In May 1973, Colin Chapman and Graham Nearn shook hands in an appropriately-named north London pub. Chapman signed over the tooling, designs, and rights to the Lotus Seven, that he had been selling since 1957, at the bar of the Lotus in Primrose Hill. In that moment, Caterham Cars was born.
Nearn named his new company after the small town in Surrey where he built his factory, and a month after his deal with Chapman the first Caterham Sevens were rolling off the ‘production line’ at the rate of just one per week.
In the 50 years since, Caterham has sold 22,000 Sevens in over 100 different variants, powered by more than 35 different engines. In 2021, under new owners VT Holdings of Japan, the company achieved record sales.
So what is the enduring appeal of this tiny tearaway?
1. It’s still true to Colin Chapman’s philosophy
“Simplify, then add lightness” was Chapman’s manifesto, and it’s hard to imagine a car that exemplifies that better than the Seven. Early Sevens weighed in at around 330kg, and today even the heaviest model tips the scales at only 610kg and compensates with almost 10 times the horsepower. There’s almost nothing to these cars but a steel spaceframe and thin, somewhat flimsy aluminium body panels, an engine, and two seats. You can’t get much more simple than that.
2. You can build it yourself
Lotus offered the Seven in kit form, and Caterham continues to do so. In fact, it’s the only way you can get a new one in America. Caterham estimates that it will take a competent mechanic 80–100 hours to build one. Hagerty’s own Sam Smith has built a handful of them. Oh, and if assembling a full-size Seven is a little daunting, then you can always opt for the Lego version.
3. It’s made for racing
Caterhams have been racing since the very beginning, with the sixth car ever made competing in the 1973 Grande Prémio Café de Angola. In the 1990s, Caterham founded its own race series, initially known as the Scholarship and now called the Caterham Academy. Today a full season with trackside support in Britain series costs less than £40,000, and that includes tuition, race license, and a road-legal race car.
4. You don’t need big horsepower for big fun …
The first Seven was powered by a 1.7-litre Ford sidevalve engine that mustered just 36 horsepower. The current entry point to Caterham ownership is the 170, powered by a minute 660cc turbocharged Suzuki motor delivering 85 horses. In stripped-out R guise, the car weighs just 440kg, so you’ll see 60 mph from rest in 6.9 seconds and top out at over 100 mph.
5. But the power is there if you want it
Since the 1980s, Caterham has given power-hungry customers the option of supercar-slaying performance. In 1986, it launched the HPC powered, by a Cosworth 1700 engine, and buyers had to take a High Performance Course to get behind the wheel and master its 300 horsepower per ton. Then, 1992 saw the launch of the Jonathan Palmer Evolution with a 2-litre, 253bhp Vauxhall engine that was developed by Swindon Racing Engines for service in the British Touring Car Championship. Upping the ante in 1999 was the R500, powered by a 1.8-litre Rover K-Series engine and delivering over 500bhp per ton. Today’s fastest 620 pocket rocket uses a supercharged 2-litre Ford Duratec motor for 314bhp. It will reach 60 mph from rest in 2.79 seconds and blast through to a breezy 155mph – performance aptly described by James May as, “That’s not acceleration; that’s like being in a football when somebody kicks it.”
6. It’s a record-breaker
Caterhams have found themselves in the record books on many occasions. The JPE – which Hagerty UK’s James Mills drove in 2020 – was the fastest accelerating production car in 1992, reaching 60 mph in 3.4 seconds, and a modified Honda Fireblade-powered Seven racked up the fastest speed in reverse at 102.52 mph in 2001. In 2011, a Caterham did 566 donuts non-stop, and in 2017 one of its cars scored the highest number of donuts in 60 seconds. Olympic-winning cyclists Sir Chris Hoy spun the car 19 times in minute.
7. It’s a surprisingly capable grand tourer
In 2000, Caterham introduced a larger SV chassis option, which added three inches to the car’s length and 4.3 inches to its width, making it a tad more comfortable for larger occupants. Despite its incredibly basic nature, the Seven can be quite the grand tourer. James May proved that by bouncing a modified 310 R around Madascar in The Grand Tour in 2020, while I managed to squeeze in a week’s worth of camping equipment to visit seven of Britain’s best roads in seven days in my own Roadsport.
Via Hagerty US