What is Caterham up to?

The iconic 7 epitomizes freedom and driving pleasure in a minimalist version. Recently, the British brand changed ownership and now there are rumours of a future electric Seven being under development…

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The Seven first appeared in 1957, under the Lotus name. It became ‘Caterham’ in 1973, when Graham Nearn bought the  7 Series 3 rights from Lotus. Over the years, it never ceased to evolve and be adapted, receiving a multitude of engines: Ford, of course, but also Vauxhall and even… a three-cylinder Suzuki lump, more recently. The increasingly restrictive regulations risk to undermine the DNA of the brand: do lightness, ultra-compact dimensions and limited power offering supercar performance at a contained price still have a future?

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New owner

Caterham just changed hands and now belongs to the VT Holdings group. The company has been importing the brand into Japan since 2009 and sells about one hundred cars into the archipelago every year. VT Hodings also imports Lotus and Royal Enfield motorbikes into Japan. The group owns over 200 dealerships and is also active in South Africa and Thailand. The new boss is Kazuho Takahashi ; he teams up with Graham Macdonald, who remains in charge in the UK. He is an experienced pilot who  competed in Le Mans 24 hours. For the first time in its almost 50-year history, the brand is in non-British hands. This will provide some financial security for the manufacturer as Caterham prepares to launch a zero-emission version of the Seven. Macdonald’s priority is to ensure that the car’s handling is that of a true Caterham… Weight will have to be watched!

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The suspension geometry will of course be adapted, just like the chassis. The aim is to limit or even out the additional weight of the batteries and electric motor. Caterham will do without a brake energy recovery system, for example. In order to further limit weight, the electric Seven will be very basic. Acceleration will be on par with the current 620R, with a 0 to 100 km/h time of just under 3 seconds. It seems that a prototype version has already been built and that even if its driving style is different, it retains the brand’s DNA.

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Partnership

After the aborted marriage with Alpine, Caterham now needs to find a new engines and batteries supplier, similar to what currently exists with Ford. Will the brand continue with the American giant? Could one or more other manufacturers come and shake things up? In any case, one thing is certain, Caterham is not looking to buy a turnkey electric system but would prefer to have access to different elements in order to develop its own electric powertrain for the Seven.

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The idea is rather buying small batteries than a turnkey electric platform. Working in such a way reduces development costs, while providing a realistic range and different charging speeds at the same time. A racing electric Seven should be equipped with a fast-charging battery that can be easily replaced by another for endurance stints, for example. The road-going version will not use such a battery because of its different use. The electric Caterham is expected to be developed over the next five years and the 50th anniversary of the brand in 2023 will be the ideal time to officially introduce it. Until then, only petrol engines are and will remain available across the range.

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Macdonald wants to keep this offering for as long as possible, even if the trend towards downsizing means that displacement is decreasing and more and more manufacturers are fitting turbos. Let’s not forget that the brand will no longer be able to sell new vehicles equipped with combustion engines in Great Britain from 2030… In Europe, it is tomorrow, in 2024, that the brand risks being in difficulty because the Seven is unsuitable for the installation of radars and other safety systems. The EEC absorbs about a quarter of the production and obviously Caterham cannot do without it.

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Agreement with Morgan

Caterham recently approached Morgan to collaborate on homologation and testing procedures. Beyond what some see as simple competition, these two manufacturers are facing the same difficulties. At this stage, a wider collaboration with other manufacturers such as Ariel or even Lotus could also be possible. Let’s hope that Caterham won’t fold and that new partnerships will allow the small carmaker to survive in the electric era !

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