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If Colin Chapman had designed only the Lotus Eleven, his place in racing history would have already been assured. A great Lotus Eleven always draws a crowd, at speed or at rest, and numerous copies have been built. Many of these have been since 1985, built by Westfield.
Chapman was an engineer for the British Aluminum Company and built competition cars in his spare time. He started with the bare-bones Lotus VI in 1952, initially with Ford side-valve engines, but the aluminum Coventry Climax SOHC, 1098 cc four-cylinder – originally developed for a marine fire pump – proved to be the magic ingredient, and 100 Mark VIs were sold in three years.
As the wins racked up, Chapman wanted to enter the 1500 cc class and hired De Havilland Aircraft engineer Frank Costin to produce an aerodynamic full-width racer. The Lotus VIII and IX were followed quickly by the XI (Eleven), which had a stunning low-drag body. Its tubular space frame weighed only 70 pounds, and the smooth envelope body was hinged at both ends for unparalleled access. Costin’s aerodynamic skills were demonstrated when a stock Eleven with a bubble canopy recorded a 143 mph lap at Monza, and averaged 137.5 mph for an hour. Road-going cars were fitted with lights, windshields and even a top. They could manage 26 mpg U.S. at 100 mph.
Lotus Eleven frames were made locally by Progress Chassis, while the alloy bodies were hand-formed by Williams & Pritchard. Cars could be bought complete or assembled from kits, which dodged about 20 percent sales tax. The Lotus Eleven was also sold as the Sports, which was a street car with a 36-hp four-cylinder side-valve Ford 100E engine and drum brakes; the Club (same car with 75-hp, 1.1-liter Coventry Climax engine); and the Le Mans, a single-seater with a 1,462 cc Coventry Climax engine, disc brakes, and De Dion rear axle. The Le Mans was capable of 165 mph.
Colin Chapman entered a Lotus Eleven in the disastrous 1955 Le Mans 24 Hours race, in which Mercedes driver Pierre Levegh and 82 spectators were killed. He and co-driver Ron Flockhart were disqualified on the 12th hour, after Chapman broke the rules by reversing on to the track after going off course.
Both would make up for it in 1956. Flockhart and Ninian Sanderson won the Le Mans 24 Hours in the Ecurie Ecosse privateer Jaguar D-Type, while the fastest of the three Lotus Eleven factory cars, driven by Reg Bicknell and Peter Jopp finished an amazing seventh overall. It won its class, and its average speed would have won the 1949 event outright.
By the Spring of 1957, 150 Lotus Elevens had been built and a Mark 2 was introduced with Chapman’s own wishbone independent front suspension, replacing the primitive swing-axle arrangement that made for unpredictable handling.
Lotus Elevens were unbeatable in their class when they were new, and remain fiercely competitive in historic racing. By mid-1958 about 270 Lotus Elevens and been sold, but the rear-engine Formula One revolution was under way and Chapman shifted his focus to that. Eminently successful and uniquely styled, Lotus Elevens are both exclusive and expensive. Cars with significant race of course command a significant premium, but also come with a solid chance of entry into almost any historic racing event in the world.