Buried somewhere deep in your limbic system is a vision of a car. It's part dream, part cultural artifact, a stripped-down machine that a child would imagine: four fat tires and a cigar-shaped body designed for speed, safety be damned.
The Caterham Seven is that car. It has roots that reach back to the 1950s, when it was born as the Lotus Seven, a kit car designed by Colin Chapman. If ever a man deserved the title "Quirky Engineering Genius," it's Chapman. He started a car company in a London stable, and kept the lights off three days a week to save money. He flew his own plane, and built a factory on a former Second World War airbase.
By the time Chapman died of a heart attack in 1982 at the age of 54, he had won seven Formula One championships and left a permanent mark on the world of automotive design.
Chapman was a brilliant but restless engineer. In 1973, he sold the rights to the Seven design to Graham Nearn, a Seven buff and the owner of Caterham Cars. Since then, Caterham has made countless improvements to the Seven, all the while maintaining its iconic profile.
Most people are shocked the first time they encounter a Seven in the flesh: It seems impossibly small and low, a soapbox derby racer that has somehow been kitted out with a motor and licensed for the road. This car is not for the uncommitted.
My first drive in a Seven seared itself into my memory (the red-hot exhaust pipe, which runs along the side of the car, also seared a mark onto my calf). Such is the price of driving passion. It was demonically fun – wind blasted through the cockpit with hurricane force, and the Seven went around corners like a slot car. The shifter was tiny and perfectly weighted. The Seven had no doors, only a cut-down side that let me drop in; the pavement blurred past my elbow in a speeding gray stripe, so close you I could reach down and touch it. The cockpit fit around me like a tailored aluminum coffin, and the heat of the engine soaked its way into the foot well – after a few hours behind the wheel, I felt like a suckling pig that had been buried in hot coals for roasting, Hawaiian luau-style.
Chapman was famous for making cars that were as small and light as possible, and the Seven epitomizes his minimalist philosophy. One story, which may or may not be apocryphal, was that he designed the Seven by taking parts out until it collapsed under its own weight, then put the last part back in.
Caterham has made the Seven a far better car than it ever was in Chapman's day. The flakey Lucas electrical system has been exorcised, and the Seven's spindly steel frame, once known for its flex and balsa-like fragility, has been replaced with a computer-designed structure that has the torsional rigidity of a steel railway bridge.
Yet the modern Seven remains a raw, elemental machine. The seats have only slightly more padding than a wooden bench. Toyota Corollas loom over you like Panzer tanks – compared to every other car on the road, the Seven is a tiny, skittering insect. It weighs less than half as much as a Honda Civic, and its safety features are limited to a roll bar, a pair of seatbelts and your own driving skills. It does not have anti-lock brakes, stability control, nor airbags. There are no crumple zones, blind spot detection systems, nor backup cameras. Bumpers? Surely you jest.
For all these reasons, you can't buy a new Seven in Canada. But for the hard-core enthusiast, there's always a way. You can buy an older Seven, and license it under the vintage car exemption. Or you can buy a new Seven completely disassembled, build it yourself and register it as a homebuilt. (I considered buying a Caterham Seven 260 CSR in parts myself, only to have the deal vetoed by my ever-intelligent wife, who pointed out that I would have the price of a new Porsche Cayman invested in a homemade car.)
My wife was right, of course, and yet the Seven bug has never left me. If you want a Seven, there are innumerable options, because few cars have been copied as much as Chapman's little sports machine. There are Birkin 7s, Tiger 7s, Westfield 7s… the list goes on. For a while, three different companies in Ontario made Seven clones. Their quality varied from decent to awful.
If you've got the money, you could go for a Donkervoort, a Dutch-made, high-end Seven-based machine with a widened body, Audi running gear and the kind of upholstery you'd expect in a German sports sedan.
The Caterham is the only Seven with official links to Chapman and Lotus. Although heritage matters less to me than engineering and construction quality, the Caterham is my favourite. It retains the spirit of the original Lotus Seven, but is a far superior car. It isn't easy to keep a legend alive, but Caterham has done it. Every time I drive one, I realize what an improvement the Caterham is. But I am also reminded that the elemental car floating in my brain was shaped by Colin Chapman.
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