The idea of lightness wasn’t just Colin Chapman’s. As a matter of fact, in Surbiton in the Surrey region of England, John Cooper and his father Charles had already been very successful building small Formula 3 (500cc) single-seater cars, using rear-mounted Norton motorcycle engines. A kind of ante litteram Kart.
The idea had been successful and the Coopers had thought big, driven also by the Australian driver Jack Brabham who believed in the efficiency of simple, lightweight mid-engined cars that would also allow them to eliminate the bulk and weight of the drive shaft. In the same period, Chapman focused on two-seater sports cars but remained faithful to the Austin Seven he started out with, keeping the engine in the front.
The principle of lightness, however, was the same, as was the problem of engines. The leading teams in Formula 1 and the World Sports Championships were manufacturers and for them, the engine was the starting point: Mercedes, Ferrari, Maserati, Vanwall and BRM all had their engines firmly positioned out in front. Their cars were magnificent but they were mighty and a real handful. Let’s admit it: they were very hard to drive.
After his experience in 1956 with Tony Vandervell and the development of the Vanwall single-seater, which Chapman also test drove on the track, and thanks to the success of his Sports cars, above all the Eleven, in 1957 he built a single-seater, named it the 12, and mounted a 1,100cc Coventry Climax engine, intended for Formula 2. A front-mounted engine, so small it looked like a toy, the car was soon upgraded with a 2,000cc engine and set its eyes on Formula 1. This was also the light alloy engine that Climax had designed for use in hydraulic pumps, which had subsequently proven itself compact, light and powerful enough to be adapted for automotive use. The exact same route followed by Cooper, who had already taken it to the tracks in 1957, although they mounted theirs to the rear.
Chapman had not neglected anything when looking to compensate for the lack of power over the 2,500cc engines allowed by the regulations and used by the larger teams: magnesium alloy wheel rims to minimize unsprung mass, originally-designed independent rear suspension (the Chapman strut), which was then enhanced and used to great success on subsequent models, and a transmission that lowered the driving position as much as possible. The 12 made its Formula 1 debut in 1958 but apart from a fourth place at Spa, the racing season was so unpromising it convinced Chapman to design and introduce the first real Lotus Formula 1 car, the Lotus 16, before the end of the season.
The conventional structure with its front-mounted engine featured many ideas which Chapman had been developing, starting from the longitudinally-mounted engine that was offset to allow the drive shaft to pass to the left side of the driver, rather than beneath him. The gearbox and differential were rear mounted and the all-round disc brakes, an innovation in those years, were mounted inboard at the rear to limit the effect of unsprung mass. Chapman’s independent rear suspension offered much better traction and handling.
The 5-speed manual gearbox was a sequential one, another innovative solution for the time. The very low and thin car, with the driver sitting in a reclined position, an idea that Chapman would take to the extreme in the following seasons, so much so that it was compared by an English cartoonist to a dachshund dog, had a very well-studied aerodynamic line that made it look a lot like the Vanwall. It is no coincidence that it was nicknamed the “Mini Vanwall”.
Despite all this and the adoption of the Climax’s 2,200cc and subsequently the 2,500cc engines, the results did not live up to expectations. The mid-engined Cooper continued to win and Lotus suffered. There was only one decision to take: switch to a mid-mounted engine: three years, three different cars, in 1958 Lotus introduced the Lotus 18, visually unrefined but very effective on the track. Moss, behind the wheel of a Scottish Blue 18, entered by Rob Walker – yes, the whiskey magnate – immediately won in Monte Carlo and finished second in the Constructors’ Championship behind Cooper but ahead of Ferrari.
A success flanked by the birth – Chapman had to invoice in order to give life to the ambitious Lotus – of a model that lives on to this day: the tiny 7, a two-seater road car sold in kit form to avoid sales taxes and built at home by the customer (some people actually built one in their homes and were then unable to get it out the door!). The Lotus Brand was already legendary. And the era of Jim Clark and his famous 25 and the black John Player Special Team Lotus had not even begun…