Seven Sevens - Caterham celebration

50 years on, the Seven is still the definitive lightweight sports car. We celebrate the legacy by driving seven of our favourites

To the enthusiast, the Seven is unmistakable, identifiable at 300 paces. To the non-enthusiast it’s easily mistaken for a quaint old car, and in part this perception is correct, because over its 50-odd years the look of the Seven has changed little. The big mistake is to assume that it has the dynamics of a car from the late ’50s; it never did, because it was designed by engineering genius Colin Chapman.

Even the most modestly powerful current Seven delivers an extraordinarily vivid, intensely detailed and involving driving experience. Passengers who underestimate the abilities of, say, the mid-range Superlight R300, tend to clamber out either slightly stunned and swearing or laughing hysterically because they didn’t see it coming – the instantaneous, vocal acceleration, the sharp, inertia-free agility and the extraordinary levels of grip.

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That the Seven survives at all is a testament to the rightness of Chapman’s original design. ‘It was just about the simplest, most basic, lightest, highest performance little car we could come up with for two people,’ Chapman once told Graham Nearn, the Seven specialist who acquired the rights to build the Seven as the Caterham from 1973. Under Lotus, the Seven had evolved steadily to become the now rarely spotted, GRP-bodied Series 4. Caterham intended to continue producing the S4 but supply issues saw it revert to the S3, which has now become the definitive Seven.

While the shape has endured, under the skin the Seven has evolved significantly, to the point where by the mid-’90s not a single grommet of the original S3 remained. In the early days, change was necessity-driven as engines or gearboxes became obsolete, but into the ’80s Caterham began developing the car and has created many superb variants along the way. Here we’re at Cadwell Park to drive some of our favourite Sevens. Seven of the best, in fact.

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Lotus Seven Series 2 I’ve driven countless Sevens but never an early Lotus. The liquorice-thin wheel is rather large and the seats are little more than flat cushions but it all feels very familiar in here; the snug, ground-skimming, recumbent driving position, the flat, simple dashboard and the view down the gently tapering bonnet, book-ended by headlamps and cycle wings. The S2 is shorter than the S3, narrower tracked, too, but the shared DNA is obvious and that sense gets even stronger as soon as it’s rolling.

List the key components that went into the original ’57 Seven and you get a sense of how stodgy the average car was, and how effective the astonishingly low and light Chapman design is. That first Seven had a steering box (soon ditched for a rack), a simple live axle, drum brakes, and the 36bhp Ford 100E side-valve engine and three-speed ’box. But all up it weighed just 444kg and was apparently quicker than the sophisticated Elite over the same unofficial test route near the factory. It was also eligible for the popular 750 Motor Club ‘1172 Formula’; then as now, it was important that the Seven was a road/race car.

The Series 2, launched in 1960, had a simplified spaceframe chassis, an A-frame-located axle and a re-profiled nose. This one, belonging to Paul Thompson, is rather special, being both strikingly original and having been fitted, from new, with a rampant little Mk IX‑spec Cosworth engine, dry-sumped, which was claimed to deliver 120bhp.

It had been bought, built and raced in England by a first lieutenant in the USAF, and was then shipped to the US in ’66 where it did very little before being stored for 31 years. Thompson repatriated the car a few years ago, and thanks to it having been perfectly stored, it merely had to be recommissioned.

The only mods Thompson has made are a larger silencer and a stronger roll hoop, both so that he can use it on track again. Right from the off the lightness is apparent, and that’s swiftly followed by recognition of the magical, magnifying effect a flyweight kerb weight has on engine outputs. That Cosworth engine still has 100bhp and makes this 470kg Seven genuinely rapid. It must have been the Superlight R500 of its day.

The real joy, though, is that everything feels in harmony – the power, the gearing, the handling and the grip. The delicacy of the steering, the attitude-adjusting throttle and the feeling of being connected to the four corners of the car are intoxicating and familiar. This S2 is Seven to the core.

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Caterham Seven JPEWe didn’t get off to the best start, the JPE and I. Back in 1992 I got stuck in stationary traffic on the A14 in the fluorescent yellow press car, with no screen, no roof and with rain bouncing off the matching day-glo full-face helmet. Not the scenario envisaged for the wildest and most expensive production Seven ever, though the next day, with everything properly warmed up – driver, 250bhp 2-litre Vauxhall engine and near-slick Yokohamas – it roared to 60mph in a sensational, record-breaking 3.5sec and on to 100 in just 8.3sec. With its straight-cut gears and peaky, BTCC-derived engine, the JPE was a real animal. Would it still seem so almost 20 years later?

The Jonathan Palmer Evolution was intended as a last hurrah for the non-catalyst Vauxhall engine and a riposte to the Light Car Company Rocket, which seemed intent on stealing the title of ‘purest drivers’ car’. Caterham had introduced a new engine range at the end of the ’80s when supplies of the venerable Ford BDR looked like finally drying up. It settled on the Rover K-series for the lower-powered models and the Vauxhall unit for the range- topper. Although steel-blocked and thus heavy, the 2-litre engine gave an easy and characterful 175bhp on carbs, and even more when tuned by Swindon Racing Engines…

About three-quarters of JPEs were finished in that luminous yellow, though the brightly faced dial-pack featuring a minimally marked tacho with a green line rather than a red one, were fitted mostly to the early cars. This car, owned by Nick Aldridge, has metallic paint and is a late model, number 44 of a total run of 53. Unexpectedly, it has a Caterham six-speed ’box rather than the whining five-speeder from the Vauxhall racer, and this seems to transform the car. There’s a lovely intake chug as the engine takes full throttle from low revs but no hesitation or fluffing, and it’s a doddle to keep in the vivid, lung-squeezing top end as the six close ratios mean you’re straight back into the band with every upshift.

The JPE feels solid, laser-focused, the gearing, the power, the brakes and the handling (on current Avon CR500s) perfectly matched. It feels bang up to date, in fact. I love it.

Caterham SuperlightHard to believe now, but the Rover K-series engine was slow to catch on. It was a perfect match for the Seven, being small, light and efficient, but it didn’t have the grunt or growl of the long-established carb-fed Ford engines, still available for less money. In the end it was frustration that helped unlock its potential and cement its appeal. Having slogged to get the catalysed K and the Vauxhall-powered cars through low-volume type approval so that they could be sold fully built, Caterham found there were desperately few takers. And when the R&D department came up with a suppler, more cosseting suspension set-up to make the Seven more habitable and useable (blame the arrival of the smooth-riding Elise), we and others hated it and asked what the point was – a Seven should be a thrill, that’s its job.

Stung by the criticism, Caterham came up with the Superlight in less than a week by simply adding lightness. Everything that didn’t add to the driving experience was discarded, including the heater, screen and wipers, carpets and paint. Everything that could be made lighter was, so the car got a carbonfibre nosecone, wings and seats. To enhance its dynamics it was fitted with wide-track front suspension, a slippy diff, vented front discs and Formula Ford ACB10 tyres. Best of all, it had the 1.6-litre K-series in 138bhp Supersport trim, mated to a six-speed ’box. With an all-up weight of 468kg, that meant 300bhp per ton. All the usual options were offered, but like snacks in a weight-watchers’ clinic they were listed in both £ and kg; paint cost 2kg.

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Here was the Seven experience stripped bare, purified and concentrated, but with a wonderfully crisp, light feel. Back in ’96 it was easily the best Seven I’d ever driven and all these years later its appeal is undimmed. It feels right just trundling down to the holding area at Cadwell Park, the ride supple, the lack of inertia apparent right from the get-go. Its owner, Steve Creggs, reckons it’s a bit down on power, but with rain now coming down and plump, lightly treaded trackday tyres, that doesn’t matter. It’s a complete joy, the delicacy and the poise evident even with so little grip to lean against, the sweetness of the drivetrain shining through. And the sensation of being a part of the car has never been stronger.

Caterham BlackbirdThe Superlight is delectably lightweight but the Blackbird takes lightness to another level. The appeal of bike-engined cars has faded now, but driving one is a sharp reminder of why the two Honda bike-engined Sevens, the Fireblade and the Blackbird, were so enthusiastically welcomed. The 7 ’Blade had less power at around 128bhp, but in a live-axle chassis, and weighed around 396kg (as little as 362kg if you were obsessive, like our Mr Meaden was with his), while the more potent, 170bhp CBR1100-engined Blackbird came out at around 420kg. This gave them strong power-to-weight ratios and enhanced their modest torque outputs.

‘It’s a shame it’s raining because the most amazing thing about the car is the way it turns in,’ says owner Neil Gilby, swapping slicks for some skinny, treaded tyres. Sequential bike ’boxes can be a bit difficult to finesse but this one is friendly, swift, smooth and nicely tactile, and with the engine note light and busy on part throttle and the suspension set-up soft because of the low weight, the Blackbird feels friendly. And then I press the throttle to the stop.

The character of the engine changes, the urgency escalating like a roller-coaster as the last carriages clear the summit and add their weight to the gathering downhill plummet. Gilby has swapped the stock CBR ‘four’ for a tweakier, 185bhp example and the car feels R400-quick, the superfast 11,000rpm upshifts saving tenths. The challenge is feeling how much front-end grip there is with so little mass pinning the tyres to the ground. Aquaplaning is an issue, especially in the braking areas, but it’s great fun. I’ve never been convinced that the drivetrain makes for a great road car, but as a trackday weapon this is a seriously attractive Seven; the lack of inertia is intoxicating.

Caterham R500There had been ‘VHPD’ K-series Caterhams before, the best producing just shy of 190bhp, which was impressive for the long-stroke 1.8- litre iteration of the all-alloy Rover engine, but they were rather harsh and spiky. So when the 500bhp-per-ton R500 was announced (easily trumping Lotus’s 340R) I was rather afraid for the driveability of the now 230bhp K. It should have been as prickly as a porcupine yet, to the great credit of Minister Racing Engines, it was a pussycat. With very sharp claws. And vicious big teeth. But it was docile until roused.

You don’t get 128bhp per litre reliably from what was originally a 100bhp 1400cc engine without regular ‘refreshes’, but this car’s owner, Keith Jecks, confesses that his R500’s fettling is a couple of thousand hard track miles overdue, which again endorses Minister’s handiwork.

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Compared with the JPE motor, the very special K is actually more peaky, with a sensationally manic 9000rpm top end. It’s almost absurd that the Seven chassis doesn’t just cope with it, it exploits it, so you can enjoy it to the full. It’s probably a sweeter car than the current Duratec-engined R500, but that car boasts 263bhp and, if you want, a sequential gearbox, which lifts its pace to an even higher level. Nuttiest of all, though, was the R500 Evolution with Minister’s loopy 250bhp 2-litre K, of which just three were built.

Caterham Academy SigmaA Roadsport 125 would have sat just as nicely here, as would the 150 we helped to hone earlier this year. Fact is, the little Ford Sigma 1.6 is as light as the K-series and, with 125bhp, plenty powerful enough to deliver thrills, though as always it’s all about getting the set-up and balance right, matching grip with go.

Like the Roadsport, the Academy car, this one Bill Anthony’s, does that very well, the Sigma encouragingly fruity through the side pipe, sweet-revving and lusty enough in the mid-range, while the dynamics benefit from the lack of weight in the nose. Even with an open diff in the back the handling is poised and adjustable.

That makes it a great starter car, though I’m sure that after a while the way the power tails off at the top end would trigger an appetite for more shove. And a step up to the Roadsport 150 wouldn’t cut it; it’s not a big enough gain. No, what you want is an R300…

Caterham superlight R300Having praised the K-series so highly, it might seem odd to prefer the current Duratec-powered R300, but the 175bhp Ford engine brings that little bit more urge to the mix and makes the whole dynamic equation much better balanced. Many people with vast experience of Sevens reckon that the R300 has the optimum blend of performance, handling and grip, and the best road and track duality. The original K-series R300’s 160bhp was just a little thin to get the very best out of the chassis. However, what some older Sevens here have shown is that this optimum-spec example (six-speed, limited-slip diff) is unnecessarily firm – even the JPE is more supple.

ConclusionGiven that the Seven has aged better than Cliff Richard, it shouldn’t be a surprise that some of the greatest models have stood the test of time. After all, the basic front-engined, rear-drive layout is unchanged and the weight has hovered around 500kg, so it mainly comes down to the mix of attributes. Of the Sevens we’ve driven here, the JPE stands out as a real keeper. It feels competitive with the fastest models produced today, it’s genuinely exotic and there are limited numbers out there. It won’t be easy to find one as most were exported, many of them to Japan, but it’ll be worth it.

I’m still drawn to the original Superlight, though. With pretty much all the weight-saving features of the JPE, the sweet-spinning 1.6 K-series and all the most desirable extras, it is a perfectly formed Seven. It has historical significance, too, being the grandaddy of all Superlight Rs. But mainly I want one because it’s so good to drive.

With huge thanks to Nick Aldridge, Paul Thompson, Steve Creggs, Neil Gilby, Keith Jecks and Bill Anthony for sharing their fabulous cars, also to Linds Moules, Geoff Pickin, Carl Van Baars and all at Cadwell Park.

Wild ones

X330

Announced in 2007 as the Seven celebrated its 50th birthday, the X330 featured a supercharged 2.3 Duratec producing 330bhp, but like the turbo Sevens the R&D department built, it never made it to production.

LEVANTE

Honour of the most expensive and most powerful Seven goes to the Levante, which costs over £100K and has a compact, 2.4-litre V8 producing 550bhp. The result is a ludicrous power-to-weight ratio of 1074bhp per ton.

2R

The one and only 132mpg Seven. Built by Axon Automotive for the Shell Eco-Marathon in 2006, it was based on the 1.6 Roadsport and featured carbonfibre aerodynamic add-ons (to improve the woeful 0.76 Cd), narrow, low-rolling-resistance tyres and a single seat.

BLACK BRICK

Barely recognisable as a Seven, Rob Cox-Allison campaigned this beast in Modsports and GT racing in the ’70s and won many titles in six seasons. There were three versions in all. One had a 300bhp F2 engine, another F2 suspension.

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