1990s / British / Caterham / English / Great automotive failures

Great Automotive Failures: Caterham 21

The Lotus 7 has long been a living legend in the sports car world. Since its debut in 1957, Colin Chapman’s diminutive roadster has been one of the gold-standards by which automotive agility and sheer driving pleasure is judged against. By 1973, Lotus sold off the rights to manufacture the design to their primary distributor, Caterham. They continued the manufacture and sale of the 7 (in the most desirable form of the Series 3) with only minor changes and improvements. In 1994, however, Caterham decided to embark on a new project – the 21. The 21 was based around the chassis and drive-train of the 7, but it featured a new, curvaceous, fully enclosed body.

The shape was penned by Iain Robertson and designed to use existing lights and other miscellaneous parts where possible. The headlights were from a Suzuki Cappuccino, the taillights from a Ford Mondeo, the steering column from a Vauxhall and door handles from an Opel. Much of the design work was done using a full-scale foam mock-up to ensure a fluid design around these bits. Inside the car featured leather seats and a sculpted dash, though still quite austire in terms of ammenities.

The first prototype hit the car show circuit clothed in a polished aluminum body. Initially, Caterham planned to offer the car in both alloy or fiberglass, though only fiberglass models saw production.

The car was powered by either the venerable 1.6L Rover K-series engine or the 1.8 Vauxhall unit, both of which could be found in the 7 model. The transmission was also, predictably, the same Ford sourced 5-speed as the 7. Despite the extra bodywork, the 21 still weighed less than 1,500 lbs.

Unfortunately, the 21 wasn’t as well received as enthusiastically as it was conceived. Only 48 were built before the plug was pulled on the project. It was still considered expensive, and despite the effort, perhaps it just lacked the character of its Lotus designed predecessor.

One thought on “Great Automotive Failures: Caterham 21

  1. With so many nearly stillborn ambitious projects that have repelling aesthetics this was one that should have been more successful, although nearly fifty copies is nothing to sneeze at, with an outside chance of having repaid its initial investment. Were there indeed ever plans for significantly more of them? Certainly not as home build kits, like the original “sevens.” The more “modern” and mainstream the attempted car aims to be the more complex it becomes to realize in the current homologation environment. Also the more demanding the targeted market in how seamlessly it operates, and frankly the harder to achieve some sort of requisite individuality. To say, however, that it lacked character is not at all fair. It looks like a Shelby Series One with more sobriety and better proportion. I do not remember that as being a barnburner seller after all the work of productionizing it. It has a lot more visceral appeal than the Jensen Healey ever did. Perhaps with an engine twice the size of the raspy little proprietary fours Caterham was using, this “21” might have found a niche in a more profitable segment.

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