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Caterham Seven 160 and the birth of LotusThe Caterham Seven 160 is the latest re-imagining of the classic Lotus 7. But what were the Lotus 1 through 6? XCAR looks into the muddy family tree that explains the very origins of Lotus.
-Hello. I'm Darryl, that's Rich. And this is the Caterham Seven 165, the Euro-spec version of Caterham's brand new lightweight two-seater. This entry model is powered by a tiny 660cc, three-cylinder turbocharged engine upfront, banging out about 80bhp. Now, I know 80 horses doesn't sound a lot in this day and age, but here's the clever thing. This thing now only weighs 490 kilos. And that gives you about the same power to weight ratio as both GTi 28 to GT 86. And that's plenty to play with. The guys at Caterham claim that this, the 165, is a hommage to those early Sevens that Colin Chapman was knocking up in the 1950s. It's on steel, it's 15-inch Elise and skinny tires. -When was the last time you drove anything on steer wheels? -I honestly can't remember. Most XCAR fans will probably know that this Caterham shares its DNA with the lightweight Lotus Seven race from the 1950s. In fact, this latest model is the very embodiment of Lotus' famous simplicate and likeness Ethos. -Until the early 1970s, the Lotus Seven was the catch tale who was helping to keep the company afloat. Lotus sold about 2,500 of these, mostly as complete knock-down kits. And that's because kit cars at that time were exempt from 25 percent purchase tax. And so, for a pretty muddy [unk] way, that meant that the average man could spun together his own Lotus Seven in his own garden shed, and take it racing at the weekend. -Then, a rule back then was that kit car manufacturers, such as Lotus at that time, were not allowed to include assembly instructions with their products. So, Colin Chapman, who is really the master of bending the rules, included a disassembly manual in his kit. You just have to read it backwards. -However, when the UK finally joined EEC in 1973, the kit car tax loophole was closed, and Chapman sold the rights for his aging '70 Caterham, so that he could focus on motor racing and road cars like the Elite and the Elan. -So, there we are, then. The short potted history of the Lotus Seven and its Caterham cousins. But the sharp-witted mathematicians out there might have spotted that something is missing from this Lotus family tree. Series don't normally start at number 7. So, what happened to the early ancestors? What happened to the Lotus's numbered 1 through 6? -Well, to find the real origins of Lotus, you have to go quite away further off the beaten track, literally, to some muddy woodland here in Kent. This is sporting trials, otherwise known as mud plugging. And we have just the man to introduce this sport. -My name is Ian Wright. I got in to the sport of trialing through my parents and family. Trialing is simply the art of getting from the beginning of a section to the end of a section. There's no time involved, there's no speed involved. You go as fast or as slow as you like, but it is continuous, forward motion. And where you fail is where you finish. Trialing is a peculiarly British sport. It was pre-war, but actually rose to huge success post-war when obviously, all the airfields were bombed and race cars were all locked away and buried in garages. So, all the top racing drivers that day went trialing. So, you know, to Stirling Moss' and Graham Hill to this world and Colin Chapman's, trialing was their forte. So, I should be picked up from school in the red car in the middle because it was my mother's-- it was our second car. So, picked up from school during the week and trialing on Sundays. And that carried on through to us, 16 and 17. Then, I decided to build my own car. So, trialing's absolutely in my blood. And I've been British champion a couple of times. The fully red Cannon is my favorite as far as historic trials car is concerned because it's absolutely pure. We built and designed the Sherpa. Having built it is absolutely the pinnacle of the sport today. But it's very expensive, it's very specialized, it's quite tricky to drive. And possibly has slightly wild sport. Because the cars aren't amazingly user-friendly and are so capable, people will get into big trouble in them. Every car has continuously had a big effect on the power to weight ratio. Now, we're going up to 120 horsepower in a car that weighs 350 kilos. -Well, it's like funny. It looks to me like a cross between green-laning WRC and trench warfare. What's the knack to winning? -First, to be a good driver, and reading the ground. -Uh-huh. -You know, you have to have those over kind of earthly understanding of driving. I guess, a little bit like a rally driver. I mean, there's been enormous amount of trials on television. You know, Sunday Grandstand. -Yeah. Yeah. -You had trials cars versus army vehicles. Trials cars were absolutely the-- -So, when was the heyday, then, would you say? -I think the heyday, as far as the public was concerned, had to be the 60s. Whilst it can be a little bit perceived as cloth hat, [unk] coat. When soon, as people jump and fight behind the wheel and have a go, they're just totally hooked by it. -This is kind of Gore-Tex and the Caterham is no mix. -Yeah. Absolutely. -I like it. -People will like the idea that the old cars were road-going. They imagine they're gonna pop down the pub and pop around their mates. In reality, they drive it a few miles an hour. So, it's pretty crude. -But of course, if you look back through the old auto-sports and motoring news is you can see these cars. And you can say, "Oh. That was my car." There is the kind of people getting into historic trials, like the association to history. -Ian put us through our paces in various machines plucked from his fleet of historic and modern trials car. The real art to this sport is reading the ground in front of you, working out your angles of attack, knowing when to blast it and when to trickle along a minimum throttle. Then, on top of that, you've got to fiddle the independent breakthrough wheels like some sort of human traction control. Great fun but a lot to take on board. This is a thinking man's motorsport. -Right. So, Ian's-- he's losing family heirloom. Can you believe that this used to be the family's second car? -What are you doing now? -I think I've gone the wrong way. -Left. -Left now. -There's a definite knock to these. The fact that you've got three hand brakes. Essentially, there's two down here, too. -One of them is wedged in my inner thigh there. I don't think it was designed for the-- -That's for the hand brake. -for big bulge chaps like me. -You seem to be trying to balance great on momentum. -It's still really cool what we're doing. -I don't know what I'm doing, really. -You like center in a trench you are. -Give me the beast. -Now, a tickly man. -It's quite hard to believe that this shares his DNA with that Caterham we were in earlier. -So, how are these trials cars related to modern-day Caterhams? -And you might be surprised to know that Colin Chapman's first foray into motorsport wasn't in the glamorous world of ground-free and circuit racing. It was actually trialing. And while he was still at university, he thought he'd have a bash at it, and he took at the crap at 1930s Austin Seven chassis, chopped the top off it, built a new body out of alloy-reinforced plywood, and after a year of hammering, the back of his girlfriend's shed-- not a euphemism-- he launched the Lotus One. -Go on. -Which looks a bit of the pink by all accounts, for a person on tax van. -But it was one ahead of a trials car. -Well, after Colin Chapman had mastered this, his second trials car was the Lotus Two. And in that, he actually took it circuit racing. And in June 1950, he entered the race at Silverstone. And one of [unk] car is actually a Bugatti Type 37 but any car. And he actually brought the car home for a win. And that marked the turning point for Chapman when he go into circuit racing and Formula 1. And the rest is history. -But he didn't stop, though. He did build two more specials. He built a Lotus Four, which was his first paying customer, actually, which about wrote him to then develop the Lotus Six. -In 1952, the Six became Lotus' first production car. Aimed at the clubman racer, it was built around a light space-frame chassis and soon became a common site to British circuit races in hill [unk] courses, often embarrassing far more expensive machines. However, trialing was still in Chapman's blood and he couldn't resist tinkling with the prototype Lotus Six chassis that happened to be knocking around the workshop to build the ultimate lightweight trials car and go mud plugging for one last time. -And this is that very car. Lotus Six, chassis number one. In evolutionary terms, this is like the missing link. It was their last foray into sporting trials with these beefed up front end. It did very well on-- won a number of trophies but by this time, it was becoming quite clear that Colin Chapman's interests lay elsewhere. -Either 109 Lotus Six that were eventually built were strictly sports cars. And after five years of development, the Six evolved into the famous Lotus Seven, a brilliant, affordable old-school two-seater whose spirit frankly lives on in models like the Caterham 165. -So, there we are. That's the complete family tree. It might seem strange that cars as diverse as the Sherpa and the Caterham are related. But they are. And they owe their success to their mud-swinging ancestors.