Mazda Ebrahimi is ruggedly handsome, unfailingly affable, remarkably generous, extraordinarily clever, and certifiably insane. A software engineer by trade, he's also a mad scientist who's crammed a honking Chevy LS1 V-8 that he picked up on eBay into a tiny, open-wheeled, kazoo-shaped kit car loosely based on the spindly Lotus Seven. That alone isn't evidence of lunacy; in fact, it's pretty much par for the course on a steamy July morning in the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina, where the owners of nearly sixty Lotus Sevens, Caterhams, and LSiSs - Lotus Seven-inspired sports cars - have congregated for today's 7-7-7 celebration (July 7, 2007, get it?) of the fiftieth anniversary of Colin Chapman's beloved "four-wheeled motorbike." No, the proof that Ebrahimi ought to be institutionalized is his inexplicable willingness to let me drive his beast on the Tail of the Dragon, a notorious section of U.S. Highway 129 that probably features more picturesque twists - 318 in eleven miles - and vehicular mayhem than any other public road in the country.
My butt is wedged against the aluminum floorboard of his so-called Rotus because the cockpit is too cramped for me to manipulate the pedals with the seat installed. The engine bay and transmission tunnel are throwing off so much heat that I feel like a sausage cooking on a charcoal grill. As we lug along behind a pair of Harleys hogging the sun-dappled, tree-lined two-lane, I sneak a peek at the digital instrument panel - it looks like something out of Microsoft Flight Simulator - that Ebrahimi has fashioned out of a castoff police-issue touchscreen. My goal is to fill the bar graph that displays throttle position on a percentage basis, thereby sampling all of the modified motor's 440 horses. With a good launch, Ebrahimi figures that the Rotus should roar from 0 to 60 mph in 3.5 seconds.
When we hit a rare straightaway, I punch the throttle and hurtle past the bikers. The rear suspension is buckboard-stiff, and the tail lurches violently as the colossal rear tires - 305/35YR-18s from an old Corvette Z06 - claw for traction. I grab third gear. The acceleration is almost disorienting. Am I in a street-legal road car or a rocket ship leaving the launchpad? Wind whips so fiercely through the bathtub-style cockpit that I can feel the skin of my neck flapping like the sail of a tacking sailboat. "You got full throttle that time," Ebrahimi shouts. This, I suspect, is his polite way of alerting me that the next corner is signposted at 20 mph, and if I don't clobber the brakes pretty soon, we're going to end up in Tennessee. In lots of smoking, disconnected pieces.
Like Ebrahimi, I've caught a bad case of what another sufferer calls Sevenitis. It's a rare disease, but it's making the rounds here in North Carolina. The 7-7-7 confab at the Tail of the Dragon is the largest collection of Lotus Sevens and LSiSs ever amassed in this country. It's also the motliest collection, with a mind-boggling array of factory-built and DIY chassis and engines ranging from an antique Datsun and obsolete, British-spec Fords to a Vauxhall race motor and blown Honda S2000 twin-cams making north of 300 hp. (In a car that weighs a tick more than 1300 pounds, this translates into a power-to-weight ratio that's half again as good as a Dodge Viper's.)
As I watch the unfendered front tires of Ebrahimi's Rotus rise and fall on the A-arms he designed after modeling them in a computer program he wrote himself, I find myself wondering whether Chapman is dancing a jig in sports car heaven or spinning in his grave faster than the 12,500-rpm redline of the Yamaha R1 motorcycle engine powering the Locost - and, yes, that's a marque, not a typo - fashioned by Paul Brocious and his father, Terry, out of square tubing, the dregs of an '87 Mercury Cougar, and seats from a Pontiac Montana.
Chapman was a freethinker whose iconoclastic genius underpinned watershed designs such as the Lotus 25 (the first monocoque Formula 1 car) and the Lotus 78 (which heralded the ground-effects age). But the Lotus Seven, the bare-bones production version of a kit car designed while he was working as a civil engineer, was the ultimate expression of his famous dictum: add lightness. Featuring an ingeniously triangulated tube frame, the Seven was essentially a road-going formula car with crude two-seat bodywork, which made it perfect for road racing and spirited motoring. The car debuted in September 1957, and in one form or another, it's been in production ever since. "It's the ultimate sports car," says Scott Nettleship, who owns a 1970 Series IV finished in traditional Lotus livery, "and it's utterly impractical for anything other than having fun."
For Chapman, the Lotus Seven was just the beginning. As he raised his aspirations - to F1, to exotic cars, even to boats and airplanes - he lost interest in the homely, low-buck, no-tech Seven, which was, in many respects, the polar opposite of the glossy engineering sophistication that Lotus came to symbolize. After developing four iterations over sixteen years, he was ready to toss the car on the junk heap. And there it would have rusted were it not for Graham Nearn of Caterham Cars, the patron saint of the Seven. In 1973, Nearn bought the rights to the car, and while no components are carried over from the Lotus years, Caterham remains the "official" manufacturer of the Seven.