Should I Buy a Seven?

I have always enjoyed sports cars and I always wanted a Seven. When I gained access to the Internet, I asked the British Car mailing list's advice and got the following response. It is from Scott Fischer, a noted personality on the list. He writes professionally, usually technical manuals, books, and restaurant reviews. He is the one I blame and thank.

In article <663@internal.Apple.COM>, (Michael Sands) writes:

I am considering buying a Lotus Super Seven or imitation. I realize there are advantages to either. The "real" Lotus can be raced in the historic auto races. The Catherham is new, has been reinforced, and has newer engines.

What should I buy? How much should I pay? Are they really toys?

Scott writes:

Okay. First, some nomenclature.

The Lotus Seven was Chapman's seventh design. All of them were originally kit cars, but some of them were assembled at the Lotus factory.

The original Sevens came with a side-valve Ford 1100cc engine that produced something whopping like 46 bhp. Later, they produced a kit that would accept the BMC A-series engine (as used in some impressive 100-horse Formula Junior cars of the late 50s, not to mention the 46-horse A-H Sprite) and gearbox.

The basic Seven engine was upgraded to include new and improved Ford engines, including the ohv four out of the Cortina and Anglia. The most fabulous variant on this line will be covered in a moment.

The Super Seven was a racing offshoot that used the magnificent all-aluminum firepump motor, the 1100cc Coventry Climax sohc with a pair of Webers. Something like 110 bhp, more revs than even the Cooperized FJ A-series, less weight than any of the other motors, but used almost as much oil as gas. (The Climax was also the engine used in the contemporary Elite, which was possibly the most advanced vehicle in production at the time, and maybe still--complete composite chassis, fully independent suspension, inboard rear disc brakes, in a beautiful and quite aerodynamic coupe.)

However, Mike Costin, designer of the beautiful Elite coupe, had joined with Keith Duckworth to form an engine-design company. They put their names together and called it Cosworth. They set about at first designing hot cylinder heads for the basic Ford motors. One was an ohv that kept the Ford's cam-in-block; this became the mainstay of Seven design, because buyers could order the chassis, pick up a Ford motor out of a junkyard, and order the Cosworth head and manifolds for the twin Webers. Great stuff.

But Keith & Mike's best head for the Ford block was built for them at the JAP engine works (the folks who used to build motorcycles, back when JAP bikes were British...sorry). That was a magnificent twin-cam hemi-head. Stock horsepower at first was 115 (out of 1558cc), which was increased up to 125 with the later Sprint (D-type) cams. Racing versions put out about 175 bhp, and the Cosworth BDA version of the head was used to power the 220+ bhp Formula Atlantic racing cars until Toyota's 4A-GE was accepted as the engine of choice about a year ago.

Anyway, this magnificent engine (probably my favorite sound of any engine, certainly of any I've ever owned) went into the Seven Twin Cam. Ya, as they say, hoo.

The ultimate Seven was probably the 7S with twin-cam power. The S was a very rare (I think they built three or four?) version with independent rear suspension. You might be able to duplicate one but finding one will be hard at best. The only rarer street Lotus I know of was the Cortina that Chapman built for himself and for Jim Clark, which also had IRS. There were precisely two made.

What They're Like

Well, I've always wanted one. I've never had one (yet), but it's On The List. I'll let Dave Mathis talk about what they're like to own. However, a few comments from a friend whom I trust about cars in general (used to import Ferraris for a living, currently owns a vintage-race and restoration shop, and coincidentally went to high school with Dennis Ortenburger, who has written the definitive histories of Lotus).

In Gary's words, "The Seven is great fun for about fifteen minutes." Then it gets tiring, noisy, and uncomfortable. (And this from someone who races very fast Sprites.) You might not want it to be your only car--weather protection is pretty laughable. And I don't think you'd want to commute down Stevens Creek at rush hour.

But for those fifteen minutes, what a car. It's not going to be like your Corvette in any way. If you've never driven a light sports car, be prepared for a shock; and the Seven is *light*--well under 1500 pounds. (I commuted for three years in a slalom-prepared MG Midget, which weighed about 1600 pounds and put out about 65-70 bhp. So no, it wasn't as fast, but it gives me a view on light sports cars. Basically, on a road like Page Mill up to Skyline, they're unbelievable. But when you're stuck on 85 oozing along between 3 mph and 15 mph, and there's a diesel Peugeot in front of you and a Dreyer's Ice Cream truck screeching to a halt behind you, well, you remember how much fun it is to fly through the trees.)

seven rear view

If you get the Twin Cam, note also that this motor has very little off-the-line power (though the Seven weighs so little that it doesn't need much). Where the twin Cam gets its glory is in the top half of the rpm band, from about 4000 on up. Power delivery is very different than your small-block Chevy--you don't get that neck-snapping off- idle response, but the power delivery in the top half of the powerband more than makes up for it.

And then there's handling. The Seven is famous for bump steer (as well as for being built so light that things fall off frequently). In this respect, I understand that the newer Caterham Sevens are superior. BTW, Caterham built the original Seven chassis even for Chapman, when the Sevens were still sold by Lotus, so you've got some authenticity there. I can't remember when Lotus farmed out the construction to Caterham, but it was a good twenty years ago. In any case, the Caterham Seven is nearly unique in being a replica manufactured by the original constructors (the Autokraft Cobra is the other, unless you count the Morgan...)

There was a company called Rotus that was building "re-engineered" Seven chassis into which they plugged various Japanese appliances, including Toyota's Twin Cam/4-valve motors. Of course, there's always the 13B approach--put in a massaged Mazda and fear nothing without lights and sirens on top, at least under about 120 mph (at which time the fenders prove that Bernoulli was right--they're great airfoils, if you like positive lift).

There's also a company in Ventura, CA that was building a replica that used lots of Pinto chassis parts. They were on the cover of Kit Car magazine about 18 months ago. I don't have much use for replicrud in most cases, but these seemed to be fairly reasonable. And you could always fit an SVO drivetrain in if you wanted to be insane.

Prices seem to have a floor of about $10k; I haven't seen a ceiling, but you can expect to find one for between $10k and $15k in running condition. The things to watch for are stress cracks and/or bad welds on the chassis--body rust isn't a problem, since the body panels (what few of them there are) are either aluminum or fiberglass. The tube frame, however, will almost certainly have been welded if it's a real Seven--apparently they almost all cracked (Chapman was a real anorexic when it came to auto design).

Is it a toy? Good lord, yes. But what a toy. You might consider getting a second car to drive when it's wet (at least the traffic here seems to be localized in time; you don't get rush-hour crawls all day long like I used to in southern California, and if you keep hacker's hours you can miss the worst of it). Of course, the question then is what can you drive that isn't a complete pig in comparison? (Well, there's always the Cortina--a roof, wind-up windows, nice flow-through ventilation, big trunk, and the same engine and trans. Neat cars. You can get a really good one for about $5K and it shouldn't cost you more than about half that each year to keep it running...:-)

I know three good shops for Lotuses, but they're all in southern California. There's also Hasselgren racing Engines in Berkeley; they are *the* shop to get your motor made very fast. They were the only place on the entire west coast, BTW, that had .015 under/ .020 over main bearings when I had the crank reground on my Cortina, and that included the Vandervell distributor.

My advice? Get a real one (and I include a modern Caterham in that category for all the reasons I've mentioned). Even if it's too new to go vintage racing, you can slalom it and terrorize the bikes on Skyline on Saturdays. And besides, there's something special about owning a *real* whatever-it-is. If you can get an older one with history to go with it, so much the better. But don't spend all your money in one place--save a little for the welder, the machinist, and the electrician, not to mention the car to drive when conditions don't permit you to take the Seven.

(There is additional information:)

Well, it was Frank Costin who was on the Elite body/chassis unit design team, not Mike! Mike Costin did indeed partner with Duckworth, to form Cosworth Engineering, but he had little or nothing to do with the Elite, at the design level. Both Costins however, had worked for Chapman.

Regarding who contributed what to the design of the Elite, I consulted "Colin Chapman's Lotus" by Robin Read. The banker I mentioned, who drew the original sketches of the car, was Peter Kirwan-Taylor. The detail design of most of the exterior and interior was the responsibility of John Frayling. Ron Hickman (chief designer of the Elan) was responsible for getting the thing transitioned to manufacturing (which turned out to be a dire, miserable task) and he assisted Frayling in various design areas also.

Frank Costin contributed quite a bit to overall shape of the car, and was responsible for such items as the bubbled shape of the roof, and he proposed the Kamm tail. Chapman himself even contributed some things to the design of the car. It was definitely a group effort.

(and then later)

Of course, as you are aware by now, if you have been keeping up with the lotus-cars postings, I erred in describing the Cosworth FVA and FVC as being gear driven. Tony Clark recently posted a message including a comment to the effect that the FV series engines (unlike the _D_FV series engines) are chain driven. I have no reason to doubt that he is correct! In truth, I have never personally seen what a FV widget looks like, *under* the timing cover.

Also, looking at the only picture I have on hand of a FV head, it does indeed appear to be *very* similar to the Lotus twin-cam (trink?) head in that area, which would lead me to think Tony is correct, and it uses a timing chain.Regards,

(and more from the Seven group)

I'd like to make a statement.

For some of us, a Seven is more a spirit, an attitude, rather than a historical relic with certificates of authenticity. It's the Prisoner refusing the bureaucracy. It's us refusing the "sanitized plastic cocoons" that clog our roads nowadays. It's what brings us the sympathy of hard-core bikers who share the enjoyment of being exposed to the elements, to the noise and to the gravel, in exchange of top level acceleration and handling.

A Seven, it's that bit of rebellion against the obsession of comfort and security that chokes individuals and corners them in some sad resignation before the apparently ineluctable and boring order of things. Resistance isn't futile: the sight of a Seven will bring a spark of life in the eye of the most extinct commuter sitting in his comfy chair, drinking some fade bottled capuccino from the local coffee chain, listing to insipid radio advertisements and surrounded by thousands of other motionless vehicles.

The Seven is what brings cheers from kids of all ages and vituperation from others, waving their cane as a threat to life that is passing by before their very eyes.

It smells gasoline and tire dust, it's noisy and it's fast. It is NOT a symbol of wealth and shouldn't ever be so. That's why people come to us with happy faces whereas they ignore Ferraris and Porsches.

The "Chapman concept", according to which you drive to the track, set the day's lap record and drive back home with the same vehicle, can't be reduced to some depressing authorship or branding equity issue. If you read the book of Ron Champion, and particularily his introduction, you'll realize that Chapman was just one amongst the dozen of boys who
came up with more or less the same superb idea of lightweight, strikingly simple car with extremely modest budget. He was simply a notch more advanced with that concept, and with luck helping he got the recognition we know. I bet that if he was still around, he wouldn't reply to "copies" of the Seven with judicial attacks. He would make a better car instead.

I don't give a damn wether my Seven comes from Caterham, Fraser, Birkin or even myself (following the book of Ron Champion). Anyway "Caterham" doesn't sound anything like "Lotus", whatever their legal claims are, and afterall that's the combination of ultimate performance on track and on the road that interests me.

I don't dismiss the intellectual investment Caterham engineers have put into improving the Seven over the years. I just think others too have worked hard, their finished product is outstanding as well, if not better on some aspects, and they are offered at a better price. I totally agree with Karsten on both pricing and image issues when he says:

"I'm sure Caterham could compete with other cars on both pricing and performance without needing to invoke judicial power. However, to do so they need to get organized. It goes for making a decent assembly guide (instead of the current bunch of typographed sheets), to deliver the right parts in reasonable time, as well as to organize their factory and stocks so that they can lower the prices (the retail price of others is the proof that it isn't a bunch of welded tubes, bushes and some aluminium skin that costs so much)."

I'm sorry but I still can't see $37K in what I received from them, either service, documentation or hardware.


Pierre Demartines, Ph.D