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

Evo - - CONTENTS - by JAMES DISDALE

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.

PHOTOGR A PH Y by D O M I N IC F R A S E R

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…

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