Words by Martin Hughes
It was back in 1973, when Caterham Cars took over the production of the Lotus Seven lightweight sports car. Could anyone have foreseen they would still be making the Seven forty-two years later in 2015? Over the years there have been many variants of the Seven but one of the most important has been the Superlight. The original Superlight came out in 1996 and was touted as an even more stripped back and driver focussed version of a car that was already, well, stripped back and driver focussed!
The Superlight was just that – a version of the Super Seven made to be as lightweight as possible and with enough performance equipment to make it as exciting to drive on the track and road as possible – without including an outright powerhouse of an engine. This was very much in line with the Seven’s heritage. Lotus founder and engineering genius Colin Chapman’s sentiment of ‘in order to go faster – add lightness’ was very much at play here.The original Superlight came without paint (only bare aluminium bonnet and skin), carbon fibre components where possible (wings, dashboard, nose cone, aeroscreen), no carpets and composite race seats. Performance components included Caterham’s own 6- speed gearbox (ratioed to keep the little 4-cylinder 1.6 litre Rover K-Series engine on the boil at all times), limited slip differential, uprated brakes and slightly wider track adjustable ‘sports’ suspension. Motorsports tyres with stickier rubber were also supplied as standard.
Many variants of the Superlight came over the years that followed. The Superlight R, R300, R400 and R500 – all with progressively more power being squeezed out of the old K-Series. When the Rover engine supply finally ran dry, Caterham switched to the sublime 2.0 litre Ford Duratec power unit. Slightly heavier but with lots more power and torque available in standard form and very tuneable all the way up to 300bhp plus – if you were crazy enough. Who could forget that episode of Top Gear from late 2008 when the Stig took a Duratec Superlight R500 around Dunsfold in 1:17.9s (quicker than a Bugatti Veyron), on a day when the track temperature was said to be close to zero. This was enough to make the R500 Top Gear’s Car of the Year 2008 which catapulted Caterhams in general – Superlights specifically, right under the nose of many petrolheads who may not have been aware of the fantastic performance available from these odd little cars.
Nowadays the humble original Superlight can still be seen competently holding its own amongst newer and more powerful Caterhams on trackdays around the UK and elsewhere. At a recent outing to Llandow, a couple of mid ‘90s Superlights – still in stock form – were some of the fastest cars on the track. Last week at the Goodwood Revival, Caterham launched the Superlight Twenty. The cars will be ready to ship in early 2016 – twenty years after the launch of the original.The specification of the ‘Twenty’ is very close the original. This time though the power is to be provided by the same 1.6 litre Ford Sigma unit that has been powering the Caterham Seven Roadsports for the last few years. It is set up to put out a modest but very useable 135bhp and with the weight just shy of 500kg, well, you do the sums. 0-62mph in around 4.9sec and a top speed of 122mph is achievable on track.
There are still upgrades that you would probably want to add however. At the very least, an FIA spec roll over bar which would allow you to participate in Lotus Seven Club track days. Why Caterham still persist with the smaller roll over bar as standard is anyone’s guess. Weather gear (i.e. a windscreen and hood) is probably also worth having – if only for those long treks to Spa or the Nürburgring to fend off the worst of the weather while still carrying the aeroscreen with you in the passenger footwell ready to switch over when you hit the track.
It is for the above reasons that many in the Caterham fraternity get a little dewey-eyed when reminiscing about their old Superlights. A bit of surfing on social media reveals one serial Caterham owner, with at least an R400 and two R500s in his car history, was one of the first to put in an order for the a Superlight Twenty. You’d better get your order in quick if you even slightly think you might want one as Caterham are only going to make twenty examples of this little cracker. As this is MotorStars – what of the investability of the Superlight Twenty? Well, as long as you look after it – it should hold its value very well indeed. Caterhams are known for very low depreciation rates and generally people pay for well spec’d cars – regardless of age.
Price comes in at £26,995 for the car in kit form and £29,995 if you get the factory to build it. As an owner of a self-built Superlight R300 I can thoroughly recommend the build experience. There is nothing more satisfying than completing the build of a highly capable race car and driving the nuts off it around Snetterton or Brands. Then again, a (slightly!) less frenetic blat around the B- roads with the Lotus Seven Club on a Sunday morning is almost as much fun. Now then – will the lovely folks down at Caterham lend the MotorStars team a Superlight Twenty to do a full road test? It would make for a great comparison with our 2009 spec R300…