Review: 2009 Caterham 7

Lyn Vogel
by Lyn Vogel
review 2009 caterham 7

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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  • Csr260 Csr260 on Aug 22, 2009

    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

  • Lawdog1892 Lawdog1892 on Aug 10, 2013

    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.

  • SCE to AUX I'd admire it at the car cruise, but $20k gets you halfway to a new truck.
  • Lou_BC Panther black? Borrowed from Dodge panther pink? One could argue that any Camaro is a limited run.
  • SCE to AUX I much prefer the looks of the Tucson version, but either is a great value.How was the driveability, namely the electric/gas transition? I had H/K's first attempt in a 13 Optima Hybrid (now in my son's garage), and it was gruff and abrupt in that phase of driving.
  • SCE to AUX My guess of $60k from a few years ago may be low.My EPA estimate would be 263 miles, but that's unladen, temperate conditions, driven at the speed limit, and 0% left in the tank - all unrealistic.Subtract 15% for full payload, 20% for cold, 10% for speed, and 20% minimum battery level, and you're down to 129 usable miles at times. Even in nice conditions (springtime, town driving), I'd only expect 180 usable miles.This vehicle will have the same challenge as electric pickups do - when used as intended (traveling with family and stuff in this case), the utility is lost.When these hit US roads, expect to see videos of unhappy/surprised customers who thought this thing would go 260+ miles all the time. For starters, it should have a 150 kWh battery, minimum, and then you're talking real money.No, I wouldn't buy it, but it might be a fun rental for local driving.The common argument "once everyone who wants one gets one, sales will die" may not apply here. 789k New Beetles were sold in the US from 1998-2021. True, sales dropped 50% in 5 years, and another 60% in the next 5 years, but it ebbed along for two decades, helped by a refresh along the way. That's not a bad run for a niche car.
  • Theflyersfan I still have visions of Radio Shack and Circuit City and Silo - the huge walls filled with hundreds of aftermarket cassette players fit for any budget and style. And the eyes would always go to the Alpine ones with the green lighting. When I see the old Japanese cars like this, I'm always reminded of those aftermarket stereos because it was like a rite of passage slapping in your own cassette deck and maybe if your rich enough, four new speakers, and mega-bucks here, the equalizer and amp. And this Toyota still has less rust on it than an 07 Silverado, so there's one positive.