attempts to buy the manufacturing rights. Finally, in 1973, Nearn’s hard work paid off and he struck a deal for the rights to build the Seven.
Initially, around 60 S4s were made, but Nearn knew the real interest was in the classic S3, which was both more popular with punters and easier to produce from his small premises in the town of Caterham, Surrey.
I strap myself into the 620R for the return trip down the same back-roads. Our aim is to retrace our steps and pop out somewhere along the M11, before rejoining the M25 and heading to Caterham.
After the 160, the rabid 620 feels like the ‘ Spinal Tap’ Seven – everything’s been turned up to 11. The supercharged motor is so strong that even if you use no more than 4000rpm you’ll be just about the quickest thing on the road. Suck up the courage to wring every last rev out of the 2-litre and all hell breaks loose. Even in bone-dry conditions and with heat in the tyres, the rear wheels will start spinning as the engine screams beyond 6000rpm in first and second gear. When rubber does hook up with tarmac, though, the results are devastating. The 620 effectively teleports you between corners in what feels like a split second of angry noise and blurred tugs on the sequential gearshifter.
The twisty bits are dealt with in a similar manner. The nose dives toward the apex with barely any input from the steering, the rubber clings on with body-crushing tenacity and that motor fires you down the next straight, which always seems half as long as you first thought.
Like in the 160, big bumps and sharp ridges can catch the chassis out, but with so little mass at work, the Seven checks itself before anything approaching waywardness. And with so much power and such a precise throttle, you can choose at will your angle of attack as you exit slower corners. It’s intoxicating and life-affirming, yet there’s also a moment of relief when we join the relative calm of a trunk road.
Before long we cruise into Caterham, but there’s not much to see. The site of the old factory, and latterly showroom, disappeared a few years ago to be replaced by a block of retirement flats – a sad sight considering this is where the Seven’s development really took off.
The engine choice was originally dominated by Ford units, with 1.3-, 1.6- and 1.7-litre versions of the venerable Kent available. At the top of the tree was the Big Valve Twin Cam from Lotus, which initially produced 126bhp, but when supplies of this dried up, the Cosworth BDR was used. Other innovations included the adoption of a longer chassis for a less cramped driving position and a left-hand-drive model. But it was the fitment of the more sophisticated De Dion rear axle in 1985 that proved to be one of Caterham’s biggest achievements, improving both the handling and ride.
The model’s increased popularity meant its itinerant production history wasn’t over yet. With a capacity for just 250 cars a year and a lengthy waiting list, the Caterham factory had reached the end of its useful life, so in 1987 Nearn secured a new production site in Dartford, Kent, where the cars are still built to this day.
We jump back in our cars for the short sprint to the factory and arrive outside a nondescript low-rise building. Inside it’s a hive of vibrant activity, with numerous Sevens in various states of build – from bare chassis to cars ready for road tests. It’s a world away from the clinical environments of most car plants, but the organised chaos is part of the charm. And with a production capacity more than double that of the old site, it allowed further development of the Seven.
One of the big hits was the arrival in 1990 of the 2-litre 16-valve Vauxhall unit, which replaced the venerable Cosworth BDR. This engine eventually formed the basis of the 1992 Jonathan Palmer Evolution (JPE) edition, which packed 247bhp, heavily reworked suspension and a mandatory driving course. In the same year, the fuelinjected Rover K-series models took their bow, opening the Caterham up to more global markets. A few years later the firm launched its own six-speed gearbox, while in 2000 the wide-bodied Series 5 arrived.
In 2005 the CSR was revealed. It looked like a standard car, but it packed a double-wishbone rear axle, inboard front suspension and had a bigger cabin. It was more sophisticated to drive, too, but lacked the original’s ultimate charm and was quietly dropped last year.
In 2006, Ford’s Sigma and Duratec units came on stream, boosting the Seven’s popularity even more and pushing the factory to the limit. Today, the company has a bulging order book for around 600 cars a year, with the capacity to build 500 (although bosses reckon this can be upped to around 575 in a year or so), and it turned over £20million last year. And it’s all down to one car that has defied time to become even more relevant today than when it was launched 60 years ago.
As we clamber back into our Sevens at the end of an exhausting and exhilarating quest, it doesn’t take a massive leap of imagination to picture the Seven still going strong in another six decades. Roll on 2077.
Above: outside Lotus’s modern-day HQ in Hethel, Norfolk, 60 years after the original Lotus Seven was born. Left: the Seven 160 parked at Lotus’s old Delamere Road factory in Cheshunt – the shed where these cars were made back in the day is now a gym
Above: 620R, in Firecracker Yellow, is the fastest Seven ever built, and seems almost grotesquely muscular next to the narrow-tyred 160. Above right: the retrostyled car gets the luxury of a windscreen, though – and padded seats, and even a pair of doors…