Years before motorsport’s greatest innovator upended Formula 1, he turned sports-car racing on its head. the Lotus Eleven was Colin Chapman’s Bellwether.
IF YOU GO to the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum in Birmingham, Alabama, which houses the largest and most comprehensive collection of Lotus cars in the world, and ponder those cars in chronological order, it’s almost like watching as a precocious child learns to walk and then run. And then grows up to win the Olympics. Generally speaking, the cars get less awkward, faster, and more graceful with each passing year.
When a young British aeronautical engineer named Colin Chapman began messing about with old Austin Sevens in the late Forties and entering them in amateur trials events, his modifications were neat and workmanlike, but the cars themselves were still just square-rigged Austin Sevens with a few clever tweaks.
You see old photos of Chapman plugging along on some muddy English vale with his Lotus Mark 1, and the car isn’t too far removed, aesthetically, from a child’s soapbox racer made of peach crates. If each crates were made of aluminum and steel.
The Mark 3 through Mark 6 cars were lower, slimmer, and more streamlined, but their exposed suspension and tiny headlights revealed just a bit of water-bug or arachnid DNA. If your mother had found a teeny one behind the shower curtain, she might have been tempted to roll up a newspaper and swat it. You had to appreciate physics and racing potential to want one.
I think of the Seven as the first “handsome” Lotus, probably because I’ve owned three of these minimalistic and nicely proportioned cars and wouldn’t mind owning another. But I’d never put them in the same league as, say, a Jaguar D-type for sheer heart-stopping beauty.
With the Mark 8 through 10 models, the brilliant aerodynamicist Frank Costin enters the picture. Body design suddenly moves beyond mere streamlining and into real aerodynamics. Hence the large rear fins, which made the cars very stable at speed.
Too stable, Costin suspected, and not responsive enough on turn-in. Thus, he began to lower the fins and sketch the sublime elliptical shapes we find in our subject, the Lotus Eleven. Its predecessors look like cars of their time, but in 1956, the Eleven came out of the factory looking timeless.
Not only did the car look right, it immediately started winning races and would end up being the winningest Lotus of all time. The list of early owners and drivers looks like a Who’s-Going-to-be-Who of Fifties and Sixties motor racing—Innes Ireland, Mike Hawthorn, Graham Hill, and dozens of others. Chapman himself raced one successfully, and 166 Elevens were sold in 1956.
California Lotus importer Jay Chamberlain kept one for himself to race, and Road & Track editor John R. Bond asked if this magazine could test his full-race Le Mans version for the March 1957 issue.
When R&T got its hands on the car, Chamberlain had just returned from the Nassau Trophy Races, where he’d finished first in class. Unfortunately, he’d also smacked a course marker, leaving battle scars on the Lotus’s red bodywork. So for the cover photo, R&T borrowed a flawless white Eleven with a blue racing stripe belonging to a well-known West Coast racer named Jack Nethercutt. The picture was taken at Paramount Ranch, near Los Angeles, with Nethercutt behind the wheel.
“Fantastic performance with only 1100cc,” said R&T, and the thing was dazzlingly fast for its time. It weighed exactly 1000 pounds dry, and the 1098-cc Coventry Climax four-cylinder engine pushed it to 132.06 mph. Our test editor confessed, “We did not drive the car, but there is a small amount of understeer and ample power available to force the rear end out and into an oversteering attitude.”
Easy to imagine that owner Chamberlain was reluctant to turn over the wheel to someone who hadn’t raced the car. In any case, our man spent most of his time trying to figure out how to fold his body under the left-side cockpit cover in such a way that he could observe the tach during acceleration runs. I get claustrophobia just thinking about it.
Meanwhile, our mechanically identical but undamaged cover car was raced for another two years by Nethercutt and then went on to a fate that would eventually hinge on that one photograph.
Seems a 17-year-old sports-car enthusiast from Birmingham, Alabama, named George Barber was one of many who bought the magazine, saw the cover, and fell in love with the Eleven. He liked it so much, he slept with the magazine under his pillow for months, so he could take it out and look at it for inspiration.
The son of a wealthy dairy family, Barber went on to race Porsches with great success during the sixties. But he never lost his interest in the Lotus marque. He was also a motorcycle buff, and after the family business was sold to Dean Foods in 1998, he decided to build the best motorcycle museum in the world, investing $80 million of his own money in the not-for-profit Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum and Barber Motorsports Park, which opened in 2003.
Situated on 930 acres just northeast of downtown Birmingham, the spectacular five-story museum sits next to a 2.38-mile racetrack that swoops and dips through the surrounding hills. The museum now houses more than 1400 motorcycles and 115 cars, mostly Lotuses.
I met George Barber 17 years ago when he bought my friend Patrick Donnelly’s rare 1966 Lotus 31, the first Formula Ford. Donnelly and I trailered the car down to the Barber Museum, which was still located in a cavernous old dairy-truck building in downtown Birmingham. Barber took us for a tour around the freshly paved race circuit in his van. The grounds were covered in grass seed and straw, and the museum, then still under construction, looked like a rising skyscraper, all glass, concrete, and massive steel beams. We were astounded by the scale of the project. I returned many times for races and vintage festivals and just to wander through the museum. I never get tired of the place.
When I visited a few years ago, the museum had several nice examples of the Lotus Eleven, but nobody had ever found the holy grail, the cover car Barber worshiped as a teen. After Nethercutt sold it in 1958, the car passed through the hands of five owners on the West Coast before disappearing from sight in the early Seventies. Nobody knew where it was or if it still existed.
Decades came and went, trees dropped their leaves in autumns and bloomed again in springs, word processors were invented, and Keith Richards got slightly older. Then, on May 8, 2018, a woman took a walk in a Seattle residential neighborhood, glanced through the open door of a small garage, and spotted an odd-looking sports car with bare aluminum bodywork. She took a picture of the car that was forwarded through a chain of enthusiast friends until it ended up on the desk of Lee Clark, senior manager of restoration at the Barber Museum.
Clark flew to Seattle, where he found the Lotus was chassis number 214, the old Nethercutt car. Its owner, Ken Osawa, had inherited the car from his father, James, who’d club-raced the Lotus until the early Seventies, when it no longer met SCCA roll-cage standards. James Osawa simply parked it, and it sat until Clark showed up and an undisclosed amount of money changed hands.
Back in Alabama, the body was sent out to Steve Hall at The Panel Shop in Stratford, Connecticut. The Barber Museum team restored the suspension, wheels, and steel-tube space frame, while Clark himself rebuilt the Coventry Climax FWA 1098 engine. The MGA four-speed transmission was farmed out to a local specialist for rebuild. The eight-month project was finished in time for a 2019 New Year’s celebration at the museum.
Enter Road & Track. Again. A mere 62 years later.
Early this year, I got a phone call from my old friend Brian Slark, who is now a historian at the Barber Museum. He said that George Barber wondered if R&T might be interested in doing a story on their old Lotus Eleven cover car.
I quickly loosened my necktie and knocked back a couple shots of bourbon. I was supposed to be retired, but this was my kind of case. I told him I’d ask the editor.
Like Barber, I’d always been a big Lotus Eleven fan. I had actually built a Westfield kitcar replica of that very Eleven when I worked full-time at Road & Track in 1983. Naturally, I had it painted white with a blue stripe. My wife, Barbara, and I drove the car from California to Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, to attend the SCCA June Sprints at Road America. Barb flew home, and my neighbor Chris Beebe helped me drive it the 2200 miles back to California. I wrote two feature articles about this adventure, “Crate Expectations” and “Northeast by Westfield.”
Now, 36 years later, I was being offered a chance to drive the real thing.
Realizing that Barber had spent a fortune—and much emotional capital—on the Eleven, I assured the museum staff that I had no intention of attempting any hot laps. “I just need to drive it briefly,” I said, “so I can experience the mechanical nature of the car.”
This provoked a profound silence. I sensed grave hesitation. I suddenly felt as if I’d phoned the Louvre and asked to borrow the Mona Lisa so I could test its fade resistance in harsh sunlight.
Gradually word came down that I could “operate the car briefly.” That was good enough for me.
I packed my old Bell open-face helmet and vintage driving suit (both bought new by me, I regret to say) and drove from Wisconsin down to Alabama.
I was greeted at the door by Clark, who led me to an elevator that took us to the lower floor of the museum, where Barber’s Eleven was poised in the center of the restoration shop. It sat there, gleaming white, radiating a feral sleekness that pretty much pulled the oxygen out of everything else in the room.
Clark opened the forward-tilting bonnet, revealing the slanted Coventry Climax engine and its twin SU carbs, pointing out some shiny spots on the aluminum block where connecting rods had once tried to escape captivity. I knelt down to get my first good look at the car’s split-beam front suspension, which is essentially a solid beam axle cut in half so it can pivot upward in a V from a pair of central mounting bolts. No anti-roll bar. Girling disc brakes all around, two of the discs mounted inboard on the Dion tube rear suspension. Very elegant and sanitary.
I slipped into my old Nomex driver’s suit, which still almost fit, thanks to the trendy keto diet I’d been on for months. Slipping into the car was a little harder. If you’re long of leg, it’s an exercise in geometry and physics, not unlike getting into the front seat of our old J-3 Piper Cub. Like that airplane, the Eleven has a horizontally split door and a relatively vulnerable outer shell, so you have to watch where you put your weight. Lots of angles involved, like folding a carpenter’s rule into a small toolbox.
Once I got past the leather-covered steering wheel and settled down into the seat, however, I found myself in one of the most comfortably snug cockpits in the Procrustean world of racing asceticism.
The seatback angle and distance to the steering wheel and pedals were ideal for my six-foot-one frame and quite modern in layout. No chest-hugging steering wheel here; it’s a relaxed, arms-out reach, with your knuckles almost grazing the top of the instrument panel. I hate to be so trite as to say the cockpit fit like a glove, but it did. You could comfortably take a nap in this car.
This was my first experience with the legendary Coventry Climax engine, descended in lore from its old British fire-pump ancestor. I switched on the electric fuel pump and turned the key. It was a reluctant starter, what with no choke and those big, one-and-a-half-inch carbs. Set up a bit rich on the bottom end, it needed some air—full throttle—to catch and fire. But as soon as it cleared its throat, it revved with a nice, hard-hitting bark. It’s a sound that says, “Pay attention, because now we are going racing.” There’s a touch of menace in it.
I shifted from second into the nonsynchro first gear and then let out the perfectly normal clutch, and we were rolling. The MGA gearbox, which I regard as one of the mechanical treasures of English industry, lived up to its reputation and moved effortlessly through each gear with a well-oiled click. I did a few laps of the wooded access road through the hills and then two respectfully restrained laps of the circuit, the close-surround windscreen providing a pocket of remarkably quiet air. All very serene.
Picking up speed over bumps and undulations, the long-travel but well-damped suspension makes almost every other Fifties sports car feel like a coal cart with welded springs. Chapman was not a man who believed in the old adage “any suspension will work if you don’t let it.” Even with its supposedly antiquated swing-axle front end, the Eleven feels surprisingly fluid, with less bump-steer under braking than my old Lotus Seven vintage racer—which had an anti-roll bar incorporated into the front A-arms, as did the later (1957) Lotus Eleven Series 2 cars.
The four-wheel Girling disc brakes, incidentally, felt perfectly modern and went unnoticed until I paused to write notes about them. And not noticing your brakes is always a good thing in any vintage race car. Steering was fast, light, and linear, and the overall feel of the car was one of poise and precision.
Of course, I was lapping at about 45 to 50 mph, so all of this may be taken with a grain of salt. Maybe at 120 mph the car turns into an understeering, twitchy monster. But I don’t think so. There are reasons these cars changed the direction of race-car design and won hundreds of races. I believe speed, lightness, and driver-friendly dynamics were among them.
Did I mention that the Eleven is the first truly beautiful Lotus? I think I did.
On the way back to Wisconsin I wondered if my old friend Bruce Livermore was planning to rebuild my old Lotus Seven, which he’d crashed years ago at Indianapolis Raceway Park. I thought maybe I’d give him a call when I got home.
The Seven is not as beautiful as the Eleven. But there’s something about a Lotus, a lightness of being not shared with any other car