CATERHAM SEVEN REVIEW

If maximum entertainment coupled to a minimalist approach floats your boat, the
Caterham is perfect. 

 

History

1957: Introduction of Lotus Seven at British International Motor Show.

1959: Caterham Cars established as one of the first Lotus centres in premises on Caterham Hill, Surrey, selling Sevens and Elites.

1965: Caterham Cars supplies Seven registered KAR 120C for the Prisoner TV series.

1967: Caterham Cars becomes the sole concessionaire for Seven.

1973: Caterham Cars takes over production rights for Seven from Lotus.

1987: Caterham Cars moves production operation to spacious new factory at Dartford.

1992: JPE - Jonathan Palmer Evolution launched at British International Motor Show. Breaks the 0-60 world record for a production car in 3.44 seconds. One-make race series in Japan (the only one-make series for imported cars in Japan). Seven wins outright 24 hour race in Ohio, USA.

1993: Caterham Cars wins Queen's Award for Export.

1995: New racing scholarship for novices launched The Academy.

2002: Superlight R400 - class win at Nurburgring 24 hour race.

2004: The R500 Evo is released, breaking the 0-100-0 record in 10.97 seconds.

2005: January saw a management buy-in led by new managing director, Ansar Ali, ex-Lotus General Manager. Flagship CSR model launched. Still a Seven but with 90 per cent of the parts re-engineered and re-designed.

2007: Ford Sigma engine replaces the K-Series after 15 years of 'service' with two new power plants including a 115bhp Euro IV compliant unit. Caterham launches its first in-house 'Caterham Motorsport' badged and tuned engine for the all-new Superlight R400.

 

VITAL STATISTICS

Caterham Seven K-Series

Engine           1396cc/4-cyl/DOHC

Power            110bhp@6000rpm

Torque          96lb ft@5000rpm

Top speed    103mph

0-60mph        6.8secs

Economy      30mpg

Gearbox        5-speed manual

 

WHAT TO LOOK FOR

The straightforward construction does make things easier compared to many classics, but chassis condition is crucial.  Powder-coated from new, close examination is still needed as rot sets in around joints and seams, and where the coating has been scraped away.  Late 1990s examples can suffer more, so be vigilant, and remove the bonnet and nosecone on any example to get a good look at the front end.  Pay particular attention to the rear of the chassis and where the aluminium panels are attached, and look for any signs of twisting or distortion.  Track day ‘offs’ aren’t uncommon and chassis replacement/refurbishment can exceed £5000.  SV models featured a longer and wider chassis for more room.

 

The minimal bodywork still needs checking as the aluminium panels can be damaged by excursions into circuit gravel traps, while galvanic corrosion can occur where they wrap around the chassis.  Check the floor panels for damage too, and watch for cracks and stonechips in GRP wings and wheel arches.  Lastly, check VIN and chassis numbers carefully as you may be buying a re-built race car, and ask whether the car was factory or home assembled - the chassis number will reveal how it was supplied.

 

Various engines have been fitted over the years, from Ford crossflow items to Vauxhall, Rover K-Series, and Ford Zetec/Duratec units.  Lack of space precludes much detail here, but the key thing is looking for evidence of regular maintenance and any signs that the power plant is tired or abused.  Track use aside, the light weight ensures that mechanicals aren’t too stressed, but the usual checks for oil leaks, low oil pressure, overheating, and smokiness are advisable.  Engine upgrades are common too, so make sure you know what’s been done and by whom, but for the most part you’ll find the early cars straightforward to service and maintain on a DIY basis.

 

Transmission-wise, a variety of units have been used and they just need checking for obstructive gear selection or nasty noises that signal an imminent re-build.  The live back axle - often an Escort or Marina item - could be swapped for an optional De Dion arrangement between 1985 and 1988 when the latter became standard.  A Ford Sierra gearbox and differential was a common fitment too, and make sure you check if there’s supposed to be a limited-slip diff and that it works.  Clutches can take a pounding as well so watch for slippage.

 

Road use should take little toll on the brakes and suspension but a thorough examination is sensible all the same.  Upgrades are common so it’s worth getting specialist advice on the spec, while refreshing tired systems can see the costs add up.  It’s likely to be bushes and joints that suffer most from enthusiastic pedaling although bent front wishbones can be an issue too.  Front lower balljoints and wheel bearings can be a weak point on earlier cars - later ones got a revised axle and hub set up - so raise the front if you can and give the wheels a waggle to check for play.  

 

The steering should be incredibly responsive and direct, so be wary if it feels slack or the car wanders.  It could just be wheel alignment that’s gone awry, but it could also indicate a chassis that’s out of true.  A race-style removable steering wheel is a popular fitment so make sure the locking mechanism works properly.

 

The cabin couldn’t be simpler but it’s worth casting a quick eye over it as it could be suffering from water damage or scuffed trim.  Check the instruments and electrics are okay though as damp and lack of use can lead to niggling problems.  And if full harnesses have been fitted, ensure these are going to suit you as they can be a pain if you don’t plan on track work.  And while the weather protection was minimally effective to say the least, check the hood and sidescreens for damage.

 

At the wheel

Fun.  That’s what the legendary Caterham Seven does best, and there are few cars at any price or producing any amount of power that can put a bigger smile on your face.  In fact, even the shortest of drives proves a thoroughly life-affirming experience and the good news is that all this entertainment won’t break the bank.  It’s over forty years since Caterham bought the rights to Seven manufacture from Lotus, and since then this tiny sports car has been the benchmark for back-to-basics performance motoring.  Its calling card has always been a combination of light weight - barely half a ton in most cases - and relatively modest power (though later incarnations promised truly bonkers power outputs), a combination that delivered performance that was both stunning and accessible. 

It’s certainly a squeeze getting into the cabin if you’re of a, ahem, chunkier build, but the efforts will be worth it as once ensconced you’re faced with the simplest of control layouts.  There’s nothing inside to distract from the purpose of driving, just the minimum of instruments, a stubby gear lever, and a steering wheel the size of a shirt button.  You can forego the fairly rudimentary weather protection as the most fun is to be had with the top down, and with the engine fired into life you’re in for a thrilling ride.  No matter what powerplant is fitted, performance is electrifying with the whole experience magnified by the tiny dimensions and the way you sit just millimetres from the road surface.  Snicking through the gears via the short-throw lever is a delight, and the immediacy of the controls will come as a revelation to those used to the anaesthetized feedback provided by most new cars. 

You only have to think about turning the steering wheel – just a flick of the wrist is all that’s required - and the corner is dispatched, and you’re all set to charge towards the next bend.  It might take commitment to get the best from it but you’ll never tire of the Caterham’s pin sharp reactions.  If you’ve not tried one, then you must.  Immediately.

 

OUR VERDICT

Whether you view a Caterham as the ultimate embodiment of the sports car or simply too hardcore is a matter of personal taste, but there really is nothing like it for sheer entertainment and driving purity.  It’s wise, therefore, to try before you buy but if you ‘get’ it, a Seven will prove incredibly satisfying to own and enjoy.

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