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Lotus & Caterham 7

Lotus & Caterham 7 Published: 11th Feb 2020 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

Fast Facts

  • Best model: 1990’s models
  • Worst model: Anything trashed
  • Budget buy: Classic/base
  • OK for unleaded?: Later car, maybe ’Super’
  • Will it fit in the garage? (mm): mm L 3500 x W 1575
  • Spares situation: Excellent
  • DIY ease?: No problems here
  • Club support: Top notch
  • Appreciating asset?: Certain ‘specials’
  • Good buy or good-bye?: The latter if you want undiluted fun
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Antiquated design that belies its 50’s heritage and yet is still one of the greatest ever drivers’ cars. Reliability generally fine if you buy a good one and few performance classics are as simple and low cost to own

Completely impractical, noisy and enormous fun, Colin Chapman’s first serious road car is going stronger than ever under the Caterham name. Launched over 60 years ago, and for something the Lotus god was alleged to have knocked up in no more than a weekend, the purest sports car ever built has stood the test of time brilliantly and there’s still little to touch these four-wheeled motorcycles for raw thrills. There’s tons to choose from to suit all pockets or speed freaks and they can be surprisingly inexpensive to run and maintain if you buy right.


1957 Launched, as MK7; a budget spartan road/club racer spawned from the Mk VI racer.

1959 7A uses Austin 948cc A35 power.

1961 Anglia 105E engine fitted in 997cc and 1340cc formats.

1962 Cortina 1500 engine now optional along with Cosworth tuning. Cycle wing changed for flared wings.

1968 Series 3 with 1300/1600 Ford crossflow engines and front disc brakes are fitted.

1970 Squarer cut S4 takes over with new chassis design.

1973 New owners Caterham revert to old S3 styling with Elan twin cam engines.

1980 1600 Sprint now equipped with the Morris Ital rear axle.

1985-88 De Dion rear suspension available, better chassis and geometry are other enhancements.

1986 HPC 1700 model launched, demanding a special driving test before you could buy one – 62 are made.

1989 ‘Prisoner’ spec special editon launched that’s still available with special Prisoner colour scheme, an all red interior. The authentic cars should carry a signed Patric Mcgoohan certificate so beware of fakes!

1990/91 Vauxhall Astra 2-litre 16v engine option, followed Rover K-Series engine alternative.

1992 A major year for the 7 with the ultimate JPE (Jonathan Palmer Evolution) topping the bill with 250bhp Vauxhall power. Ex GP and Le Mans driver Palmer helped develop the car (just 53 made) and said at the time that it was the closest thing to an F1 car on the road…

HPC Evolution is also launched with a Swindon Racing Engines power unit in three states of tune. 35th Anniversary model used original Lotus racing colours while GTS is new (albeit short lived) basic entry level model using Ford cross-flow engines and old style vinyl covered bench seat. This was replaced by the even more spartan Classic; this remains a very popular 7 even if it’s too basic for many. 1993 K-Series Supersport has added 25bhp and optional six-speed transmission.

1995 Six-speed gearbox becomes available across the board.

1996 Roadsport is a carbon fibre lightweight special; still 1.4 K-Series but with standard six-speeds, leather seats and special plaque fitted to the dash. Lower ranking newcomers now include the Classic and Supersport. 40th Anniversary is almost luxury version: 67 made. Superlight is just that plus has lustier 1.6-litre Rover power (196 made).

1997 Superlight R uses special Rover-developed 1.6 for 190bhp (not to be confused with Lotus Elise engine). Classic VX uses 100bhp Vauxhall engine in a low cost variant to emulate old Ford Crossflow Supersprint while Supersport and Roadsport are launched with MGF power.

1998 MGF VVC (150bhp) added to create VVC and VVC Roadsport range. Silver Anniversary 7 revives aluminium body construction and the reissue of classic Ford Kent engine but in 1760cc 146bhp tune – and Morris Minor tail lights! Thirty were produced until its discontinuation.

Classic VX Supersprint relies on 1.8-litre Astra power, good for 125bhp, and track day orientated Rover-powered Clubsport is fitted with a dry sump, roll bar fire extinguisher and more.

1999 Fastest ever 7 comes in the shape of the Superlight R500, succeeding the JPE (125 made). Special Autosport Magazine 50th Anniversary version is based on Supersport (nine made).

2000 For the first time the 7 embraces superbike power. The, first, the Blackbird uses a Honda engine with a sequential six-speed gearbox but this was quickly supplemented by the Fireblade in 2001.

The roomier SV marks first significant deviation from famous shape which Caterham described as “the first ever all-new 7 ” boasting a much roomier cockpit and larger footwells.

2001 Run out Beaulieu variant signified the last Vauxhallpowered 7 in classic livery. Five or six-speed transmissions were on the table and live rear axle was fitted – 51 were produced. A major chassis revise using Superlight thinking is adopted.

2002 Superlight range is extended with special Rover Power K-Series engines and wide rack suspension and adjustable roll bars – 200bhp for R400 and 250 for unique 2-litre K-Series R500 Evolution. At the other end of the scale, 1.4 Classic and Sprint is the new entry level 105bhp which survived up to ’12.

2003 A couple of specials to mark 30 years of the Caterham takeover of the model, the luxury SC30 and a Tracksport but this model failed to sell well.

2005 CSR was a radically revised model that saw return of the Cosworth name on the Ford Duratec (Mondeo) engine but then was also substantially updated with new pushrod suspension and a fully independent stern, fitted to a new chassis which was claimed to be no less than 100 per cent stiffer than before. CSR 260 marked the highest power yet for a factory 7, further mad-capped by a Superlight offshoot. Also this year, a Superlight 1.8 (Rover) joined ranks.

We could go on… but that’s the bulk of magnificent 7s but we’d just like to add the 50th Anniversary Option Pack (chiefly a cosmetic make over), similarly the Team Lotus livery option (2011) ‘40 YOC’ Pack marking 40 years of Caterham’s acquisition, the introduction of the narrow-bodied Suzuki-powered entry and the plain Sprint of 2016, honouring the original Lotus look.

Driving and what the press thought

You can’t describe a 7 without lapsing into well worn classic cliches, such as it being the closest thing to a racer on the road, a giant Go-Kart – that sort of thing. But the fact is that over 60 years on, no enthusiast who gets behind the wheel of a Lotus or Caterham classic fails to emerge without a huge smile on their face. Infectious hardly begins to describe the purest drive you are ever likely to experience.

As most weigh under a ton, whichever engine you choose, even the basic Ford Cortina 1600 unit rewards you with vigorous acceleration at the very least while models from the 80s provide supercar pace for practically pennies. However, it’s the way a 7 handles that makes it so captivating. Nearperfect weight distribution imbues the brilliant chassis with incredibly balanced manners that is still a match for more sophisticated sports cars. On modern rubber they grip up to unbelievable speeds yet can be barrelled confidently into corners because the car’s reactions are so sharp; that only the modern Elise – thirty years its junior – comes close.

Lotus or Caterham? While the former will undoubtedly appeal to hard core purist with a sense of history and Prisoner fans, there’s no question that the Caterhams are vastly superior. Graham Nearn ran with the ball and continually updated and improved the car Chapman wanted consigned to the history books.

More than 60 years on, the 7 is a classic that keeps on giving. Naturally the press loved the super 7, all saying pretty much the same thing through the decades. “This red hot little machine” (Autosport 1961), “Given the right conditions, they will out corner anything you’ll ever meet” (Road & Track 1969), “You don’t really drive it, you think it along” (Motor Sport, 1970s), “Caterham are genuinely close to Utopia for the hardened enthusiast” (World Sportscars, 1989), although sometimes Caterham overdid things. Testing the Superlight R, Evo and Autocar reckoned, for the road, less was more “Too mad” stated the weekly about this model. When the SV was introduced Auto Express simply said, “the best just got bigger”, with Evo commenting “the CV has lost nothing in, quite literally, broadening its appeal”.


For those who consider a standard 7 too staid there’s super scope for improving although just having the car properly set up (the geometry in particular) by a specialist has to be the first move. Caterham has a wealth of tuning gear to suit all requirements – road and track. Later six-speeds can be fitted to many earlier cars, as can a limited slip diff. Suspension and brakes are easily sorted and the wider track set up can be fitted. Carbon bodywork is also made by Caterham, who, along with known specialists, is the best first port of call before you embark. Apart from period mods, Lotus models are best left as standard as authenticity is important with this model.

Values and specialist view

Caterhams can be the cheapest classics you can own, claims Andy Noble of Sevens & Classics who should know, having been the sales head at Caterham for 25 years before leaving the company when Team Lotus owner Tony Fernandes purchased the outfit in 2011 and was responsible for the creation of, among others, the Caterham JPE, the Caterham Classic, the Caterham Academy race package and the R500.

Founded in 2013 and based at Brands Hatch, Andy Noble has a stock of over 30 models for enthusiasts to mull over, which is important, stresses Noble as before buying you need to decide what exactly do you want to use your 7 for – fast road, touring, road and track and so on.

For this reason Andy Noble is reluctant to be drawn into picking any specific model but did concede that for a first time Caterham owner that’s mostly interested in fun road driving, something along the lines of the 1990’s Rover-engined K-Series and the higher powered Supersport are wise picks and adds that this is where a good specialist, holding a wide stock is a boon as it helps the customer single out which is his or her ideal 7 rather than going for broke with a private purchase.

Cost-wise, again Noble is difficult to pin down any specifics but says his price bracket is usually between £12,000-£40,000.

As build quality, even on home built ones, is sound, Sevens are generally durable and easy to maintain at home. What’s more, despite their phenomenal performance potential insurance costs are amazingly low and Andy Noble puts this down to the fact that these cars are rarely left in venerable places and accidents rates are low.

This really surprised us until Andy explained the reason why: Caterham drivers are not boy racers and are – like Noble who has raced Caterhams – deadly serious about their craft resulting in low accident rates.

What To Look For

The way to own a lucky 7 is to view as many as possible and carry out these basic checks


Your first question should be, which model? It’s important you get the right 7 to suit your needs – not always easy as there are almost as many varieties as there are cars built – over 80 of them!. The 7 has changed hugely over the years and not a single component remains from the Colin Chapman-designed Lotus 7


Vital first step is to establish the car’s provenance. You need to be sure that the car is what the seller says it is. Look-alikes are extremely common and it is not unknown to pass them off as real Caterhams. So always take care to check the chassis and other identifying details against the registration document


Factory made cars are the most desirable. Cars built with more than one major second-hand component have a ‘Q’ registration prefix, which are always going to be worth less. Ask about any mods made, for many cars have been altered and personalised over the years


Luckily, most areas of the chassis are easily visible and new frames are available. 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’. Suspension stresses can cause fatigue on mounting points, while the vertical tubes where the rear radius arms mount to the chassis can distort. Exert extreme caution to make sure you don’t buy something that has been tracked, thrashed and crashed too many times!


Not a big concern, but it can begin inside the chassis tubes. Skimpy aluminium bodywork doesn’t corrode, but dents pretty easily and reacts where it meets steel. Stress can cause fatigue on mounting points, while the rear radius arms vicinity can distort

Body & trim

The nose and wings are glassfibre and usually take the brunt of damages but easily replaced however. Water ingress is likely but the trim on the majority of models couldn’t be simpler to repair or replace


Whatever engine is fitted, engine mounts should be checked – new ones can indicate crash damage. Most older cars have some form of Ford 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-engines need a lead additive. Perhaps the most practical and reliable (apart from head gaskets) is the Rover K-series. Standard units can be serviced by normal workshops, but the more highly tuned K-series need meticulous servicing by Caterham-approved agents


Early cars used a Ford Escort rear axle, then a Morris Marina/Ital set up 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 as Caterham’s own six-speed gearbox suffered teething problems in the early days, but these were pretty resolved by 1996

Three Of A Kind

Lotus Elise
Launched 40 years after 7, Elise is far more civilised, useable, safer yet as much fun – just what a 7 for today should be even if it lacks the hair shirt mentality for many. S1 Elises are the most wanted although the finer honed S2 is the superior all rounder and likely to be in better condition as the majority of S1s on sale are shabby due to lack of care and abuse at track days. Don’t ignore underrated Vauxhall VX220.
Caterham 21
A logical if marmite attempt to go upmarket with a more civilised, conventional looking 7, the Caterham 21 was launched a year before the Lotus Elise although sales floundered once the Hethel car hit the showrooms and less than 50 were made in its four years of production. Not a bad choice, feeling more substantial than a 7 with less wind buffeting but entry and egress is even harder than an Elise!
To the layman replicas look like a 7 and there’s many imitators that can be self-built, from mild to wild, for a fraction of the cost of a Caterham. However, build standards vary so exert caution plus values are difficult to gauge and cars are likely to have Q registration plates. Of the many around, Dutton and Westfield are perhaps the best known.

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