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Friday
Jan272017

Lotus Entertain You

By William G. Sawyer, Editor at Large

The editor’s and my love affair with Lotus dates back to a rainy day in October, 1971 when I purchased a red Series 1 Elan from a hippie. It may have been the only Elan ever to be outfitted with a trailer hitch. I never saw the previous owner tow his Hobie Cat, but I can imagine it was quite a sight. I had $1500 ($8,939 in 2016 dollars) burning a hole in my pocket, and an unquenchable urge to start my sports car journey. Living in the Motor City, where oversized V8s propelling cars equipped with rudimentary rear drum brakes and live rear axles ruled the day, my choice was considered peculiar, to say the least.

I narrowed my search down to three cars, a Shelby GT350-H, a Series 1 E-Type Jaguar, and the Lotus. Since pricing was identical for all three, the choice came down to the one that pushed my buttons hardest. The Shelby would have been the practical choice, especially in the winter months, but the purist in me couldn’t get past the C-6 slush box and brakes with competition pads that required two legs to bring the car to a stop. The pads were an easy fix, but the automatic transmission nixed the deal.

Stebro exhaust, as found in the trunk of the editor's Elan.The E-Type was beautiful, well maintained, and impressed women, but that was the least of my concerns. One drive in the Elan, which I later learned was exceptionally proficient at repelling women, was enough to make my decision for me. In an age when British sports cars were outfitted with overhead valve engines that often originated in lorries, rear drums, awful suspensions, and SU carburetors, the Lotus had Koni shocks, Webers, a raucous Stebro exhaust, and a race-proven Lotus Twin Cam said by the previous owner to be an, “SCCA racing engine with 140 hp,” which was never verified. (Years later the editor’s Elan would be described as a former Canadian race car with a 140-hp engine running a 12:1 compression ratio. It was also said to be painted black at that time, but stripping the paint showed no signs of black paint. And there was a Stebro in the trunk. There must be something about that number, that exhaust, and the aura of racing that sticks to Elans and made suckers of both of us.)

Elan S4 has larger tires (155 SR-13) than my S1, but not that much larger.Spec sheets, however, are merely that, numbers on paper that often disappoint, but not this time. The driving experience was exhilarating, and often frightening. Upon bringing it home I took the editor, then an impressionable 13 year-old, for a ride down Oakman Boulevard, the only curving road in the area. On roads still wet with rain, we hit a patch of soggy leaves on the first corner that taught me a physics lesson. No matter what the Lotus image might have suggested, the narrow 145 SR-13 Michelins lost traction, and my lightweight vehicle skated gently — surprisingly gently —  over the median into the turnaround lane. Luckily there was little traffic (and fewer witnesses), and we motored on our way, shaken and exhilarated.

From that point forward the Elan became a weekend car, not because I wanted it to, but because by the end of most weekends something broke, requiring me to wrench on it in my spare time in order to get another fix seven days later. On one such occasion another brother and I ventured up to Waterford Hills, a narrow, difficult, road course in Detroit’s northern suburbs. Back then you could drive your car up the hill and park near some of the more interesting corners. It rained that day, and the ground was still soggy, slinging mud across the Lotus’ flanks. At the end of the day we once again descended the hill, coating the car with more mud, and drove down a dirt road toward a main drag filled with cars three times the Elan’s size going 50-60 mph. I pressed on the brake pedal but nothing happened. Additional pressure brought little more than additional angst. I downshifted, but we were mere feet from the intersection by this time. Our only option was to hold on tight and pray for a break in traffic. I flew into the intersection, yanked the wheel to the left and prayed. Miraculously, we found the one gap a Lotus travelling at 45 mph could squirt into. A few blocks later I found an empty parking lot (stores were closed on Sundays in those days), and did a few panic stops to dry off the discs. My mission accomplished, we continued on our way, but not without more drama. While travelling down the Southfield Freeway we heard metal pinging against pavement. Something metallic fell out, but we had no idea what it was. The car continued to run well (for a Lotus), so we continued on our way. Further investigation revealed something I cannot explain and few people I’ve told this story to believed, but I swear it’s true. The piston in the right rear disc brake was missing. How it shattered into pieces so small they escaped through the miniscule gap I don’t know. If there’s another explanation I’d love to hear it, but the brake piston was the only thing missing on my beloved sports car.

The question isn't whether or not it has 140 horses, but just how big each one of those horses are.I later sold the car, then painted yellow, to a man who also frequented Waterford Hills. He moved to Minneapolis where he used it as a year-round daily driver in some of America’s worst winter conditions. He later returned to Detroit, and an acquaintance alerted me to the car’s whereabouts. It sat abandoned on a grassy verge next to the owner’s home looking much the worse for wear. I was married with children by this time, investing my spare cash in boats that could entertain the family as well as myself, so I never approached him with an offer. Of course, I haven’t forgiven myself for passing it up. We discovered two cars in the past few years that may have been the one I owned so many years ago. Back in those days old sports cars were just old cars, so I never recorded the VIN, making it impossible to identify my car should I find it.

If reading of our harrowing experiences makes you question our sanity, I don’t blame you. Lotus passion bewilders many automotive experts. I recall test driving a new Elise SC at an Atlanta dealership that also sells Astons, Lamborghinis and McLarens. When I asked the sales person about Lotus he sniffed, “Lotus buyers are blue collar.” What he didn’t understand, and few do, is that Lotus buyers don’t indulge themselves in ostentatious exhibitions of wealth, or ego games. We don’t care what our peers think of us, or the impression our ride makes upon pulling up to the Country Club. We don’t plunk our crystal key down on the table for others to admire, nor do we buy cars to park them in the garage in hopes that we can make a low-mileage-original-example killing at RM Sotheby’s in a few decades. We buy them because they have one goal — to make our hearts sing as we drive them till they break, and then spend countless hours repairing what broke so we can do it again. If that’s considered blue collar, I’ll burn my college diploma and shred my C-level resume with pleasure.

Which leads us to our latest acquisitions for our simulated museum, a pair of Lotus race cars that won’t break the bank, or garner million dollar bids in Monterey, but speak to the enthusiast in every blue-collar wannabee.

1956 Lotus Eleven Chassis #150

© 2017 Motorsportsmarket.comYes, Elevens command six figures, but they’ll never reach the stratospheric prices other marques garner. In February, 1956, an as yet unknown Lotus mechanic by the name of Graham Hill piloted chassis #150, one of the first Elevens built — and reportedly one of the first to carry a chassis tag — to the docks at Southampton for shipment to Ralph Miller of Lincoln, Nebraska, who towed it to Sebring. Colin Chapman was also entered in the Sebring 12 Hours as he planned to be the first to pilot a Lotus Eleven (#156) in organized competition along with co-driver Len Bastrop. Bastrop rolled #156 during practice and it caught fire. Therefore, when the green flag fell, Miller’s chassis #150 became the first of the Legendary Eleven series cars to race. It completed forty laps of the rough, tortuous airport circuit before succumbing to electrical problems, also making it the first of these fragile sports racers, among many, to break in competition. The car went on to win its first race at Eagle Mountain, Texas on June 3, 1956.

This Lotus continued to race throughout the Central United States in the hands of a subsequent owner until it was damaged when the trailer it was riding on detached from its tow car. The owner traded #150 at Carroll Shelby Motors in Dallas for a new Maserati Birdcage. Reportedly the man who brokered the deal was Shelby’s partner Jim Hall, later of Chaparral fame.

The Lotus reappeared ten year later powered by a three-cylinder Saab engine. It suffered the ignominy of serving as a parts car for another Eleven before it was sent to England for restoration by marque — and Lotus Eleven — expert Mike Brotherwood. Michael Lavers campaigned the resurrected Lotus, once again with Coventry Climax power, in vintage events in the UK and Europe before selling it to Dr. Ed Berre of Cincinnati, OH. Vintage Motorsport magazine highlighted #150 as its “Pick of the Liter” in its 1998 Mid-Ohio Sprint Vintage GP report.

1971 Lotus 61 Chassis #61-FF-222

© 2017 Motorsportsmarket.comThis car is reportedly the very last customer car Lotus built before exiting the market to concentrate exclusively on the upper reaches of professional racing, and making money.

In the fall of 1972, a U.S. airman stationed in Ankara, Turkey, journeyed to England to attend the London Motor Show. Early the next morning they located Hethel on the map and aimed their rented Mini in its general direction. Upon reaching their destination they stumbled down narrow country lanes until they encountered a wire fence topped with barbed wire and a guard shack. Initially rebuffed by the sentry, the enterprising airman bluffed his way in by claiming to be there to purchase a race car.  He was met by John Doherty who plied the airman and his wife with tea before informing him Lotus was no longer in the business of supplying customer cars. Doherty led the couple on a walking tour that ended at the engine manufacturing room. A temporary wall separated the engine room from a storage area that held the Lotus 61 subject car. Doherty explained the car’s engine and gearbox had no internals because this was the Formula Ford show car Lotus took to various motor shows around the world. Without the internals shipping the car cost less. However, Lotus was eager to part with it so they could pull down the wall and expand their engine facilities.  Doherty and the couple returned to the engine room where three Holbay Ford engines awaited them. He offered the car, complete with the engine and gearbox of their choice for £750, or about $1850 at the time ($10,682 today). Seeing a deal he couldn’t pass up, the airman who tried to bluff his way into Lotus on the (false) pretense of buying a race car ended up buying one, and for far less than he thought possible.

The buyer returned to the U.S. where the Lotus sat in his basement while he toiled away in the Pentagon six to seven days per week. Years later he sold it through an ad in AutoWeek for $3200. Unlike many Lotus owners, at least he made some money on the deal.

Considering the historic importance of these two vehicles, not to mention our Lotus obsession, we can’t help but add both cars to the Virtual Collection. Should you have real dollars as opposed to our virtual stash, you can find them both at Motorsportsmarket.com. The Lotus 61 is priced at a reasonable $25,000, while offers for the undoubtedly pricey Eleven are "encouraged".

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