GRR

Axon's Automotive Anorak: Sixty years of Seven heaven

15th September 2017
Gary Axon

Following Goodwood’s celebration of TVR’s 70th anniversary last week at the Revival – where this popular British sports car marque was relaunched to great fanfare – another significant motoring anniversary of a cult British sports car is at risk of passing without much celebration outside of specialist enthusiast circles. This year sees the 60th birthday of one of Britain’s most pure, fun, care-free, Spartan, influential and widely-copied sports cars – the Lotus (now Caterham) Seven.

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Conceived and created by one of the most gifted automotive engineers of the 20th Century – the talented but flawed Colin Chapman – the Lotus Seven was launched with little fuss or fanfare in 1957, relying instead on a few small ads in the back of the leading motoring magazines of the day, such as Motorsport and Autosport.

A logical evolution of his previous simple, lightweight and efficient Lotus competition models, such as the Mark Six, Chapman’s new 1957 ‘Mark Seven’ two-seater optimised the Cheshunt engineer’s ‘less-is-more’ no-frills engineering philosophy.

Austere, functional and focused in the extreme, the Lotus Seven reflected the sporting motoring mood of its time in Britain, when simple self-built affordable two-seater sports specials were much in vogue, as per the very first Ginetta and early TVR models built (the latter of which could be seen last week in the special TVR Past, Present and Future display within the Earls Court Motor Show at the Revival). 

Typically, these simple sportsters used the chassis of a humble pre-war Austin Seven, Ford Popular or Morris 10 as a base, clothed in a feather-weight GRP body, supplied by the likes of Buckler, Rochdale, Fairthorpe and others.

Whilst some of these other self-build specialist sports car marques have long since been consigned to the annals of motoring history, both Lotus and the Seven have blossomed, the former going on to become a maker of driver-focused sporting machines, plus the winner of seven Formula 1 World Championships, and the latter developing into a cult car, courtesy of Caterham’s strong guardianship of the Seven since acquiring the sole rights to the model in 1973, when Chapman chose to move Lotus more upmarket.

Over the last 60 years, Chapman’s Seven concept has won countless races around the world, included some dedicated Seven-only races at Goodwood in period, where fledgeling drivers such as multiple Le Mans winner Derek Bell first cut his competition teeth and saw race victory.

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The Seven has also become the most copied of all sports cars by a sizeable margin, replicated even more frequently than even AC and Carroll Shelby’s now-legendary Cobra, or the desirable Ford GT40. Facsimiles of the original Lotus/Caterham Seven has been built in every corner of the world in both self-assembly kit and factory-built form, as far as field as India, Canada, Argentina, New Zealand, Belgium, Brazil, Spain, Sweden, and many others.

In the UK alone, Chapman’s original was spawned many well-known and successful Seven-inspired sportsters, including those offered by Westfield, Tiger, Robin Hood, MK and GBS, plus countless lesser-known roadsters.

Overseas the Seven has inspired just as many copies as it has on home soil here in the UK. A handful of Sevens were built officially under license with Lotus’s blessing, for example, including the Fiat 1500-based Argentinian Series 2 model in the late 1960s, plus the SEAT 1430-powered Hispano Alleman Mallorca in Spain, with its later S4 body.

However, a few other Seven ‘pretenders’, such as Westfield and Donkervoort in the Netherlands, have fallen foul of Caterham’s legal right to produce the Super Seven, as signed over to Graham Nearn of Caterham by Colin Chapman in 1973, resulting in expensive law suits. Caterham won, and the others had to make notable changes to their ‘Sevens’ to enable them to continue.

For the 21st Century, Chapman’s 60-year-old ‘pure and simple’ Seven formula has grown to inspire a new set the modern, driver-focused open two seaters. These include skeletal offerings like the Aerial Atom, with other modern takes such as the Tripos, Toniq R and Chris Field’s Mirach. Fringe ‘seven-esque’ roadsters and kits such as the best-selling Dutton B-Plus/Phaeton kit car series also owe much to Chapman’s original. Why, even Lotus itself still draws on its Seven heritage, with models such as the 340 R, 2-Eleven and current 3-Eleven. That’s an impressive legacy to have after 60 years…

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