The Lotus Seven is one of the oddest and most rewarding cars ever built. Colin Chapman's bug-eyed masterwork has inspired countless copies. Three years ago, we met a large percentage of them at the Tail of the Dragon. Lightness, ho!
This is Flashback Friday, a weekly feature where we republish classic stories from the Jalopnik archives. Think of it as Jalopnik's "Best Of"' series. We chose this particular story because a friend of ours was just given — yes, given — a Lotus Elan, and because Elans and Sevens go together like tube frames and A-arms. Someone needs to give us a Lotus. Anyone? —Ed.
1957: Colin Chapman draws the design for his boyhood dream car in one week's time. This becomes the Lotus 7. 1973: Chapman sells all remaining Series IV 7s to Caterham. Lotus is out of the 7 business for good. 1974: Caterham stops selling Series IV 7s. However, due to enthusiast interest, they began producing the older but more favored Series III car. In the subsequent years, production of 7s (now often referred to as "Se7ens") blossoms around the world, with a variant of Chapman's dream machine being built in 17 countries including Estonia and India. 1985: Austrian rock singer Falco records, Rock Me Amadeus. 2007: The USA7s, whose Acting President just happens to be Jalopnik's own Al Navarro, stages a 50th birthday Se7en Se7en Se7en bash at, up, down and all around the legendary Tail of the Dragon. Oh, and they invited us to come along for the ride.
Turns out Se7en owners are some of the friendliest out-and-out hoons you'll ever be lucky enough to meet. Perhaps more so than with any other car make, a Se7en reflects its owner's off-camber personality (sorry MDorks). Gather 60 or so casual Porsche owners, you'd likely hear them tell of semi-legal stock trades, golf tips and hair plugs. Ferrari owners? Stories about getting Porsche owners' sentences reduced. But after two days with Se7en owners in the eye-popping, jaw-dropping, chart-topping, heart-stopping beauty of the Great Smoky Mountains, I now know the following: the proper protocol for frogging (walk down the center of the stream, shine light in frog's eyes, throw stunned frog into sack, repeat) and how to catch carp with my bare hands while kayaking. I even met an honest-to-goodness electrical engineer from Lucas Electronics. (Yep, he knew all the jokes.) Also, of course, I learned that Colin Chapman is God. But these men (and a lady or two) are not just quirky. They are very, very serious about driving. Case in point, my new buddy/hero Michael Dougherty chased down a procession of Porches and eventually caught the leader who was driving a GT3. Michael's Caterham Se7en makes around 170 horsepower.
Everyone Loves A Non-Parade
Back on point, the gathered Se7ens seemed endless in their variety. They came equipped with a wide range of engines from vehicles as diverse as a Miata, a Yamaha R1, a Datsun 210, a Vauxhall of some description and a Camaro. Such diverse hardware meant these seemingly identical cars all possess unique personalities dictated by nothing but their owners' preferences and budgets. Yet, such wildly divergent cars are all essentially identical. One Lotus Series I in attendance wielded a 75-hp brickbat, while Bob Drye, who once stuffed a 427 into a Manta Mirage, showed up with a turbocharged, SE20-engined Se7en that kicks out "about 600 horsepower." This paradox is one of the many things that make Se7ens such captivating cars. Another reason is Chapman himself.
"The Seven was the car I dreamed about as a schoolboy. When I got the chance to build it, it was the most basic, lightest, high performance little car we could come up with... a student's car if you will – a four-wheeled motorbike."
Though, as I learned whilst being harnessed five-pointedly into various cars, then attacking one of the most challenging stretches of road in the world, Se7ens are much better than motorbikes.
A Beautiful Birkin
The first car I drove over the Dragon was a Lotus Elise. Describing the experience as fantastic means I am a very lazy writer. It was utterly phenomenal. The petite mid-engined Brit danced across the Dragon's 318 corners. The tires seemed to be made not of rubber but pine tar. Even my "kick and stab" driving technique (read: poor) didn't phase it, as I managed to hit 80 mph and live.
Anyone Got $28,950 They Can Lend Me?
I then climbed out of the Elise and into an Autopro Motorsports Westfield Miata-powered Se7en and raced right back up the Dragon. Time for a confession. After an entire morning of being driven up and back down the Dragon as a Se7en passenger, I was two scabs past itching to drive one myself. Doug Beckett, the President of Autopro Motorsports, agreed to let me drive his very fine fiberglass example. As I'm pulling out of the parking lot Doug asks, "You've driven one of these before, eh?" I'm so sorry Doug! The car made me do it (or was it the black lab?). Anyhow, yes friends, the very first time I ever piloted a Se7en was on the Tail of the Dragon.
Holy mother of God was it incredible! Honestly, my first thought was, "The Elise is a fat pig! What a sloppy, silly car." If the Lotus felt like it had stickum on the tires, then the Westfield was riding on invisible train tracks. The whole affair was effortless. Even with a turn every 180 feet or so, there was virtually no need to hit the brakes. The superb suspension dispatched the majority of bends as if they didn't wind in the first place. If speed did need to be shed, the vehicle's low weight (about 1130 lbs. in this case) meant that I simply needed to heel-und-toe it down a notch. The engine took care of the rest, challenge bested. Put it this way: for the final three miles of our run Doug and I were behind a Yamaha R1 ridden by the type of guy that puts his knee to the ground every time he turns. In other words, he was caning it. Meanwhile, Doug and I were four car lengths back, having a conversation and loafing along in third gear. Yes, for reals.
Al & Mazda Atop The Tail Of The Dragon
Surprisingly, my favorite part of Se7en Se7en Se7en did not occur behind the wheel. I had (finally!) found my hotel at 2:00 am Thursday night. And I dragged my sorry ass out of bed at 5:30 am to go on an early morning Dragon run. At approximately 6:30 am I met up with Al (Caterham Superlight R), Mazda Ebrahimi (LS1-powered Rotus), Norm Beaver (Caterham Se7en) and Michael Dougherty (Caterham 7) at Deal's Gap (fittingly, population: seven). Al had warned me his Superlight would be a little tight. Which is like saying Manute Bol is a little tall. I believe we finally used a shoehorn to get me seated.
Why We're Moving To Tennessee
And then our little caravan set off. There wasn't another soul on the road, just the four Se7ens cutting through the gorgeous morning fog as we wended our way to the top. For years I have been saying that California/Oregon coast right where the two states meet is the most beautiful place in America. Now I'm not so sure. There's a turn off at the top of the Dragon that over looks a bend in the river capped off by one of the Tennessee Valley's innumerable damns. Should it turn out that heaven exists, there's no way in hell it's any prettier. The sun even decided to burn through the clouds. All your picture perfect postcards are belong to the Dragon. The way back down was even more enjoyable, as the road had dried a bit and I rode in Mr. Dougherty's 100-times more comfortable Caterham. Anyway, as Al said, "Who knew 30 mph could be so fun?"
Also notable was the "non-parade" (you have to get a permit to have a parade) where at 9:00 am Saturday morning around 40 Se7ens set off to traverse the Dragon. Even the most jaded Dragon watchers had to be impressed with the show of Se7en force. They even held an autocross on Sunday (which I sadly had to miss). Obviously, it was a tremendously planned and even better executed event that I'll keep with me till the end of my days. I mean, who else on earth can say that the first three cars they drove over the Tail of the Dragon were an Elise, a Se7en and a Hyundai Sonata (don't ask)? I even did the deed in the back of an F150, which legally I shouldn't talk about. Again, a big congratulations is in order to USA7s and Al Navarro for pulling off such a daring plan. As far as I know, only one speeding ticket was issued.
This story was originally published on Jalopnik on July 17, 2007.