The Lotus Seven – A No-Frills Sports Car

Photograph of a Lotus Seven, ca. 1950s-1960s.

Sports cars have long captured the imagination of the motoring public. Usually small two-seaters, they are designed to feature a combination of brisk performance and excellent handling. The philosophy regarding what a sports car should be varies widely from company to company. Some manufacturers believe that sports cars should be basic machines of simple design. One company that adhered to this philosophy was Lotus Engineering Company, a small specialist car manufacturer based in Hornsey, England. At the 1957 London Auto Show, the British company introduced one of the most basic, no-frills sports cars ever conceived: the Lotus Seven.

The Lotus Seven was the creation of Lotus’ founder and chief engineer Colin Chapman. Conceived as club racer that could also be legally driven on the road, it was built according to Chapman’s engineering philosophy of “simplify, then add lightness,” which remains a Lotus company hallmark to this day. To accomplish these ends, the Seven was constructed using as few materials as possible. The Seven was built on a simple, yet sophisticated, multi-tubular space frame chassis. The car’s chassis was clothed in an all-aluminum body. In lieu of full fenders, motorcycle-style fenders were placed over the front wheels. The car’s driver accommodations were decidedly spartan. The cockpit was cramped and barely had enough room for two people. Initially, only a small fold-down windshield provided any measure of driver comfort. Because the Seven was so insubstantial in terms of physical form, it was an extraordinarily light car, weighing in at a mere 1,655 pounds.

Trade catalog for the 1959 Lotus Seven Series 1.

Not only was the Lotus Seven intended to be simple and light, it was also designed to be inexpensive. To keep costs down, the car made extensive use of readily available components sourced from other automakers. The Seven was initially powered by a British Ford 100E inline-four engine, which displaced 1072 cc (72 cubic inches) and was good for 36-40 horsepower. At the time of its introduction, it also used a Ford three-speed manual transmission and a BMC (British Motor Corporation) rear axle. Most cleverly of all, to avoid Britain’s purchase tax on new automobiles, the Lotus Seven was for many years available only in kit form. According to Lotus, the Seven could be assembled using ordinary hand tools.

In spite of being simple and inexpensive, the Lotus Seven was a remarkably brisk performer for its day. Although the earliest examples were modestly powered, their light weight gave them a surprisingly high top speed of 81-90 miles per hour. The Seven was also renowned for its outstanding road-holding abilities. Such performance characteristics made the Seven one the most dominant club racers of all time, chalking up hundreds of class wins over the course of its competitive life.

Trade catalog image of a disassembled Lotus Seven Series 2, 1960s

The Lotus Seven enjoyed a long production run and was constantly developed. Four generations of the car made their appearance: the Series 1 (1957-1960), Series 2 (1960-1968), Series 3 (1968-1970), and Series 4 (1970-1973). Most of the changes to the Seven were evolutionary in nature, including, but not limited to, larger and more powerful engines, the full front fenders, and fiberglass body panels. But the car’s basic design concept remained remarkably unchanged.

Around 3,000 Lotus Sevens were built, but interestingly, the car never went out of production. Lotus sold the rights to the Seven to Caterham Cars in 1973, which continues to develop and build the Seven under the Caterham nameplate to this day.

Sources

Covello, Mike, Standard Catalog of Imported Cars, 1946-2002; Iola, Wisconsin: Krause Publications, 2002, p. 479-484.

Georgano, Nick, ed. The Beaulieu Encyclopedia of the Automobile Volume 1: A-L; Norwich, England: The Stationery Office, 2000, p. 924-927.

Lotus Cars http://www.lotuscars.com/

Lotus Seven: Lotus: Trade Catalogs: Specific Models: Lotus +2 and Seven, 1964-1967, Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.

Lotus 7, the build-it-yourself sports car, 1959

Lotus Seven Register http://www.lotus7register.co.uk/


Photograph of a Lotus Seven, ca. 1960s.

Kenton Jaehnig is the Project Archivist for the Z. Taylor Vinson Collection at Hagley Museum and Library.

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