Team Classic Lotus

A walk down memory (fast) lane in Norfolk, England with RACQ Motoring Editor, Barry Green.

During World War II, the skies above Hethel, in rural Norfolk, England reverberated to the roar of heavily-laden bomber aircraft of the United States Army Air Forces taking off on bold and deadly dangerous daylight bombing raids over Germany and occupied Europe.

In 1966, the reverberations came not from aircraft but Formula 1 racing cars when the famous Team Lotus took up residency at the now-disused air base. Part of the runways and old link roads were fused into a test track where a list of luminaries laid down the ground work that would take Team Lotus to six world drivers’ and seven constructors’ championships.

The drivers? No less than Jim Clark, Graham Hill, Jochen Rindt, Emerson Fittipaldi, Mario Andretti, Nigel Mansell and Ayrton Senna. In all, Lotus scored 77 Formula 1 grand prix victories.

Today, at the same Potash Lane address, Lotus Elise, Exige and Evora models roll off the production line and are put through their paces on the same test track. Hethel is also home to Classic Team Lotus (CTL), the historic motor sport entity of the Lotus group of companies, working out of the same building from which Team Lotus operated.

CTL has some 20 (mostly Formula 1) cars in its custody and care, many of which still compete today in historic racing. And, just four or five times a year, the workshop opens to a very limited number of enthusiasts for a two-hour guided tour. Recently, I was privileged to be one of them.

The overall scene is a far cry from the sanitised, aerospace-like environment that is a contemporary F1 workshop. A smell of grease and rubber pervades the air, the concrete floor is painted grey and grainy, blown-up images from the past adorn the brick and concrete walls. Now, as then, this is where racing cars are expertly prepared to win.  

Significantly, you get to see pretty much each car stripped down to its ‘tub’ on a work stand, minus bodywork and wheels etc. This enables the method of construction (space frame, monocoque, ground effects or more modern carbon fibre) to be readily seen.

Our tour starts at the beginning of Lotus open wheeler construction with the Type 12 prototype (pictured), a front-engined 1.5-litre F2 car from 1957. Our tour guide – a senior CTL member – informs that it was built as a design exercise and never entered into competition but is now being turned into a race car.

It's a significant machine, as is the nearby Type 21 driven by Innes Ireland to Team Lotus’ first F1 win, the 1961 US Grand Prix at Watkins Glen.

The late, great Jim Clark won the first of his two world titles in 1963 driving the 1.5-litre Type 25 with its twin boom spaceframe chassis. His mechanic of the day, Bob Dance, now 83 years young, still comes in to work on the car.

In their British racing green and yellow livery and devoid of sponsor stickers, the afore-mentioned trio typify the pre-commercial era of F1. From thereon, the appearance of the cars changed dramatically with the advent of multinational corporate backing, primarily big tobacco companies.

Decked out in the striking black-and-gold of JPS (John Player Special) is the Type 77 (pictured) in which Mario Andretti defied monsoon conditions to win the 1976 Japanese GP. It has an illustrious stablemate in the Type 78, which started the ground effects revolution in F1 and went on in the Italian/American’s talented hands to take the 1978 title.

By 1980, he was driving the Type 81 which boasted a monocoque tub with a much stiffer chassis. The one on display (pictured) also provided Nigel Mansell’s F1 debut.

“Nige used to play table tennis with the mechanics at lunchtime when he started as test driver,” our guide informs. “He even used to make the tea and coffee.”

Indeed, there’s plenty to mark Mansell’s time at Lotus: a carbon fibre tub in JPS colours and a Type 94 in the blue, red and silver of Essex sponsorship that he and Italian Elio de Angelis drove in 1983. Then there’s the Type 91 (only the second F1 car to be raced – behind the McLaren MP4/1 – using carbon fibre). It’s also the first Lotus to have active suspension. De Angelis won a thrilling Austrian GP in 1982 in this very car.

An engine is the heart of any car and from 1967 – when it debuted with victory in Clark’s Lotus 49 – until 1985, the Cosworth V8 DFV provided the pulse of F1. It was the powerplant of choice, taking a staggering 155 victories in 262 races. To see one in the Lotus workshop (pictured) is to marvel at the beauty of uncomplication.  

“In the old days, we would do 500 miles (800km) on one engine”, our guide revealed. “These days we limit a ‘Cossie’ to 10,200rpm, instead of 11,000rpm. That way, it lasts a whole season (of racing).

But there’s more than cars and engines. An adjoining room is chockful of wooden cabinets containing every original drawing of every Lotus open wheeler. Ditto a trove of test log books, dating back to 1980.

“There’s a note in one that says a car driven by Nigel retired ‘due to driver’s temperament’,” our guide said, which brought a laugh from the group.

Time flies, and all too soon the tour is over – officially. But, true enthusiasts that they are, the CTL people seem happy to talk shop beyond that. You are as welcome at the end as you are at the start.

The cost? £39 – about $80 Aust. It’s worth every cent.

For tour dates and other information

The writer was a guest of Classic Team Lotus.