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Lotus 7

Lotus 7 Published: 11th Jul 2011 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

Lotus 7

Fast Facts

  • Best model: Superlight R300
  • Worst model: Vauxhall ex-racer
  • Budget buy: Sprint (Ford crossflow)
  • OK for unleaded?: Problematic for some older ones
  • Will it fit in the garage? (mm): mm L 3300 x W 1575
  • Spares situation: Very good (factory and specialist)
  • DIY ease?: Very easy
  • Club support: Excellent
  • Appreciating asset?: No – but depreciation-proof
  • Good buy or good-bye?: A rare example where head and heart coincide

Model In Depth...

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You’re never a prisoner to convention with the magnificent 7, the ultimate in fun machines

Pros & Cons

Performance, raw thrills, depreciation proof
Zero refinement, needs careful vetting

Much copied, but never bettered, the Lotus 7 lives on, manufactured by Caterham Cars in South London since the early 70s. Almost 40 years on, it remains true to the ideals that led Lotus founder Colin Chapman to create it way back in 1957. If you’re a real car enthusiast, you have to own a 7 at least once in your life – even if it’s just for one hot summer.

Although it may be hopelessly impractical, noisy and the very opposite of an everyday car, it’s easy to make a case for having a super 7: it hardly depreciates, is simple to maintain and offers more fun than anything at else at its price. And that’s now as low as £6000. 


Colin Chapman created the Lotus 7 in 1957, in what he said took him “A weekend – well maybe a week“. Simplicity and lightness were its key virtues and it made a big impact as a competitive sports car, which could also be used on the road.

Early 7s were ultra-basic and powered by small-capacity Ford and Austin engines. A milestone was the so-called Super 7 of 1958, which introduced what was then high-power engines to make one of the fastest sports cars around. The defi nitive 1968 Lotus Series 3 brought Ford crossfl ow engines, disc brakes and the look that Caterham later adopted. The 1970 glassfi brebodied Series 4 proved a dead-end and, when Colin Chapman abandoned production in 1973, sales agent Caterham Cars took over production, reverting to the Series 3 shape.

In the 1970s, you could choose either Ford crossfl ow power – which remained an option until very recently – or a normal Lotus Twin Cam engine. When Lotus stopped making the Twin Cam, Caterham switched to the Cosworth BDR as the high-power choice in 1984, but also offered its own Ford-based 135bhp, 1700cc Supersprint engine.

Ride quality was improved with the introduction of de Dion suspension in 1985, which also allowed higher powered engines to be fi tted as well as the fi ve-speed Ford Sierra XR4 gearbox. The Ford live axle option eventually faded away. All-round disc brakes became standard in 1988, just before Caterham started fitting Vauxhall 2.0-litre engines to create the HPC – with 175bhp, these were extremely quick cars. To bring the car into the fuel-injected era, Caterham adopted Rover’s brilliant K-Series engine in 1992. Initially offered in 1.4-litre form, it evolved into 1.6 and 1.8-litre forms.

A six-speed gearbox option from 1995 improved driveability, but the biggest advance was the launch of the Superlight versions from 1996. Inspired by the low-production JPE special edition, these were stripped-out lightweights, at their most extreme in Superlight R form, with engines ranging from 190bhp up to 230bhp! There was even a wide-bodied SV version for ample-hipped customers!

The latest CSR models switch to Cosworth engines and Ford Sigma/Duratec units have become the modern ‘mainstay’ engines. Despite the attention-grabbing headlines of the Superlights, Caterham’s 7 Classic remains a very popular budget option. Like all 7s, it can be built from a kit (of various stages) to save money, or bought fully-built if you’re lazy. 


No-one who gets behind the wheel of a 7 fails to emerge at the other end without a smile on their face. It’s quite simply the most direct, purest drive you’ll ever experience.

You are pincered into the narrow seats, sitting just inches above the tarmac. The tiny steering wheel offers razor-sharp reactions to deft wrist movements and a more direct feel than any other car. If you spread your fi ngers, you can touch the gear lever, whose movement is so short that you can change gear in less than a blink of an eye.

Whichever engine you choose – even the basic 100bhp Ford 1600 cross-fl ow – you will be rewarded with astonishing acceleration. Light weight is what it’s all about (most 7s weigh under half a ton) and with a 1.6-litre K-Series engine fi tted, you can expect to reach 60mph from rest in six seconds, or in Superlight guise that goes down to 4.7 secs!

Very few exotic and much more expensive supercars get close, although, thanks to the car’s poor aerodynamics after 80mph, performance can drop off notably – but let’s be honest, who needs to go much faster when you already feel like you’re doing 200mph at the legal limit?

But the best is yet to come. Straight-line speed is one thing, but it’s the way a 7 corners that makes it so special. Near-perfect weight distribution imbues the brilliant chassis with incredibly balanced manners. On modern rubber it grips up to unbelievable speeds but can be barrelled confi dently into corners because its reactions are so predictable and precise. Quite simply the Caterham is the closest thing to a full-on racing car you can use on the road. 

Yes, they are noisy, draughty, hard-riding and basic as a result, but you’ll never forget your first drive (or even ride) in a 7. And then you‘re hooked. No right-minded motoring journalist would dare write anything derogatory about the Caterham. In fact, Caterham compliments have almost become a cliché over the decades, such as the one by Autocar back in 1975, “If the defi nition of a sports car is what it does for your adrenalin and spirit when unleashed on deserted, familiar roads early on a Sunday morning, then this is the defi nition I like”, wrote one happy road tester!


Considering its supercar abilities, the 7 is somewhat of a bargain. Used prices start as low as £6000 for a typica; Caterham, especially in the middle of winter, but they pick up in spring with this hardcore soft-top sportster. This will net you an older (1980s) car with a Ford cross-fl ow engine and four-speed gearbox. The entry level for a K-Series fi ve-speeder is around £7500.

More sought-after 7s can get much more pricey. Superlights are rightly regarded as the pinnacle of what a 7 is all about, and start from around £12,500.

Other sought-after 7s to keep an eye out for include the Cosworth-engined BDR, the Vauxhallpowered HPC, the ultra-rare JPE and 7s with either Honda Blackbird or Fireblade motorbike engines (yes really!). One last comment to make is that the 7 (especially older Caterhams) doesn’t really lose money – look after it and you will be able to sell it for close to what you paid for it but it’s unlikely to rise in value either.

Lotus models which be harder to value as the earliest models can attract a different type of buyer plus worth can also depend on any period tuning parts fi tted or the car’s history, especially if it has been raced by famous drivers, etc. It’s best to speak to a Lotus expert about this.

How about buying new?

You can still buy a brand new 7 from Caterham – is it worth it? Fully-built cars start at a surprisingly low price (from £16,650). However, if you’re prepared to build it yourself, the price drops to £13,650.

Starter kits even begin as low as £3995. The current range spans the Classic (105bhp Rover 1.4 engine), Roadsport (Ford 1.6 or 2.0), Academy racer, Superlight (lightweight with 150-263bhp) and CSR (260bhp Cosworth 2.3-litre).

Of course there will a delay between order and delivery, plus if you’re building a kit, that takes time. The up-side is that you’ll be the car’s first owner and have it specified exactly to your wishes.


To many people, the 7 is perfect as it is – but there are ways to improve it. Retro-fitting modern items is a popular and easy way to upgrade an older car: suspension, brakes and seats are much better on newer cars. Swapping to different engines is common – especially older Ford and Rover K-series cars. If you’re doing a lot of track days, consider fi tting dry-sump lubrication, and roll cages from Caterham which offer greatly improved safety. The correct wheels and tyres have a big effect on handling, as does suspension geometry – changing the bushes and bearings can transform sharpness. Exhaust wrap is a cheap and effective way to lower engine temperatures. Carbon body panels are another upgrade worth considering for extra lightness and trackside ‘cool’.

What To Look For

  • Unlike many used sports cars, a 7 can be both cheap and simple to run. It’s not complex and is very well built from non-rusting aluminium and glassfi bre. The 7 is also extremely well supported by the factory and a wide variety of specialists. 
  •  Your first question should be, which model? The variety of 7s out there is bewilderingly huge. What do you want from a 7 – road car, commuter vehicle, track day express or budget racer? However, the choice is quite limited – only around 16,000 Caterhams have been built, with about half of those exported. Have in mind your ideal specification, but be prepared to compromise. As long as you have a basic idea of what you want from a Lotus/Caterham 7, and are aware of the various types built, persistence will usually reap its own reward.
  •  If you are a tall driver, a Long Cockpit Caterham (optional from 1981 and standard from 1992) can fi t six-footers with ease. If you are broad as well as tall, the SV should really be your choice.
  •  An important first step is to establish provenance. You need to be sure that the car is what the seller says it is. Lookalikes are extremely common and it is not unknown for sellers to pass them off as Caterhams. So, always take care to check the chassis and other identifying details against the registration document.
  •  Next, ask if the car was factory-built, component-built or kit-built. Factory cars are the most desirable. Cars built with more than one major second-hand component have a ‘Q’ registration prefix, which are worth a little less. Ask about any modifications, for many cars have been altered over the years.
  •  A 7 is all about its chassis, so its condition is top of the list of checks. Luckily most areas of the 7’s chassis are easily visible. Accident damage is common, particularly frontal impacts. First and second suspension legs are the most likely areas to be damaged: chassis tubes should be straight and have no joins in them, except at the nodes.
  •  Always ask about signs of repair and who undertook the repair. Chassis sections are available from the factory to replace front-end damaged parts, while an all-new chassis is around £5000. Also check for a creased undertray.
  •  Rust is not a big concern but it can begin inside the chassis tubes and then work its way outwards, making detection difficult. Check the tubes surrounding the suspension pick-up points front and rear and the lower side tubes. 
  •  Suspension stress can cause fatigue on mounting points, while the vertical tubes where the rear radius arms mount to the chassis can distort. Aluminium bodywork does not corrode but it dents easily. The nose and wings are glassfi bre and thus are easily replaced.
  •  Early cars had a Ford Escort rear axle, then a Morris Marina/Ital rear from 1981. Most later Caterhams have a de Dion rear end which has proven almost unburstable and can handle very much high power outputs. The rubber bushes in the rear A-frame need to be replaced regularly but it’s an easy enough job to do.
  • Whatever engine is fitted, engine mounts should be checked – new mounts can indicate crash damage. Most older cars have some form of Ford Kent power, which is practical, reliable and has plenty of spares back-up (although they do need regular top end decokes). Vauxhall 2.0-litre engines are very reliable, although early carb-equipped engines need lead additive. Perhaps the most practical and reliable of all engines is the Rover K-series engine. Standard units can be serviced by normal workshops but the more highly-tuned K-series engines need meticulous servicing by a Caterhamapproved agent.
  •  A five-speed Ford Sierra gearbox is the best all-round choice. Caterham’s own six-speed gearbox suffered teething problems in the early days but these were resolved by 1996. Since most of the insides are derived from Ford parts, it is actually a fairly robust unit. However if there is a major problem, replacement is very expensive at around the £2500 mark.
  •  Don’t worry too much about the interior: it is often tatty because of frequent exposure to the elements but everything is cheap to replace. The best seats are composite and Kevlar based.
  •  Hoods are very simple but do deteriorate with use. Faded Perspex screens, hood shrinkage, tears, leaks and missing fasteners are all common. But the cost of replacement is low compared with most soft-top sports cars.


Three Of A Kind

Lotus Elise
Lotus Elise
Said to be the modern take on the 7, there’s a similar no-compromise feel about the Elise, but with far modern looks and a bit more kit and refi nement. Performance is just as shattering, while the handling is mostly sublime, although needs skill at the (high) limits. S1 cars are the most collectible and prices are rising for top ones; sadly there’s many thrashed and trashed cars about going temptingly cheap.
Renault Sport Spider
Renault Sport Spider
Made for a one-make racing series, the Renault Sport Spider was also unleashed for the road – although when did you last see one? With Clio 16V power and just 955kgs to propel, performance is almost as good as the Elise, while mid-engine chassis use racing style rose joints for that track car feel. Prices usually hover around £14-£16,000 and weather protection is practically zero.
Caterham kit clones
Caterham kit clones
Ever since the 7 became a hit there’s been a huge range of kit-car clones, designed to satisfy the DIY builder on a budget. Dutton and Westfield were two of the earliest and they still keep coming, using anything from MG Midget power to mighty V8s! Cars are only as good as the quality of the build which varies enormously as do their values – it’s your call!


There is no car like a 7. It’s the most fun you can have on four wheels yet at the same time prove unbelievably simple and cheap to buy and run. There are so few downsides to owning one that it’s hard to resist – take the plunge and be in Seventh Heaven in 2011! 

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