Caterham 21

Change is constant, of course, but many people have a real problem it.

Conflict often comes from how someone's perception of you may differ from how you perceive yourself. This has implications for nearly everything we get up to, from first girlfriends to tattoos to adopting punk music and its associated hairstyles.

Sometimes, it's much more subtle: how to find common ground when making a decision? Or, in the case of a company, how to appeal to a customer so they'll buy your product? If you're offering something new and different, well, the changes you're asking them to make better not be insurmountable.

When updating an iconic vehicle, then, will change earn you new customers in addition to your current ones? Will you lose customers? What will they think about your company, and will they willingly come along for the ride?

In the case of the Caterham 21, the change was too much.

Caterham had been the primary distributor of the lightweight Lotus 7 when, in 1973, Lotus sold the production rights to Caterham, who took over the sale, service, and distribution of the lightweight road and track car.

The 7 is, for those who aren't familiar, a small front-engined sports car with open front wheels that can trace its lineage back to 1957. When I say lineage, I really mean to say that while a modern 7 may be a completely different car underneath, park a new 7 next to one from its first year of production and there'd be no doubting the relation. 

If your business was known for assembling someone else's designs, though, wouldn't you eventually get bored and try to branch out and sell customers something new?

Caterham offered the 7 for 20 years before they introduced the 21, with the show car sporting a hand-polished aluminum body. As a 10 year old in 1994, I probably saw it first in Road & Track: small, gleaming, shapely—and I fell in love.

Designed as a more useable 7, the 21 had a slightly wider interior, enclosed wheels, trunk, and full windscreen. Caterham hoped that enthusiasts would flock to a car with all of the performance of the 7, with fewer of the compromises inherent in its 1950s design.

I think they were on to something. Underneath its Dodge Viper-like body is the same old 7 that people love. The engine came from Rover; the same 1.6-litre K-Series engine* in various states of tune that ironically made its way into the Lotus Elise.

Ironic? The Elise—apart from its front styling being incredibly similar to that of the 21—was itself a modern interpretation of the classic sports car, and introduced just two years after the 21.

In polished aluminum bodywork, the 21 looked fantastic, but of course by the time production rolled around, the small automaker had decided to offer the car first in more affordable fiberglass. Across the rest of the 21, try to spot from where Caterham had borrowed parts, notably its Ford Mondeo tail lights and headlights from the Suzuki Cappuccino.

A leather interior was an indication of Caterham's aspirations for the car, but the 21 was never going to be as sophisticated as sports cars offered by more established automakers—just look at those obscenely wide sills!

Actually, the Mazda Miata was probably one of the major reasons that enthusiasts didn't flock to the 21: why risk your hard-earned money with a small kit car manufacturer when you can go buy a (yes, slower) well-built and warrantied small sports car from Mazda?

When new, pricing overlapped with base versions of the BMW Z3, and for that sort of money even the most dedicated Caterham fans would have to think twice. Many did, and so from its introduction in 1996 to the end of production in 1998, only 48 were built. Caterham hoped to eventually make a few hundred per year.

I think the car will be a future classic, and with up to 190 horsepower from its Rover K-Series engine and weight of less than 680 kg (1500 lbs), the 21 will surely delight its small group of owners for decades to come.

If you have a few minutes, check out the period overview of the car below, if only because it's funny to see how car videos were shot way back then…

* The K-Series was the main engine, though Caterham produced a few with a 2.0-litre Vauxhall engine.