Colin Chapman was an automotive genius; by 20 years old, he had built his first car. Although simplistic, even by 1948 standards, it demonstrated the ingenuity that would later allow Chapman to claim seven Formula One Constructors' titles and an Indianapolis 500 win. The car, unimaginatively named the Lotus Mark I, was based on an affordable Austin 7, but thanks to replacing original components with lighter equivalents and a mastery of suspension setup, Chapman and his future wife went on to win a number of English events. Over the following years, his modus operandi quickly evolved to possibly the most popular performance car in the world, the Lotus Seven.
The Seven became one of the all-time classics because it fully encapsulated Colin Chapman's discipline of mind: The car had everything it needed to become competitive, and nothing more. It might not be the prettiest or the most comfortable, but it managed to keep the weight and price down at an unparalleled level when it debuted in 1957; and some would argue it's just as relevant 60 years on with versions still in production.
The car is not made by Lotus anymore, however. Colin Chapman, even with all his genius, made a glaringly poor decision with respect to the Seven. In 1973 Chapman terminated the production of the Seven and sold the license to one of Lotus' dealers, Caterham Cars. The decision looked sound; after all, the car had been in production for a long 17 years, a fact that didn't bode well with Chapman's focus on progress and future advancement. Chapman envisioned Caterham building the Seven for a few years before the clients would lose interest in it just as he did. He couldn't have been more wrong. In 2016, after steady growth on all of the major markets in the world, including the Middle East, China, and USA, Caterham built 600 of the cars Chapman deemed outdated in the time when people watched M*A*S*H. To put it into context, after much drama and many ownership changes, Lotus—an established manufacturer with multiple models—only managed to produce 1,800 cars.
The two companies have written their success stories in very different ways. Caterham is nothing like Lotus. The latter has a huge, clinically white, state-of-the-art factory with a full-size racetrack in its front yard. The impressive corporate photography of the facility could be mistaken for any of the top-tier carmakers, and it is managed by a person plucked from one of them. Caterhams, on the other hand, are built at an inconspicuous site in the town of Dartford on the eastern outskirts of London. The company moved here in 1987 from Caterham, an even smaller town from which Caterham Cars got its name. The company is lead by Graham Macdonald, a lovely kind of bloke who always speaks loud and clear (despite his heavy northern accent) and doesn't hide his passion for Caterhams. After all, there aren't many other CEOs who'd spend their first day in the office at a track day.
Macdonald is an experienced businessman with a good knowledge of the numbers, previously occupying the post of Caterham's COO. Unfortunately, for a big part of his stint, the numbers never pencil-out. In 2011, Tony Fernandes, a Malaysian business mogul, took over Caterham with the aim of turning it into a grand enterprise. He had visions of selling tens of thousands of performance cars, or even SUVs and city cars. The brand would promote itself with success in Formula 1, which meant investing millions of dollars in the hope for success that never came. There's nothing left of Caterham's F1 endeavor. A joint venture with Renault to create a modern compact coupe was also terminated despite an advanced stage of development. Macdonald was faced with making unpopular decisions like reducing the head count and withdrawing from most of these overambitious plans. The company has come out of it being stronger than ever, he argues: "Many divisions of the Caterham Group were either closed or sold, so it now consists of three profit making entities, which are Caterham Cars, Caterham Composites, and Caterham Technology & Innovation. Despite our exit from Formula 1, the future for our company is still bright. The stint in F1 was a great opportunity for us to introduce our brand to a worldwide audience, from which we still benefit by opening markets like Taiwan, Colombia, and Turkey. Currently, we have the strongest order book we have ever had."
While that may be the case, first impression of Caterham's factory doesn't necessarily create that feeling of progress and expansion. The Sevens' birthplace appears to be just a big garage built in the 1980s on a back road of a random industrial park. There are many car dealerships that look bigger and smarter, even Caterham's own Crawley sales location, which also serves as company headquarters since 2015. Inside, you'll find 15 workstations filled with cars in different states of completion. Around 30 British lads spend approximately four hours at each stage to complete the car, following the same instructions as the true car geeks who decide to buy their Caterham in kit form. Through the years, this option popular with British low-volume sports carmakers has been limited to select models. Still, it's very popular, with almost half of the cars Caterham sells in its homeland (that is a quarter of its global production) comes in boxes filled with the 500 components to be assembled at home. In the U.S., all of the cars are sold in component form for self-assembly with engines and gearbox available in separate packages. The car being assembled by the owner, or a third party contractor, allows it to be registered as a kit or homebuilt vehicle, meaning far more relaxed safety and emissions regulations.
Dartford is more of an assembly point; the facility oversees construction of the cars from the prefabricated components. The chassis, built from high-grade steel tubing, is made by Caterham at another venue. A majority of the other components come from various suppliers. Apart from the big names like AP Racing or Momo, most are small specialist companies normally associated with supplying racing teams. Their limited size guarantees high quality but restricts production capacity, which is still far smaller than demand. This, in turn, leads to surprisingly high residual values for pre-owned Sevens. Something that is not lost on Seven owners, even those who have provided their beloved cars with harsh lives mostly lived on racetracks.
Even if current Caterham models look nearly identical to the original Chapman design, in reality they don't share a single bolt with the Lotus-era Sevens. They have come a long way from the simple runabouts equipped with 40-bhp Ford side-valve 1.2L engines and live-axles to the advanced performance legends they are today. Caterham has experimented with multiple engine suppliers—powertrains from MG Rover, Vauxhall and at one point, even installing a 550hp supercharged V-8. Now things have come full circle with Caterham reverting to Ford powertrains, using proven units from the Sigma and Duratec families, modified and adjusted in-house. The lineup includes five models, spanning from 135 to 310 bhp. Their names reflect their performance; the engine power multiplied by two so the difference between each model feels (and reads) more dramatic.
So what we are doing here with a Caterham 160 then? As the name suggests, it has a mere 80 bhp, the result of a guest appearance of the puny three-cylinder 660cc Suzuki K6A engine, little known outside Japan's kei-car culture. Because of its modest performance numbers (sub-7-second 0-60-mph time, 100-mph max speed), this model has never made it to the American lineup, but we're driving it as it's still the best introduction to the Seven's magic. Some would even say that it's a Seven at its best. Like we've seen with most of great cars through the years, the balanced and nimble driving experience of the Seven has been increasingly overshadowed by the sheer speed generated by the ever-growing engine numbers. The 160 takes the Seven back to its roots, allowing the driver to fully savor its simple and yet brilliantly effective design, so distant to anything else built today.
It isn't easy contorting yourself into the bathtub-like cabin, your legs sliding far forward of the archaic flat windshield mounted upright seemingly inches in front of your nose (VW Golf I owners know the feeling), and you're welcomed into a place devoid of... well, virtually all the stuff you'd expect to see in a car built in 2017. No sign of any effort toward comfort or aesthetics, the simplest of dashboards and a down-to-earth steering wheel with the Momo logo attached to it is all that fills the standard equipment list. If you're feeling particularly extravagant, you can throw money around on modern creature comforts like—uhmmm—doors, carpeting, or a heater. Truth be told, you don't even get this amusing windshield unless you specifically ask for it. Behind the seat, you'll find a clumsily folded roof (provided you opted for it, that is), but don't even bother opening it; you'll be drenched long before you manage to unfold it anyway. Oh, and the windscreen wipers are just useless, so you won't see a thing in the rain, either.
All of this feels so... good. Refreshingly satisfying, even. The 160 is a basic car even for Caterham's own standards. Over the years, the design of the Seven was continuously refined and updated, but here it comes nearest to its original form. The rear of the car is suspended by a simple live axle with trailing arms and a Panhard rod. The wheels are steel, 14 inches in diameter and 4.5 inches wide wrapped in decidedly un-racy 65-profile tires. It's amazing what low weight and a virtuous balance can achieve with ingredients like these. The rorty engine provides enough punch to put a smile on your face, which then gets even bigger, as it's the kind of a car that can be driven flat out everywhere (a rare occurrence in the times when you can get Mercedes A-class with more power than Ferrari Testarossa). Driving a 160 is easily a less extreme experience than that of the other Caterhams, not only because of this slow-mo effect, but also due to a fairly light steering and considerable wheel travel of the softly sprung suspension. And yet it's everything that makes the Seven the monumental achievement it is; a car that you feel you're driving with your hands and legs, rather than being driven. Its spirit may be softened, but it's no less aware or agile. Learn how to drive it fast, lean on the mechanical traction, have fun behind the wheel again. The 160 is as good as it gets.
The problem is, humans are such greedy beings that they always want more. Historically, Sevens quickly advanced to the 150-170hp region, thanks to Ford and Cosworth engines. Today, the green car in the accompanying photos is the most powerful variant you can get before advancing to the all-out 620 model (that is 310 hp in a 1,260-pound body), bonkers even by Caterham's own standards. Splitting the difference is an almost sane Seven using the most potent naturally aspirated engine Caterham offers. In this case, 240 hp comes from a 2.0L Ford Duratec engine, which complies with emission standards and screams all the way to 8,500 rpm, where maximum power is achieved. Differences in homologations for a variety of markets means that on British soil we call it a Seven 485, while the American dealers will offer you either a 480 or 420 variant; in essence, it's the same car.
You instantly feel it's a more serious car than the Seven 160. To start—it's bigger, and it can get bigger still if you opt for an SV extended body variant. The largest version adds additional inches in both width and length for more interior space for people and the almost laughable idea they might carry luggage. More important than grocery space, the SV offers a larger fuel tank. With the wheels situated slightly farther away from each other, this option also brings better stability, but it comes at the expense of 110 pounds—and that's nearly a 10 percent weight increase.
With a hood, dashboard, and body details made from carbon fiber, plus big names like Eibach attached to its key components, you can nearly talk yourself into not cringing at Caterham's nearly $70,000 asking price for this car—even if it still shuns any kind of gizmos or innovations you'd find in the still sparse competition from Ariel, Elemental, or Lotus. OK, so the 420/485 does have a "Sport" button for the first time in Caterham's history, but it's basically still the same BS-free Seven with the rear lights from an '80s commercial van. And somehow, after all the Ferraris, Corvettes, or even the new wave of the British track curios, it's the car that you'll always come back for. The simple in premise, but advanced in execution lightweight chassis takes the additional power and quality suspension to create virtually the ultimate driving sensation. In comparison, a "hardcore" Porsche GT3 feels overcomplicated; the Nissan GT-R feels more like driving Caterham's entire factory and probably has more computing power.
It's a primitive machine for primitive feelings. The soles of your feet rest on the ever-vibrant engine, while your outer elbow is tickled by the metallic vibrato coming from the huge side pipe exhaust. Opting for the simplest of exhaust solutions results in a 30-pound weight savings; it makes a great leaf blower in autumn as well, so don't call a Caterham impractical. One of the most ingenious (and coincidental) features of Seven's design is full 360-degree visibility. It comes especially handy with monitoring the exposed front wheels and steering system, which is expectably phenomenal. In contrast, the brakes are worryingly ineffective on the first few inches of the pedal movement, but become brutally persuasive if you are bold (and strong) enough to use them. The clutch pedal and shift lever to Caterham's own six-speed gearbox requires effort, or even physical pain. This is a small price for pure driving dynamics free of interference from a computer claiming to be smarter than you. With approximately 2,200 pounds to carry around, the De Dion suspension arrangement and mechanical LSD are fully capable of deploying all 240 horses in a masterful and perfectly manageable way. On the front end, simple coil springs and expertly tuned dampers keep the wheels planted under any circumstances without resorting to the need of being punishably stiff.
Caterham's Seven is a very mature, highly advanced tool, not the outdated toy you might confuse it for based on its somewhat agricultural looks. It reached its legend status over the years mostly from Caterham knowing what to change on the car, but also, contrary to Chapman, what not to change.