Urban sprawl and insurance liability have long since killed off most of the SoCal circuits. Today, Willow Springs, located in the Mojave Desert north of Los Angeles, is the only one of the old tracks that's still around. It opened in 1953, just as Colin Chapman was creating his first production car in a London suburb. Four years later, the so-called Lotus Mark VI morphed into the giant-killer that we now know as the Lotus Seven, and, one way or another, it's been in production ever since.
Like Enzo Ferrari, Chapman never had much time for street cars. But even though he treated the Lotus Seven like an unwanted stepchild, others fell in love with the ugly duckling. Future Sebring winner John Morton bought a hot-rod Super Seven with twin Weber carburetors in 1963 for $3265, drove it to Riverside to watch the inaugural Motor Trend 500 stock-car race, then entered it in his first road race at Pomona. "Of all the fabulous cars that I've raced, that's the only one I think I'd really like to own," Morton says. "It's not too practical here in L.A., but there was just something about it. It felt like a race car is supposed to feel."
In 1973, after many unfulfilled threats to discontinue production, Chapman sold the rights to the Lotus Seven to Graham Nearn, the founder of Caterham Cars. Since then, Caterham has sold nearly 12,000 versions of the Seven. Lotus, by contrast, built only 2682. (Also, Coates says, some two dozen manufacturers have fashioned unauthorized knockoffs.) The current cars don't feature a single Lotus component. Yet the heritage of the Caterham is obvious at a single glance.
Caterham builds 500 cars a year, and thirty to fifty make it to the States in left-hand-drive form. Customers can choose from three chassis: the entry-level Series 3 faithfully replicates the dimensions of the Lotus Seven; the SV is 4.3 inches wider and 3.2 inches longer; and the CSR is a beefed-up SV. Each chassis can be customized with a mind-boggling array of options. Further complicating matters, cars are also sold in kit form and as racing models.
For legal reasons, all Caterhams are imported to the United States in pieces, and the car and the engine must be bought separately. As a practical matter, you can have your components assembled by a dealer or by Caterham USA (or a local shop) for $3000 to $4000. Do-it-yourselfers should plan on spending between 40 and 100 hours screwing one together. For the record, our test car ground to a halt with a broken differential on day two of our test, but we were assured-and we believe-that this was an anomaly.
Caterham created the CSR as a top-of-the-line model to showcase state-of-the-art, race-inspired technology. This meant leveraging the engineering expertise of partners such as AP Racing, which provided the brakes, and Avon, which produced bespoke tires. The most recognizable collaborator, though, is the one whose name is stamped on the carbon-fiber cam cover.
Cosworth started with the same Ford Ranger block and Ford Focus head found in the Duratecs powering the latest generation of Formula Atlantic cars. Fittingly, the Caterham engine features plenty of motorsports goodies-forged rods and pistons; a dry sump lubrication system; high-lift, high-duration cams; rotary throttles; a tuned, stainless-steel exhaust manifold; and so on. With a 12:1 compression ratio, the engine makes a whopping 113 hp per liter.
To corral all these horses, Caterham doubled the stiffness of the traditional spaceframe by adding 100 chassis tubes. And to take advantage of this torsional rigidity, the company developed an unequal-length control-arm rear suspension-the first independent rear end in Caterham history. At the front, the existing control-arm suspension was retained, but a pushrod was added and the dampers were mounted inboard to minimize unsprung weight and clean up the aerodynamics. Front-end lift and drag were further reduced by reprofiling the nose and cycle fenders as well as adding a splitter and carbon-fiber winglets. The car still has the aero qualities of a two-by-four, but it'll now reach a top speed of 155 mph.