By on August 17, 2009

There’s a big difference between myself and Lotus founder Colin Chapman. When I change a flat tire, I find that I have two lug nuts left over. Chapman could create fully functioning sports/racing cars out of the detritus found in the average kitchen junk drawer. One-handed. While sipping tea. The Lotus Seven—later Super 7—is perhaps the best-known and longest-lasting example of his Frankensteinian genius. Debuting in 1957 and running on to 1973 (when Caterham Cars grabbed the baton), the 7 has undergone decades of continuous development yet is essentially the same vehicle that Chapman created. And none the worse for it.

The Caterham 7 is no more styled than a shoe tree. The 7′s tubular space frame is barely spacious enough to affix a De Dion rear suspension with Watts linkage, cradle an engine of your choice, and hold a couple of legless stools upon which drivers are expected to sit. It’s wrapped tight with sheet aluminum and adorned with just enough fiberglass to drape the tires and radiator. A child’s first-grade crayon drawing is more likely to wind up at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The car’s real beauty: the non-inclusion of anything that could come between the driver and the road.

The modern Caterham 7 Classic possesses a healthy amount of Chapman’s most cherished auto-mechanical quality: less. Which, of course leads to lightness. At 525 kg (1157.42 lb.), the entry-level Caterham 7 Classic could be hung from a branch on a Christmas tree. Powered by a garden-variety 1.4-litre K-Series engine making all of 105 hp @ 6000 rpm, the most basic of 7s works the neck muscles and adrenal glands plenty. In this guise, we’re torquing 95 lb·ft of twist @ 5000 rpm; 200 bhp-per-tonne; and a zero to sixty sprint of 6.5 seconds.

On the subject of powertrains, there has never been a specific, standard engine for the car. The products of Dearborn have often been Caterham factory favorites, providing a nice squint-and-you-can-almost-see-it link back to Jim Clark’s Lotus/Ford Indy 500 winner. The top-of-the-range CSR200 sports a 200 hp 2.3-litre Cosworth Duratec that will propel the Caterham 7 from nought to sixty in 3.7 seconds.

Due to stern international emissions and safety regulations, the Seven retains its origins as a some-assembly-required box of bits. So it’s left up to the individual re-animator to decide how he or she wants to go about the business of providing propulsion. Caterham 7 spotters will tell you (and tell you and tell you) that it’s not uncommon to find Buick V-8s, Mazda rotaries, motorcycle lumps, or ATWF (anything that will fit) when peeking under the slatted engine lid. No doubt someone somewhere has given steam a go.

The 7′s existence proves that someone automotively-aware coined the term bucket list. For one thing, installing a round driver in the peg-shaped car requires maximum commitment; you can sit down any time you like but you can never leave. At least not easily. The process is and best managed without the “doors” and “roof” that the smirking lads at Caterham call weather “protection.” When in motion, the fabric serves about as much of a purpose as foil-wrapped Trojans, only without even the promise of protection.

Remarkably, approached on even terms, the Dartford dart is not entirely uncomfortable. Sticking with the sexual metaphor (so to speak), the cockpit will never inspire thoughts of paradise-by-the-dashboard-light heir creation. At 6′, 200 lb, and a size 10E foot, I fit just fine, chiropractically speaking.

Once on the move, two thoughts immediately occur: 1) in terms of dynamics, every other road car you’ve driven sucks, and 2) sucks is too delicate a word for the discrepancy between the 7 and non-7s. To state the bleeding obvious, the Seven is a track car first, a road car if you dare. Either way, the Caterham’s non-assisted steering and ventilated front discs (with four pot calipers) transmit every step of their mechanical operation, transforming its driver into a 7borg. The gearbox—here a Ford Sierra 5-speed with a lever no longer than your thumb—rewards with a pleasure that would cheer Lewis Black.

Wind turbulence, even at modest speed, brings to mind skydiving sideways. Communication, should a passenger be brave enough to accompany you, is best left for rest stops or emergency miming, even considering a relative physical proximity usually shared only by newlyweds.

Perhaps the great delight of the Seven is that it’s a rolling polygraph machine. It puts the lie to so much of conventional auto wisdom: a righteous ride requires big power, fat tires, and the latest electronic whiz-bangeroo. True, the Caterham offers variants stuffed with an assortment of wallet-lightening upgrades, add-ons, and gotta-haves. Hey, it’s a living. But just because a menu lists fifteen desserts doesn’t mean your meal should include them all.

No, the Caterham Seven, like its Lotus Seven forebear, is the distillation of what is only necessary for a drive. What it means to drive. That it somewhat resembles a coffin such as the one that currently holds the bones of a certain Mr. Chapman is just one of life’s lovely little ironies.

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40 Comments on “Review: 2009 Caterham 7...”


  • avatar
    PeteMoran

    My absolute favourite car in the universe.

    You haven’t lived until you try it!

    I’d love to write about mine, perhaps I should get a website going.

  • avatar
    commando1

    I have read many reviews of this little beast over the years from many different sources and infinitely many more writers.
    For the first time I now know what this car is all about.
    And I want one!

  • avatar
    findude

    I guy in my neighborhood had a Seven back in the 1970s. It would pull a wheelie from a standstill, and then again when he shifted to second. He gave me a ride once. I could reach out and touch the pavement. I wondered whether there were laws for bumper height.

    One of the great minimalist designs of all time.

  • avatar
    texlovera

    What a wonderful car, distilled down to what a car (at least a driver’s car) should be. Makes the engineer in me smile.

    For Pinewood Derby one year, made my block of wood into a Lotus Indy car(damn, can’t remember the model – looked like a simple wedge) with considerable help from Dad. Man that was cool…

  • avatar
    Robstar

    I’d love to try one. Where do I test drive one in the Chicago area?? Can you buy them as a “box of bits” and then have the retailer assemble it for you?

  • avatar
    JG

    Robstar: buy the parts and then assemble it in a rented storage unit! It’s the only way to fly. Hehe.

    http://www.locostusa.com Some amazing stuff on this site.

    I am torn between doing something involving a Ford FE and a G50 and a Hayabusa engine and a turbo. I could build the entire bike engine’d car for the cost of an aluminum FE. Huh.

  • avatar
    tigeraid

    Always loved the Seven–especially with crazy engine swaps. I even had a 1/24 scale version I built with a supercharged Dodge Slant Six!

    I personally can’t stand how they look with those front fenders though. Not just the look, but the amount of aero drag those things must have… The cars look way better without fenders.

  • avatar
    bunkr

    This was my father’s daily commuter for about 8 years. In Rhode Island no less! Needless to say he made great time.

    Under the license plate a small inscription read “less is more”.

    Despite the mileage, when he finally sold it back to the dealer, it hadn’t depreciated as much as you’d think. And as the dealer told him, it had lived a really good life.

  • avatar
    qfrog

    There is also the Flying Miata Westfield which is a variation on this theme but using Mazda running gear.

    I do love these little death traps.

  • avatar
    Autopassion

    These cars have fantastic handling. I’ve also read that because of their exception performance at gymkhana events, a separate class was often set up for 7′s and believe it or not, Meyer Manx’s. It would be great to read a review of a well set up Manx (or equivalent clone) here.

  • avatar
    Kristjan Ambroz

    One of the very few reasons, why living in the UK is worthwhile. You aso forget two more powerful versions, the CSR260 and the R500, both with around 260hp and a 0-60 in the 3.2/3.3 sec range.

    The R500 is particularly brutal, while the CSR is more of the high tech alternative, with an independent rear suspension and the SV (wider) body, as well as an attempt at an interior. Not that any other car manufacturer would call it that. In the UK and Europe at least, there is an option for a factory assembled car, however I believe that is not feasible for the US, due to all accompanying regulation that would come with it.

  • avatar
    no_slushbox

    And that’s why I like the Caterham 7.

  • avatar
    twotone

    I test drove the Club Sport at a Caterham dealer here in Denver — Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride! It’s amazing to take one of these out on a tight road course (unfortunately, Second Creek is now closed) and smoke Ferraris, Vipers and the like. Especially in a car that costs less than their wheels and tires.

    No street legal car (or motorcycle) can beat a Caterham 0 – 100 – 0. Sitting on the rear axle with all of the car in front of you takes a bit of learning. Feels like an over-powered go cart at first.

    Best bang for the buck anywhere.

    Twotone

  • avatar
    Kristjan Ambroz

    Twotone,

    you might also like the Ariel Atom then, especially in the 300bhp supercharged variety, which will beat a Caterham from 0-100-0 :)

    It’s very different but similarly minimalist in its approach.

  • avatar
    fredtal

    I have to add my thumbs up, nice review, it explains exactly why the Lotus 7 (and all it’s cousins) is probably the greatest pure sport car of all time.

  • avatar
    twotone

    “Kristjan Ambroz :
    August 17th, 2009 at 12:26 pm

    Twotone,

    you might also like the Ariel Atom then, especially in the 300bhp supercharged variety, which will beat a Caterham from 0-100-0 :)

    It’s very different but similarly minimalist in its approach.”

    Yes, I’d love to test drive an Ariel. Yet to see one in Denver, however.

    Twotone

  • avatar
    no_slushbox

    In the US the US Ariel Atom builder, Brammo, sold the rights to the car to focus on building electric motorcycles.

    The Atom and 7 used to be priced similarly for similar levels of performance equipment, but the new buyer has significantly raised Atom prices.

    The Factory 5 Cobra ’65 Roadster is still a huge value for someone that wants to build their own minimalist sports car.

    Also, the antichrist to 7 fans, the Elise, is becoming very cheap used thanks to your shitty economy.

  • avatar

    The Seven is indeed one of those Bucket List cars for every enthusiast. Really one of those Driver’s Cars that must be driven before you die.

    By the way… I’m happy to trade seats in my E-type for a fun drive in any car that meets that list.

    –chuck

  • avatar

    Aiyeeeee! A car substantially lighter than the original Mini (1150 vs 1500 lbs)!
    With the smallest engine being a bigger engine than any of the production Minis. With new metallurgy instead of a 1950′s lump that never changed.
    Given that the original Mini is a repeal of inertia, the car that you don’t drive, you strap it on and fly….what could a C7 drive be like?

    Sheer, grin plastered ear-to-ear fun, I’d guess

  • avatar

    Too impractical for me and it has no real style, looks wise.

    I have decided to build the Factory Five GTM instead. More creature comforts yet all the looks, speed and handling of a a true supercar!!!

    And best of all, I can say I built it myself.

    http://www.webridestv.com/photos/factory-five-gtm-172755/1

    • 0 avatar
      nick2ny

      The Lotus 7 was too impractical, so I built a GTM. Nice one! I have to guess that the visibility, reverseability, tractability, fuel costs, tire costs, etc. of a Caterham must stomp all over a GTM…

  • avatar
    stevenm

    No street legal car (or motorcycle) can beat a Caterham 0 – 100 – 0.

    Very few stock street legal cars can do it, but there are more than a couple.

  • avatar
    Sinistermisterman

    I’ve never driven one but one of my best friend’s owns one of these with a 2ltr turbocharged Cosworth lump in the front. Fast? Nothing comes close – and handling? Again, weaving down a road at 70-80mph – nothing comes close. But comfort? I could barely get my ass in the bucket seat and my legs didn’t fit. Definitely one for the enthusiast/nutter. If you want a daily driver get something with A) a roof B) heating C) sound proofing D) a radio…. etc. But for sheer driving joy? Nothing comes cheaper.

  • avatar
    onerareviper

    So what’s the price to own a Caterham? Does the ‘less is more’ philosophy still apply?

  • avatar
    wintermutt

    are these legal in california if you do it as a kit?
    never understood that just how you do that.

  • avatar
    beken

    A friend of mine has one with a Ford Kent engine in it. This car is the one that got me off muscle cars. It is the car that redefined everything I had thought about driving. It is loud, cramped, impractical and you’re totally exposed to all the traffic around you. Even a motorcycle could kill you. But stomp on the gas pedal, turn a corner and nobody could wipe that grin off my face.

  • avatar
    Starion

    The fact that it has remained essentially unchanged for 52 years is a testament to the true genius of Colin Chapman.

    Take your 911 and Corvette and shove it. This is all you need.

  • avatar
    amcadoo

    So how’s the “comfort” level compared to say an Elise. I daily drive a Boxster but couldn’t see it with an Elise, which I suspect is a big part of the reason the price of a used Elise is so low. Buyer’s remorse?

    Great review!

  • avatar
    Arragonis

    List of ’7-Style’ kits (4 pages of them).

    http://www.madabout-kitcars.com/kitcar/kit_cars_search.php?cat=7&production=true

    I prefer the mid-engined Sylva Riot R1. Same style just engine at the back. A few people had modded the Locost self build chassis design to take a mid engine.

  • avatar
    BEAT

    No Comment but speaking of sportscar I saw the Tesla on Top Gear it was fast but still need some development on charging for 16 hours and it cost 6 figures.
    Tesla is faster than the Lotus per Top Gear test. Better watch the show it will drop your jaw.

    Funny I tried to beat a 2005 Mustang today on a 1/4 mile but that damn thing just left me. Lesson I learned never drag with semi high performance mustang. it will just sa goobye to you.

  • avatar
    Droptop

    @ Robstar: “I’d love to try one. Where do I test drive one in the Chicago area?? Can you buy them as a “box of bits” and then have the retailer assemble it for you?”

    For the agent closest to you, check http://www.caterhamusa.com.

    As to having yours screwed together, I believe any of the Cat houses offer the service.

    - Vogel

  • avatar
    Droptop

    @ tigeraid: “I personally can’t stand how they look with those front fenders though. Not just the look, but the amount of aero drag those things must have… The cars look way better without fenders.”

    One can specify cycle fenders instead of the clamshells.

    - Vogel

  • avatar
    Droptop

    @ onerareviper: “So what’s the price to own a Caterham? Does the ‘less is more’ philosophy still apply?”

    http://www.caterhamusa.com lists current prices, including various models, upgrades, and options.

    - Vogel

  • avatar
    Droptop

    @ wintermutt: are these legal in california if you do it as a kit? never understood that just how you do that.”

    I’m not familiar with current CA regs, but, generally speaking, one would look to register the car as a specialty custom. Much like a home-built rod.

    - Vogel

  • avatar
    Droptop

    @ amcadoo: “So how’s the “comfort” level compared to say an Elise[?]”

    In my opinion they are more closely related than not. Naturally, the Elise, what with more of an enclosure (not to mention a/c) has a leg up on comfort. Barely.

    “Great review!”

    Thank you.

    - Vogel

  • avatar
    onerareviper

    Droptop :
    August 19th, 2009 at 5:27 pm

    @ onerareviper: “So what’s the price to own a Caterham? Does the ‘less is more’ philosophy still apply?”

    http://www.caterhamusa.com/ lists current prices, including various models, upgrades, and options.

    - Vogel

    Cool car, but 30 grand for entry level kit without engine and tranny? Then add another $10 g’s for options you know you’ll need? I just don’t get it… Why so much money? And then another $10 – $30 g’s for a high performance model minus engine tranny? Crazy… I’m sure the driving experience is awesome, but I just couldn’t see paying this kind of markup for a go-cart kit car. I suspect this is the reason so many other companies copy the seven at a reasonable price.

  • avatar
    Kristjan Ambroz

    Admittedly it is a bit on the expensive side in the USA, relatively speaking. In the UK you get the top performance level for the price of a fairly bare Porsche Cayman and that’s a different proposition, especially since depreciation on the things is really minimal – maybe 5% a year or so. They also do not tend to be driven much, so you can keep it for a long time and then still sell it on well. Usually to buy another, faster one ;)

  • avatar

    Went to the uscaterham website, tried to watch the videos. All of them were shot and edited by an adolescent auteur in love with special effects: solaraizing, chopping, slomo piled on top of speedmo and on and on. Damn. I wanted to see the car, but what I got was a tribute to the utterly over-the-top cleverness of makers of the video.
    The video equivalent of a web page that uses 50 different fonts on one page.

  • avatar
    csr260

    reply to stewart dean who wanted to see the car in action

    go to youtube and search caterham csr 260 nelson ledges to see 9+ minutes of a caterham csr 260 driven by its assembler and owner on an historic race course in ohio

  • avatar
    Lawdog1892

    Almost pulled the trigger on a Birkin, another copy of the Lotus 7, but the seller flaked out and I went in another direction. Oh well, some day. I still want this car and I will have one before I kick off this mortal coil.


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