It’s 60 years since Colin Chapman launched the Lotus 7 – and it’s still being made by Caterham. Octane celebrates by driving a seminal Twin Cam SS
Certain years are etched upon the mind with greater clarity and definition than others, especially when we’re talking car launches. Take 1962 as an example: the Ferrari 250 GTO, the MGB and the Ford Cortina were all released that year, each an icon in its own distinct way. Or how about 1948? That year saw the Citroën 2CV, Jaguar XK120, Morris Minor, Porsche 356, the Bristol 401, even the Tucker 48, all unleashed on an unsuspecting world just beginning to recover from the calamity of war. Next year will mark some incredible 70th anniversaries.
But now turn your mind to 1957. Six decades ago. A few remarkable cars, not least the Fiat 500, though the Lotus Elite, Lancia Flaminia, Mercedes 300SL Roadster, Aston DB MkIII and Maserati 3500GT that were launched the same year don’t quite resonate like the swell of seminal groundbreakers that exploded onto the scene nine years before.
One car stands out, however, as much for its longevity as for its importance at the time. After all, Colin Chapman’s Lotus Elite was arguably a greater technical achievement, a car more in line with some of those 1948 epics in every respect bar cultural significance. Meanwhile, elsewhere on the Lotus stand at Earls Court in 1957 stood the 7. A tiny, spidery roadster, more clubman’s special than roadgoing sports car, which achieved Chapman’s ideal of lightness – for handling perfection and to make a little power go a long way – by being dainty and minimalist, rather than employing a structural method so outlandish that, in the case of the Elite’s glassfibre monocoque, it went straight to the end of the cul-de-sac with no sane followers.
Not so the 7. Now, 60 years on, it’s still in production, as a Caterham
rather than a Lotus since 1974, and recognisably the same car despite myriad improvements, departures and the odd blind alley since. The 7 followed on, naturally, from the Mk6, Lotus’s first ‘series production’ car, available in kit form since 1952 following Chapman’s self-made rudimentary trials cars and sports racers. At its heart was a lightweight spaceframe chassis, to which the builder would add Ford Prefect suspension components and running gear. The Mk6’s popularity – 100 were built in its first three years – established Lotus as a manufacturer and gave Chapman the confidence to pursue his burgeoning genius as a racing car designer.
Crucially, the 7 followed the Mk6 in its simplicity, with stressed aluminium panels over a spaceframe chassis that was closely related to the Eleven racing car’s, all of which could be supplied in kit form for the home builder – or you could buy one ready-built by Lotus, for which the launch price was £1036. Building it yourself, however, meant you could avoid purchase tax and save yourself £500 in return for your labour. If you followed that path, you had to bear in mind that the Inland Revenue had decreed that no assembly instructions could be included – but there was no rule about ‘disassembly’ instructions. Customers simply had to follow them in reverse…
Drum brakes and a Burman steering box were combined with a Nash Metropolitan live axle and coil/wishbone front suspension, typically with 1172cc Ford sidevalve power, though options later included a Coventry Climax engine, or even BMC’s 948cc A-series, and the steering box quickly gave way to the Morris Minor rack-and-pinion set-up, also used to terrific effect in the Austin-Healey Sprite.
That latter change alleviated the terrible contortions forced upon the driver trying to operate the clutch in the earliest cars, as the steering column goes through at such an angle between clutch and brake pedals that space for your left foot is restricted to the extent that you’re better off driving barefoot. With the rack-and-pinion system, the column was handily lifted out of the way, though slim driving shoes are still a must. Chapman, though a bit of a yo-yo with his weight, was compact at 5ft 9in. He didn’t design cars for giants.
Yet we are talking about a giant-killing sports car, one with proprietary mechanicals and a measly 40, maybe 50bhp to shove it along. ‘Chunky’ Chapman’s obsession with weight (the car’s, not his own) was the key. At Earls Court in 1957, Lotus’s show car weighed-in at a mere 329kg. A driver weighs a quarter of that.
More modifications followed during the 7’s 16 years in production as a Lotus. The Series 2 arrived in 1960, with a simplified chassis, better location for the rear axle, Triumph Herald suspension uprights at the front, and bigger, more powerful Ford engines with Cosworth tuning. So which to choose as an exemplar for the breed? Well, you want an early car for its purity, but even better to have one with sufficient power to exploit that delectable handling. It should be a Series 3, as that version, in effect, is what Caterham still builds.
First, though, feast your eyes on this delectable 1969 Twin Cam SS, one of only 13 built with the Elan’s Ford-based, Lotus-developed 1558cc twin-cam four-cylinder, in this case modified further by Holbay with bigger valves and wilder cam profiles. It starred on Lotus’s motor show stand at Earls Court in 1969, and a couple of years later became the property of Graham Nearn, a Lotus dealer based in Surrey, just south of London. In a town called Caterham.
And that’s a huge clue as to what happened when Lotus, faced with the demise of purchase tax (which rendered kit cars little cheaper), decided to go exclusively upmarket with its Elite, Eclat and Esprit models, offloading the production rights to the 7. More of that later.
Time for a drive first. No doors, so you hop in over the side, swinging back the sidescreens first, feet on the seat (a simple vinyl-trimmed cushion, fixed in place) then drop, sliding your legs forward and under the wheel. Double-jointed knees would help, but, once ensconced, you’re snug, wedged between the outer spaceframe and the transmission tunnel, the tiny wheel vertical above your lap, toy-like gearknob a handspan to its left.
Turn the key, then grope for the starter button, under the dash on the bulkhead. That twin-cam erupts with a gruff bark, and burbles at idle. A twin-cam 7 was never envisioned, Chapman having been of the belief that it wouldn’t fit until a 7 owner proved otherwise, but it feels entirely natural, at home in this roller-skate of a car, making it more of a thoroughbred: the automotive equivalent of a watch with an in-house movement.
It might have a swept volume of only 1558cc but it feels so much bigger-lunged than that. OK, so the combination of decent power and tiny weight is always going to create that illusion, but there’s more to it than statistics. The noise, for a start, a deep grumble that builds to a bellow in direct proportion to the pressure exerted by your right foot. And there’s the electrifying throttle response too, the kind that modern fuel injection just can’t replicate: twin Webers are where it’s at.
The four-speed gearbox has a brilliant shift (thanks, Ford); you snick from one ratio to the next with the tiniest, deftest flick of the wrist, grinning at the well-oiled-machine nature of it, no motion lost, just a satisfying sensation as the bolt clicks home. Then you’re straight back on the power to be treated to another kick in the back, matched by the snort and growl up ahead.
There’s 125bhp on tap, though you’d swear it’s more, and the raw acceleration figure of 0-60mph in 7.1 seconds sounds longer than it feels. But, then, sensation is always more important than figures on paper. Equally, the top speed of 110mph is irrelevant. Those billowing glassfibre front wings (the earliest 7s had alloy cycle wings) will have you airborne well before you hit Vmax.
So, yes, it feels quick, but the 7 is obviously more about the handling. And this prime example of a Lotus is about as good as it gets. There’s a live axle bumping away under your behind but it’s actually more supple than you might expect, keeping you well in touch with the road surface yet rarely bouncing you off it. And it engenders supreme adjustability through corners: apply a bit more throttle, feel your angle of attack tighten, but back off and it won’t bite you like some cars will.
The 7 is sharp, agile, yet it is rarely edgy. And you can feel absolutely everything it’s doing, especially through that tiny wheel, via which hints from your wrists translate to instant reaction at the front wheels.
This special 7 is all the more amazing because it spends so much time on display at the British Motor Museum in Gaydon, Warwickshire, where it’s on loan from Graham Nearn’s son Simon. So it doesn’t get driven hard often. But when it does, boy, can it deliver. It’s a beautifully patinated device, no trailer queen, and the only evidence of any recent restorative work is in the seat cushions, whose white piping has yet to fade to cream and match that of the seatback.
What a car. That something so simple can deliver such massive (and honest) pleasure is the purest testament to the genius of Colin Chapman. I can remember, in my early teens, when Car magazine ranked a 7 in its Top 10 cars of 1986 (turns out it was usually in there, year in, year out, along with a 911, a motley selection of Citroëns and the odd Jag), and the reason I recall it so vividly is that the car seemed such an anachronism even then – more than half its lifetime ago.
Only it wasn’t broke, so Caterham didn’t fix it. Instead, it has honed and improved the breed over the years, and there are many different versions to suit many different tastes, even today, from the three-cylinder live-axled 160 to the track-focussed 620R.
Words: Glen Waddington // Photography: Malcolm Griffiths