Lotus Seven – the sports car that refused to die

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Anthony Colin Bruce Chapman didn’t much care for slogans. Come to think of it he didn’t seem to like customers a great deal, reputedly viewing them as a necessary evil to fund his racing activities. And, as is well recorded, he certainly wasn’t keen on the idea of motoring longevity. While other car makers were bandying around hyperbole such as ‘built to last’, Chapman was famously declaring that the perfect racing car was the one that collapsed in a heap just past the chequered flag. 

There is little evidence that he altered his thinking that much for his earlier customer cars either, every design and every car dashed out to live a mayfly existence, packed with thrills yet with a blanket of short-termism hanging over every aspect of their being, from conception to their anticipated rapid death. 

Which makes Chapman’s Lotus legacy all the more astonishing. Through the simplicity of his cars and the proprietary nature of their genetic make-up he had a knack of doing great, time-defying things, and inspiring others along the same path. For example, the chassis that was originally knocked together merely as a test-rig for Rotoflex couplings formed the backbone of Lotus cars for more than a generation. Yet even that lags way behind the genius of his pile-’em-high-sell-’em-cheap clubmans special Seven: 50-years old and still in production (albeit evolved and under a different marque name).

Pause on that for a moment. A car that is still being built in essentially the same form half a century after it first rolled off the production line (or in this case was usually delivered in crates), virtually impervious to the tides of change in not just legislation but also public mores. It is akin to the Austin Seven still being produced in 1972 alongside the Car of the Year Fiat 127 or, to pick a contemporary of the Lotus, the Aston Martin DB MkIII taking its place alongside a Ferrari 599 on test in the latest issue of Autocar. And still being judged to be a better car. Inconceivable.

Today, whatever the engine and the badge, the Seven is still revered even among modern rivals, for the qualities that made it a shock success in period. Half a century on it still offers unprecedented handling and thrills for the money, is the essential accessory for every true enthusiast driver, and remains the closest thing you can get to a racing car on the road.

It’s hard to imagine Chapman and his cohorts could have foreseen that – or even cared – when they created the first Seven. The company’s previous clubmans car, the Six, had been buried in 1955 and, allegedly on the suggestion of wife Hazel, ACBC recognised the need to fill the gap – and raise some money for his burgeoning race programme. Reviving a missed number in the Lotus sequence (Seven had been allocated to a stillborn Formula 2 project) and mating remnants of the Six to the features of the svelte Eleven, the Seven was born in 1957.

Overshadowed in almost every way by the technologically advanced Elite, which was being developed simultaneously and boasted monocoque GRP construction and a tempting Coventry Climax engine – against the Seven’s two-gauge tubular spaceframe chassis wrapped in all-aluminium bodywork – its initial impact was muted. This was exacerbated when the spec of the tantalising prototype was downgraded from all-round disc brakes, a de Dion rear axle and Coventry Climax engine (though that would be re-offered as the Super Seven or 7C from 1958, mated to a four-speed ’box) to drums, Eleven Club-spec (Nash Metropolitan-based) live rear axle and asthmatic 1172cc Ford sidevalve power offering 40bhp. Even then people couldn’t argue with the price. At just over £500 as a kit and £1000 built – though wipers were a cost-option – it was a cheap sports car and a highly affordable way to go racing.

There was a third option, however: the 7A, exploiting A-series power through a single SU giving a lowly 37bhp but more sprightly, rev-happy performance than the sidevalve unit. In this car the wings were replaced with glassfibre items, but one example proved the exception as well as the inspiration. ‘Our’ car. Bought new as a knocked-down kit in 1957 by Derek Harvey, it became the template for the 7A as current owner Terry Giles explains: “Derek competed widely and didn’t like the 1172cc sidevalve engine so re-engineered the car to accept Austin-Healey Sprite A-series and drivetrain. He took it back to Lotus for a windscreen or something and, while he was there, an intrigued Chapman offered him a cup of coffee and distracted Derek while Lotus engineers had a good look over the car. That, so the story goes, is where Chapman got the inspiration to put an A-series in the Seven. And Derek never did get his cup of coffee!”

Today the car is spectacularly restored and immaculate, yet retains the charm of its era. And the shortcomings. Those used to later Sevens will find one of the original 250-odd an almost vintage driving experience in comparison. Unlike the other cars, where spartan appointments are at odds with the performance, it seems fitting in the first-generation car. Sitting behind the big Bakelite Nash Metropolitan wheel you first notice that the steering column runs down between the brake and clutch pedals, so small feet and thinking ahead are essential. Even then it is easy to snag your foot on either the column or the transmisson tunnel. The gearbox is tricky to master too and the turning circle is appalling – supposedly down to its Eleven foundations. On the move the steering is vague (the Morris Minor or Herald racks on all but the first 25cars, which had Burman worm-and-nut steering, is behind the front axle line) and the bump steer can be alarming.

Nevertheless, there’s something amazingly endearing about the first Seven. Once you have mastered the technique and have confidence in your ability to hit the right pedals when required it offers a very personal driving experience. It holds on remarkably well in corners and in terms of sheer exhilaration it is hard to beat. Push it hard enough and it will drift round – it’s tail-happy, yet controllably so, a feature that was to become a hallmark of every Seven.

Typically, the prompt to revolutionise the Seven came less from a will to improve the car for customers than from Lotus’ determination to drive down labour costs. Hence by 1960 Lotus engineers were filleting the chassis, glassfibre peripheries were standardised (including a choice of cycle wings or the new flared items) and the rear suspension was replaced with an A-frame and a Standard rear end. The biggest change, however, was when the sidevalve and A-series engines were dropped a year into S2 production and replaced with the Ford 105E Anglia unit that was already such a favourite with racers in Formula Junior.

Available in standard or Cosworth tune, the potentially lusty 1000cc engine made the car cheaper. It also conspicuously lacked power in basic form, but it kicked open the door of possibilities and soon a 1340cc Super Seven version and then a Cortina 116E pre-crossflow-engined car were launched. The latter, fed by a single Weber carburettor, took power to 66bhp (the 1340 on twin 40s had a mesmerising 85bhp), dropped the 0-60mph time to less than 8 secs and took top speed to just over the ton. For the first time – apart from Edward Lewis’ Climax-powered S1 and the £700 Super Seven – the little Lotus had the speed to match, and make the best of, its chassis and handling.

Along with the engine came the Ford Classic’s gearbox, a taut four-speeder offering rifle-bolt changes and true racing feel, and this car is said to be one of less than 10 examples fitted with a special Lotus manifold.

Driving Terry Tumber’s straight-cut-gear-equipped S2 straight after the S1 is like being catapulted into a different era. With the Herald rack then standard – and, crucially, ahead of the front-axle line – the steering is unnervingly precise, small inputs to the Formula Junior-sourced wheel all that’s necessary to aim the car with pinpoint accuracy. Access to the pedals is unhindered and, as the Seven hugs the road, you start to feel what all the fuss was about. It’s still not a car for the larger driver, who won’t so much find the cockpit claustrophobic but may find the footwell and pedal placement restrictive. 

For many – and not just fans of The Prisoner – the S2 with its reshaped nose and shortened rear undertray is the prettiest Seven and it is hard to dispute when you set eyes upon this car. Neat touches include only the rev counter being in front of the driver, speed apparently being a concern for the passenger alone, and the steel-hubcapped wheels, but it is the overall balance of the shape that impresses most. Likewise on the road. The chassis responds to hard driving so differently to the S1: in some circumstances you feel it flex that bit more due to the lightening and removal of some chassis tubes, but in others you feel that the area surrounding the pilot at least is considerably more solid thanks to the riveted inner panels and dashboard. 

By the end of the S2 (and certainly with the late 1600cc Kent crossflow models) the Seven had truly come of age as a clubmans racing car, but it was only with the 1968-on S3 that it achieved the same goal as a road car. Ford’s 225E Kent engine had made its debut in the run-out 1968 cars known as S2½s, but, barring the rare Twin Cam SS and one-off Holbay-tuned and specced-up 7S press car (left), it was the engine of choice in the S3 in either 1297cc or 1598cc capacities. The extra power negated the car’s increased weight and, with a Ford Escort Mexico rear axle under the back, the wings had to be modified so the shape changed slightly. Luxuries included standard carpets – an indication that Lotus was addressing the need for the Seven to be as usable on the road as it was on the track.

Some 40 years on, this example feels as if it might have left the factory a matter of weeks ago and, unmodified and rebuilt to Lotus spec, it is a revelation. It has a sensuous tactility that smoothes away the rougher edges of previous cars, the fingertip steering as precise as it is light, the performance perky and the handling, while perhaps a bit more skittish than the sublime S2 on the limit, is rewarding and ultimately flattering, its cornering tantrums docile and easily quenched. Of the cars here, this is the one that, when required, most feels like a normal sports car, the one that the driver can most relax in when he isn’t wringing all of the performance from it. It doesn’t have the punch of the Holbay S3 or the Twin Cam SS (both of which Vincent Haydon brought on our shoot), but neither do you have to work as hard to extract its best.

For some people the story ends there, they would prefer to mentally obliterate what came from Lotus after the run of 340 S3s came to an end in 1969 – or leap forward to when Graham Nearn’s Caterham revived the S3 shape in 1974. More fool them, because the radical S4, always viewed as the ugly duckling and underdog in the Seven series, is in some ways the most accomplished. It may lack the delicate styling of the 1950s-originated design – it was meant to be a car for the ’70s after all – and its body might be all glassfibre with steel panels used in the frame, but in other ways it is a great improvement. For the first time, driver and passenger can enjoy proper seats rather than a padded bench and, while the S4 may actually be marginally narrower than its predecessor, wedged down between transmission tunnel and sill it seems roomier and the driver feels more part of the car. It is the extra length – nigh-on a foot – that makes the biggest difference and opens up the world of Sevens to drivers of substantially greater than Chapman’s 5ft 7in proportions. The appointment is more cosseting throughout and the S4 doesn’t give much away in performance either.

In fact, as time passes and all-things ’70s are viewed as more cool and less kitsch, as people appreciate the S4 as a true Lotus – and recognise that possibly of them all it best and most practically bridges the Seven’s road and track intents – then surely it cannot continue to languish at half or even a third of the values of the other cars. After all, thanks to the enduring appeal of the model and present-day proliferation of clones, an S4 is easily the most distinguishable sight on the road and its comfort shames even the S3.

That is the textbook answer, the common-sense and impecunious take on the Seven series. Yet, given the funds, I’d still plump for an S3 for its raw appeal. Whereas the S4 is raw in a more feral and animalistic sense, the S1 raw in its design and engineering and the S2 just tipping the balance towards favouring track use, the S3 is raw in being unadorned simplicity at its best, a car that most perfectly embodies what Lotus set out to do in the first place. It is both a joyously usable road car and potent track weapon, switching between each required mode as easily as Mr Benn slips into something more comfortable.

It’s an appeal Caterham quickly latched on to as well, after finishing unsold S4s it revived the S3 and, remarkably, that has been the foundation for every Seven sold since. So much so that today it is as if the world has come round to the Seven’s – all Sevens’ – way of thinking, moulded itself around the characteristics of the sports car that refused to die, the track-day boom providing a tailor-made outlet for the model’s indefatigable energy and dual-purpose brilliance. 

Lotus Seven: file under immortal.

FACTFILES

LOTUS SEVEN

Sold/number built 1957-’60/243 Construction aluminium body over steel tubular spaceframe chassis Engine front-mounted 948/1098/1172cc in-line ‘four’, fed by single Solex, Zenith or SU, or twin SU carburettors Max power 28bhp @ 4500rpm-75bhp @ 6250rpm Max torque 52lb ft @ 2500rpm-n/a Transmission three- or four-speed manual, driving rear wheels  Suspension: front independent by lower wishbones, upper links, anti-roll bar rear live axle with twin trailing arms, diagonal links; coil springs and telescopic dampers f/r Steering worm and nut or rack and pinion Brakes 8in (203mm) drums all round Length 10ft 9in (3277mm) Width 4ft 5in (1346mm) Height 3ft 8in (1118mm) Wheelbase 7ft 4in (2235mm) Weight 896-924lb (406-419kg) 0-60mph 19-9.2 secs Top speed 78-104mph Price new £536 (kit), £1036 (built)

LOTUS SEVEN S2 (where different to S1) 

Sold/number built 1960-’68/1350 Construction aluminium and glassfibre body with tubular spaceframe chassis Engine front-mounted 948/997/1172/1340/1498/1598cc in-line ‘four’, fed by single Solex or single/twin Weber or SU carbs Max power 37bhp @ 4800rpm-85bhp @ 5200rpm Max torque 50lb ft @ 2500rpm-91lb ft @ 3500rpm Transmission four-speed manual, driving rear wheels Suspension: front independent by lower wishbones, upper links, anti-roll bar rear live axle with twin trailing arms, A-frame; coil springs and telescopic dampers f/r Steering rack and pinion Brakes 8in (203mm) drums or 9in (241mm) discs front, 7in (178mm) drums rear Length 11ft (3353mm) Width 4ft 10in (1486mm) Height 3ft 7in (1092mm) Wheelbase 7ft 4in (2235mm) Weight 952-1050lb (432-476kg) 0-60mph 17.8-6.9 secs Top speed 81-104mph Price new £499 (kit)  

LOTUS SEVEN S3 inc Twin Cam SS (where different to S2)

Sold/number built 1968-’69/340 Construction aluminium and glassfibre body, steel tubular spaceframe chassis Engine front-mounted 1297/1558/1598cc in-line ‘four’, single or twin Weber carbs Max power 72bhp @ 6000rpm-125bhp @ 6200rpm Max torque 68lb ft @ 4000rpm-110lb ft @ 5000rpm Brakes 9in (229mm) discs front, 8in (203mm) drums rear Length 11ft 1in (3378mm) Width 5ft 1in (1549mm) Height 3ft 1in (940mm) Wheelbase 7ft 5in (2261mm) Weight 1204-1258lb (546-571kg) 0-60mph 7.7-7.1 secs Top speed 100-110mph Price new £1225 (TC SS kit)  

LOTUS SEVEN S4 (where different to S3)

Sold/number built 1970-’72/664 Construction glassfibre body over steel tubular and panel chassis Engine front-mounted 1297/1558/1598cc in-line ‘four’, fed by single or twin Weber carbs Max power 72bhp @ 6000rpm-125bhp @ 6200rpm Max torque 68lb ft @ 4000rpm-116lb ft @ 4500rpm Suspension: front independent by lower wishbones, upper links, anti-roll bar rear live axle, double Watt linkages, A-frame on offside; coil springs and telescopic dampers f/r Brakes 9in (229mm) discs front, 9in (229mm) drums rear Length 12ft in (3670mm) Width 5ft (1524mm) Height 3ft 7in (1105mm) Wheelbase 7ft 6in (2286mm) Weight 1276-1300lb (579-590kg) 0-60mph 8.8-8.7 secs Top speed 104-116mph Price new £855 (kit, 1600GT)

 This article originally appeared in the October 2007 issue of Classic & Sports Car magazine, which retains the copyright to all words and images. Click here to see our terms and conditions. 

Words: James Elliott; pictures: Malcolm Griffiths

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