Josh Robbins wants you to buy a Caterham Seven. He is not unlike the staff of this magazine in this regard, because we also want you to buy a Caterham Seven. Robbins runs Denver’s Rocky Mountain Caterham, one of the British marque’s North American distributors. He loves the cars he sells, and so do we. There’s nothing quite like them.
This story originally appeared in the February 2020 issue of Road & Track.
The Seven has been around in one form or another since the 1950s—one of the first bare-bones, build-it-yourself sports cars. Modern examples weigh around 1200 pounds and are roughly as serious as a puppy. Old-school devices with modern performance, they’re designed for people who like bugs in their teeth, wind in their shorts, and a total lack of doors.
Naturally, everyone at R&T wants one of these buggers, because if you know Caterham, you either want a Seven at least a little, or you have owned one (yours truly) and want one again (ditto). Or you hate the whole idea and don’t believe in fun or laughter or goofy sex, either.
Caterham sold just 21 cars in the United States in 2019. The marque’s products aren’t common, but neither was the design from which they sprung. More than half a century ago, Lotus founder Colin Chapman attached a few steel tubes and some sheet aluminum to a repurposed economy-car drivetrain. The fiendishly effective result looked like a contemporary race car largely because it was. An evolution of that idea was later sold in kit form—Chapman wanted to circumvent British taxes—as the Lotus Seven. The Seven was Chapman’s seventh design. Sales helped finance Lotus’s burgeoning race team, but Chapman eventually lost interest and moved on to something else, because he was who he was. In 1973, English Lotus dealer Caterham Cars purchased the Seven’s production rights. In 2020, as the automotive industry continues to favor weight and complexity, the car carries on, updated and improved a bit every year. The design is different in detail, but it still stands tall as a kind of automotive hair shirt, trumpeting ideas we cherish: Cars are best when aimed at fun and romance; speed can be fantastic, but fantastic doesn’t always mean speed; less is usually more.
Predictably, when Robbins emailed to ask if we wanted to build a new Seven from a kit and then keep it for 6000 miles of track and road testing, we said yes. Possibly quicker than was polite.
This winter, I flew to Denver to meet our car and visit the crates holding its bones. R&T’s Seven is a 152-hp 310 R model, Gulf blue with an orange stripe. The 310 signifies the car’s horsepower per ton, and the R denotes a track focus, more aggressive than the standard “S” Sport configuration. Robbins opted to send us the “narrow cockpit” model, the nearest in footprint to the 1960s original. (The company also offers a wider body.) Caterham calls the 310 its “Goldilocks” car, the best balance of grip and power. They also say 60 mph shows up in 4.9 seconds. Top speed is close to 130 mph. The 1.6-liter, 7500-rpm Ford Sigma four drives the rear wheels through a limited-slip differential and a five-speed manual. The diff is a BMW 1-series unit, the gearbox borrowed from a Mazda Miata. Suspension is by twin A-arms in the front and de Dion tube in the rear. (If you’re not familiar with the latter, just imagine the Frankenstein child of a solid axle and independent suspension.)
Again, these cars are simple. R-model Cats come standard with hard-shell seats but without a windshield, top, or heater. We intend to road-trip our little beastie to track days and back-road blats, so we optioned in weather gear and comfier seats. Robbins says the average build takes 80 to 100 hours. Caterham delivers its cars painted and wired but otherwise knocked down. Engine, gearbox, and differential are shipped as subassemblies.
By the time you read these words, those Denver crates will be in our Tennessee-bureau shop, outside Knoxville, where Senior Editor Zach Bowman and I will chief its build. Then comes a banzai series of stories and events. We want to share the car with as many people as possible, in these pages, on YouTube, on R&T’s website, and over every apex we can find. Along the way, we’ll drink way too much espresso and clean the bugs from our incisors and just generally have a rip-snorting time.
For now, watch this space. If you want to support the cause, send toothbrushes, coffee beans, and kind words to the magazine’s New York home office, care of Editor-in-Chief Travis Okulski. Drop a line to [email protected] if you’ve got a Seven-friendly track or street event we should check out. And if you see a small blue and orange missile somewhere between Knoxville and the northeast, toss a wave. It’ll probably be us, we’ll probably be as happy as it gets, and you’ll probably know why.