Is the Caterham Seven the ultimate driver’s car? Despite a design which dates back to the Lotus Seven of 1957, few cars since have been able to match its down-to-earth, basic thrills.
After fifteen years of production under the Lotus name, a direction change for the brand meant it moved away from kit-based cars, at which point Caterham bought the manufacturing rights. With Caterham production spanning over forty years, in numerous iterations, there are examples suited for a wide range of uses and abilities.
Much like all of Colin Chapman’s creations, the ethos behind the Seven’s design was to focus on keeping weight as low as possible in order to extract maximum performance from fairly modest engines. Thanks to unassisted steering and a direct mechanical connection to all of the major controls, there are few cars available which feel as communicative yet thrilling at legal speeds.
The basic construction of a steel spaceframe chassis clad with aluminium body panels remains to this day, though some now employ carbon fibre to trim the weight further. While the basic shape remains similar, almost every mechanical part has been updated at some point in its life.
The miniscule weight brings with it many more practical benefits, too. By track car standards, the Seven is fairly cheap to run - consumables last for a fairly long time, and prices are cheap - expect to pay £60-£100 for a pair of brake discs on Nineties examples. On the road, fuel economy is also fairly decent, particularly for the lower-powered models - the most frugal is the current 160, which returns 57.6mpg in official tests.
Which one to buy?
With such a wide production run and with so many model variants through its life, choosing a Seven depends entirely on how old and how fast you’d like to go. Early Seventies models are almost identical to the Lotus versions, powered by the same 126bhp Lotus twin-cam unit. Since then, engines from Rover, Ford and Vauxhall have all made a fairly regular appearance.
Perhaps one of the most popular and sought-after model lines are the Superlight series. Introduced in 1996, the Superlights cast away the spare wheel, carpets, hood, doors, heater and windscreen (the last two remained optionally available), replaced the standard seats with GRP buckets, while the front wings and nose cone were replaced with carbon fibre items. The front suspension gained a wider track, which matched the dimensions of the rear. Weight dropped below the 500kg mark for these versions.
The most potent Superlights are the R500 and R500 EVO. The former produces 230bhp and weighs 460kg, while thanks to a bored-out version of the K-series, the EVO adds a further 20bhp and can cover the 0-100-0mph dash in a faintly believable 10.73 seconds. Only three EVOs were produced.
There are numerous limited run models to look out for. Anniversary models mark 35 and 40 years since the introduction of the Lotus Seven, and gain unique paint finishes to set them apart. The JPE, named after Jonathan Palmer, featured a 250bhp 2.0-litre engine based on the same power unit that powered the Vauxhall Cavalier BTCC car.
One of the rarest and most extreme Sevens is the Levante. It’s immediately distinguishable from other Sevens thanks to the lack of the seven-inch headlamp units up front, a matte black paint finish and the extensive use of carbon fibre (even the steering wheel is made of the stuff). Featuring a 2.0-litre V8 - effectively two 1000cc bike engines connected at the crank - it pumps out 400bhp. Unless, that is you opt for the supercharged 2.4 version, which bumps output to 550bhp. In a car that weighs 520kg...
At the opposite end of the Seven scale from the Levante is the 160. Introduced in 2013, it uses a 660cc turbocharged unit from a Suzuki Kei car, producing a modest 80bhp - still enough for a 6.5-second 0-60mph time. It makes for an ideal starting point for track day novices.
Performance and spec
1985 1700 Super Sprint
Engine 1692cc inline four
Power 135bhp @ 6000rpm
Torque 122lb ft @ 4500rpm
Top Speed 111mph
Fuel consumption approx 37mpg
Gearbox Four-speed manual
2004 R500 Evo
Engine 1998cc inline four
Power 250bhp @ 8000rpm
Torque 190lb ft @ 4000rpm
Top Speed 150mph
Fuel consumption approx 25mpg
Gearbox Six-speed manual
Dimensions and weight
• A rusty chassis isn’t a common problem, though it is still worth having a good poke around, particularly on models over 25 years old. Restoration is generally very easy
• The electrical system can be a little flaky, particularly the connections to the tail lights
• While less stressed here than in other applications, K-series engines bear the usual faults - if the engine has not been maintained correctly, head gaskets can fail. Ensuring the coolant system is in perfect working order should limit any potential troubles. This is especially true of Superlight R500 models - being so highly strung, regular maintenance is an absolute must
• Sevens are very sensitive to poorly set-up suspension. It’s worth getting everything tuned correctly after purchase
• Mileages can be very low due to so many being used exclusively for track work. Make sure these models have been serviced on a regular basis
• Check for any signs of previous crash damage. Given that so many will have ventured onto a circuit at some point in their lives, the occasional bump will be fairly likely
• Performance modifications are common. Ask the owner for receipts as proof of any claimed work, especially to the engine
• Clutch cables are prone to snapping, particularly because of the abuse they receive. Upgrades are available to reduce the chances of this happening
1973: Caterham purchase manufacturing rights from Lotus. Caterham Seven is sold with the Lotus-Ford twin-cam engine until 1983
1975: Ford Kent crossflow engine introduced. Used in various states of tune until 1998
1982: Cosworth BDR engine fitted in both 1.6 (140bhp) and 1.7-litre (150bhp) form. 1.7 fitted to Sevens until 1999
1984: DeDion rear suspension set up introduced
1990: Caterham-tuned 2.0-litre Vauxhall engine used for HPC VX and VXI models until 1999
1991: Rover K-series engine used for the first time in the Seven. Initially powered by the 1.4 unit from the Rover Metro GTI, larger 1.6 and 1.8 units were introduced in 1996 and 1997 respectively. The 1.8 stayed in production on road-legal models until 2006
1992: 35th anniversary model introduced to commemorate the Lotus Seven. Painted in Lotus green/yellow, each example carries a commemorative plaque on the dashboard
1996: Superlight range revealed. Features a 1.6-litre Rover K-series engine and carbon fibre components to reduce weight
1996/97 67 40th Anniversary models produced to mark the start of Lotus Seven production. Powered by either a K-series or 2.0-litre Vauxhall engine, and finished in silver/red paint scheme
2000: Caterham Blackbird produced for a short period, featuring a 1137cc four cylinder engine from the Honda Blackbird
2000 SV chassis released, improves interior accommodation. Chassis 110mm wider than standard car, and weighs 25kg more
2002: Live axle models phased out
2004: CSR released. Based on the wider SV chassis, it featured a Cosworth-tuned Ford duratec engine producing 200-260hp
2008: Nine Levantes produced. Powered by a 2.0-litre V8 with approx 400bhp, or a 2.4-litre supercharged V8 with 550bhp
2013: Seven 160/165 released. Fitted with 660cc turbo engine from a Suzuki Kei car.
Key clubs and websites
www.caterhamownersclub.co.uk - a UK-based owners club, open to any Seven owners
www.caterham.co.uk - spares, parts, expertise and service available from the factory
www.lotus7.club/forum - one of the largest forums dedicated to Lotus and Caterham Seven ownership
Summary and prices
As the Seven is still in production, values remain fairly constant and don’t vary wildly from new prices, which range from £19-£50,000. The cheapest way into Seven ownership is to search for an early nineties example - these start from around £9000 for a car in good working order. A clean, original Lotus twin-cam model from the 1970s meanwhile, should cost somewhere in the £15-£20,000 mark.
Predictably, it's the rarest special edition models that are priced the highest. The R500 will likely cost upwards of £40,000, while the JPE could cost anywhere between £45-£50,000. The most expensive of all is the Levante, with recent prices suggesting that closer to £60,000 should be set aside to grab one.
Words: Alex Ingram