by Larry Roberts
April 03, 1998
There was a time in the not-so distant past when the name Lotus was one that had a considerable amount of racing fame attached to it. Mario Andretti was behind the wheel of a Lotus when he won the Formula One World Championship in 1978. Scotland's Jim Clark won the Indy 500 driving a Lotus in 1965. The list of other Lotus victories is too long to show here in its entirety.
Road-going Lotuses were equally note-worthy. The Lotus Elite of the mid-'60s was the harbinger of a slew of lightweight, high-powered but comfortable sports cars that were to follow. Mazda Miata owners need only look at the Lotus Elan of the '70s to see where the inspiration came from for their present mounts.
But the epitome of the sports car as envisioned by Lotus founder Colin Chapman was the Lotus Seven, a car that can best be described as a lightweight rigid frame that connects the bare essentials of an automobile while having just enough sheet metal attached to keep road debris off its occupants. If it was any more simple, the Lotus Seven would have been a go-kart. It had room for two people (but just barely) and its primary function was to go as fast and as economically possible around a race track and still be able to be driven home and to work on a rainy Monday morning. A true dual-purpose sports car, the Lotus Seven was in production basically unchanged from 1957 until 1972.
But it truth, the Lotus Seven never really went out of production, it just changed its first name. But first some British history.
Chapman was an industrial designer (refrigerators, furniture, etc.) in the late '40's, but in his heart, he was a car designer. His first home-built was a "trials" car, a four-wheeled contraption that was made to pull two people up muddy slopes around the English countryside, the vehicle making best time through the slime being awarded first place. "Trials" competition was well named. The Chapman car was built to a cost-conscious "formula" that utilized pre-war Austin parts and was so successful that competitors hired him to produce replicas. He called the car "Lotus" but historians disagree on how it came about.
Soon Chapman turned his attention to sports car road racing. His initial offering in this field was the Lotus Six, a lightweight machine that was powered by inexpensive British Ford running gear and used proprietary chassis parts in a rigid space frame, much like the air frame on a light plane. It was quite successful in amateur racing world- wide, beating racers that were much more expensive and powerful.
The next generation Lotus was the Seven. It rectified most of the technical errors that were built into the Six and was raced on tracks around the world. It was propelled by a plethora of powerplants ranging from the original anemic 71 cubic-inch British Ford 100E flathead four cylinder engine, to whatever would fit under its tiny hood.
When Chapman stepped away from the kit car business (most Sevens were sold in knocked-down form) in 1974, he sold the rights to its production and distribution to Chaterham Cars in Surrey, a company that had been the main dealer for the Lotus Seven for two decades. That company has had the Seven in production ever since, building Chaterhams Sevens by expanding on the Lotus theme but never deviating from it. The owner of one of the first Sevens (called the Series 1) can still buy replacement parts from Chaterham. John Kelly, my resident expert on Lotus Seven lore, says that he can buy a Chaterham frame for his '57 Series 1, bolt all his parts to it and return to competition. Casual observers would have a tough time telling the difference between a Lotus Seven Series 4, for instance, and the latest Chaterham Seven, a car that is "streetable," if not street legal.
The problem with Chaterham is time. To Americans accustomed to buying a car directly off of the showroom floor, an eight-month wait may seem untenable. But at that, they're lucky.
Chaterham Cars could have gone into the used car business in 1974.