Lotus Seven Embodies Automotive Simplicity and Purity

I recently watched an episode of the excellent PBS show “The Mind of a Chef”, in which the topic was the nature of Japanese food. The host’s conclusion was that ultimately, what makes things like ramen, robotoyaki, and yep, sushi, so special is the remarkable simplicity of these dishes—a conscious refinement, a pared back, raw essence wrought through hundreds and hundreds of years of even-handed, yet deliberate cultural effort. He further explained that simplicity doesn’t mean a lack of complexity or sophistication of the cuisine’s flavor, aroma, or presentation, but that the powerful concentration of these distinct elements in their purest forms only enhanced the experience as a whole—the removal of the superfluous and distracting only condenses the pleasure of the eater. Besides making me incredibly hungry for a big bowl of Tonkatsu, it also got me thinking about the Lotus Seven.

The little squashed cigar with cycle fenders, subject of literally dozens of replicas, is the definition of automotive minimalism, a rolling embodiment of the famous Mies Van Der Rohe idea that “less is more”. Stripped down to bare essentials, the Seven is nothing more than a frame, engine, gearbox, suspension, and brakes wrapped in the smallest, most basic body imaginable. To sit behind one’s saucer-sized steering wheel, butt resting on little more than a slightly padded piece of plywood or composite, feet crowding a pedal well too small for even the slimmest of shoes, outside elbow resting inches from tarmac is to be a pilgrim in driving holy land.

The electric immediacy of response and visceral quality of feedback a Seven offers is more down to Colin Chapman’s prevailing attitudes towards lightness and intelligent packaging of mass than any one design specification—not that it’d be possible to highlight any seeing as the concept has evolved so much over the past five and a half decades. Nearly every kind of suspension arrangement you can name has been tried in one form or another, surely each with their own unique set of benefits and liabilities, but the common thread of driving bliss that ties all Seven variants together is purely down to its brutal, single-minded  simplicity.

First introduced in 1957, Chapman sold Sevens in both turnkey and kit configurations, just as Caterham have continued to do ever since it originally licensed the design more than 40 years ago. Though now available in a wide array of specifications, even the most modestly equipped car is capable of outperforming conventional machines several hundred percent more powerful, while more extreme versions can easily out-drag modern crotch rockets. Incidentally, a lot of these bikes have been sourced as drivetrain donors for special track edition Sevens, their relative lack of torque not an issue in a car weighing a few grocery sacks over half a ton—not that you’d take one shopping, anyway.

There’s a guy in my neighborhood with what I’m guessing is an older Caterham, requisite BRG with yellow nose cone, Minilites shod with impossibly skinny donuts, and  what sounds an awful lot like a Toyota 4AGE—a Cosworth BDA clone itself—rorting, snarling, and popping through a blued header and sooty sidepipe. He’s an older guy with a fondness for stringback gloves, leather goggles, still having fun, still enjoying the best and purest of what cars have to offer. After a winter-long absence from the streets, I saw him parked in front of a Teriyaki place the other day…