The Lotus Seven: An Aesthetic Appreciation.
In this series we examine the Lotus models in terms of their aesthetics. This is a separate consideration to the history, competition, technical and originality aspects of each car. This is recorded by greater experts and can be researched on the Internet.
Here we are concerned almost exclusively with the design of the machine and attempt to explain those elusive qualities.
In the author’s estimation Colin Chapman had considerable aesthetic appreciation and this was a dominant theme of his life. Colin design mantra was for elegance and the correctness and expression of form and function. Colin was more than a competent draughtsman and could give expression to ideas in drawings.
Some engineers may not be comfortable with a debate about aesthetics but at the A&R we believe they are central to the fullest appreciation of Colin Chapman’s genius and motivation. Further more it may be that the aesthetics even if not consciously experienced had a profound impact on the buying public and have contributed to the enduring appeal and collectability of these designs.
Furthermore we believe it is important to treat design as a worthy subject in its on right for the purpose of promoting good design, of analytical comparison and in some small way acknowledge an indebtedness to the best of the past.
For each reader to increase his or her awareness and visual appreciation we recommend that the image research aspect of the Internet be used along with our photo library. It is also suggested that readers might like to explore our series on fine art and perhaps develop their powers of appreciation by drawing or photographing cars. [The editor’s welcome comment and supportive information and illustrations that develop or extend themes.]
It is appreciated that aesthetics is subjective and for this reason we are happy to print an additional interpretation
In this article we also look and attempt to explain why certain designs seem to be compromised during their production life and this does not just occur to the Seven.
Few cars have achieved the cult status of the Seven or endured so long or indeed been copied!! In measuring the correctness of a design its worth noting not a single copy has been able to improve or make further reductions on the original; this is a raw indication of aesthetic merit. It is important to understand and analyse the special appeal of this car. In this article the author will attempt some explanations in terms of the aesthetic look, psychology and performance. The author summarises these elements that may have contributed to the cult status:
The performance [Publicised Road tests] and the David and Goliath aspect of small car.
The distinctive appearance
The track and competition success
The appearance and symbolism through the Prisoner TV programme.
The reputation of the Lotus brand in motor sport.
The availability to enthusiasts as a component car.
Timing and entry into market place [sociological factors of the times particularly the early 1960’s]
The acceleration, don’t forget the acceleration.
The Seven has entered folklore and fable .The name and association mingling and the reputation growing of the legendary myth, and mystique. Of course this was not an exaggeration. The Seven had the power to mesmerise.
For many they loved the fact that the Seven was anti establishment. There was something indecorous even indecent about its performance. Of Lotus cars it had often been said, “They had no respect for reputation” In the case of the Seven the giant killer this statement was in big letters.
The Series I Seven was launched at the 1957 Earls Court Motor Show.
Colin Chapman’s comments
The Seven was not deliberately styled or pretentiously conceived with high aesthetic ideals in mind. These being the result of uncompromising function and an attention to detail and essential correctness of balance.
Chapman as a replacement created the Seven for the Mk.VI and it is thought that Hazel Chapman might have suggested it as practical option in the Lotus range .The purpose to compliment and continue a theme plus loyalty to Lotus enthusiasts. It’s also possible that the Seven represented a practical opportunity to deploy the racing staff out of season and to offer additional cash flow. Colin mentioned on one occasion that:
“It was just a bread and butter line”
The space frame evolved from the Mk.VI and retained much of the structural form but also bore close resemblance to the Eleven. [But with fewer tubes and alternative reinforcement]
Colin has been quoted as saying:
“The Seven was the car I dreamed of as a school boy………..the most basic, lightest high performance car… a students car if you like…a four wheel motorbike”
And on another occasion he remarked that the objective and design criteria of the car were:
“The simplest, most basic lightest high performance little car that he could come up with for two people at minimum cost.”
That cost was in fact £536 in kit form or £1036 complete. These figures are better understood in terms of the wages of the time [see A&R article devoted to this subject of price relativity] and against such cars as the Mini and Austin Healey Sprite Mk.1. The Seven was relatively expensive.
Aesthetic Appeal and Impressions including Coachwork
The author suggests that the Seven combined the very best of tradition and modernity. Its design possessed the vocabulary. It spoke uncompromisingly of performance and visually articulated its form and fiction with equal and complementary directness.
In its overall architecture the Seven retained many pre-war cannons of accepted taste and style in the sports car. These elements included:
Overall proportion; bonnet to cockpit to boot.
Cut don “door sides”
Slab screen with aero-screens
External exposed headlamps
Spare wheel rear mounting
Open cycle wing mudguards
Discernable and prominent radiator opening
Hand built coachwork.
Cam shell guards often associated with running boards [Series II]
Most of these features are associated with British classical sports cars from the 1930’s onwards. Cars such as Jaguar, Riley, M.G.
However the modern twist that Colin Chapman introduced was the light compact package with significantly lower build, based on smaller lighter wheels.
The author would venture that the Seven Series I represented the best of both worlds. Visually its clues and architecture were easily recognised and understood. It instantly articulated its function. Its vocabulary was clear precise sharp and needed no translation or interpretation.
This was significant and contributed to an evolutionary leap forward. The Seven was significantly different structurally with its space frame, but it retained and perhaps even accentuated known and accepted conventions
That author believes that Colin Chapman was consummate in his aesthetic appreciation. He did not allow ego or style to detract from the purest aesthetic forms He never allowed his cars to descend into base utilitarianism although they may have been assembled from disparate sources and although they may have been relatively expensive.
In their design and execution the author reads homogeneity. They possessed a quality of professionalism if weighed towards design and coachwork.
Simply stated form and function existed in perfect unison and articulated themselves without compromise or confusion.
The author has great affection for the Mk.VI [see previous article] but it is recognised that that the Seven stands on its own and in many respects the further simplification added to its appeal.
The author has lived in Caterham for 28 years and has enjoyed the great privilege of studying at close quarters the various Seven incarnations. [Both at Caterham Cars and Redline]
Specifically Seven Series I [HSK 227] has been in Caterham Cars showroom for most of this time. It is this car that the author uses as a benchmark and from which photographs were taken.
The Seven has a Hornet like quality particularly the hard polished body shell. The craftsmanship of Williams and Pritchard are the most perfect elaboration of understatement. The surface is tactical. So simple but exquisitely executed flawless and jewel like but never gaudy; any imperfection magnified as result of unpainted finish. Even stationery the car speaks of speed, manoeuvrability, responsiveness, tenacity and sting. The visual statement is assertive within a controlled taught drawn and controlled discipline. Understatement is the root of the beauty of the Seven. It is deceptive almost to defy accurate notation.
The Seven is simple but never lax. The open cockpit is an invitation. The view down the bonnet appears dramatic longer partly due to the low and inclined seating position, driver embraced and enclosed within the chassis; and the fact the nose cone tapers away quite sharply and is out of view. The small parabolic headlamp bowls [Lucas] sit low and nestle close to the nose cone asymmetrical and vestigial. They are flanked by the outrigger pencil like torpedo sidelights which indicate the near extremity of the body width.
In the case of the Seven Series II with the cam shell wings these impart a feeling of flight as if they could lift and glide magnificently away.
The Series I may be considered to possess the purest and most refined form. This might be attributed to:
Elegance at the minimum associated with low power source
Conceptual correctness and homogeneity of one mans thinking and detail
The quality and execution of the aluminium bodies by consummate craftsmen coachbuilders. They convey and radiate presence in metal and raise the concept of form and function to the highest level. [Credit to Williams and Pritchard – see A&R article]
The Series 1. 1957-1960. [Detailed study of HSK 227] the four Elevations.
The Series I seven has a smaller frontal area than the MkVI. This is achieved as a result of using a smaller lower set radiator slightly inclined. This permits the nose cone to drop at a sharper angle. The two cars are generally easily distinguished although the rule is broken on rare occasion. The wishbone suspension on the Series I Seven also separates the two models.
In this elevation the Seven also has a more attractive windscreen arrangement it tapers backwards and inwards and is less slab like than the Mk.VI.
The side elevations of the Mk.VI and Seven series I have much in common. Look out for the more drooping nose to help separate the two.[ more pronounced in this elevation]
The Series I seven was intended as a sports car and there is a small capacity boot and spare wheel. On the Mk.VI this was an option known as the “touring back”. The rear portion of the body is inclined inwards. This is a very small detail but looks more attractive than a 90% upright.
In this elevation the wheels are very pronounced. Again there might be some easy confusion with the Mk.VI both are known to have used 15” wheels of either pressed steel type [with or without hubcaps] and wire wheels .HSK 227 looks particularly attractive fitted with a full set of wire wheels and racing tyres .The polished spokes seem both functional and continue and code with the polished aluminium body.
In this angle it will be noted how the windscreen lays back. Wipers are driven by a conventional motor housed in the bulkhead. Series I Seven are often fitted with small diameter Lucas headlamps and the infamous dipping arrangement. Like the Mk.VI there are separate cycle guards with the small torpedo sidelights.
The ground clearance is small and the car evidently very low. HSK 227 in many respects is both a foil and striking comparison with the current generation Caterhams alongside. [It’s not often that we can make critical and immediate comparisons]
The exhaust and silencer [chromed] run parallel with he underside of the car and terminates inline with the cut down cockpit sides. The respective materials complementary and reflective of each other blended, understated and ever so just right.
The aluminium coachwork is superb and unpainted. Its polished form proclaiming its technical perfection without concealed blemish and only serves to accentuate form and function.
There is no cockpit cowl on the Seven. From this angle it also noted that a small cover fits over the small storage area. Much of the impact is in the small detail , the simplicity and contrast. Quality and quite understatement coexist.
As noted the Seven Series I has a small storage area behind the cockpit. This is also the space where the hood is kept. The spare wheel is supported in conjunction with the rear number plate and lamp. A small leather belt strap is used as a retainer and the wheel slightly protrudes over the body side.
Stoplights again simple and elegant are proportional to the rear guards and seem to set of the double curvature to perfection.
I think it worth mentioning that very few early Series I Seven’s were fitted with roll bars. In the authors opinion the absence of the roll bar adds to he aesthetic. The road holding of the car did not really warrant this intrusion. Seven’s fitted with roll bars seem disfigured as they seems so disproportionately large and appear to double the height of the car [although its fully appreciated the safety and regulation of fitment]
Seen from the rear HSK 227 highest point is the lightweight aluminium windscreen frame. Again this seems the barest essential to do the job.
Seen from above the car appears primarily as a slightly blunted arrow head.[ i.e. main body shape] the overall plan including wheels falling into a rectangle. The body tapers from the cockpit towards the nose cone. This is terminated behind the front wheels [otherwise would be very vulnerable to damage]. When constructed in polished aluminium the bonnet length seems to run uninterrupted and appear as one with the nose cone. [Visually suggesting / indicating a large in-line engine] The same impact is implanted with the driver and adds to the appeal and driving sensation.
There is no cowl on the Seven. This is an obvious saving and simplification. As a result the dashboard is much narrower and the instruments proportionately smaller as is the steering wheel. [ the cowl is a real distinguishing feature on the Mk.VI and gives the car a slightly pre-war feel which is accentuated by the large 5” revcounter. However the author realises that it is a relatively complex piece to make and has no real advantage when a full windscreen is fitted. By the time the Seven went into production pre-war instruments might have been scarce and smaller instruments were totally in keeping.
The simple seats are made like the Mk.VI. The hand brake lever has been moved to create a little more space but is more difficult to reach and operate when located under the passenger shelf.
An interesting but perhaps trivial aesthetic comparison
It has been noted that both the Mk.VI and Seven have similarities. Both cars in period were often painted .The current trend on restoration is to leave cars unpainted. The author has seen examples of both cars painted and does not feel that this seriously detracts. The addition of wire wheels or chrome hubcaps to painted car adds the minimum of sparkle to just set off looks without cheap and tasteless adornment. However the advent of the Series II Seven with the GRP nosecone, cam shells and rear guards saw a crop of cars presented with a mixture of polished aluminium and the self-coloured GRP. In the authors opinion this seems to detract from the visual wholeness and whereas certain pre-war cars could carry off two-tone effects I don’t think this applies to the Seven. The impact seems to break the car up and interrupt the eye. In particular it suggests the car is not so long and low. The author is the first to admit this is merely a visual impression and preference.
The Series II.1960-1968
The series II made some significant changes but these in the author’s opinion did not radically alter the aesthetic appeal.
Wheels and tyres were reduced to 13” This only served to accentuate the look by further lowering the overall height of the car. Although the cycle wings remained available the Series II has become identified with the cam shell wings. These were functional and attractive and did not overburden the car in any way; in fact they blended very successfully and integrated within the overall envelope. They had an evolutionary connection with pre-war practice and tradition. They were equally attractive viewed from the cockpit.
Note on the Series IV the wings extend back into the rear guards unlike the Series II &III that terminate approximately level with the windscreen.
The author feels that these open cars look better without side screens but those adopted were consistent with the whole. The Series II did not have a roll bar and the overall statement spoke of intelligent design and not afterthoughts or compensations.
Possibly the greatest distinguishing feature of the Series II was the new GRP nose cone. It is believed John Frayling designed this. Although a deliberate attempt to both simplify and reduce costs it was done so well that it was consistent and integrated. It did not significantly detract and did not in any way indicate a compromise or enforced economy. [When cars were painted all one colour there was a functional merging. See note above]
It is thought that Albert Adams played a role in the new composite components.
The Series III.1968-69/70
By this stage in its evolution the Seven was using some engines with approximately four times the horsepower of the original. New tyres were both available and necessary as were back axles [commercial availability and to accept the larger power]. Although essentially externally the same structure the use of wider tyres and rear axle had an impact on the overall aesthetic. For some the car looked even more aggressive but the author contends that the svelte like grace of the original suffered in being bulked up on steroids
The Series IV.1969-c1972/73
This was by far the greatest departure. The Series IV is an interesting proposition and to many engineers well regarded in its ability to retain performance whilst adding practical benefits.
It was probably intended to be contemporary, retain sales in a changing more sophisticated market and be more profitable. The bodywork was intended to be made in house and to keep costs down. These were understandable objectives. Translating them into reality and the complex psychology of the buying public is another thing. [For a moment consider Morgan]. What the Series IV gained in practicality and profitability it lost in appearance and perhaps association.
The Series IV is associated with Mike Warner, Peter Lucas and Alan Barrett [body style]
For many the Series IV lost its way. Possibly due to the angular nature, the attempt at the then current trend in wedge shape. In some respects it looks more like the “dune buggies” of the era. Design, appearance and aesthetics are very subjective but powerful and sublime influences. Production economics, assembly techniques or accounts can save money but often with a loss of emotional and intellectual resonance.
The Series IV was just recognisable as a Seven but lost much of its ability to articulate purpose in a traditional manner. It was at attempt at being “Groovy”. The 1970’s were the decade of the “origami” and wedge style. The Series IV was well thought out and executed but the sharp edges suggested a box and the body seemed to have been dropped on rather than sculptured.
Caterham Cars. [Series III 1974-1981]
It is interesting to note that Graham Nearn [Caterham Cars] on acquiring the manufacturing rights returned to the Series III body shape and construction method. This was a commercial consideration and Graham Nearn was listening to his customers.
However the Caterham has evolved and they have constantly adapted to new technology in tyres, handling and not least the power trains, and rear axle availability [it should be noted as its easy to forget the modern generation of cars from the 1960’s onwards had had a bias to front wheel drive and the availability of live rear axle have declined.]
Caterham have also introduced a longer and wider cockpit. Changing legislation has also impacted on the cars and includes headlamps ground clearance, safety, emissions, etc. much of which is fixed including location and height etc. Thus the proportions of a car can be lost under the force of regulation.
Currently at Caterham Cars Showroom [see previous A&R article] a Series I Seven [HSK 227 – see above] is on display alongside the current generation of models. It makes for fascinating comparison in a study of continuity and technological evolution. There is the obvious DNA but in subtle ways the modern generation seems to have lost a homogeneity whereby components coexist in balanced harmony and integration.
The author is willing to accept that taste is subjective and age may influence perception and psychology. The younger generation find no such problem and easily accept the superior performance and related benefits.
Full width body
Lotus is believed to have attempted a full width body on the Seven. An elevation drawing exists but the aesthetic seems poor and as if production costs were the exclusive determinant. The car has something of the look of the amphibious cars of he 1960’s and some of the unsuccessful kit cars attempted on other manufactures chassis. The drawing further suggests that two body halves and joined in a very pronounced fashion [joined at flange?] .The spare wheel appears to lie horizontal partly exposed above the rear axle. Functional it might be but lacking any real grace. In some respects it looks like a cut down Europa.
It might be worth noting that Caterham Cars did attempt a new approach with the 21.It is believed a design was made by Ian Robertson. This might be slightly unfair and inappropriate comparison in the sense that it was not the equivalent of a series IV update but a fully enclosed body on a Seven space frame chassis. The 21 were not a commercial success and the author attributes this in part to the aesthetic [it was rather bland and had no clear identification; it was neither totally modern of convincingly retro. It had shades of TVR and Ginetta] but the BMW became available and offered a very effective and attractive package including price.
Aesthetic Alteration and the Ageing Process.
The author would contend that some of the most aesthetic car designs have been spoilt, even corrupted or diluted during their production life. The author would submit these examples:
Jaguar E type
Lotus Seven and Europa
The author would suggest that the explanation of this trend might be attributed to and related to the passage of time and perhaps evolutionary forces:
Increased engine power
New technology including tyres
New competition and rivalry in market place
Government regulation and import restrictions etc
Owner preference. Passage of time new generation.
Desire for reduced maintenance or servicing
Victim of success.
Conclusion and Authors personal assessment.
Few cars have been in production so long and continued to capture the public’s imagination. The author would suggest much of which is associated with the aesthetic related performance. For all those whom aspire to the minimum and the stark Spartan code the Seven will remain relevant.
Within the car there is something of a metamorphosis. That such relative simplicity should contain such excess of performance and this should partly remain concealed and partly understated.
The Seven has that ability to be indelible and simultaneously incredulous. The myth is justly deserved and perhaps ought be more widely accepted as an industrial design icon of the 20c. In fact the Design Museum ought give it an exhibition.
In the authors personal assessment the aesthetic merit of the Seven is:
Ist: Series 2
2nd: Series 1
3rd: Series 3
4th: Series 4
The Series II for me is the quintessential model .In particular the white or light coloured car that features in the brochure for the “Exciting New Lotus Super Seven 1500 “ which incidentally was offered for £585 in kit form.
This is the car that became indelibly fixed in the authors mind. The car is posed so you look at the rear and into the cockpit and this suggests and invitation to drive. In this car there seems to be an attractive practical package but one in which form and function are retained.
The car sits on narrow tyres, pressed steel wheels and chrome hubcaps but this is the only trim. The 7” Lucas headlamps are larger but not obtrusive or so large they look as if the could make the car turn cartwheels. There is a nice simple contrasting cover over the boot store area and the instruments are just right including wipers and indicators .I will always remember the speedo in front of the passenger!! The spare wheel is interchangeable and accessible.
As mentioned in the paragraph on icon this model and from this angle represents the best of recognised traditional vocabulary with known and proven modern performance likely to compete with any think else at any price based on its handling.
Ground clearance and the poise of the car is perfect. There are no side screens and you just want to clamber in and drive away. Out of site is the trust forward radiator low set with modest understated mesh grill. Front suspension exposed where the technology can be “read”
For me the Series I is a significant piece of machinery and its doubtful if it will ever be improved on. I feel from many angles it looks too similar to the Mk.VI and does not possess that final aesthetic finesse that allows it to differentiate it self.
The author provides some accompanying pictures and it’s hoped that our users will have their observations and will contact us with their photographs and opinions.
Measurements as indicators of proportion.
Super Seven 1500
HEIGHT [top scuttle] 2’4”
Lotus Seven and Caterham.
The Lotus and Caterham Sevens
Motor Racing Publications, 1986
Lotus and Caterham Seven*
Crowood Press, 1995
Colin Chapman Lotus Engineering
Lotus seven: Restoration, Preparation and Maintenance.
Lotus and the Independents*
Illustrated Motor Legends: Lotus*
The Magnificent Seven*
Lotus and Caterham Seven*
Lotus Seven: Super Profile*
The Lotus Book*
Coterie Press, 1999
* Book or information available in the A&R library. Please ask if you require more information or clarification.
Author: John Scott-Davies