“Caterham is still the benchmark for many journalists around the world. If they drive any sports car, they always refer back to the handling, the ride, the performance and the weight of a Caterham. And I think all of these British low-volume sports cars now have all evolved from the Caterham ethos and they all in some way try to mimic what we do — to achieve the performance and handling of a Caterham.” — Graham MacDonald, Caterham Cars CEO
Every major modern car-making country has a calling card. For America, it’s muscle cars from Ford and Chevy. For Germany, corner tackling super sedans from Audi, BMW and Mercedes. Japan: affordable, high-strung performance coupes which punch above their weight from Toyota and Honda. For Britain, its core value-car isn’t as obvious. It’s not an SUV from Land Rover or a plush, V12 grand tourer from Aston Martin — it’s the low-volume, lightweight sports car. The most iconic of which comes from Caterham.
Back in 1957, Colin Chapman, the legendary founder of Lotus Cars, launched the Lotus Seven Series 1. It was a lightweight, minimalist sports car that took after the cigar tube shape of the contemporary grand prix cars and was, most of all, affordable. It doesn’t take a mechanical engineering Ph.D. to know that formula is still a hit with enthusiasts, both on the track and public roads. After the success of his Series 1, Chapman went on to build the Series 2, 3 and 4. But, in ‘74, when the Lotus founder wanted to end production of the Seven, Graham Nearn, owner of Caterham Cars in Surrey, England, one largest Lotus Seven dealers in the ‘60s, bought the production rights and kept building the Series 4.
It would have been natural for Caterham to continue developing a Series 5, 6, 7, ad infinitum until the numbers got too big to paint on the doors (lest they start adding unnecessary weight). However, the Series 4 was the first modern styling departure in the Lotus 7 lineage, and its looks didn’t go over well. As current Caterham CEO Graham MacDonald puts it, “interestingly in the ‘70s, cars became an awful lot more square and boxy and cheese wedge-shaped. When they designed the Series 4, it was all fiberglass, very square and very boxy. While it was very fashionable and the business sold a few of those cars, there was a little bit of an uproar, and they went back to building the Series 3, which is the current version that we have and still build to this day.”
“It’s all modern engineering, just in a traditional, vintage-looking car.”
It’s not for lack of trying that Caterhams have a vintage design; if the fanbase hadn’t complained, Caterham might not have the signature look it has today. According to MacDonald, Caterham wants “to maintain the original product design, but just about everything has changed underneath. It’s all modern engineering, just in a traditional looking car. Because, whenever we try to change anything, there’s always a bit of resistance.”
Ironically, after selling off the Seven Series 1, Lotus moved on to making bigger, relatively heavier cars (the heaviest car Lotus currently makes is the US-Spec Evora, which tips the scales at just 3,153 lbs). So, Caterham, sticking to Colin Chapman’s “simplify, then add lightness” mantra, realized his original vision in a more orthodox way than the company he founded.
And that’s not marketing B.S. The Caterham Seven 620R is the most powerful model the company makes, pumping out 310 horsepower. But, the 620R only weighs 1,345 lbs, giving it a power-to-weight ratio of 508bhp-per-metric tonne — nearly identical to the Bugatti Veyron. Granted, Caterham cars don’t come with ABS, airbags, heat or a spare tire as standard. (You’ll also have to spec a windshield in some cases too.)
Even though those old-school facts and figures are what lead to incredibly fun cars, our changing times are becoming impossible to ignore. “It would take a brave man to sit in my position and say we’ll be able to do that for forever and a day,” MacDonald said. Low-volume car manufacturers don’t currently have to follow as strict regulations as, say, Ford or BMW; hence, Caterham can sell cars without mandatory features like ABS or airbags or build crumple zones into the car’s design. But that may change.
The Obama administration passed the Low Volume Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Act of 2015, which opened regulations, making it easier for companies like Caterham, who produced only around 500 cars over the past couple of years. Recently, the Trump administration has been trying to tighten those regulations, making it tough for manufacturers like Caterham to sell cars in the U.S. To sell cars here, Caterham has to work loopholes in the laws, in that they ship the chassis and parts over — everything minus the engine — to a dealer network here in the States. The dealers then assemble the cars and drop in engines sourced here in America, which tend to be Ford 1.6-liter Sigma or 2.0-liter Duratec engines. Should regulations tighten further, dealers would no longer be allowed to build the cars, placing that burden on the customer.
Despite Caterham’s strict allegiance to the styling of the past, MacDonald is confident Caterham can move into the future without upsetting its core fanatics. “We are looking at alternatives. We always have one eye on what’s going on in the world, and the world is changing, very rapidly, around electric cars and autonomous vehicles. So who knows where we’ll go in the future.” Does that mean the manufacturer of one of the most engaging sports cars in history is going to start building SUVs or go all-electric? Hardly. “One thing that will be certain is we will continue to build the Seven in the way it is built today, for as long as we can, for as long as regulations allow us to do it.”