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Lotus at LeMans
by John Watson as appeared in "Low Flying" February 2002, used with permission of the writer.
additional contribution by by Bill Colson, Peter Ross and Brett Johnson


In the 1950s, Le Mans was without a doubt the true test of a sports car. For Lotus in particular, success would pave the way for sales of the planned production sports cars as well as the pure competition cars. In 1955 Lotus first entry at Lemans was a single MKIX. Driving duties would be shared by Ron Flockhart and Colin Chapman himself. Having held 27th place at hour eleven, the twelfth hour found Colin reversing himself out of a sand bank without awaiting direction from course marshalls, for which he was disqualified.When the great man himself was disqualified for reversing out of a sand bank without waiting to be signalled to do so by course marshalls. In fairness, the officials were quite justified for this action, especially when one considers the Levegh accident earlier in the event, which killed many spectators.

Mk IX vs P4 -- by Peter Ross, October 2002

The Lotus at Le Mans with which I am most familiar was the very first one, which most people would call the Lotus Mk IX, but was really the Lotus P4. It is not generally known that Colin Chapman gave his designs a project number from 1953 onwards, and only when they entered production did they get a Lotus Mark Number.

I am not sure about the P1 and the P2, but they were probably the first Mark VI, and the car that was to have been called the Mark VII but became the Clairmonte. The P3 was the prototype streamlined Lotus which went into production as the Mk VIII, and the Lotus IX as raced by the works was the P4. I think there were three of these, one with a 1500 MG engine, one with a Coventry Climax 1100 engine, and then the Le Mans car, although the last two could have been one and the same car, they had the same registration UPE9 (but that did not mean a thing in those days). Lotus historians will soon put me right on that.

The P5 was to have been a lightweight P4 "to beat the Coopers", with combined wheel and brake drum and lightweight de Dion set-up, but it was never built.. This was superseded by the P7, which became the Lotus Eleven which really did beat the Coopers. The P6 was probably the Vanwall.

Having got that off my chest, I wanted you to realise that the Le Mans P4 was a very different car from the Mark IX which the paying customers would have received. They would have got a Mark VI frame with extensions to support the streamlined body. The works chassis frame was very similar to the later Lotus Eleven, but had a better triangulated frame at the front, made possible by a detachable frame diagonal on the LH (carburettor) side. It was the first frame from the Mac/Colin partnership, where aircraft practice predominated.

For the first time Girling disc brakes were used instead of the magnesium cast drums. They had not been available up to then and I remember doing the drawings needed for the parts to be made to install them We worked very hard to get that car ready. My 1955 diary shows very little sleep for the period 31st May to 5th June. The race was on 11th/12th June. I did not go there myself until 1958.


The following year three Elevens were entered. They were driven by Allison/Hall, Chapman/Frazer and Bicknell/Jopp. Two of the cars retired but the Bicknell/Jopp car completed 2111.21 miles at an average speed of 87.97mph and was placed 7th on distance and 4th in the Index of Performance winning the 1100cc. category. This was a splendid victory for the surviving Lotus after a long battle against the Cooper in which one of the drivers had to stop to remove a newspaper, which had blown over the car's radiator.

Three cars were prepared, one featured a 1500 cc FWB, while the other two had FWA powerplants. Heavier, stronger close-ratio MGA gearboxes were fitted, replacing the modified Austin A30 versions in earlier cars. Particular attention was paid to the rule book and it was decided to alter the chassis in the driver's compartment to meet the minimum cockpit width specifications. The cars themselves were no wider, but the frame in the cockpit was moved laterally about six inches making it much roomier. By widening the chassis the upper radius arm for the rear suspension was "bent" and the pivot was not parallel to the lower one, as it was on the conventional Eleven. Wider aluminum shelled bucket seats were installed. The doors were also cut down so they did not affect the cockpit width. Dual driving lights, front brake ducts, a tallish V shaped full width windscreen, a single wiper, dual SU electric fuel pumps and large center fill fuel tank were all unique to the 1956 Le Mans cars. They also did not have head fairings. The race results would show two dnfs, but the one remaining 1100 cc car placed seventh overall easily winning its displacement class. This was a moral victory for Lotus, plus an important lesson was learned from Jaguar about how to make a full width cockpit resemble a single seater.


This was a particular successful year for the little car manufacturer from Hornsey, North London. There were four Elevens, two of which were works entries (Allison/Hall and Frazer/Chamberlain) and the other two private entries (Hechard/Masson and Walshaw/Dalton).

All the Lotuses finished the race with the works car of Allison/Hall finishing 14th on distance after completing 2160.61 miles at an average speed of 90.03mph and winning the Index of Performance and the 750cc. Class [SEE PICTURES]. The Frazer/Chamberlain car with it's larger engine capacity was placed 9th on distance after completing 2377.99 miles at an average speed of 99.09mph and was 2nd in the Index of Performance and first in the 1100cc. class. The two private entries were placed 13th and 16th on distance.

Le Mans in 1957 was the height of the Eleven's success. Five cars were entered, three FWAs, one FWB and a custom built 750 cc Climax with a special crankshaft having a stroke of only 1.16" giving it a theoretical rev limit of 9000 rpm. All five cars were Series 2s and had a bubble type windscreen and raised tail with head fairing. The increase in tail height satisfied the cockpit height requirement. A fabric tonneau went from the windscreen to the tail on the passenger's side effectively making the cars slightly more aerodynamic single seaters. Results were quite satisfying. First, second and fourth in the 1100 cc class, first in the 750 cc class and first and second in the Index of Performance, a long time French automakers stronghold. The little 750 cc car which won the Index was no slouch either, being timed at 114.3 mph on the Mulsanne straight.


There were two Fifteens and four Elevens entered in 1958. Both the Fifteens (Alison/Hill and Chamberlain/Lovely) were works entries and both retired early on in the race. Of the four Elevens, the two private entries (Frost/Hicks and Masson/Hechard) retired in the first three hours and the works car of Ireland/Taylor lasted until the 12th hour. The only Lotus finishing being that driven by Stacey/Dickson which was placed 20th on distance.

By 1958 Chapman was becoming more involved in formula car development, but three cars with flat tails were again prepared for Sebring. They were all FWA powered, but Moran was also back with his FWB 1957 team car. The three new cars finished 1,2,3 in class with the first place car an impressive fourth overall. Moran had problems and finished well back in 38th (of 41 finishers), but it was good enough for third in the 1500 cc class. The 1958 Le Mans race had two new Lotus 15s and four Elevens, two works and two privateers. The works cars were one FWA and one FWMA 750 cc car. The privateers had the same combination. They were physically about the same as the prior year, but now featured a new Lotus innovation, an inflatable tonneau. Results were horrible. Only one of the 25 cars running at the finish was a Lotus and that was the 750 cc car, pottering around in twentieth. This was only sufficient for eighth in class and 16th in the Index of Performance, quite a disappointment considering the previous year's accomplishments.

Fifteen 2-litre #607 - Cliff Allison/Grahm Hill.
Both drivers put in lap times in practice faster than any other cars other than the Aston Martin Team's 3-litre. They even outpaced the Ferrari Tests Rossas. Car lasted three laps of race - head gasket blown. A sales agreement on the car was done before Le Mans and it went to its new owner - in Kenya - later in the year. It race there until late 1971. Bill Colson acquired all its component parts, excluding body, in the early 1980s. The car is currently udergoing long-term restoration.

Fifteen 1.1/2-litre #608 - Conducted by Jay Chamberlain and Pete Lovely.
Accident /retired. Car was thereafter used by Cliff Allison in U.K. events until sold to Derek Jolly in Australia at end of season. Derek crashed it at Albert Park in the December, near killing himself. Wreck was returned to Lotus works early in 1959 and written off, only its engine being salvaged.


Three Type 14 Elites were entered privately (Vidilles/Malle, Clark/Whitmore and Lumsden/Riley), one works entered Fifteen (Hill/Jolly) and two works entered Seventeens (Stacey/Green and Taylor/Sieff). The Fifteen and Seventeens retired but of the three Elites, one (Clark/Whitmore) finished 10th on distance and the other (Lumsden/Riley) 8th on distance and 1st in the 1300cc class for GT cars.

At Le Mans in 1959 there were three Lotus 15s and two Lotus Elites. Elevens were nowhere to be found.

Fifteen 2-litre - but 2.1/2-litre for Le Mans only, #626.
Derek Jolly contracted to buy as a replacement for #608 and part of the deal was that he share it with Graham Hill at Le Mans. They did well until mechanical failures - gearbox induced over-revving - put an end to their run. Derek took the car to Australia where it still lives, though it was restored in U.K. in the mid-1980s, by its owner who was then working for the Williams F1 Racing Team. Despite of what was written (because Jolly mis-declared the car on importation to Aus., #626 was written off as a rebuild of #608. They had no relationship whatever beyond the same owner. #626 was a brand-new series 3 car with a unique version of the Lotus queerbox, of which only one was made.


Just four Elites competed in 1960; two works cars (Wagstaff/Marsh and Buxton/Allen) and two privateers (Baillie/Parkes and Masson/Laurent). Both the Buxton/Allen and Baillie/Parkes cars retired with transmission problems. However the Masson/Laurent car finished 6th in the GT category, 13th on distance and 1st in the 1300cc class, whilst the Wagstaff/Marsh car was 14th on distance, winning the Thermal Effeciency, coming 12th in the Index of Performance, 7th in the GT category and 2nd in the 1300cc class.


Six cars, all Elites, were entered in the 1961 race. Two were works cars (Allen/Taylor and Wyllie/Hunt) and the others were private entries (Malle/Carnegie, Kosselek/Massenez, Allison/Mackee and Porthault/Devos). The two finishers were the works Allen/T.Taylor car which won the 1300cc. GT class, was 4th in the GT category and 13th in the Index of Performance and the private entry of Kosselek/Massenez which was just one place behind.


Two works entered Elites (Hobbs/Gardener and Hunt/Wyllie), a works Twenty-Three (Clark/T.Taylor) and a privately entered Twenty-Three came to race. However only the two Elites were allowed to start.

The two Twenty-Threes were presented for weighing and were sent away as the ground clearance was insufficient. After correcting that they were sent away a second time because the wheels had four bolt fixings to the front and six bolt fixings to the rear. In order to conform, wheels and hubs with four bolt fixings were flown over from England only to be refused by the authorities on safety grounds. As a result the authorities were accused of penalising Lotus in the hope that this would improve France's chances in the Index of Performance. The final assertion by Automobile Club de l'O'uest was that the Lotus Twenty Threes were not 'in the spirit of Le Mans'. Colin Chapman was understandably furious as his cars were regularly checked by the FIA and his treatment by the ACO officials resulted in a long held grudge against the race.

The two Elites, however, did race and both finished. In fact, the Hobbs/Gardener car was 8th on distance, 1st in the 1300cc class (for the 3rd year running), 1st in the Index of Thermal Efficiency, 3rd in the Index of Performance and 6th in the GT category thus cocking a splendid snook at the officials of the ACO.

Lotus never really competed at Le Mans seriously again during Chapman's lifetime. In fact the last works entry under his leadership was a single Europa in 1967.

Compiled from "British Cars at Le Mans" by Dominique Pascal.
jww 8th. February 2002.

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