The Staff of Motorsport Marketing
The Staff of Motorsport Marketing Writer
7/12/19 1:40 p.m.

Story and photos by Bill Holland

Before we had Hollywood’s “Ocean’s Eleven” and its various remakes and reboots, we had what many consider to be Colin Chapman’s defining achievement, the Lotus Eleven–manufactured from 1956 through 1958.

Chapman essentially created the Eleven from scratch; it featured a lightweight tubular steel spaceframe with aluminum supports that weighed only 70 pounds. Chapman is famously known for his mantra of wanting each part to serve two or more functions. The Eleven, with its 85-inch wheelbase, tipped the scales at only 1000 pounds, sans fuel.

Power originally came from an aluminum block/head 1100cc Coventry Climax engine with single overhead cam that was rated at 83 horsepower. However, a variety of engines were ultimately fitted into the Eleven–culminating with a 1500cc variant festooned with the famed Lady Godiva badge.

There were three basic versions of the Eleven. The top-of-the-line Le Mans (priced at $5467 in 1957, the equivalent of $48,948 today) sported a deDion rear suspension and inboard disc brakes, while a Club model ($4301 back then) came with a standard Austin live rear axle and drum brakes. There was also a $3253 Sports model, similar to the Club but it sported a Ford 10 engine.

Initially, all models used a swing-axle front suspension sourced from an English Ford model 93E and a BMC-supplied four-speed transmission. Some of the later Series 2 cars (usually LeMans models) were fitted with Lotus 12-type double A-arm front suspensions and reinforced chassis designed to accommodate larger engines.

The Eleven’s body, designed by noted aerodynamicist Frank Costin, was hand-formed from aluminum and certainly was slippery. There were two body styles: one with fairing/headrest and one without. Costin even fitted an Eleven with a bubble-style canopy over the cockpit, and it was driven by Stirling Moss to a 143 mph record for a lap at Monza.

Le Mans, however, was the site of many of the Eleven’s triumphs. At the car’s debut in 1956, Reg Bicknell and Peter Joop came in seventh overall and first in class. It’s said that in their first year of competition, the Lotus Eleven accounted for some 150 race wins worldwide.

The following year saw an Eleven fitted with a 750cc engine win the prestigious Index of Performance at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Elevens also finished first, second and fourth in the 1100cc class.

In 1958, the final year of the Lotus Eleven’s production, the cars made a clean sweep of their class at Sebring.

The build sheet shows 270 examples created at Chapman’s Tottenham Lane factory in London’s North End before emphasis switched to building Formula 1 cars in the summer. 1959 saw the debut of the Eleven’s successor, the Lotus 17, but it didn’t enjoy the same level of success. Chapman was finally propelled back into the headlines in 1963 with the rear-engined Lotus 23.

The good news is that, of the 270-car production run, many Elevens made the transition into club racing and some became first-rate school cars. Now, some 60-plus years later, there’s still a lively contingent of Lotus Eleven owners worldwide–2018 saw no less than 11 Elevens on the grid for the Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion at the fabled WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca.

Some interesting information can be gleaned from a road test of the Lotus Eleven in the March 1957 issue of Road & Track magazine. The car, driven by Jay Chamberlain—the Hollywood-based Lotus distributor—recorded a zero-to-60 mph time of 9.0 seconds and traversed the quarter-mile in 16.0 seconds at 86 mph. Chamberlain, who also drove Elevens for the factory at Le Mans, recorded a top speed of 132.06 mph.

The cover of that issue shows the No. 102 Lotus Eleven driven by a young Jack Nethercutt at the short-lived Paramount Ranch track in Los Angeles County. Today, Jack is best-known in motoring circles for The Nethercutt Collection in nearby Sylmar, California, which Autoweek named as one of America’s five greatest automobile museums.

A number of Elevens wound up in the hands of other notable enthusiasts. One of the more famous owners was broadcaster Walter Cronkite, whose racing ambitions were curtailed by the CBS Network. “Tonight” Show bandleader Skitch Henderson was another well-known Eleven owner. And, of course, who can forget actor Steve McQueen, who honed his considerable racing skills in Chapman’s lithe creation. The Lotus Eleven ranks as an honored chapter in motorsports history.

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RoddyMac17 Reader
7/12/19 5:30 p.m.

One of my all time favourite cars.  I was lucky enought to befriend Merv Therriault who worked for Lotus in the 50's, and when they were moving drawing offices Colin told the staff to get rid of a bunch of old drawings.  Merv got rid of them by taking them home with him.  He ended up with most of the drawings for the Eleven S1 club and a body section drawing for the Series 2 (unfortunately it was only the lines from the firewall back).  He was a customer of the shop I was working at, and when he heard I was into building and restoring Lotus he graciously lent them to me to build a replica.  The car oringally was going to have an A series motor, but a Climax firepump was sourced and it was rebuilt as a street motor (still in pump size, 1020cc).   

Here's a picture that Merv took behind the Lotus works, the chassis appears to be a Series 2 done up for an auto show.

And here's Merv and I with my replica after getting it back from the local metal shop:


In a slightly related topic (and was posted on a Lotus FB page today), Merv was part of the "Lotus 12 Road test"  that took part on Christmas day.  Dennis Jenkinson wanted to road test a grand prix car and Chapman obliged lending him a 12 on Christmas day... Lotus 12 Road Test



7/13/19 11:29 p.m.

Don’t forget the Lotus Valiant, That was powered by a 170 cube Hyper-Pak equipped Slant-Six (backed by a 4-speed).  The engine block was used as a stressed member of the suspension.


Jordan Rimpela
Jordan Rimpela Digital Editor
7/17/19 2:09 p.m.

In reply to Jakespeed :

Would make for a good story!

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