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The rise of a phenomenon



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One of the classic marques, Lotus helped shape the future of F1. Right until the final Lotus victory founder Colin Chapman lived to see (see the De Angelis story) the team were at the forefront of GP innovation. It was Lotus that debuted the DFV, it was Lotus that started off the ground effect era. It was Lotus who gave us Jim Clark, Ronnie Peterson and Nigel Mansell. The first winged car to win a race was a Lotus. On the other hand the team also went up several blind alleys - the experiments with 4WD, turbine power and double chassis all going nowhere - but that was all part of the Hethel philosophy: to get ahead and stay ahead your car must feature some kind of innovation the competition doesn't have - yet. Rightful heirs to Chapman's heritage - developing "the unfair advantage" - include Patrick Head, Gordon Murray and Adrian Newey.

But where did it all start?

Right here, at the 1958 Monaco GP. And the man who effectively was Lotus is its founder Anthony Colin Bruce Chapman. So it might come as a bit of shock that the Lotus genius started adult life as a second-hand car salesman...

It was soon after entering London University that he and his friend Colin Dare began a business of buying and selling used cars. The year was 1946 and cars were a scarce commodity. The two Colins had hit the jackpot: with the demand rising each day and the supply side of car economics still showing a fixed figure, business was booming. Soon they bought and sold two cars every week - often college lectures were skipped in order to secure deals. As the inventory of cars grew the storage space became insufficient and Colins C and D were seen stocking cars in the lock-up shed behind Hazel Williams' home. Although Hazel would often object to the business activities of her mates, Chapman would end up marrying her.

Then suddenly British government doing away with petrol rationing finished a good business as the petrol supply was virtually cut off, causing the demand for used cars to crash. Luckily, Chapman and Dare had branched off into modifying their cars before selling them, which was more profitable but also involved more work. With the second-hand market evaporating, however, the two young engineers were effectively pushed into their new trade. So, the old business was dismantled and all that was left was an old 1928 Austin 7.

This was to be the basis of the first Lotus, the Mark 1. Only the chassis and drivetrain were retained as Colin Chapman fashioned a totally new body around it and modified the engine and suspension. The Seven was modified to be a trials car, a very British form of motorsport competition consisting of driving cars uphill through all sorts of terrain. Many of the construction techniques were those Colin had learned while studying civil engineering at university. Two trials were entered in the spring of 1948 and the Mark 1 Lotus scored its first two class wins. Encouraged by the result Chapman continued to develop and modify the Mark 1. First larger wheels and tyres were fitted and the front beam axle was split and hinged in the centre to provide independent front suspension.

However, with the coming of late spring, work on the Mark 1 tapered off allowing Colin to concentrate on his studies. By the end of the year 1947 Chapman had completed his engineering studies and officially attained his B.Sc. (Eng). By now Colin was quite familiar with the shortcomings of the Mark 1 and the construction of a Mark 2 appealed to him to eliminate those inadequacies. Work had only begun on the new car when Colin enrolled in military service in the RAF, where he learned to fly. He became even more intrigued by aeroplanes, specifically, in their flight and engineering. It was to be an important experience for this budding engineer. During his leaves Colin would return to the lock-up garage behind Hazel's home to work on the Mark 2. At times Hazel began to resent the attention the new car was getting. Colin had little time for dates, instead, before rushing back to camp, he would present her with a job list that had to be completed before Colin's next leave...

The speed and performance of the Mark 2 further enthused Colin's interest in motor sport. However, this was not until a 1172cc Ford 10 engine had replaced the worn Ford 8 engine. In September 1949 Colin's term with the RAF was completed and a future in the air force had no appeal to him, so he returned to civilian life. By December he was employed at a London firm of construction engineers. A life of building bridges seemed to lie ahead for Chapman, something he secretly did not relish. In the meantime, work on the new car continued. By Christmas the Mark 2 had grown a shapely radiator cowl and an ingenious system for the headlamps. They were mounted in the cowl and made to turn with the steering.

The spring of 1950 proved the competitiveness of the Mark 2 with class wins in trial after trial. Racing at Silverstone Colin beat a Bugatti, proving that circuit racing was the way ahead for Lotus. It was then sold to Mike Lawson (Stirling Moss's uncle) and he continued to win in the following year.

In 1950 a new formula had been introduced for closed circuit racing, the 750cc formula. Thus by January of 1951 work on the Lotus Mark 3, a car designed to meet the requirements of this new formula, had begun. It was this third Lotus that really caught the eyes of the racing community. With Colin and his new partners Michael and Nigel Allen in the driver's seat, the Lotus Mark 3 consistently won races; it was clearly the fastest of the 750cc formula. The Mark 3 showed all of the now classic signs of the future Lotus. It was light, lean and innovative. It did not just win, it pounded the competition into submission. It forced the racing governing bodies to regulate specifically against the Mark 3 to preserve equality. This was, as was to be seen in the future, only the first of such occasions where rules were written with Lotus specifically in mind.

By November 1951 Mike Lawson returned to Colin ready to purchase a new trials Lotus. Lawson's opposition were now putting the engine further back in the chassis to get more weight over the rear wheels. This is what Lawson wanted, and this is what Chapman provided with the Mark 4, which had two jerricans of water as ballast at the front so that it behaved like a normal road car between the muddy hill 'stages' when the ballast would be removed. He also invented the Jelly Joint to give more suitable steering on the hills, and then revert to normal steering on the roads between the stages. Furthermore, Lotus had planned to build three Mark 3 Lotus cars for the 1951 750 formula races, but time allowed only one to be finished. Of the other two, one was sold to Adam Curries for the new 1172 formula, and the other was never finished, being sold just as a chassis frame. Lotus did make parts for other people's 750 formula cars, including engine tuning. Also, the development of the Mark 4 was put into motion. January 1st, 1952 marked the official beginning of the Lotus Engineering Company, now located in Colin's father's building in Hornsey, a bottle store beside the Railway Hotel public house. The Mark 4 was completed and sold to Mike Lawson who scored class wins trail after trial in 1952. By late 1951 Chapman had noticed the demand that existed for the sale of components that assembled into a complete car. The Mark 5 was shelved to design and they decided to build components to fill this market. So it was then that the Mark 6 was born.

Chapman had noticed that the twin-channel chassis construction of the Austin became heavy when properly reinforced, thus with his engineering knowledge Chapman designed a robust multi-tubular chassis frame. The new structure was light, yet extremely rigid. There was no room for excess, every tube had a job. The resultant space frame for the Mark 6 weighed only 55 pounds, and when panels and mounting brackets were added the full up weight tipped only 90 pounds! The success of the Mark 6 was verified by the list of customers lined up to purchase copies of the winning car.

In 1954 the Mark 8 was introduced and Colin finally married Hazel. The small firm's cars continued to flourish, finishing with numerous victories that generated orders far exceeding production capabilities. Finally Colin was no longer able to hold down two jobs, so finally, at the start of 1955, the Lotus company was triumphant - Colin was theirs full-time.

Its biggest early-day success would of course become the classic Lotus Eleven. It was rolled out in huge numbers as everyone seemed to want one. It was also the car which brought Cliff Allison in touch with Chapman as Cliff was chosen to partner Keith Hall in one of three works Team Lotus Elevens in the Le Mans 24 Hours. Mind you, 200 of them were built... The other two cars were assigned to Chapman himself, partnering Herbert Mackay-Frazer, and to Peter Jopp and Reg Bicknell, who finished seventh overall and won the 1100 class.

Chapman's interest in single-seater racing was sparked by his contact with Vanwall, which invited him to "provide ideas" to its engineers. This didn't simply involve explaining the principles of the space frame but he effectively designed the entire frame as well. Chapman also introduced Vanwall to Frank Costin, who designed their streamlined body. That was followed by a curious driver invitation for the French GP weekend of 1956. Trintignant being committed to the launch of the Bugatti, and Vanwall wanting to run three cars but having only Schell to drive, led to Colin being offered a drive. It wasn't a happy experience. Locking up his brakes in practice, probably due to a mechanical failure, he not only destroyed his car but also took out Mike Hawthorn's in the process, who on this occasion happened to be his team mate!

To cut a long story short, during 1956 Chapman decided, in view of the Formula 2 series that was going to be introduced the following year, to build his first single seater: the Lotus 12. It was a tiny machine, shaped like a cigar (and rather ugly) but full of innovations. Contrary to the rival Formula 2 Cooper, the engine was still in front of the driver, as with the sportscars. With Coventry Climax again agreeing to playing the British racing industry's godfather by splitting its incumbent 8-cylinder in two to form the FPF, Richard Ansdale was commissioned to design a 5-speed transaxle gearbox that ended up giving a lot of headaches to both himself and the drivers. The system was working in a motorbike fashion, thus obliging the driver to go through all the gears when shifting down. Obviously, the new car's chassis was again a space frame but at the front Lotus introduced a brand new double-wishbone suspension design. A typical Chapman weight-saving detail was the roll-bar also acting as a locating link to the top wishbone! At the rear a de Dion axle was initially used and two disc brakes fitted inboard. Another novel feature - unique at the time - were the specially fabricated alloy wheels, the centres of which had a curiously 'wobbly' pattern: yet another example of the clever Chapman approach to obtaining maximum rigidity with minimum weight. The idea itself wasn't Chapman's but he had spotted its use on a US fighter aircraft. (Contrary to usual practice, the wheels were not secured with a single locking nut, but with six normal studs and small wheel nuts. Chapman reasoned that wheels would never require changing during a short F2 race.)

The basic figures for the car were a weight of 300kg and an expected 140bhp power output. That was the good news, of course. The bad news was that the car never really performed well on a consistent level. During prototype testing Chapman decided to replace the de Dion rear axle and suspension with what became known as the Chapman Strut system. This consisted on three basic elements that reduced overall and unsprung weight whilst allowing a much improved rear-wheel geometry. A total of eight Lotus 12 were built, but during 1957 not a single victory was scored. Better results would follow in 1958.

The car's major weakness was its special gearbox which continually gave trouble. This, by the way, led to the initial contact between Chapman and Keith Duckworth (who had just graduated) as the latter was charged with the study of a modified gearbox. For 1958 the plan was to up the ante and set foot into F1 land. The car to do it was to be the Lotus 16. But things didn't start off according to plan. Whilst designing the 16, Chapman had the idea of positioning the engine on one side. As the idea proved unsuccessful, the design of the car needed extensive modification, so really the car intended to appear at Monaco in the middle of May would be ready in July at the earliest. That wasn't going to stop Chapman's plans to enter F1, so he simply made his debut with a pair of 12s.

Meanwhile, Coventry Climax had stretched an FPF to 1960cc for Cooper to run Jack Brabham in the 1957 Monaco GP (and he had held third place). Later events that season proved that over-sized F2 cars were a workable proposition in GP racing. For 1958 Rob Walker commissioned an intermediate 2015cc variant of the FPF whilst Colin Chapman joined John Cooper in ordering a pair of 2207cc units each to put their F2 cars into Formula 1 with a better chance. More 1960cc units were available as a second-string, and so, for the BRDC International Trophy race at Silverstone on May 3, Graham Hill drove a Team Lotus 12 with the 1960cc engine installed to give them their Formula 1 debut, with Allison finishing 6th overall - and winning the F2 class with his car - and Hill finishing 8th.

Two weeks later, Graham and Cliff drove a pair of 2-litre 12s in the Monaco Grand Prix where Allison finished 6th and gained Lotus its first championship point. Later that year he finished a creditable 4th at Spa with a 2.2-litre engine against the 2.5 litres of the first three cars, whilst the team's first 2.2 was held back as a spare, earmarked as Allison's car in the Dutch GP at Zandvoort. It was a modest start, but at the same time it was the start of something big.

Reader's Why by John Cross

History in the making! This was the first Lotus single seater to race and this race marked the Grand Prix debut both for Lotus and both their drivers, Cliff Allison and Graham Hill. It saw the second successive win for Cooper, Maurice Trintignant in the T45-Climax winning from Musso and Collins in their Ferraris (Moss having won the historic 'non-stop' Argentine GP previous to this race). Behra's BRM led from the start but went out with brake problems. Then Moss's Vanwall and Hawthorn's Ferrari battled for the lead until both retired, leaving Maurice to win for Rob Walker, with Cliff 6th.

Born on February 8 1932, Cliff Allison started his motor racing career in Formula 3 in 1952. He finished 4th in the 1955 British Formula 3 championship and moved on to race in sport cars after landing a drive with the works Lotus team. Shining at Le Mans in 1957, Cliff moved back to single seaters, racing for Lotus in 1958, scoring points in his first 3 races with 2 6ths followed by 4th in the Belgian Grand Prix. He even looked set to win in Germany until his radiator burst.

This form earned him a drive with Ferrari in 1959 and he started his second season with them by finishing 2nd in the Argentine Grand Prix, but was thrown from his car during practice at Monaco and broke his arm, leaving him on the sidelines for the rest of the season. He returned to Formula 1 with a UDT-Laystall Lotus in 1960, finishing 2nd in the International Trophy at Silverstone, but he crashed during practice at the Belgian Grand Prix and suffered severe leg fractures, ending his career.

The Lotus story is too well known to bear repeating here, but the background to the Lotus 12 is quite interesting. When the 1.5 litre Formula 2 was announced by the FIA, to achieve international status in 1957, a number of "dress rehearsal" events were held in Britain. The first of these was a supporting race at the British GP meeting at Silverstone on 14 July 1956. There was only one true F2 prototype - Roy Salvadori's works Cooper - the rest of the field consisting of 1.5-litre sports racing cars, stripped of as much excess weight as possible. 28-year-old Colin Chapman was there in his Lotus 11 and led the first 9 laps before finishing second behind the works Cooper with rear mounted Climax FWB.

In October 1956, Chapman invited the press to his little "factory" in the stable block behind his father's hotel in Hornsey, North London, and there he unveiled his prototype single seater Lotus - the Type 12. It was incomplete, its engine merely a mock up of the new 1475 cc twin-cam Climax FPF, and its all-new Lotus transaxle in the rear was made of wood. But it looked sensational! Its spaceframe chassis was an ultra-lightweight affair in aircraft-spec Reynolds 531 tube. It was properly triangulated and exceedingly spidery. Colin stiffened his very narrow chassis frame by having its aluminium undertray spooned for rigidity and attaching it rigidly to the tube frame's bottom bays. The engine was also mounted rigidly.

Front suspension was new for Lotus - wide-based lower wishbone, single top link with a high forward-mounted anti-roll bar sweeping back to create what was effectively a wishbone leg there. Coil-spring/damper unit were mounted outboard. At the rear, a de Dion setup similar to the sports car was used, with single radius rods providing fore and aft location each side. A single central link pivoted the tube around a pick-up on a frame diagonal just above the new Lotus transmission. Girling disc brakes were outboard front, inboard rear and the lightweight cast magnesium wheels were the first Lotus 'wobbly webs'. The FPF drove to a new, incredibly compact rear-mounted gearbox and final drive designed by an Austrian engineer called Richard Ansdale. This had a sequential motorcycle-type change, tracking through a quadrant in tiny Zs. The body weighed only 700 lb ready to race, the 141 bhp engine gave the Lotus a power to weight ratio of 415 bhp per ton.

During 1957, Lotus ran only a restricted F2 programme while concentrating on its sportscars. A few Type 12s were sold but they made little impression on a Cooper-dominated class. The third Type 12 to be built was the first car to use "Chapman Strut" rear suspension in place of the de Dion tube. Colin devised this system simply to distribute loadings more widely into the slender chassis. Each rear hub now had 3 locating members - a tall coil/damper unit rigidly aligned with a robust cast hub to control vertical motion, a fabricated forward radius arm to transmit driving force to the frame and locate the hub longitudinally, and a fixed length half shaft which located the hub laterally.

The new Lotus "queerbox" caused enormous grief. During 1957 a London University graduate named Keith Duckworth joined Lotus, working at first under a character called Graham Hill who was in charge of gearbox preparation. Duckworth became the company's gearbox development engineer, devising a positive-stop gearchange mechanism which replaced the previous quadrant change. For the 1958 season, a spiral-bevel final-drive would be adopted without the offset of the hypoid original, and a German ZF limited slip differential was fitted, the gearboxes being manufactured for Lotus by ZF in Germany.

The 1958 Formula 2 season started well - Hill second and setting fastest lap at Goodwood on Easter Monday, with Cliff Allison third right behind. Cliff then came 4th in the combined F1/F2 race. Hill and Allison finished 4-5 in the F1/F2 Aintree 200, and then for the International Trophy at Silverstone on 3 May 1958, a 1960 cc Climax FPF (as used by Moss to win the historic Argentinian GP in January) was installed in Graham Hill's car to make Lotus's first ever Formula 1 appearance, finishing 8th. Of greater delight to the team was Allison's drive to 6th, first F2 home. Two weeks later on 18 May, Hill and Allison drove a pair of 1960 cc 12s at Monaco to mark the Grand Prix debut of Team Lotus. Allison finished 6th while Hill retired.

Almost exactly 10 years later on 12 May 1968, Hill would win his first GP for Team Lotus at the Spanish GP, only weeks after Jim Clark's tragic death and in the Team's first appearance in Gold Leaf colours. Two weeks later he would win Lotus's 6th consecutive GP victory and would go on to win the last GP of the season in Mexico to clinch his second World Championship.

Going back to 1958, Team Lotus fitted the 2207 cc FPF to Cliff's 12 for Zandvoort and again he scored a 6th with Hill retiring. The Belgian GP saw Cliff finish 4th in the 2.2-litre 12 and was the first healthy car - had the race been one lap longer he would probably have scored Lotus's maiden GP victory in only their 3rd GP! At the French GP the 'mini-Vanwall' Lotus 16 made its debut, but the 12 was not finished yet. It retired in the British GP but Cliff finished a tremendous 7th at Monza (with a 1.5 engine!) and won a works Ferrari drive for 1959. He would then race it for the last time at the Moroccan GP, finishing 10th with the 1960 cc FPF.