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Lotus Engineering Company -- the First Year
What had happened before 1952
The first car to be publicly called a Lotus (which we now call the Lotus Mark II) was built in 1949 by Colin Chapman, his girl friend (and later wife) Hazel and any friends that could be persuaded to help, in a lock up garage in Muswell Hill, North London. The same place that had seen the creation of his Austin Seven Special (which he retrospectively called the Lotus Mark I) the previous year. Completed in 1950, it was intended as a car for mudplugging trials, but could also be used as a practical road car. It had an almost standard Ford Ten engine, which was what most of the top Trials drivers were using in those days. It was based on an Austin Seven chassis frame.
On 3rd June 1950 Colin entered the MKII for the Eight Clubs race meeting at Silverstone, and in a memorable scratch race beat the potent Type 37 Bugatti driven by Dudley Gahagen. This was a turning point in Lotus history as Colin was now firmly bitten by the circuit racing bug. He sold both the Austin Seven Special and the Lotus, and started work on the Lotus Mark III to compete in the newly created racing 750 Formula of the 750 Motor Club.
He had got as far as making the frame for this car when he stopped outside the house of the Allen brothers, Michael and Nigel, at Vallance Road in Alexandra Park, and introduced himself. He had been past before, and become intrigued by the vehicles being worked on. The brothers were studying to be dentists, but in their spare time tinkered with old cars, mainly Austin Sevens. They had a magnificently equipped workshop, and Colin soon persuaded them that they should join him in making a team of three Lotus Mark III cars and race them. The centre of operations then moved to Vallance Road.
The 1951 season was a very successful one, and although they did not find time to complete the other two cars, the Lotus-Austin dominated the Formula, and was entered in many events for larger capacity cars where it did so well that it caused much comment. There were lots of requests from other competitors for engine and suspension parts. In addition Mike Lawson, who had bought the Lotus with Ford Ten engine and was doing well with it in trials, ordered another trials car to a new design.
By now the 750MC were considering an 1172 Formula for racing in 1953, using the Ford Ten engine, and (no doubt influenced by Colin who was on the committee) the regulations allowed complete freedom of design for the chassis frame. So Colin soon schemed out his next car (the Lotus Mark VI). This was to be a true sports racing car which would have a space frame chassis whose bodywork would contribute to the overall stiffness, coil spring and dampers suspension, and would accommodate a range of different engines. This was a car that was planned for production, the Allen brothers were keen, so It was time for them to set up the business on a proper basis.
The new Lotus Engineering Company
Lotus Engineering Company (not a limited liability company in those days) was formed on 1st January 1952, Premises were found beside Colin's father's pub, The Railway Hotel, at Tottenham Lane, Hornsey. Being just next to the railway there could be no complaints from the neighbours about noise late at night.
However before they could start work, the move from the Allen brothers' home at Vallance Road to Hornsey had first to be completed. This involved laying concrete on the floor of the old stables which had been used by Colin's father as a store room for empty bottles, which coincided with some very cold weather. Fearing that the concrete would freeze before setting, they had to fill the place with oil stoves. There was no electric light to start with, and they installed an electric generator and 6 volt bulbs for lighting.
The agreement was that Colin and Nigel Allen would continue their day jobs - Colin at British Aluminium in St James Square near Piccadilly in London, and Nigel as a dental student. They would both spend all their spare time at the works. Michael was initially the only full time employee, with Mike Madden joining soon afterwards from Laystall Engineering, and John Teychenne, (a childhood friend of Colin), from Poplar Council. They were kept very busy with a flood of orders from customers wanting to race in the 750 Formula, Austin Seven engine overhaul and tuning, chassis modification, hydraulic brake conversions etc.
Their most immediate job was to complete the new Lotus Mark IV trials car for Mike Lawson which they had started to make at Vallance Road, and this was delivered in time to be entered for its first trial on 16th March. This was another Austin Seven based car, but with the Ford Ten engined fitted much further behind the front axle. The Lotus team were itching to get on with the Lotus Mark VI, but cash flow made it essential that no customer should be turned away!
John Teychenne had brought with him an order from Clive Clairmonte for a Formula 2 car, to be fitted with the Riley engine from the car he was currently racing. This was the ex-Hector Dobbs Riley 2 litre single seater (which is now raced in VSCC events by Stephen Davie). But they were so keen to make progress on the Mark VI that once the Mark IV had been delivered the Allen brothers and Colin concentrated their efforts on their new car, (in what one might call their spare time), whilst Michael, John and Mike were doing small jobs for customers in normal working hours, and John was trying to find time to make the Lotus Mark VII as the Formula 2 car for Clairmonte had been named. The Lotus Mark V was to have been a 100 mph Austin Seven, but they never got round to making it.
Another opportunity to make money came in May when Adam Currie ordered one of the two uncompleted Lotus III team cars, to be fitted with a Ford 1172 engine. This provided much needed cash to the Lotus cash-flow, but meant that there were now TWO customers wanting their cars before the end of the season!
First Currie, and then Clairmonte, became fed up with waiting, and took their cars away to finish them themselves, and cash flow problems meant that John Teychenne and Mike Madden had to be laid off, John to go to Arnott's (the supercharger people) who were building cars to the 500cc Formula 3.
Adam Currie finished his Lotus IIIb in time to race at the last Silverstone meeting of the year in October 1952, and Clairmonte decided to abandon the idea of racing a single seater, and converted it into a sports racing car with a 1-1/2 litre Lea-Francis engine, which he called the Clairmonte Special. It was not completed until 1953.
The new Lotus Mark VI was towed as a rolling chassis to Edmonton to have its new body made by Williams & Pritchard, the first Lotus for which they were to make the body, and the start of a long and successful relationship. The tow was unexpectedly difficult because the Lotus Mk VI steering box had been fitted so that the steering was reversed!
By the end of June the finishing touches were being made to the Mk VI, which was fitted with the recently announced Ford Consul engine. Ford would not let them have an engine, so they bought all the individual parts as spares and built it up themselves. They reduced the capacity from 1508 to 1499 cc by grinding the crankshaft to give a shorter stroke, and fitted the first undersize big end bearings.
It was finished in time to enter its first club race at Silverstone on 5th July. Although no spectacular results were achieved, there was tremendous interest and it is probable that several tentative orders were placed at that time. Colin decided to go ahead with a batch of six Mark VI's and started getting quotes for the special parts involved. He asked John Teychenne if he would make the chassis frames for him, so John set up the Progress Chassis company with his friend Dave Kelsey. They started making them, in their spare time, at John's parents home in Ribblesdale Road, just round the corner from the Lotus works. As Dave Kelsey later wrote, they never expected that there would be any more orders after the first six, but in the end they made about 110.
After another club race at Silverstone on 26th July they were sufficiently encouraged to enter the car for the International meeting at the Boreham circuit in Essex (which no longer exists as a motor racing venue) on 2nd August. After an eventful practice session on the Friday involving close contact with solid objects on the circuit (which required some attention back at the Works), Nigel and his girl friend (now wife) Pauline set off early on race day from Hornsey to the circuit, followed by the rest of the team in Nigel's Austin Big Seven. Disaster struck when a bread van coming towards them on the other carriageway turned right across their path, and the Lotus was written off in the subsequent crash. The insurance company paid up in full, but this was another turning point for the fledgling company as soon afterwards Michael pulled out, despite having been made co-Director and shareholder with Colin in the new Lotus Engineering Company Limited which was incorporated on 25th September 1952.
So the position at the end of the first year was that the first chassis frames were slowly emerging from the Progress Chassis Company, being taken up to Williams & Pritchard at Edmonton to have their bodies fitted, and the components that needed to be altered being prepared by Colin in his spare time -- initially without any other help. The first customer took delivery very early in the New Year. No-one knows exactly who had the first one -- but it was probably the car driven by Phil Desoutter (1172cc Ford) or Fred Hill (blown J type 746cc MG engine). Chassis kits for Denis Wilkins (Ford Consul) and a special trials car version with Ford Ten engine for Sinclair Sweeney soon followed.
Just before the end of the year Colin was introduced to Mike Costin who was looking for a more interesting job where he would have a say in how things were run, Colin convinced him he should help in his spare time, and he agreed to start on 1st January 1953. Colin had got the help that he so desperately needed, and must have been much relieved. The Lotus Engineering Company was now truly launched.
Where are they now?
None of the three 1952 Lotus customers are still alive, but all but one of the other people mentioned (with the exception of Colin himself and Charlie Williams of Williams & Pritchard), are still around and have in fact accepted invitations to this meeting.
The only missing one is Mike Madden, who has completely disappeared. If anyone knows anything about him we would be very pleased to hear from them.
The Lotus Mk II, the Lotus-Austin Mk III, the Lotus Mk IV and the first Lotus Mk VI XML6 are all here today. The Lotus IIIb has been restored and is in the USA, and the Clairmonte Special still exists in a Lancashire warehouse. The third Mk III chassis has still not been found, although - like Anastasia there have been plenty of pretenders!
There is a big question mark about what happened to the first Lotus Mk VI registered XML6. Parts of it, including the Log book and registration mark, were sold to Nigel Allen, but memories are unclear as to what happened next. Either:
He repaired the wrecked car and
put a Ford Ten engine in it, or
I am personally favour the first
explanation, as it would have been against the Lotus instinct
to throw away a repairable chassis. Whatever happened, Nigel
Allen enjoyed a season's racing in 1953 in the 1172 Formula races
with a Mark VI registered XML6
Note: The author of this note helped Adam Currie in 1952 to build his Lotus Mk IIIb and was a frequent visitor to the Lotus works at the time.
Peter Ross, Historic Lotus Register, 20th August 2002