How to Build a Caterham Seven in 38,496 Easy Steps

by Jeff Plummer

In 1996, I had the pleasure of fulfilling one of my dreams by building a Caterham Super Seven. I opted for the race car chassis with live rear axle and Ford Kent crossflow engine. Following are some of my recollections of how the process worked and how it might work for you. I hope they may someday help you, although some of my experiences may be a bit too narrowly focused to be of much use.

The first step is to contact the Illinois Secretary of State Police headquarters (217-782-6950), with whom you will be conversing with quite often. Ask what you need to provide them with so they can assign an Illinois VIN and give you a title. They (Eric Deason in my case) will tell you that you need to send them a letter stating that you have built a special construction vehicle and would like to apply for title and license. You shall include pictures of the completed car, copies of receipts, and a completed “Application For Vehicle Title” form. On the form, under “model” you shall write “special construction” and under “Surrender Title Number And Date Of Issuance” you shall write “legal“.

Now, confident that you know everything you need to know to license the car, you send a check to the dealer of your choice, detailing all the options you want. Have the car sent to your friend’s shop since he has a fork lift to unload it from the flatbed. Simultaneously, ask your credit union to wire several thousand dollars to a bank account number in England. When the girls at the your small credit union stare blankly back at you, assure them that it can be done and in 2 days they will have figured it out. You hope this transfer will be recognized by the people that you are buying the engine and transmission from as having come from you. Also at this time, make arrangements for the imported engine to be received by a customs broker. I used Lame International, Incorporated (708-787-9000). If you are not going to be there to personally to pick up the shipment, you will need to sign over Customs Power Of Attorney to the brokers. The broker should have a form for this. Next time I’ll try to find a U.S. source.

If you’re lucky enough that your dealer can make up a kit of everything you want from the cars he has in stock, you will get a call from your friend in about 2 weeks telling you that he just unloaded two crates addressed to you, and that they are in his way. At this time you leave work early to get your van and snowmobile trailer, and head to your friend’s shop. This is when you will wish you had replaced the rotting wood decking that is no longer attached to the trailer so you don’t have to stop every mile to throw it back on. After waiting all this time, every wasted second now is somehow an eternity. At least the two crates hold the decking in place for the trip home.

Having backed the loaded trailer into your garage, it is now a simple matter of wrapping some slings around the crates, and lifting them off the trailer using the winch that you normally use for lifting the trailer up to the ceiling rafters. After lowering the crates to the floor you can expect to spend the next two hours trying move them over to where you plan on disassembling them. After finding out that you can’t budge them, either manually or with your garden tractor, a friend from work will stop by and in 2 minutes they will be right where you want them. Carefully pry off the top and sides of the crates until you are down to the bare chassis and a lot of parts. I made some temporary shelving out of the wood crates to store all the parts with some semblance of order that proved helpful.

Now for the easy part: building the car. If you can put together a gas grill, you can put together the Caterham. Even if you can’t put together a gas grill, but you do feed yourself, you can still probably assemble the Caterham. All the parts fit together without the need of a hammer. It’s nice working on a car with clean parts. The only two glitches will be the bolts and the inevitable missing parts. The bolts come mixed in 2 clear plastic bags. It is a process of trial and error and educated guesses to figure out which bolts are used on what parts. The first thing you should do is sort the hardware by size and type. My car was missing the distributor cap, one front turn indicator, and had the wrong gear shift bezel included. One call to the dealer and a UPS shipment later and all the correct parts are in hand.

About a week later the car will be mostly assembled waiting to install the motor. Where the hell is the motor? A call to England and a fax reply will inform you that there is a quality problem with the 1700cc pistons and the delivery date is unknown. After several more calls and several weeks later, a 1600cc engine is on its way. After shoe-horning the motor in, its time to add the fluids and connect the battery. Follow the manual’s procedure for setting the initial ignition timing close and you’ll be ready to fire the thing up. I primed the fuel lines and oil galleys by turning the engine over for a total of about a minute with the spark plugs removed. Having done this the motor fired immediately when I reinstalled the plugs. Amazing.

Now it’s time to take some pictures and send them to the Secretary of State Police along with the other requested information, if you refrain from mentioning anything about Caterham as the manufacturer (except where it is on your receipts) it may help to prevent you getting a call from Eric Deason requesting you to send a copy of the Manufacturers Certificate Of Origin. Caterham does not supply a Certificate Of Origin since from their point of view, they are selling car parts and not a car. If you do get a call from Eric Deason, it will require many additional calls between you, him, your dealer, the U.S. Caterham importer. and Caterham in England. Finally you may get what I think would be only the second Caterham Certificate Of Origin ever sent to the U.S. If I were to do this again, I would simply refer to the car as a home built replica of a 1969 Lotus Super 7.

After the Secretary of State Police are satisfied with all your documentation you will get a letter informing you that everything is in order and a local Secretary of State Police officer will be calling on you to inspect the car. When he and his trainee come out they will copy down and/or make impressions of the chassis, engine, and transmission serial numbers. They will check that all lights, signals, wipers and the horn works. They will then inform you that your car does not have the minimum 3″ tall bumpers covering the full width of the vehicle both front and rear as required by the Illinois vehicle code. A Lotus 7 with bumpers? Pointing to a picture of a Panoz with exposed cycle winged front wheels will not change their mind.

When they come back several days later, you will have fabricated some bumpers out of some aluminum channel or pipe or something. You can attach the front bumper to the frame tubes using U-bolts and the rear one to some existing unused bolt holes on the frame. When the inspectors leave, you can take the bumpers off to have them painted. Mine are still hanging on the garage wall waiting for their turn in the paint booth. Finally they will affix the Assigned Identification Plate. Make sure you are watching when they do this. They may want to rivet this to the outside aluminum skin. lf you are not lucky enough to get them to put this in its proper place in the engine bay, you should at least be able to get them to put it on the lower left dash.

The final step is to fill out an RUT-25 tax form and send it down state to the SOS Police along with a check for the sales tax. A few weeks later you will receive your title. Good luck, and let me know if you need to borrow some unpainted bumpers.

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