Classic Team Lotus is housed in a small workshop at the bottom of the road that leads to Lotus Cars. It’s like a working museum, with half a dozen grand prix cars garaged in various states of repair. Several of these cars are among the most important in Formula One history. Cutting edge at the time, they’re now priceless reminders of the simplicity and single-mindedness of racing just three or four decades ago.
Toolboxes are stickered-up with retro decals from places like Zandvoort, Long Beach, and Mexico City. Filing cabinets, wall clocks, and furniture have been lifted straight from Ketteringham Hall, where Team Lotus was based during the height of its powers, and brought to these corrugated sheds. The eyes of a Nigel Mansell cutout seem to follow one around the room, like a moustachioed Mona Lisa.
Clive Chapman—accompanied by several of Team Lotus’s original mechanics, —has made looking after the machines his father built his life’s work. But Classic Team Lotus doesn’t just maintain the Chapman family jewels—these one-time state-of-the-art track weapons—they prepare and transport them around the world for a wealthy clientele of cloth-capped boy racers.
Lotus founder Colin Chapman died in 1982, aged 54. While his ambition was to push things forward, his son revels in the past. “Preserving and restoring things is something I really enjoy doing,” he says, resting a hand on a Climax engine ready to be reunited with its gearbox. “Historic motorsport has a nice atmosphere—most of the drivers are pretty well grounded, and they’re doing it for the right reasons.
“A lot of them raced when they were younger, then went into business and made their fortunes. Having said that, you can get a good historic car for £30,000 and race in Formula Junior. The big plus is that, unlike a new car, these keep appreciating in value.”
Many owners are seriously minted—like fashion financier Lawrence Stroll, who had Classic Team Lotus deliver his 1994 Type 107 F1 car all the way up to his Manhattan penthouse. “It had to be dismantled, put up in a lift and reassembled in the apartment. That was an unusual one,” Chapman says. “It’s not the first time I’ve seen a Lotus in someone’s house, though. [Swiss F1 driver] Jo Siffert used to have a car in his bedroom. It was designed to make a good impression!”
Classic Team Lotus provides more than just lovingly tuned racing cars (and the occasional boudoir accessory). There’s real authenticity here. “That’s Jim Clark’s 1963 championship-winning car over there,” says Chapman, pointing to the compact Lotus 25 hunkered down so low between its yellow Wobbly Web wheels it looks like it’s being sucked to the ground even at standstill. “Bob Dance was Jimmy’s mechanic—he’s been with the team since 1960, and he still works here three days a week.” The car’s Australian owner, John Bowers, no doubt delights in his car being serviced by Clark’s original number-one spanner monkey.
“What really floats our boat,” Chapman continues, “is to restore the cars exactly as they were in the period. Last year we restored Jimmy’s Zandvoort-winning car, which had been away from the team for 30 or 40 years, and the new owner wanted it exactly as Jimmy drove it that day in 1965,” Chapman continues. “That car is so close to how it raced at Zandvoort, down to every nut, washer, and bolt. We managed to find an original gearbox in the stores, a number of original wheels, original suspension components. It was actually more original after we finished the restoration than when it left us 40 years before.”
As well as thousands of kosher parts, along with the old moulds and tools used to make more, Chapman’s office houses all the original design drawings—about 10,000 in total. “They are works of art. We use them continually, and they are becoming increasingly significant as a historical relic,” he says. “Ultimately we ought to start using computers, but it’s so much more practical to look at the drawing and feel it..”
Mansell, Fittipaldi, Andretti… The names of the original pilots remain stickered on all these cars, and those three legends are frequently reunited with their old steeds. This summer turned poignant for Martin Donnelly when he was invited to drive the sister car to the Type 102 that nearly killed him at the 1990 Portuguese Grand Prix. “He was just so cool about it, but for us it was a very special moment,” Chapman says.
Between 15 and 20 cars are being race-prepped here at any one time before being transported across Europe or flown to races in the US and Japan. There were 24 events on this year’s historic racing calendar—a busier season than the 2011 F1 World Championship. “We just about wash our face,” Chapman says, when pushed on the economics of keeping the fleet alive.
Team Lotus won 79 Grands Prix between 1958 and 1994 and remains dominant on the historic circuit. Chapman’s shelves fill with shiny new trophies on a weekly basis. In July at the Goodwood Festival of Speed—Britain’s blue ribbon retro celebration—Mansell’s Lotus 88 posted the fastest time of the day in the hands of client Dan Collins. “To be able to tell our customers, ‘You can drive Nigel’s car up the hill,’ is a nice way to say thank you to them.”
The team has made 100 race starts this year and finished an impressive 96 of them. Surprising, perhaps, given the perceived frailty of Lotus’s F1 cars. “I think that’s a misplaced reputation,” Chapman says, firmly. “Look at the ’63 world championship. Jimmy did the whole season in that one car,” pointing across the workshop again. “He failed to finish three races but won the rest. It was way above the finish rate of the other teams, way above Ferrari. I think the cars looked fragile, but they were engineered properly. My father was often reminding people that you can hold a double-decker bus up by a 3/8th bolt.”
Jim Clark, a double world champion, was killed on April 7, 1968, after a suspected rear puncture launched his Lotus F2 into a tree at Hockenheim, Germany. “We keep in touch with Jimmy’s family,” Chapman says. “And Bob [Dance, Clark’s mechanic] obviously has a lot of interesting recollections from those days. For me that’s fascinating, as I get to learn more about someone I’ve read so much about and seen in so many photos.”
Chapman caught the racing bug in the 1970s. “My first memory of going to a race was the 1970 British Grand Prix when I was eight. I know I went to races before that, but I can’t remember them. I vividly recall that day, though, at Brands Hatch, because Jochen Rindt was second as he went into the last lap and first when he crossed the finish line.
“When Lotus won a race, dad would get my sisters and I up on a tractor-trailer with the winning car, and we would drive around the circuit waving to the crowd. Going to races with dad was really cool. The JPS days were a highlight. We had a private plane painted in black and gold which we’d fly to the circuit. I’d sit between Mario [Andretti] and Ronnie [Peterson] in debriefs. It felt like I was at the centre of the universe.”
Having been raised in this high-octane environment, wasn’t Chapman tempted to try and emulate his Grand Prix heroes by donning a helmet and gloves himself? “That’s all I ever wanted to be, but unfortunately I didn’t want to be a racing driver enough —and dad rather neatly diverted me into powerboats, as he was manufacturing them in the ’70s”. Clive was powerboating’s Junior National Champion and runner-up in the Seniors. “It started to get more dangerous, and I was busy with my engineering degree,” he says, “so I packed it in. In my late twenties, I got a Caterham Seven [which is derived from the Lotus 7] and raced that for three years, which was great fun. And then I started a family and concentrated on running the company.”
The main test-driving responsibilities for the company fall on team manager Chris Dinnage—a role that’s sure to trigger envy among every petrolhead. “Chris often shakes the cars down on the Hethel test track. He’s never made much of it, but he’s quietly ticking his way through the list. I’m pretty sure he’s driven more Lotus F1 cars than anyone else in the world. There’s three or four that are going to be quite challenging, but he’s just biding his time.”
There are 150 works Lotus F1 chassis out there—in museums, barns, art galleries, and, yes, even the odd bedroom. Chapman knows the locations of all of them, except for one. “I wouldn’t want to tell you what it is,” he says, fearing that a competitor—an automotive Indiana Jones—might hunt it down and steal it away again. “It’s a JPS F1 car, and I’m pretty sure it’s in Holland”—that’s as much as Chapman will reveal. “It’s not running or anything. Still, it would be nice to know where it is.”