SPORTS CAR & LOTUS OWNER    Vol. 1  No. 2       December, 1956


by Ian Smith


Things have not changed much after all. Le Mans Bentleys In the ‘thirties were hotted up genuine sports cars, and now Lotus Editor Ian Smith and Tim Martin have driven a Le Mans Lotus from Lands End to John o’Groats in 17 ½  hours using less than 24 gallons of petrol. Ian Smith undertook this task to demonstrate the narrow margin which really exists between a sports car for road use and a sports/racing car. Fuel consumption is an important factor in the determination of normality, and it is significant that in spite of a leaking union they averaged 38.5 miles per gallon.

EIGHT HUNDRED and ninety-two miles was the R.A.C. estimate for a route from Lands End to John o’Groats via Appleby in Westmorland. Mindful of present day traffic conditions in this country, that seemed an awful distance in one go, however, the Lotus Eleven was to change that impression. To give that car something to think about, you would have to dream up a much longer and tougher run than the one to which we subjected Lotus DEC 494 on the second and third of November.

            I have always liked long distance driving and often take holidays on the Continent where, of course, some fantastic averages can be attained. When the “Eleven” began to capture all the International Class G records at Monza I started wondering how the same car would perform on a long distance road run—in fact in the role of a true sports car. Following a word “in the right direction” at the Motor Show, I was promised the loan of one of the Le Mans team cars, which were specially built for the race with wider bodywork, bucket seats and a full-width wrap-round Perspex screen. The only snag was that the car was available from Friday, 2nd November until Monday 5th—take it or leave it ! The chance was too good to be missed—so arrangements had to be made smartly.

             Earlier on at the Motor Show, I had mentioned my idea to Club Lotus Treasurer Jack Richards who had immediately been keen to be co-driver if I could arrange the car. Unfortunately, Jack found he was heavily engaged that weekend but, wonderful sportsman that he is, he insisted on us having his Lancia Aurelia as tender car—and who could wish for a more delightful car for such a purpose. As Jack could not come himself, he suggested his friend Tim Martin, who had had a lot of experience with Jack’s own “Eleven” particularly at night on the public highway. Without more ado Tim was fixed—staunchly switching two days to fit in with the proposed dates. Pat Stephens, Advertisement Manager of Sports Car, and of Motor Racing, then came into the picture and took over the detailed organisation. There proved to be a great deal to do in this direction and Pat did a wonderful job— right down to detailed schedules for each person involved, showing exactly when everything would happen—if all went well !

Our party was completed by Geoffrey Goddard, in whose hands was photographic coverage, and Joe Miller who came along to give a hand as mechanic, tender driver or as required.

Reg Tanner of the Esso Petroleum Company was very interested in the idea and promised to supply the Lotus with petrol and oil and also to look after supplies for the Lancia as far as was possible. Reg and his assistant Geoff Murdoch were most helpful in arranging fuelling and sealing facilities in the outlandish places we proposed visiting, and also in finding the requisite hotel accommodation.

So the stage was set, and on the Thursday afternoon I walked into the Lotus works at Hornsey to collect “my car.” I found Bill Griffiths still trying to make the twin S.U.s give the 1100cc Coventry Climax engine just enough fuel but not too much ! The car was exactly as raced at Le Mans and still retained the 3.9 rear axle ratio. For the run, however, the engine had been returned to Stage 1 tune and “six inch nails” put in the S.U.s for needles, harder springs had been fitted all round, and Dunlop Gold Seal tyres replaced the usual racing covers. Bill took me out in the car to explain how critical the engine temperature was with the detuned engine and that it must be kept at about 85 deg C. At that temperature, the performance appeared to be reasonable but as later events were to prove, we had not allowed for the big difference made by the extra weight of a full fuel tank and our protective clothing, not to mention Tim’s excess of avoirdupois over Bill’s.

I left Tottenbam Lane just before five in the evening and hoped to beat the rush hour through the City and over London Bridge. However, I was caught in traffic jams which began at Old Street and did not begin to thin out until the Brixton Road. These conditions did however show me how docile the “Eleven” can be in traffic. I did have to remove all radiator blanking to stop boiling and in bad hold-ups had to switch off the engine. The 3.9 back axle meant careful use of the clutch when repeatedly having to stop and start, but the delightfully light and responsive steering, and the nippiness of the car, allowed me to take every opportunity of a break in the endless stream of tail lights. In spite of being the quickest car across London that evening, it took me very nearly two hours to reach my home in Old Coulsdon, Surrey—a journey of only 23 miles. This average of 11.5 mph was to be drastically improved upon during the rest of my acquaintance with DEC 494.

After a hurried meal, I filled up the car and collected Tim from his home in Croydon. He took the wheel for the first spell in order to remind himself of the “Eleven” at night. As we set out the rain began and continued to fall, all the way to Staines. Tim soon felt thoroughly at home, his only discomfort being the nearness of the steering wheel—he had to have two cushions behind his back in order to fill up the distance which was more suitable to my six feet three. Tim’s night experience on the “Eleven” had been gained during bedding-in of the brakes on Jack Richards’ car, and he soon began to motor the car very swiftly on head lights which were very high on full beam, and very near to the car on dip.

In the passenger seat I was aware of a steady stream of oil and road water spraying up from the gearbox breather on to the door ledge on my left. When we changed over on the Basingstoke By-pass, I found that the water had found its way into the passenger seat and from there through my trousers.

            Over Salisbury Plain I soon felt at home, the road was still wet and in those conditions the newcomer to the “ Eleven” must pay full attention to driving. As the road dried, I became more bold and began to marvel at the quite extraordinary road holding on fast bends, the delightful “finger touch” steering and the effectiveness of the disc brakes. The car was fitted with the MGA gearbox which is magnificent for road use—the change is so sweet that you only have to tickle the gearbox lever with one finger and the next cog just clicks into place. A little care over your revs and the clutch becomes unnecessary for all gear changes.

At Exeter Tim took over since we were now on the first part of our route for the run north, and it was a good opportunity for him to get used to the road, even though we were traveling in the wrong direction. We reached Penzance at 2:45 am, but despite a tour of the town, we had to ask at the police station for the Queens Hotel. We were shown the way to the Promenade, where we found the night porter of the hotel awaiting us with a cold supper, and he made us a pot of tea which we thoroughly enjoyed. I handed over my damp garments and we turned in at 4 am with strict instructions not to call us before 11.

Friday was a fine but cold day, and on leaving the Queens Hotel I was surprised at the nearness of St. Michael’s Mount, which stood out clearly across the water to the east. We motored gently out to St. Just on the north coast of Cornwall where we found Messrs. J. 1. Andrewartha and K. D. C. McKenzie of Cam Bolsavern Garage ready to welcome us, in company with the local Esso representative Mr. Parnell. After satisfying a photographer with some shots of the car, we went for a drink at the local and then lunch at “The Little Restaurant” in the main square. After our meal, we motored out to the Lands End Hotel where we found everyone preparing for the Western Hunt Ball that evening. This turned out to be very lucky for us, otherwise we would have found the “first house in England” closed to visitors for the season. Visibility was good as we watched the sea breaking on the rocks below.

On the cliffs we found a signpost to John o’Groats—to some no doubt that is a joke, but to us it was a serious pointer to the route which lay ahead that night. This signpost is obviously a good business proposition, one of the arms is blank but with runners into which can be fitted letters to make up any town name and mileage. Imagine what goes on in the summer with families photographed around this post with one finger pointing proudly to— “Hackney 310 miles” and so on. Before leaving Lands End, we weighed ourselves in our traveling kit and obtained the staggering total weight of 26 stone 13 lb—quite a heavy pay load for DEC 494.

We were back at the garage in St. Just by 3 pm and immediately set about preparing the car—the main item needing attention was the rear nearside wheel arch. On our journey down to Cornwall we smelt burning rubber, and on arrival we had found a large blister in the paint on the nearside tail fin caused by the tyre rubbing on the inside. The reason was that this car bad been built to carry a driver only, and so was rather upset when my weight was added to the passenger side. On corners and under acceleration the tyre fouled heavily on the wheel arch. We could not allow this unpleasant smelling brake effect to remain and so let a mechanic deal forcibly with the offending bodywork with a large hammer.

Everything was checked over and the various items of kit and tools carefully stowed. Headlamp glasses were cleaned and the nearside lamp re-adjusted. Finally the low sleek bodywork was polished ‘till it shone. Whilst all this was going on, the weather turned to a real Cornish horror—fine driving rain which penetrated everything in a few minutes—our hopes for a comfortable run sank fast. The fuel tank was drained, and then under the supervision of Mr. Parnell, was filled with 17 1/2 gallons of Esso Extra and the centrally placed filler cap was wired and sealed.

           As if by magic the rain ceased, and at 6:30 pm when we left for the 6 mile run down to Lands End the roads were dry, and overhead was a magnificent starlit sky. We ate our evening meal of a real Cornish Pasty in the kitchen and then killed time by checking and re-checking our route—this was the worst time of all —nothing to do and nine o’clock was still some time off.

In good time before zero hour we climbed into our heavy raincoats, helmets and gloves, so that a local photographer could take a starting picture. Then we had to motor round to the side entrance of the hotel, where Mr. Beniman the landlord and our starter, said “they all start from.”

Nine o’clock struck, a hand dropped and with Tim at the wheel we started our long trek. We were obliged to make two early stops to adjust the radiator blanking to ensure a running temperature of between 80 deg and 90 deg C. With a full fuel tank, the “low down” performance of the car in the gears was very fluffy, and although mindful of the need for economy Tim had to use the gears quite considerably. Nevertheless, on the dry roads he was making very good progress and certainly showed his experience of night driving an “Eleven.” In the other seat I kept a careful check on progress, and in this was greatly assisted by the Collite illuminated magnifier—a new aid to navigation, giving you an enlarged and illuminated view of map, route or watch, without letting light rays stray into the eyes of the driver.

On a 50 mph average we were five minutes ahead of schedule at Bodmin, into Launceston on time and in Exeter at 11:15 pm—again ahead of schedule. We had been advised not to bother with the Exeter By-pass which was sound advice since we soon found the Bristol road out of the town and at 12:45 am passed under the lofty Clifton suspension bridge—nearly 15 minutes ahead of schedule.

The roads between Exeter and Bristol are excellently marked with cats eyes—the only trouble being that now and again the eyes were real as a furry creature dashed to safety in front of the car. During the night, these animals were seen in the road quite often but luckily no solid contact was made.

Excellent progress was made to Gloucester but there rain began to fall and continued for about half an hour. Soon after this I must have dozed, for I missed Tewkesbury altogether—rather a pity as I wanted to have a look at the old town, having stayed there when hill climbing at Prescott. I was wide awake by Worcester, which we passed through at 1:55 am— about 10 minutes up on schedule. Tim had really settled in the groove and was getting the car along very swiftly—he was however sparing a thought for the sleeping population and went through the towns on a light throttle. It was just as well—in Kidderminster we shot past a parked police car—but luckily it remained parked.

Wellington was reached at 1:55 am and deserted Warrington at 4 am—this put us still ahead of a 50 mph average, and clearing Wigan we began to get on to faster roads again. At Kendal we were well up on time but from this Lake District town we had to take to the hilly road through Grayrigg, Tebay and Orton in order to reach Appleby on the A.66. Our half-way stop in Appleby was at the garage of Frank Allison—father of Cliff who, as a member of Team Lotus this year, has done great things for the marque. As we twisted and turned in the “Shap” country, the rising and falling engine note could be heard by Pat Stephens, Jeff Goddard, Joe Miller and Mrs. Frank Allison, who awaited our arrival at the garage. We turned a corner in the town, there was a blinding flash as Geoff “shot” us, and Tim pulled up at the Esso pumps at 6:04 am—8 minutes ahead of schedule.

Mrs. Allison had a most welcome breakfast of fried eggs and bacon ready which, after 460 miles non-stop in an open car, was delicious. As the others busied themselves about the car, getting the local policeman to witness the refueling and sealing of the tank, Tim and I washed and went briefly over the next leg of our journey. Then handing over route, map and Collite, I took the wheel, and exactly half an hour after arriving we headed up the hill out of the town.

Dawn was breaking and by the time we reached Penrith, lights were no longer necessary. I quickly settled dawn and found on the rolling moorland roads I could get the car up to 4250 revs in top—just over 80mph—but that was the lot I We cleared Carlisle, with its red brick fortress at 7:10 am—badly down on our 50mph average. At 7:25 we crossed into Bonnie Scotland at Gretna Green and the old smithy looked far from romantic at that hour.

We went through Abington, where the Glasgow road branches off to the left, at 8:15 am, exactly 15 minutes behind schedule, and after going “a little over the speed limit in places” through the industrial part of Scotland, arrived in Stirling at 9:10 am—still 10 minutes down on schedule. On some of the roads in this area it was quite icy and once or twice Tim flashed a sideways glance as the tail wagged momen­tarily. Lovely open roads enabled us to get up to schedule by the time we reached Crieff, but between here and Dunkeld, where we joined the A.9 the road became very bumpy and tortuous—with the result that we entered Pitlochry at 10:12 am instead of a scheduled 10 o’clock. After this, however, the road was a sheer delight and for the 100 miles into Inverness the Lotus sang along in the 70s and 80s with the exhaust note blaring out over the heather and barking back from the fir woods. We passed under the Inverness arch, after a slight traffic hold up, at 11:51— nine minutes up on schedule, and took the road north round Beauly Firth to Dingwall. The sun was now out strongly and glinted on the sea—it felt far more like July than November.

The car, now that the fuel tank was not so full, was a more willing performer and did not hang fire so much on pick up. Bonar Bridge was reached at 12:48 pm and we set out on the road along the Caithness coast 15 minutes ahead of our 50 mph schedule. The view was wonderful—Tim told me this later, because at the time I was very much occupied with keeping a sharp watch out for sheep which would suddenly stray into the road. As the road unfolded, northwards, it began to dip and climb and soon we had hairpins to negotiate. With the rather restricted lock on the car, it was necessary to sling the car into these turns so that the back slid out, to make the turn in one go.

As we raced north, more and more power seemed to be available, and faster and faster we flew along the coast. We went through Wick just after 2 pm—turned right at the AA box after Reiss—then thundered down the long straight which seemed to go straight into the North Sea, and we were there—as we scrunched to a stop beside the gaunt John o’Groat’s House Hotel. Mr. Mackenzie the owner dashed out—time 2:28 pm— just 20 minutes ahead of our schedule, an average for the 892 miles of 51.06 mph.

After mutual congratulations, Tim and -I had our tea and awaited the arrival of the Lancia. Eventually out staunch supporters, a little out of breath, arrived and we took the Lotus gently back to Wick where the tank was officially drained and contents checked. The result proved quite satisfying—23.75  gallons for the extended distance of 915 miles, giving an average of 38.525 mpg.

It was in the garage at Wick that we discovered that the continual hammering of the nearside rear wheel on the wheel arch had caused the chassis sub-frame to break just above the battery. We therefore left DEC 494 at peace in Wick with instructions for a little attention from the welding torch.

Of course we had a celebration dinner that night and all of us for obvious reasons were quite ready for bed by 10 o’clock. Tim and I both agreed that the run had not been unduly tiring and that owing to the delightful handling of the Lotus, each could easily have driven the whole distance solo. The only discomfort, which had indeed been fatiguing, was the continual beating of icy wind on that part of the face not protected by helmet and goggles.

On the Sunday, Joe drove the Lotus south whilst Tim and I occupied the back of the Lancia and were able to appreciate the grandeur of the east coast of Scotland at our leisure. As the day wore on, I marveled more and more at the effortless high speed motoring of the Aurelia, which, like the Lotus, also has a De Dion rear axle. We spent the night at Appleby, and the next morning we were back at Frank Allison’s garage to refuel the two cars. I took over the Lotus for the final day’s run, and after a brief look at Ullswater and Lake Windermere, headed south via Kendal, Lancaster, Preston and Buxton.

As the road ran through the country south of Buxton, I was able to let DEC 494 really have its head and with its lightened load, the rev counter was showing 5250 in top gear—l05 mph and as steady as a rock. The Dunlop Gold Seal tyres certainly seemed to suit the car and gave perfect adhesion without any noise. So the miles reeled by and regretfully as the traffic thickened nearer home, I had to rein in this magnificent car in which you can indulge in the sheer joy of fast motoring.

And so on Tuesday the sixth, I was back at Hornsey with the “Eleven,” the car having covered 2,000 miles in 4 days, its willing Coventry Climax motor only using a gallon of oil during all its hard motoring. I was very sorry to part with DEC 494 and can now only look forward with anticipation until the next time Colin Chapman finds me another of his masterpieces.