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The Magnificent Seven - Lotus Seven

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Built merely as a stop-gap, Colin Chapman's lithe little road-racer has stayed at the top of its game for over 50 years. We return to the car's spiritual home to compare old and new.

You have to wonder what Colin Chapman would have made of the success of the Seven (née Mark VII) today. Conceived and designed one Sunday evening in 1957, it was nothing more than a cheap, light, straightforward competition sports car to replace the successful but by then long-in-the-tooth Mark VI. At that stage the XI was doing well, but its streamlined aluminium body made it expensive to buy and repair. So after Sunday dinner – to avoid the washing up – Chapman and fellow engineer Gilbert ‘Mac’ McIntosh set about creating something based on the XI but far simpler. By ten o’clock all the stressing was complete, and a week later the first car had been built.
 
To quote a former Lotus Components employee, the Seven was ‘thrown together when there were no race cars to work on’. Formula Two and getting the fiberglass-bodied Elite into production were the priorities, and Chapman would surely have expected the Seven, like all competitive cars, to last no more than a few years, by which time there would have been something better – probably from his own pen. The thought of it still going strong half-a-century later would have been implausible.

That triumph of longevity stems from the original design principle: it was just so right. The car was not only the fastest thing on the road but it was cheap enough for that performance to be accessible – and that remains the same today. Want supercar performance without the expense? The Seven still delivers. And while you can find faster track
cars and faster road cars, nothing transfers between both disciplines quite so effortlessly – and the simplicity and lack of weight ensure that the driver is essential to the show. No bit-part players here!

Factory records show the build of the first Series One (as it was later to become known) prototype began on July 31, 1957. It was supplied to an Edward Lewis just in time for the Brighton Speed Trial on September 7, where it finished second in class with a time of 29.72 seconds. This car (which incidentally won at Prescott the next day) was in effect a racing special; production models would not be ready until December.

Those first cars ran Ford 100E sidevalves producing 28-40bhp, a three-speed gearbox, a Nash Metropolitan rear axle and drum brakes. Potential buyers looking for something they could drive to work during the week and compete in at weekends persuaded Chapman to junk the Burman steering boxes for the considerably more suitable upside-down Morris Minor racks. But, just like today, some owners wanted a little bit more…

Derek Harvey was one, and TVB 350 was the result. To him, a BMC 948cc A-series engine would be a better option, particularly as it came mated with a four-speed ’box, so on the second day of the 1957 Motor Show he attempted to order a basic kit minus an engine. Sales manager (and later the Formula One team manager) Peter Warr refused, saying the car had to have the Ford unit. It was only when Harvey later approached a younger salesman (and said he already had a 100E) that the order was placed.

With the car complete and racing successfully, Harvey made one of his many trips to the Lotus factory in Hornsey, north London, this time to buy a windscreen. Chapman invited him into the office for a coffee, which was unusual for the Lotus boss. At one point Harvey looked through the window and noticed an engineer measuring up his own engine. Shortly after that, the Seven was re-worked to run with the A-series. Coincidence? Probably not: Chapman was looking for a cost-effective alternative to the 100E, as the Americans were unimpressed with the ancient sidevalve motor found in the Anglia and Prefect.

This car, then, played an important role in the Seven’s early history – and this seemed an appropriate time to return with it to the little Hornsey worksheds at the top end of Tottenham Lane. When snapper Gus Gregory and I pitch up we don’t know what we’ll find; I half expect to discover it has long since been knocked down. It is something of a surprise, then, to see the old assembly sheds and stores, although the site is now a builder’s yard and the showroom has long been boarded up. Tucked next to The Wishing Well pub (formerly The Railway Hotel and owned by Chapman’s father Stanley), it’s clearly the right place, as not only does the building look the same as in archive photos, but there’s a Club Lotus wall plaque, too. There are plans to set up a Lotus museum on the site.

We arrive before dawn one September morning to reunite the Lotus legend with its birthplace. Today we will be travelling 50 miles south through over 50 years of history, as later we have an appointment with Caterham’s Anniversary model at the firm’s Surrey showroom. Before then, I want a traffic-free blast in the original – and in London, the only quiet roads are over at Silvertown.

Drop into the seat and cram your legs below the huge steering wheel, and you realise that in a bid to keep this car as minimalist as possible Chapman gave the driver all the space needed to work in and no more. The A-series engine thrums easily into life with a twist of choke, but there’s only just enough room to the left of the steering column for your foot to squeeze the direct-action clutch. This all makes the essential double de-clutch downshifts awkward at first, but the extra concentration means it’s all the more satisfying when everything snicks into place.

While not shockingly rapid by modern standards, the Seven is easily quick enough to keep up with traffic and accelerate out of tight spots. The motor always revs freely: in fact, Harvey once fitted a 1098cc but found it no faster because on track he could spin the 948cc up to 8000rpm. He raced at Goodwood, Silverstone, Brands Hatch and Mallory Park, and remembers dicing with Graham Hill in a Speedwell A35. Harvey was beaten on this occasion but at another Brands meeting he held off Peter Gethin, who later said: ‘I was going to try and pass you round Clearways, but your back end was hopping around so much I thought you’d clobber me!’

A few Docklands’ roundabouts are all you need to understand the sentiment: the steering is light, with a little slack around the straight ahead. But once you’ve soaked that up the Seven turns in decisively and with a surprising amount of feel. That enthusiasm encourages the driver to explore the low grip levels offered by the four-inch tyres, where you can feel it’ll be the tail that breaks away first. With limited lock things could soon get out of hand but, with all information fed back though the steering wheel and lightly padded seat, it’s easy to keep things fun rather than unruly.

Just like Chapman, Harvey was obsessed with weight. He even drilled holes in the wheels, diff casing and handbrake, after which it came in at 455kg. This lack of mass lets the Seven make the most of what it does have. Tiny drum brakes all round would normally be pretty ineffective, but here they’re still perfectly adequate. Harvey called himself one of the last of the clubmen, using the car all week, driving to the circuit, removing the screen and spare wheel, racing and driving home again. In the early 1960s 750 specials were beginning to be trailered to the tracks, something unheard of in 1957. Harvey’s life was changing, too. Now married, he discovered new priorities, and ultimately TVB made way for a washing machine.

This car’s history is then somewhat vague until 1974, when it was bought by Terry Giles for £250. It was used as regular transport for five years until it started to tire. The exhaust was little more than several baked bean cans, and on one occasion the steering column became detached from the rack! As with many restoration projects, Giles took years to find the time to get the job done – almost 20, in fact.
 
Vincent Hayden of Hayden Motors, Salisbury, took on the work, and by now TVB was in such a mess the quote exceeded its value. However, for Giles the Lotus was part of the family and he wanted it returned to its original on-road condition. During 2001 he discovered the original owner and Harvey was able to help Hayden with some of the early modifications, such as the A-series engine and ’box mounts and linkages.

During a discussion on colour, Harvey explained that on a 1958 trip to the States he saw a metallic blue Ford Thunderbird and liked it. He acquired a sample of the paint from the dealer and had it matched in the UK. He’d kept some in a jar to touch up scratches, and amazingly still had it in his garage.
 
The stunning hue catches the eye of all the Caterham staff as we roll into the showroom for our appointment with their homage to the past. It was here in June 1973 that production rights for the Seven were handed over to Graham Nearn. By the early 1970s the Seven had become the main area of business for Lotus dealer Caterham Car Services Ltd, and when production began it was with the current model of the time, the fiberglass Series 4. By the following year slow sales of the boxy 4 and high demand for used Series 3s led Nearn to re-introduce the latter, and that car still in essence forms the basis for the Roadsport 150 built to celebrate the big five-oh.

Seeing the cars side-by-side, it’s remarkable to note how much of the original’s DNA is apparent. The screen and scuttle look virtually identical, the simplicity of the dash and bonnet catches remains, and the signature lights still define the car. Of course, the Seven has had to adapt to ever-tighter regulations: the original Lucas spots – where dipped just meant the nearside lamp was switched off – didn’t last long.

Despite a saucer-sized wheel, climbing in is more awkward than with the original, and the cabin is just as snug once you are locked in by the harness. The steering column is no longer an issue but the tiny pedal box still requires narrow shoes; you’re so connected it feels like you’re wearing the car rather than sitting in it. On the road the intimacy continues. The Seven feels like an extension of you, responding to your bidding before you’ve even thought about what you want to do.

The 1.6-litre 150bhp Sigma engine is much more boisterous than the original, popping on over-run and ripping through each of the six speeds almost faster than you can keep up with. This car has moved with the times; the original must have been devastating compared with regular traffic back in the day, and the Roadsport upholds traditions. A 0-60mph time of 16 seconds wouldn’t cut it now, yet this can get there in five.
 
There’s no question – the modern car is full-on and physical, and yet the old-stager can still match it for exhilaration. Brakes, grip levels and power have all evolved equally, so with the Series One the equivalent level of entertainment is simply dished up at lower speeds. It also means that the driving purity and spirit of the Seven are as strong now as they ever were, and a drive in either example is enough to understand why the car has been popular for so long.

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