the LOTUS 12
Cliff Allison races to victory at Goodwood, 1958


The 12 show car, with its faulty deDion set-up


The Climax FPF nestled behind the innovative suspension


a determined Graham Hill in his 12


Mk 12 #351 & Mk 11 #305 at Silverstone, 1957


Colin Chapman’s long-held wish to build and enter one of his cars in Grand Prix racing finally came to be with the Lotus 12, the beginning of the line of open-wheelers that eventually won seven F-1 constructors championships. 

  In 1956 the FIA announced a new Formula 2 regulation to be enacted the following year.  In the UK it was decided to begin racing immediately under the new rules with cars already in existence, most of those being Lotus Elevens.  But Chapman quickly drew up a new single-seat design and had a Lotus 12 prototype on display at the London Motor Show in October.  The prototype was meant strictly for show, with a wooden transaxle, a frame with hardly any weld-metal, just enough room for a non-functional Climax FPF, and highly cambered deDion rear suspension.  Woe to anyone who copied this much-photographed and very defective example!

  Viewed from the side, the frame of the 12 had clear relationship to the Eleven, but with a more sharply raked seatback angle and inverted triangulation to the cockpit.  The plan view was of an exceptionally narrow car: the frame barely wide enough for the engine and the driver’s shoulders.  In all a tiny package, with the driver sandwiched between the Climax FPF and a rear-mounted transmission.  It was expected that 150 h.p. could be harnessed in just 620 lbs. of race car.  Chapman’s philosophy of economical use of space and mass was at, or beyond, its practical limits.

  At the front the prototype had an innovation that had been on Chapman’s mind for months:  a new twin- wishbone suspension here made its debut, replacing the infamous Lotus swing-axle.  The new suspension incorporated an anti-roll bar that played double-duty as the forward half of the top wishbone.  This setup became a mainstay of various Lotus cars for many years.  The 12 also introduced the ‘wobble web’ alloy wheel, another of Chapman’s initiatives, but made to work by designer ‘Mac’ McIntosh.   However, many features of the prototype were not seen again, as production models were improved with better chassis and Chapman’s first use of strut-type suspension at the rear.

  The 12 was largely unsuccessful as an F2 or an F-1 machine although in the hands of Cliff Allison it had some fine moments and nearly won at Spa in the ’58 GP.  But it and the later type 16 also helped give Lotus a reputation for fragile and unreliable performance.  While performing in high-visibility events was Chapman’s dream, failures in front of those audiences were hard for everyone to forget. 

  What the 12 did for the Eleven was to force some attention onto ways the Eleven could be improved for more horsepower and higher speeds.  It preceded the Eleven Series 2 by several months and lent some of these innovations – with more successful results – to the sports-racer. 

  Readers wishing to learn more about the prototype Lotus 12 should locate issues #40 & #41 of Historic Lotus, with very interesting articles by Mike Bennett and David Morgan.

 -- Jay Sloane

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