The Debut Car

by Jay Sloane and Victor Thomas

photos by Tom Burnside

the Chapman / Sheppard Mk 9 ahead of Miller's ElevenWhen Colin Chapman took Lotus to LeMans in 1955, his fledgling team was soon over- whelmed with last- minute preparations complicated by the organizers many demands that the Mark 9 be modified. While Chapman, Mike Costin and others on the team were used to working all day and night, they saw soon enough that there wasn’t the time and there weren’t the resources to get the Nine into compliance. Then Team Lotus made an appeal for help from multi-millionaire Briggs Cunningham, whose own team was armed with mechanics, materials and tools in abundance. With the help of team Cunningham, the Nine was made ready. During the race, despite problems, Cunningham’s “keep her going at all costs” attitude helped the Nine to continue running well until it was finally disqualified.

Cunningham was well known for old-fashioned sportsmanship, but he had been impressed the year earlier when he first saw a Lotus Mark 6 in the USA, and again in 1955 when the Mark 9 had its debut at Sebring. The sleek little cars were not given much chance to survive for twelve hours, despite their obvious high technical standard, but they both went fast and would have finished well with just a little more luck. Cunningham had also seen other Mk 9s in New England events show unexpected speed, so he must have recognized Lotus as a carmaker to bet on.

This is mentioned because Briggs Cunningham soon became one of the first people to own a Lotus Eleven, and it was the very first “works” Eleven racecar. The details of this are sketchy, but when some of the earliest Elevens, chassis numbers #150, #153, #155 and #156, left England for the U.S.A. in February 1956, they all had different buyers waiting. Chassis #150 went to New York for Ralph Miller who immediately headed to Sebring where he had a provisional entry. Chassis #153 went on to Fletcher Lippett / Brownloe Whitehead of Texas. Eleven #155 went to Tony Pompeo, acting at the time as Lotus distributor. From his office in New York, Pompeo was U.S. agent for a half-dozen obscure European carmakers, including Siata and OSCA, and had handled many of the Mk. 9 sales for Lotus in ‘55 Lotus records show chassis #156 consigned to CUNNINGHAM, but that is all the information given, and advance communications between the factory and its wealthy benefactor are lost. But clearly he was a favored buyer, as inside specifications of this car will attest.  Anyone who had contacted Lotus or Pompeo in the Winter of’55 — ‘56 about buying a Lotus would have received an Eleven. (For example, the sale of an early Eleven to Charles Cunningham — no relation to Briggs — occurred after Charles walked into Pompeo’s showroom early in 1956 intent to buy a Mk. 9. He was told the Eleven had replaced the Nine, so Charles ordered the new car instead.)

Who is Colin Chapman talking with?Our interest is with chassis #156, and special plans were in store for this car as Chapman had booked a flight to New York to meet it when the ship arrived, and Lotus had already applied for entry in the Sebring 12-hour endurance race. The entry listed him and Len Bastrup, of Rye, New York, as the drivers. That application also reveals this car had a 1.5 liter Climax engine, the very first "FWB" made in fact, and quite an upgrade from the sister cars FWA 1100’s.

The new Lotus Engineering England, works Eleven was carried from New York to Florida in the Cunningham transport truck, unlike the two Mk. 9’s a year earlier, that were driven over the open roads in a thousand mile “break-in.”  It was destined to be Cunningham’s car after all. As Joe Sheppard who was there in ’56 with his Mk 9 recalled, “Chapman’s scheme with works cars was ‘Before the race it’s a factory car, after the race it’s yours’.”

One of those at Sebring that year was a young professional photographer named Tom Burnside who took a series of photos of the new Eleven #156 just before it went on track, parked on the gravel between Cunningham’s truck and hangar. There is a sense of occasion in these pictures as others admire the car, gleaming in the sunshine, workmen busy in last-minute get-ready, Chapman beaming from the cockpit. It was new and important enough for Burnside to get right inside the car with his camera getting what were really technical views of some extraordinary hardware.  The moment captured in these photos represents the American introduction of the Eleven as well as its world competition debut. There, in Cunningham’s entourage, talking with moneyed enthusiasts, Chapman had to feel buoyant. But soon afterward this debut car was wrecked, and with no further interest in it these photos were locked away in a drawer.
The views you see in this article finally came to light in 1998, after Eleven owner Ed Berre contacted Burnside for any photos of the Miller car.  Realizing the importance of another Eleven at Sebring that year, Berre bought copies of everything available and loaned them to me to study. The day the package of photos arrived at my house, long time friend and Eleven expert Victor Thomas was visiting from England. This was amazing good fortune as Vic and I had spent years independently searching for information about this very car. And there we were looking at the same sort of photos we would take if we could go back into time to Sebring in March 1956! (Recently Tom Burnside has given permission for these photos to be included in this website, so you can see them too.) 

We don’t know what lap times the car made in practice, only that it was extremely quick. As reported in Sports Car: “Len Bastrup fljpped the Colin Chapman (Briggs Cunningham) 1490cc Lotus on Friday afternoon, leaving Chapman, designer-builder-driver of all things Lotus, rideless after a long trip, and removing one of the most interesting cars from the competition.”

The crash shook-up Bastrup hard enough to pop one of the lenses out of his racing goggles. Bystanders had to pull the dazed driver from the cockpit after a fuel spill set the car on fire. The Debut car then went up in smoke.  Chapman, devastated at the loss of his own car, took an opening to race with Sheppard, who had lost the service of his co­driver the same day. Later that evening, the Miller Eleven was suddenly allowed into the race lineup. A Ferrari and a Morgan had crashed-out in the last practice, and now there was room for Miller, who had to scramble to find a co-driver, a friend, Hal Fenner. On race day it was Ralph Miller and his car, chassis #150, that made the competition debut of the Lotus Eleven.  Strangely, when Miller's electrical system failed in the race he seemed to struggle with it alone, with no help from "the works." Unlike Chapman he hadn't made the right friends.  More details are in the Joe Sheppard interview, in the Racing Success section of this site.    

But read on as Vic Thomas and I examine the photos Tom Burnside took of the works Lotus before its crash.  The photos reveal an Eleven prepared like no other.

Exterior view
Briggs Cunningham is at leftThe car Chapman smiles out from has just received a rear- view mirror from something as exotic as a Ford Thunderbird. All sorts of mirrors appear on early Elevens, and likely this was an item to be provided by the customer. The door latch-stop is the early “peg & spring clip” design. The windscreen is the early type: held in place by dzus-fasteners, and without any retaining lip at the leading edge. However the screen is in two pieces only, as on all normal cars, unlike the “cut & shut” affair on the press-car. This is in line with the chassis numbering: press-car #151, Chapman / Bastrup #156. The brass screws fixing the screen have double the spacing of the later norm. The position of the fuel filler in the cowl ahead of the driver indicates a second fuel tank, complete with supportive structure beneath. The extended range from a second tank had been part of the design for this car.
Engine bay views
We see some Sebring-required tabs for securing the fuel and the oil fill caps. While the drilling for these and the mirror had been going on, a rag was stuffed into the inlet at the top of the air box. Clearly shown is a fuel pump mounted on its own bracket near the pedal box. Just visible in the other engine-bay photo is a second pump in a similar orientation on the left side, above the exhaust. Each pump is drawing from a separate tank, and sending fuel through clear tubing to the common float bowl between the SU’s. The pump on the nearside has a small aluminum shield between it and the exhaust.

The inlet manifold is of the earlier, pre-Eleven, type having parallel instead of “flowed” tracts to the ports and a rubber balance pipe interconnection. Also the rev-counter drive is of a pre ‘56 type — from the rear of the generator (MG TC?). The rubber hood closure strip on the cowl front is molded and held on with neat cups and screws —production siblings had simply stick-on sponge. A nice early touch is the fine hole in the passenger-side spring mount for a hood retaining cord. And who stole the cam box Godiva medallion? Did Sebring have souvenir hunters in those days! It would take a CIA computer enhancement to read the engine number, but from Burnside’s sharp original photos it is probably possible.

Rear axle views
These pictures surprised Victor the most. (For Jay to say I was surprised at this revelation is a complete understatement - HISTORY HAD TO BE REWRITTEN THE MOMENT WE SET EYES ON THESE PHOTOS. It was Russ Hoenig writing in his 1977 Lotus Eleven Register newsletter that drew attention to the drooped cutout at the rear of Bastrups airborne car, which he explained was to give clearance for the curved full-width deDion locating tube. As this corresponded exactly with the photos of the press-car, the design of early Elevens was so defined. We then spent the next 23 years looking for curved rods on the back of’56 Sebring Elevens and GUESS WHAT - we didn’t find any! —V.T.)

The frame is like that of the “press-car” with its seatback diagonal stretching across the left side. For years it was assumed that this Sebring car also had a full-width, curved locating rod just as the press-car had. Photos of the rollover show a scoop beneath the differential area providing clearance for something. The curved rod would have attached to the chassis at pivot points at the sides of the seatback bulkhead and attached to the bottom center of the DeDion tube. It would therefore have fouled the undertray unless a bulge or cutout was made for it. In the two photos Burnside took of the rear the cutout for a single large scoop is barely visible. Holes at the seatback tubes are present but they aren’t used for anything! Instead we find a conventional Eleven suspension. What then was the large scoop for?

The first possible reason jumps out as this photo is examined. The differential is not typical for an Eleven. It appears larger, possibly extending lower in the car. This differential is also mounted on a bracket unlike those in other Elevens, a bracket that attaches to the chassis at four points. Not only is the differential not interchangeable with others, this chassis cannot easily accommodate the standard unit.

This differential type has its origins in the first Mark 8, the revolutionary SAR 5. That unit was built-up from a Lotus casting, and utilized Austin- Healey, or A90 ring & pinion. This type of diff’ was used in most of the Mk. 9’s. The biggest difference here from the Nine is of course the use of rotors instead of drums.

Certainly chassis #156 was built with four attachment points as part of the plan to use this differential. A supply problem with the newer, lighter differential type is a possibility, but it must have been recognized early enough to allow the fabrication of a unique mount bracket as well as necessary modification of the chassis. While the three early cars were en route to America, others were under construction at Hornsey, and none of them had differentials like this. Neither had the press-car, and surely it could have been a donor if parts were needed for the works Sebring entry. We are left with the conclusion that this beefy looking unit was used in this car deliberately. The FWB engine, the second fuel tank, the long-distance plans for the car, point to a belief that this rear-end would give the car an advantage, perhaps in reliability or even by virtue of a special gear ratio. Another reason why this setup was installed will be offered in a moment.

The issue of the cutout and scoop seems to have been answered in the research Ed Berre did on the Miller car. Hal Fenner, co-driver with Miller at Sebring, told about the brake cooling problems encountered by the Elevens there. A “hammer and chisel job” done on the sheetmetal of #150 at Sebring may have been for brake cooling as well as for the addition of a second tank. Joe Sheppard, quoted in the article in the Race Success section, also remembered the problems the early Elevens had with brakes overheating. The big scoop seen in the crash photos was probably there for cooling and nothing more. Other small differences that can be seen from production cars are 18 coils to the rear springs, and the hydraulic brass “Tee” on a bracket above the diff, rather than on a diagonal tube.

Interior view
The seatback was an upholstered plywood sheet in the early cars. It could be lifted out for a “pass-through” to the rear, while later cars have a sheet of aluminum riveted across the seatback tubes for more strength. Here Burnside had the seat removed as he photographed from behind the axle. It appears that the bonnet was closed for this picture, but the cowl is off. We can see through to the cylinder head. The dashboard, handbrake, adjustable column and pedal arrangement are already standard Lotus Eleven. In fact it is impressive how the ergonomics of the Eleven had been worked out so early. (Or at least what suited Chapman the best became and stayed standard, all tall drivers being “idiots” in his view.)

However there is something very different from what we expect on the transmission tunnel. Instead of an Austin A-30 gearbox arrangement, there is a transverse bolt going through the tunnel in a position recalling the mount for an MGA transmission. This box has a Magnette-type gearshift adaptor that does away with the MGA remote and positions the gear lever precisely where we see it. Published specifications for FWB-equipped Elevens describe an MG box to handle the extra torque. So here we are seeing the first one of the series. We must now consider the advantage of having four strong, usable gears at Sebring. Not like ‘57 when Chapman/Sheppard had to keep their A30 box in third gear exiting the hairpin!

Like the man says “after the race the car is yours” so the bent and burnt “works Eleven” became the property of Briggs once it hit the tarmac after its short flight. The damage looked superficial from the photos (to us accustomed to rebuilding an Eleven from a bent chassis upwards, that is) but maybe to a wealthy racer in 1956 it was considered terminal. Maybe the FWB belonged to Lotus Engineering and so there wasn’t much else left in one piece?

What is known for sure is that the car was used as a basis for race mechanic Alfred Momo to build an Eleven lookalike with 1.5 liter Maserati engine (and presumably gearbox) which appeared driven by Cunningham in the autumn of 1956. More photos and details of the car are in the Dark Ages, item #10, on this website. Regarding the car’s reincarnation, current owner Andy Bradshaw has uncovered this:

from Motor Racing, Nov 1956, “Alfred Momo’s latest car is a Mark XI Lotus with a 1500cc Maserati engine. It is considerably modified and incorporates an Austin Healey rear axle assembly.”

from Autosport, Nov. 9 1956, re: Thompson race in October 1956 .... Briggs Cunningham‘s Lotus Maserati, third in class, was very close behind. But with one lap and a half to go and on the back stretch, the universal joint broke on his Lotus, and Cunningham pushed his new baby home.”

from Sports Car and Lotus Owner, Feb 1957, “Len Bastrup of Connecticut writes to say that there are now five Lotus Elevens in New England, including Briggs Cunningham's, which has a 1500cc Maserati engine. One owner is Skitch Henderson, a popular radio and TV personality and his stage 2 Climax engine proudly sports twin-Weber carburetors.”

The car was advertised for sale in Sports Car, May 1958 and in Road & Track, August 1961: “FOR SALE 195 7Lotus 1I, 1958 Maserati 150S engine. Beautjful installation by Momo. 150hp, 900lbs, disc brakes, deDion rear, red lacquer, touring equipment. Concours condition, few races, engine just overhauled by Maserati. W.F. Noyes, Florida Hill Rd., Ridgefield, Connecticut

Sometime after the last sale, the car went through another fire. Thirty-odd years after its debut the burnt-out chassis and suspension remains were acquired by Andy Bradshaw in Wales. He writes: “I bought the car in 1988 from Indianapolis. The car was only missing the engine, gearbox and instruments. The rest of the mechanicals were still with the car. Regarding the bodywork, I have the original tail section and head fairing, the latter having a flap possibly for a rear mounted fuel tank. Also the rear has air scoops and plumbing for cooling the rear brakes, plus two slots in the rear bodywork allowing air to escape. It also has a little metal sign on the rear saying KEEP OUT.”

The rear body panel is painted red, another indicator of use by Cunningham. Until today we have always assumed that together with building a new quasi-Eleven chassis, Momo added an A90 diff with a four-point mount to take the strain of the Maserati power unit: but hey-presto there is the very diff, inside chassis #156 in March 1956!

As promised, the reason for the special rear-end has arrived. What Andy Bradshaw has known for years has taken on new meaning with the discovery of these photographs. He writes: "The differential used in #156 is a Mark 9, because it is a B-series type of crown wheel and pinion. Other than the obvious reason that it is stronger than the A-series type even though heavier —and we all know Chapman’s obsession with weight — we must ask why the B-series. The answer is quite simple: limited-slip.

“Yes, the unit from #156 is a limited-slip differential, in very good condition, with a 5.2 to 1 ratio. I believe Lotus fitted this unit because of the advantage a similar differential gave the Stirling Moss /Lance Macklin Austin­Healey that raced at Sebring the year before.”

While the ratio in the diff today seems wrong for Sebring, it would be ideal for some of the tight tracks and hillclimb courses the Cunningham team prepared it for. If #156 had been equipped for Sebring with something closer to the 2.9 rear-end ratio the Moss / Macklin Healey had run, it could have rocketed out of the hairpin in first gear, and been capable of tremendous speed on the long runway straights.

We see again that when Chapman came to the races with a “works” car, especially here with the debut Eleven, he always had something extra up his sleeve.

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