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Kit Cars Published: 11th Jun 2015 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

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It started with the Lotus Seven, became the Caterham and then, before we knew it, there were more incarnations of Colin Chapman’s iconic two-seater than we could shake a stick at. Totalkitcar editor, STEVE HOLE, describes the movement…

It was the late Colin Chapman, who created the Lotus Seven, of course, back in 1957, when it was a delicate, graceful little sports car, with stick thin chassis-tubes beautifully triangulated, providing strength powered by a Ford Sidevalve engine and a Nash Metropolitan rear axle. My, how times have changed. However, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

It’s a well-documented fact how Caterham Car Sales boss, Graham Nearn, and his business partners, who had been sole agents for the Seven, came to take over the project completely in 1973, so we’ll not go over well-trodden ground here. However, I do love how the former Lotus Seven got its new name.

Nearn canvassed opinion for a suitable moniker in his company’s hometown of Caterham, Surrey and despite exploring umpteen different names the resounding answer he got back was ‘CATERHAM’ in honour of the town in which he was based.… So, for the next decade, the newlychristened Caterham Seven re-established itself on the market, expertly steered by Nearn and his team. It became the kitcar of choice for hundreds of owners, and frankly, with respect where it’s due, it completely trumped the likes of the Magenta Tarragon and Motorspeed Magic, although it didn’t stop a young Tim Dutton-Woolley from tearing-up trees in volume terms.

CATERHAM CLONES

The early eighties would see a huge change after Chris Smith launched his Westfield S7, the first real challenge to the Seven and one that attracted lots of customers. Over the years there had been quite a few one-off Seven lookalikes produced, most of which, it was often rumoured, were back door Lotuses, plus people like racecar constructor, George Jeffrey had created his J4 and J5, which had plenty of ‘Lotus Seven’ about them, although the Jeffery could never be described as a replica.

With the arrival of the beautifully-made Westfield, however, it was different. As a result, plenty of other potential Lotus Seven manufacturers watched this occurrence with interest as depending on how Westfield got on, it was a near certainty that there would be further copies following in its tyre tracks.

As it happened, litigation ensued and if nothing else Nearn proved how redoubtable and protective he was about any potential transgressions of his product. I spoke to him on the matter many times over the years and the mild-mannered chap became very animated about people producing what he saw as being too close to his Seven.

CARRY ON CLONING?

Westfield lost the legal case and were forced into a re-design which actually turned out for the best as the Westfield shape has become instantly recognisable with its swage line along the bonnet sides. As long as people didn’t copy the Seven exactly there wasn’t really anything that Caterham could do about it. Therefore, the dam was well and truly breached and a trickle of copies soon turned into a flood and at the height of the Lotus Seven boom there were 30 manufacturers producing their take on the theme.

How protective is Caterham Cars? Very. It also registered the word ‘seven’ when it was used in an automotive connotation and this meant that Nearn’s lawyers scoured the motoring press each month for what they saw as transgressions of their brand and trademark. Indeed, writing this piece I have to be ultra-prudent unless I want to cause this magazine’s editor a problem.

This is why about 15-years ago I coined the expression ‘LSIS’ in my own magazines, which was short for the un-wieldy, ‘Lotus Seven-Inspired Sports car’.

Hundreds of takes on the Lotus Seven theme have come and gone over the years. There have though been a few notables that deserve a mention here for a variety of reasons, chiefy being Lotus Seven-inspired sports cars that made a difference…

DUTTON MELOS AND PHAETON

Tim Dutton had the knack for piling kitcars cheap and selling thousands of them back in the eighties with a variety of models. His brace of LSIS models, the Ford-based Melos and Phaeton certainly sold in big numbers. Kits were cheap, there were plenty of ‘extras’ but Tim’s kits did give the average enthusiast on an average wage the realistic chance of building a decent car that he could drive on a blast on a Sunday morning or down the pub.
Even now some 20-years after he last sold a Dutton kitcar, you see lots around and the enthusiastic owners’ club still attracts lots of members and I’m still amazed at how many people I speak to, who typically say: “I knew a bloke who had a Dutton once.”

SPYDER SILVERSTONE

There are hundreds of kitcars that deserved to do better, failing not because of a lack of ability, rather lack of marketing nous, incorrect pricing and/or lack of financial backing.

The Spyder Silverstone, launched in 1985, is, quite simply, one of the finest sportscars that I have driven in 32-years writing about kitcars. A quiet sublime device and it’s a travesty that just 23 were built. It hailed from Lotus specialists and chassis-makers par excellence, Spyder Engineering, run by Vic Moore and Clifford ‘CG’ Price, both formerly of Arch Motors.

Well-known broadcaster and investigative journalist, Roger Cook, was an enthusiastic Silverstone owner, and it was he who suggested that Spyder created its own car. He later became a director of the company.

CG Price hailed from Ramsey St Mary’s in Cambridgeshire and originally worked in a local blacksmith’s before joining Arch Motors in 1963 and he built chassis for the Chevron B8, Robin Herd’s March racing cars, torsion bar suspension for the Lotus 72, Clan Crusader, Unipower GT, and he re-developed the Unipower’s spaceframe to create a chassis for the AC3000 ME.

Meanwhile, Ulster-born, Vic Moore, was working in Australia as a salesman for a steel stockholders, before returning to the UK and Arch Motors, which is where he met CG Price. The pair got on well together and left Arch in January 1974 to set-up Spyder Engineering.

One of their first notable contract’s was for George Robinson of Vegantune on his pretty, Elan-inspired Evanté rebody (Advertiser Barrie Carter has two of these currently for sale-ed). This indirectly led to them producing obsolete metal parts for a variety of Lotus models. From the mid-seventies, Spyder had been building replacement chassis for a variety of cars, with Lotus a particular specialisation, and had gained a formidable reputation for their engineering excellence.

The Silverstone was built around a multi-tubular (18-gauge steel), stressed-skin composite MIG-welded chassis, basically a semi-monocoque, with flat-tube double wishbone suspension, with similarities to Spyder’s successful Elan and Europa conversions. A very intricate arrangement that Spyder was confident enough to give a six-year anti-corrosion warranty on, although it contributed to the car’s downfall being very time consuming and expensive to produce. It was simply too expensive to produce and the plug was pulled in 1989.

In 2001, rumours came of a Silverstone Mk2, and the renderings I saw were very promising indeed although sadly, due to the success of Spyder’s general Lotus work, it came to nothing.

FALCON SPORTS AND LX3

Here’s a very quirky one. A Lotus Seven based on – wait for it – a Citroën 2CV, yes really. It was the brainchild of the bonkers, but affable, Peter Bird, a 2CV-specialist, who’d also had a large hand in the Stevens Cipher and Lomax designs.

The Falcon was actually an innovative idea, if you think about it and properly amusing. It was the antithesis of the Caterham Seven, in that it was the complete opposite – it wasn’t very agile and it wasn’t fast, but it was affordable, a laugh and benefited from the famed 2CV ride-quality.

Regardless of all that, it might have appalled the purists but 200-odd souls were suitably impressed to order one. It went through a few hands after Bird moved on in 1987, although the creator returned in 1990 although moved on again in 1993. If the Falcon Sports makes you smile, the LX3 three-wheeler version will make you laugh out loud. This was a real hoot. A car with the front end of a Lotus Seven, and one wheel at the rear…

RACECORP LAR

This was a highly noteworthy LSIS as it was produced as a bit of an exercise during the winter by a motorsport team. It hailed from a Chinnor-based company run by Australians, Jeff and Bev Amos along with their son, Steve.

Back in Oz, the Amos’ were boat and racecar builders. Once relocating to the UK they settled in Oxfordshire, and Steve became composites manager for the Arrows F1 team before re-joining the family business and continuing to supply all sorts of carbon fibre products to race teams.

The Light Auto Roadster (LAR) was created as a winter-project for the staff to keep them busy during the off-season. Press response was so good that the LAR was put into kit production with an IRS-equipped LAI appearing soon after. Highly acclaimed chassis was developed by Roger Rimmer.

I enjoyed the LAR and LAI that I drove, finding them to be well-balanced cars, with plenty of ability, handling like a car designed by a team of race engineers should. Racecorp only made a dozen or so before the LAR was no more. It later moved to Edenbridge, Kent where it became the Eldon Roadster, and although about 40 kits were sold (most went to The Netherlands), it didn’t seem to have the same aura about it.

ROBIN HOOD ENGINEERING

I can’t write a round-up of the Lotus Seveninspired scene without mentioning Richard Stewart and Robin Hood Engineering. Much like Tim Dutton, one cannot do anything other than offer Stewart massive respect for the sales he achieved. He’s certainly a man I have a lot of time for.

Were Robin Hoods fine handling, racehoned machines? No, not really. Were they always of the highest quality? Hardly. However, they were affordable cars that literally gave thousands of people their first taste kitcars, with many ‘Hoodies’ going on to build other projects.

There were many variants of the classic Robin Hood Lotus Seven-inspired theme, with Triumph and latterly Ford Cortina and Sierra being used as donor vehicles.

Richard Stewart sold the Robin Hood operation in the mid-noughties leading to his once buoyant firm going into liquidation. The flame burns once again brightly with the Great British Sports Cars operation having its origins in the Robin Hood marque…

SYLVA STRIKER

Jeremy Phillips is without doubt one of the greatest kitcar designers of all time. Since 1981 there has been a gentle stream of Sylva models. As a tiny operation based in Lincolnshire, Phillips’ cars all share one delightful characteristic – they handle deities.

Arguably, his Lotus Seven-inspired Striker is one of the very best of its type ever produced. It’s definitely one of the best cars I have ever driven with a deceptively spacious interior and a beautiful driving position – qualities you rarely find in even the real thing.

A sunny Sunday morning, a Striker and some nice driving roads are as good as it gets, frankly. It’s a mid-priced giant-killer that holds its own against more expensive rivals. Those that know, buy a Striker and the kit is now manufactured by Herefordbased Raw Striker Ltd.

LOCOST

Oundle schoolteacher, Ron Champion created a phenomenon with his ‘Let’s Build a Sportscar for £250’ book for Haynes Publishing in 1998. Indeed, it became one of Haynes’ biggest ever sellers.

In a nutshell, Champion gave the reader all the information and instructions they required to build a Lotus Seven-inspired sports car from scratch. He told you where to obtain raw materials, how to fabricate your own chassis and laminate glassfibre body panels, tasks that many readers were inspired to do.

Ultimately, the ‘Locost’ as it became known gave wannabe kitcar manufacturers the perfect head-start as it wasn’t long before entrepreneurial types were supplying Champion-spec ready-made chassis, wishbones and stuff like nosecones and wings. Plenty of old Ford Sierras were used as donor vehicles by Locost builders…

Champion had his critics but what he did was shake up the kitcar scene when it needed it, and word spread to other countries around the globe as he set-up Locost USA and Locost Australia, among others. Meanwhile, in the UK, a 750 Motor Club Locost Championship goes from strength-to-strength…

I’m sure there are people who managed to build a car for Champion’s £250 claim although I’ve never met one and I possibly wouldn’t want a ride in it, although a bloke did proudly tell me that he’d actually completed a Locost for just £345, using an old metal bedframe for elements of his chassis!

The Locost was joined about six years ago by the Haynes Roadster, its natural successor, also offering the reader the chance to build a car from scratch, and once again it also spawned its own batch of manufacturers for those who didn’t fancy winding the neighbours up producing their own glassfibre bodypanels.



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