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Caterham 7

Published: 27th Apr 2011 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

Cabins were never remotely luxurious and touring in a 7 can be tough going Cabins were never remotely luxurious and touring in a 7 can be tough going
One of the beauties of the classic 7 is those timeless lines - this is a newish car One of the beauties of the classic 7 is those timeless lines - this is a newish car
Simplicity is the charm of the 7, which makes them ideal for self build or DIY work Simplicity is the charm of the 7, which makes them ideal for self build or DIY work
The magnificent 7 offers Ferrari-beating performance but Escort like running costs The magnificent 7 offers Ferrari-beating performance but Escort like running costs
Weather protection is minimal and not very hardy - likewise protection against theft leaves something to be desired Weather protection is minimal and not very hardy - likewise protection against theft leaves something to be desired
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What is a Caterham 7?

It’s quite simply the purest sports car ever built. One of the all-time motoring icons, the Lotus/Caterham 7 is fast approaching its 50th anniversary. Much copied but never bettered, the 7 is still made by Caterham and it remains true to the ideals that led 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. Although it may be completely impractical, noisy and the very opposite of an everyday car, it’s easy to make a case for the 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.

History

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 that 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 high-power engines to make one of the fastest sports cars on the road. The definitive 1968 Lotus Series 3 brought Ford crossflow engines, disc brakes and the look that Caterham later adopted. The 1970 glassfibre bodied 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 crossflow power – which remained an option until very recently - or a 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 1700 Supersprint engine. Ride quality was improved with the introduction of de Dion suspension in 1985, which allowed higher powered engines to be fitted as well as the five-speed Ford Sierra XR4 gearbox. The old 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 (which remains the mainstay of the 7 to this day). 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, while the latest CSR models switch to Cosworth 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 to save money, or bought fully-built.

Driving

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 fingers, 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 crossflow - 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 fitted, you can expect to reach 60mph from rest in six seconds, or in Superlight guise that goes down to 4.7… Very few supercars get close. 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 confidently into corners because its reactions are so predictable and precise. Quite simply it’s 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’ll be hooked.

Prices

Considering its supercar abilities, the 7 is something of a bargain. Used prices start as low as £6000 out of season (prices fall over winter and pick up in spring). This will net you an older (1980s) car with a Ford crossflow engine and fourspeed gearbox. The entry level for a K-Series five-speeder is around the £7500 region. 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. A brand new CSR 260 costs well over £30,000, so 7s can get very expensive at the top end of the price scale. Other sought-after 7s to keep an eye out for include the Cosworth-engined BDR, the Vauxhall-powered HPC, the ultrarare JPE and 7s with either Honda Blackbird or Fireblade motorbike engines (yes really). One last comment to make is that the 7 (especially older ones) doesn’t really lose money – look after it and you will be able to sell it for close to what you paid for it.

How about buying new?

You can still buy a brand new 7 from Caterham - but is it worth it? Fully-built cars start surprisingly low (from £15,450), while if you’re prepared to build it yourself, the price drops to a princely £12,950. Starter kits even begin as low as £3995 if you fancy starting from scratch. The current range spans the Classic (105bhp Rover 1.4 engine), Roadsport (Rover 1.6 or 1.8), SV (wide chassis/body), Superlight (lightweight) and CSR (Cosworth 2.3 litre). Of course there will be some delay between order and delivery, while if you’re building a kit, that also takes time. The up-side is that you’ll be the first owner and have a new classic car specified exactly to your wishes.

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 glassfibre. 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 12,000 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 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 fit six-footers with ease. If you are broad as well as tall, then the SV is 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 real 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 always worth a bit less. Ask about modifications, for many cars have been altered and personalised 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 the £5000 mark. 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. Beware of any fresh paint applied here.
  • 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 dents pretty easily. The nose and wings are glassfibre and easily replaced however.
  • 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 16v 2-litre engines are very reliable, although early carb-equipped engines need a lead additive. Perhaps the most practical and reliable of all engines is the Rover K-series. Standard units can be serviced by normal workshops, but the more highly tuned K-series engines need meticulous servicing by a Caterham-approved agent.
  • Early cars had a Ford Escort rear axle, then a Morris Marina/Ital rear from 1981. Most later Caterhams have an advanced de Dion rear end which has proven almost unburstable and can handle very much higher power outputs. The rubber bushes in the rear A-frame need to be replaced regularly, but it’s an easy enough job to put right.
  • 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 pretty well 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, then 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 when compared with most mainstream soft-top sports cars.

Verdict

There is no car like a 7. It’s the most fun you can have on four wheels yet at the same time unbelievably simple and cheap to buy and run. There are so few downsides to owning one that it’s hard to resist - go on, take the plunge this summer!



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