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Caterham 7

Broadcast date : 18th April 2004

Caterham Cars was founded in Surrey, England, over 40 years ago, but the Caterham's heritage goes back much further than that. In fact, notwithstanding copyright rules, every enthusiast refers to these little cars as Lotus 7s.

The Lotus 7 was originally designed by the late Colin Chapman, founder of Lotus, in 1957. Chapman entered Formula One soon afterwards and would eventually steer the likes of Jim Clark, Graham Hill, Jochen Rindt and Mario Andretti to World Championships in the 1960s and '70s.

Graham Hill was the first man to race a Lotus 7 in 1958, and the car soon became a cult favourite on the British Club racing circuit.

In South Africa too, the likes of Brausch Nieman successfully campaigned Lotus 7s here in the 1960s to great effect.

The first Lotus 7 was powered by a puny 40 horsepower sidevalve Ford Prefect motor and a three-speed gearbox. But its light weight and excellent handling saw it set up lap times that amazed competitors in sophisticated European exotica.

More power was inevitable and today there are replica versions using Mazda Rotary power with over 200 horsepower, making them insanely quick.

Caterham is in fact the spiritual successor to the Lotus line. In the early 1970s Lotus ceased production of the 7 and sold the manufacturing jigs and the copyright to the Seven name to Caterham, which was already established as a 7 distributor.

Since then Caterham has been established as the builder of "genuine" 7s, although there are many other companies producing 7 replicas all over the world.

Almost every motoring journalist who has ever driven one likens the Caterham 7 to a four-wheeled motorcycle. In fact the sparse cockpit and open cycle-fendered wheels are pure motorcycle in essence.

Others have said that a Caterham is "the most fun you can have with your clothes on" and this has drawn a whole list of celebrities to the Caterham catalogue.

Rock stars that have owned Caterhams are legendary, and include the likes of Steve Tyler and Joe Perry from Aerosmith and gravel-voiced Chris Rea, who is a hard-core racer on the British club racing scene. British tv presenter Jeremy Clarkson has also been known to have a go in a Caterham.

The British Caterham series has been running as a one make racing class in the UK since 1986. And the recently established Caterham Cars South Africa plans to establish a similar series here.

The man behind the Caterham in South Africa is Derick Irving, one of the finest racing talents to come out of South Africa.

Irving has won more South African championships than any other driver and came within a whisker of being crowned the world 250 cc Superkart champion in the 1980s. He also competed in the South African team in the 100 cc international class, racing and beating the likes of future F1 stars, in those days, such as Elio de Angelis.

The self-effacing Irving, now 50 years old, still races today in the Volkswagen Polo series, but his dream is to establish a one-make Caterham series here.

Irving reasons that in the current 7 club races there is too much disparity between engines and chassis configurations, even though all the cars look much the same.

Thus a competitor with a 70 kW Ford motor in a 7 is made to look very shabby against one of the 170 kW rotary-powered machines. His girlfriend can't tell the difference and neither can most fans on the stands.

A one-make race series, using the Caterham's Toyota RunX RSi motor which  produces 141 kiloWatts, will provide equality of power. So too will the standard Caterham chassis which is much safer than most 7 replicas, being wider, featuring a comprehensive roll cage, and honeycomb side panels for crash protection.

The sophisticated De Dion rear suspension provides amazing handling, and the Avon slick tyres last for up to six race meetings.

The cars are also very fast. The 0-100 km/h time is under five-seconds, thanks to a weight of under 600 kg, and top speed is over 220 km/h.

At a cost of R250 000 including a six-speed gearbox and the fuel-injected Toyota engine, the Caterham is one beautiful race machine.

And future plans include establishing a racing school using Caterhams, to provide invaluable open-wheeler experience for racing stars of the future.

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