In the beginning, there was the 1957 Lotus Seven: four wheels, an engine and some metal to hold it together. This was the genesis of the purist performance car. It was a minimalist roadster meant to translate the thrill of driving in its purest form — nothing more, nothing less. The Seven was a road-legal realization of Lotus founder Colin Chapman’s mantra, “simplify, then add lightness”. In the wake of Chapman’s Seven, putting a small, potent engine in a featherweight chassis became the modus operandi for aspiring car builders on a budget and looking to compete with supercars on and off the track.
Admittedly, lightweight performance cars are pretty much useless off the track. Optional add-ons are slim to none, and if it’s luxury you’re looking for, you best look elsewhere. More often than not these featherweights even lack passenger seats, so you can bet soccer practice runs and office carpooling are out of the question. And though they’re road legal, the main idea there is that they can get you to the track, get you around it the quickest, then get you home.
And yet their bald-faced track intentions still turn us on. Modern takes on Chapman’s motoring minimalism are gaining popularity, but two companies that have been at it for a while are doing it best. One makes a featherweight that lives in the realm of supercars; the other, a user-friendly, fuel-efficient coupe that can even keep up with today’s hot hatches.
2014 Donkervoort D8 GTO
Apart from his fantastic name, Joop Donkervoort is known for founding Donkervoort Automobielen. Since 1978, Joop has been producing his Dutch interpretation of the legendary Lotus Seven, following his company motto: “No compromise”. But he also takes Chapman’s words to heart: “Adding power makes you fast on the straights. Adding lightness makes you fast everywhere.” Joop adds both.
An extensive amount of carbon fiber ensures the D8 GTO is light (just under 1,500 pounds), keeping with the aforementioned Chapmanism. Where the Dutchman goes the extra mile, though, is the engine: the featherweight D8 GTO is fitted with the same turbo 2.5-liter 5-cylinder engine as an Audi TT RS, only tuned up to a ballistic 380 horsepower. Donkervoort’s liberal use of lightweight materials and hyper-liberal power output give the D8 GTO a horsepower-to-weight ratio that dwarfs a Bugatti Veyron’s. And unlike other high-powered, lightweight offerings from rivals, the D8 GTO has five levels of traction control so you can be sure it won’t bite back if you get too throttle happy; it comes in handy when you’re doing 0-60 runs in less than 3 seconds.
Though when it comes to stopping and changing direction in the GTO, you’ve got zero help. ABS and power steering are completely absent because Donkervoort sees that kind of safety net as a compromise — and you know how they feel about that. A little comfort can be taken in the sport-tuned suspension and high-performance brakes, which make sure you’re driving well within the car’s limits before you start to question your own ability.
With any car that’s destined for the track but can still wear a license plate, you can’t expect much from the interior. Nothing says that clearer than the lack of airbags — and if you don’t tick the right boxes, you’ll be roofless and without heat or A/C even though you’re paying an astronomical price. And though bare carbon fiber and aviation toggle switches are always sexy, they’re a far cry from a Bentley’s walnut dash.
2014 Caterham Seven 165
If Caterham’s cars look identical to the Lotus Seven, it’s for good reason. Caterham started as a major Lotus Seven dealer in England in the ‘60s, and eventually Caterham founder Graham Nearn purchased the production rights after Lotus discontinued the model.
As with the Donkervoort, foregoing the list of optional extras on the Caterham Seven 165 will encourage exclusive fair-weather driving, to say the least. But creature comforts like a roof, doors, windows, windshield and a spare tire only upset your weight distribution. Who needs ‘em — The speedometer and tach are all that matter. The 165 may have only a fraction of the Donkervoort’s displacement and power, but it’s the weight — or lack thereof — that makes it a top pick for hairpins and switchbacks. On paper the 81 horsepower (660cc) 3-cylinder Suzuki engine and 7.4-second 0-60 time can be misleading; the 165’s power-to-weight is actually on par with the Suburu BRZ and Hyundai Genesis.
The whole point of these minimalist roadsters is driving on the edge, and because the 165’s limit is well within the realm of the posted speed limits, so much fun has never been so legal. Drum brakes at the rear wheels hang on to a live rear axle that promises sideways hooning as the motor gods intended. The Caterham Seven 165 is the most accessible car in the brand’s entire lineup, with some of the most accessible power on the road. Coupling a classic design to equally primal technology is part of its timeless charm.