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Lotus leaves a legacy of lightness

"Simplify then add lightness." With this straightforward - and slightly nonsensical - dictum as his watchword, Lotus founder Colin Chapman made a career out of building spidery-looking racecars that were faster than everybody else's machines.

"Simplify then add lightness."

With this straightforward - and slightly nonsensical - dictum as his watchword, Lotus founder Colin Chapman made a career out of building spidery-looking racecars that were faster than everybody else's machines. Lotus cars would win the Formula One championship seven times and rack up countless other victories in every conceivable auto racing class.

Nearly two decades after his death, you might be forgiven for thinking that manufacturers have adopted a new motto: "Over-complicate and add fatness." What with everincreasing safety standards, the pursuit of absolute comfort and a surfeit of electronic doohickery, the average modern automobile has become a motorized gin palace with the handling characteristics of an ACME anvil on wheels.

So when I crashed the local Lotus Super Seven Club's annual gathering in a buggreen 2011 Mazda 2, you had better believe I got more than a few glances of askance.

"What the hell," the grouped enthusiasts seemed to be asking, "Is that thing doing here?"

You'll find a brief review of the Mazda2 in today's online driving section at www., but suffice to say there's a very good reason why I showed up in 100horsepower's worth of MP3playing, rain-sensing-wipered luxuriant decadence. However, to explain such, first a little history on the Super Seven.

As I've mentioned, Lotus did very well on the Formula One racing circuit. However, you can't drive a Formula One racing car on the public roads unless you are a millionaire and have already purchased a plane ticket to some country that has an ironclad nonextradition treaty. It would also help to have a spine made from titanium.

But starting in 1957, Lotus would sell you, the public racing enthusiast, a lightweight road-legal racecar that could be used for budget-minded club-racing at a low cost.

With its long nose, bug-eyed headlights, exposed suspension and detached fenders, a Lotus Seven's iconic shape is that of some sort of predatory insect.

While there were several changes through the years, the overall look of a Seven (later Super Seven) remained the same, as did the essential formula. The early cars were powered by teeny-tiny 1.1-litre engines with 40 h.p. outputs, but were still highly capable racers in the right hands.

As a bit of a complicated tax dodge, Lotus would sell the car as either a completed unit or as an assemble-it-yourself kit. Technically, the tax savings were only realized if assembly instructions weren't included, but Lotus got around this by only including disassembly instructions which clever chaps could of course read in reverse order. One wonders if this is what gave rise to the famous Haynes manual "disassembly is the reverse of assembly."

At any rate, official Super Seven production stopped at Lotus in the '70s when Caterham, the last remaining major Lotus Seven dealer, bought the rights to the design. Decades of constant improvement to that original road-legal racecar have made it possible to today buy a Caterham Seven with 260 h.p. and a 0-100 kilometres per hour time of less than three seconds; a distillation of the original design that's like refining a bowl of Shreddies until you get a bottle of singlemalt Scotch. With a lit fuse sticking out of the top of it.

Caterham's not the only game in town if you want a Seven. If you're going to take on building one of these cars yourself, there are any number of kit providers from Locost to Brunton and so on. At the local meet - Sevenfest 2011 - there were representatives of nearly each and every one.

Kit cars being what they are, each Super Seven had a bit of its owner's personality injected into the build. Their paint, their wheel and tire packages, their engines; not only were no two alike, but also no two were roughly similar.

There was even a swoopybodied Lotus Eleven replikitcar (granted honorary Seven status for the day) powered by an engine called a Coventry Climax, which I think sounds like the British West Midlands version of a Sex On The Beach - basically, a pint of bitter with a little cocktail umbrella in it.

After a while, everybody decided it would be a good idea to stop staring at all the exposed machinery, pop the nose-cones and hoods back on and go off for a spirited drive up Mount Seymour, leaving me to walk back to the little Mazda.

Back to my point as well. You see, the Mazda2 might only have 100 h.p., and it might have nearly all the creature comforts that the average Canadian consumer has come to demand, but it's still 200 pounds lighter than the more powerful Ford Fiesta, with which it shares its chassis.

That's done something special to the diminutive hatchback: it's no clubsport racer, but it's light on its feet and fun to drive. The weightshedding has also helped with the Mazda2's fuel efficiency.

I had a surreptitious peek in the garage of the Super Seven meet's host to see what constituted a daily driver for the kind of person who was willing to give up an effective heater in exchange for some lightweight driving appeal.

Wouldn't you know it, it was a current model Mazda Miata.

This gives me hope. It's not like you or I have the time (or in my case, the ability) to custom build the exact car that we want, nor are we likely to want to drive something that

is only vaguely waterproof and can't be properly crash evaluated because the dummies keep exploding on impact. But while the luxury marques continue to balloon into self-propelled versions of the Palace of Versailles, it's good to know that the practical carmakers are looking hard at every pound they tack onto a car.

As carbon-fibre and other lightweight materials become cheaper through greater demand, we should hopefully see the weight of cars begin a slow downward trajectory, accompanied by improved performance and efficiency. Simplify and add lightness, and efficiency and, most of all, fun.

Brendan McAleer is a freelance writer and automotive enthusiast. His column appears every Friday in the North Shore News Rev section. If you have a suggestion for a column, or would be interested in having your car club featured, please contact him at mcaleer.nsnews@gmail. com.