Chapman’s Eleven: The Lotus Eleven Story

Story and photos by Bill Holland

Before we had Hollywood’s “Ocean’s Eleven” and its various remakes and reboots, we had what many consider to be Colin Chapman’s defining achievement, the Lotus Eleven–manufactured from 1956 through 1958.

Chapman essentially created the Eleven from scratch; it featured a lightweight tubular steel spaceframe with aluminum supports that weighed only 70 pounds. Chapman is famously known for his mantra of wanting each part to serve two or more functions. The Eleven, with its 85-inch wheelbase, tipped the scales at only 1000 pounds, sans fuel.

Power originally came from an aluminum block/head 1100cc Coventry Climax engine with single overhead cam that was rated at 83 horsepower. However, a variety of engines were ultimately fitted into the Eleven–culminating with a 1500cc variant festooned with the famed Lady Godiva badge.

There were three basic versions of the Eleven. The top-of-the-line Le Mans (priced at $5467 in 1957, the equivalent of $48,948 today) sported a deDion rear suspension and inboard disc brakes, while a Club model ($4301 back then) came with a standard Austin live rear axle and drum brakes. There was also a $3253 Sports model, similar to the Club but it sported a Ford 10 engine.

Initially, all models used a swing-axle front suspension sourced from an English Ford model 93E and a BMC-supplied four-speed transmission. Some of the later Series 2 cars (usually LeMans models) were fitted with Lotus 12-type double A-arm front suspensions and reinforced chassis designed to accommodate larger engines.

The Eleven’s body, designed by noted aerodynamicist Frank Costin, was hand-formed from aluminum and certainly was slippery. There were two body styles: one with fairing/headrest and one without. Costin even fitted an Eleven with a bubble-style canopy over the cockpit, and it was driven by Stirling Moss to a 143 mph record for a lap at Monza.

Le Mans, however, was the site of many of the Eleven’s triumphs. At the car’s debut in 1956, Reg Bicknell and Peter Joop came in seventh overall and first in class. It’s said that in their first year of competition, the Lotus Eleven accounted for some 150 race wins worldwide.

The following year saw an Eleven fitted with a 750cc engine win the prestigious Index of Performance at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Elevens also finished first, second and fourth in the 1100cc class.

In 1958, the final year of the Lotus Eleven’s production, the cars made a clean sweep of their class at Sebring.

The build sheet shows 270 examples created at Chapman’s Tottenham Lane factory in London’s North End before emphasis switched to building Formula 1 cars in the summer. 1959 saw the debut of the Eleven’s successor, the Lotus 17, but it didn’t enjoy the same level of success. Chapman was finally propelled back into the headlines in 1963 with the rear-engined Lotus 23.

The good news is that, of the 270-car production run, many Elevens made the transition into club racing and some became first-rate school cars. Now, some 60-plus years later, there’s still a lively contingent of Lotus Eleven owners worldwide–2018 saw no less than 11 Elevens on the grid for the Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion at the fabled WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca.

Some interesting information can be gleaned from a road test of the Lotus Eleven in the March 1957 issue of Road & Track magazine. The car, driven by Jay Chamberlain—the Hollywood-based Lotus distributor—recorded a zero-to-60 mph time of 9.0 seconds and traversed the quarter-mile in 16.0 seconds at 86 mph. Chamberlain, who also drove Elevens for the factory at Le Mans, recorded a top speed of 132.06 mph.

The cover of that issue shows the No. 102 Lotus Eleven driven by a young Jack Nethercutt at the short-lived Paramount Ranch track in Los Angeles County. Today, Jack is best-known in motoring circles for The Nethercutt Collection in nearby Sylmar, California, which Autoweek named as one of America’s five greatest automobile museums.

A number of Elevens wound up in the hands of other notable enthusiasts. One of the more famous owners was broadcaster Walter Cronkite, whose racing ambitions were curtailed by the CBS Network. “Tonight” Show bandleader Skitch Henderson was another well-known Eleven owner. And, of course, who can forget actor Steve McQueen, who honed his considerable racing skills in Chapman’s lithe creation. The Lotus Eleven ranks as an honored chapter in motorsports history.

The Coventry Climax

The majority of Lotus Elevens were powered by Coventry Climax engines; predominantly with the 1098cc DOHC version first made available for automotive use in 1953.

Of course, the stories are true: The basic engine was initially developed a few years earlier for portable fire pumps. The United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defense had set performance specifications for the pump engines, and the all-aluminum Coventry Climax FW (short for Feather Weight) was awarded a sizeable contract in 1951. All totaled, more than 150,000 pump engines were put into service over the years.

However, Coventry Climax president Leonard Lee and his chief engineer, Walter Hassan, saw an opportunity in the automotive world, employing racing as a “halo” for the company. Thus, the Coventry Climax FWA (Feather Weight Automotive) powerplant was born and first appeared at Le Mans in 1954 powering a Kieft Special.

The engine featured a cast crank, three mains and a compression ratio of 9.8:1. The bore measured2.850 inches, and when combined with a 2.625-inch stroke produced a 1098cc displacement.It was rated at 71 horsepower and would power the bulk of Chapman’s Elevens.

There was, however, one notable exception early on. A special “destroked” engine (1.780 inches stroke) was developed. Code-named the FWC, it came in at 744cc and was employed to win the coveted Index of Performance at Le Mans in 1957. This engine also found use in the U.S., with Dan Gurney relying on it for his early club racing success.

Some later Lotus Elevens were treated to the Coventry Climax FWB engine, which had a larger bore (3.000 inches), longer stroke (3.150 inches) and displaced 1460cc. It had a forged steel crank and produced a nominal 108 horsepower.

Another variation came in the form of the FWE engine, which was developed for Chapman’s Lotus Elite. It had a displacement of 1216cc and came in a multitude of models that ranged from 75 horsepower (single 1-1/2-inch SU carb) to much more powerful Weber 40 DCOE fueled versions, topping out at 105 horsepower.

Easily one of the most prolific engine manufacturers in the halcyon days of Formula 1, Coventry Climax produced a wide variety of four-cylinder and V8 engines that were employed in F1 from 1954 to 1964 by the likes of Lotus, Brabham and Cooper, winning World Championships for Chapman and Cooper.

Coventry Climax was purchased in 1963 by Jaguar Cars, which subsequently merged with BMC, and thence Leyland to form the British Leyland Motor Corporation. Eventually, the company was involved with trucks, buses, forklifts and tractors–with racing fading into oblivion. The fire pump business was sold back into private ownership as the Godiva Fire Pumps Company.

And now, the distinctive Lady Godiva badge that graced Coventry Climax automotive engines is but a fond reminder of what once was a racing powerhouse.


Side Note:

The Lady Godiva connection stems from her fabled ride, sans clothing, through the streets of Coventry, England in the 11th century to protest an onerous tax enacted by her husband, the Earl of Mercia. There is a large statue in Coventry to mark the occasion. It’s said that the villagers did not gaze upon her–save for a tailor, who was saddled with the sobriquet “Peeping Tom.”

The Current Example

One of the nicest of the breed is the 1957 Lotus Eleven LeMans belonging to Steve Sanett of Canoga Park, California, which was brought to the Golden State when new by importer Jay Chamberlain.

After acquiring the much-pedigreed, much-traveled car in 2014, he took it to the SVRA National Championships at COTA and promptly got creamed by an errant Porsche driver (who got suspended for his actions). That’s the bad news.

The good news is that the car was taken down to the bare frame and meticulously restored with amazing attention to detail and a nod to ensuring optimum reliability. Sanett, who is in the electronics industry, took care of everything with aircraft quality wiring–sorry, Lucas. The suspension components were electroless nickel plated for durability, and the exhaust system fabricated from polished stainless steel.

The fuel system features a new bladder inside the aluminum side tank, with an Aeromotive in-tank electric fuel pump sending the race gas through an Aeromotive low pressure regulator and then to a pair of Weber 45 DCOE carburetors. The air/fuel mixture in the 1460cc Coventry Climax engine is ignited the classic way with a Vertex magneto.

No stranger to posing on the lawn, either, Sanett’s immaculate white and polished aluminum car has also been awarded a ribbon at the prestigious La Jolla Concours d’Elegance.

Last Summer’s Monterey Race

The 11 Elevens were put into Group 2b (Sports Racing cars built from 1950 to 1961 under 2000cc) at the Rolex Monterey Reunion. The Rolex race, which was first contested in 1974, is arguably one of the premiere events on the vintage racing circuit.

Conducted by SCRAMP (Sports Car Racing Association of the Monterey Peninsula) under HMSA sanction, there are typically over a thousand cars trying for a spot in the coveted 550-car field WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca. The highlight of the 2.38-mile track is the famed Corkscrew, where drivers blindly crest a hill and quickly head down through a series of turns.

Of course, given that the Lotus Elevens were mixed in with more powerful cars, it developed into a “race within a race.” And when the checkered flag dropped, it was Jeff Mincheff of La Center, Washington who had the quickest of the breed, coming in sixth overall with his bare-skinned LeMans.

The remaining “podium spots” within the “Chapman’s Eleven” contingent went to Frank Arciero, Jr. and Steve Sanett (eighth and ninth overall), who waged a fierce battle with each other all weekend and captured the lion’s share of attention from the track announcer. At the end, there wasn’t a car length between them.

The Arciero family has deep roots in motorsports, with the late Frank Sr. fielding cars for the likes of Dan Gurney, Parnelli Jones, Phil Hill and Jimmy Clark among other racing luminaries.

One of the more revered members of the Lotus group was Stan Anderes, who at 88-years-young was right in the thick of things. He’s been racing his Eleven for more than 40 years and still does all of the mechanical work himself.

88-year-old Stan Anderes (left) is an inspiration to fellow Lotus Eleven racers, like Steve Sanett (right). In addition to driving, Stan maintains his cars.

Another notable part of the field was Jacqulyn Mincheff, who is faced with the enviable/unenviable task of competing against her husband, Jeff.

The “Ocean’s 11” movie has had a number of sequels. Surely, the race within a race with “Chapman’s Elevens” at Monterey will too. Stay tuned.

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RoddyMac17 Reader
7/12/19 5:30 p.m.

One of my all time favourite cars.  I was lucky enought to befriend Merv Therriault who worked for Lotus in the 50's, and when they were moving drawing offices Colin told the staff to get rid of a bunch of old drawings.  Merv got rid of them by taking them home with him.  He ended up with most of the drawings for the Eleven S1 club and a body section drawing for the Series 2 (unfortunately it was only the lines from the firewall back).  He was a customer of the shop I was working at, and when he heard I was into building and restoring Lotus he graciously lent them to me to build a replica.  The car oringally was going to have an A series motor, but a Climax firepump was sourced and it was rebuilt as a street motor (still in pump size, 1020cc).   

Here's a picture that Merv took behind the Lotus works, the chassis appears to be a Series 2 done up for an auto show.

And here's Merv and I with my replica after getting it back from the local metal shop:


In a slightly related topic (and was posted on a Lotus FB page today), Merv was part of the "Lotus 12 Road test"  that took part on Christmas day.  Dennis Jenkinson wanted to road test a grand prix car and Chapman obliged lending him a 12 on Christmas day... Lotus 12 Road Test



7/13/19 11:29 p.m.

Don’t forget the Lotus Valiant, That was powered by a 170 cube Hyper-Pak equipped Slant-Six (backed by a 4-speed).  The engine block was used as a stressed member of the suspension.


Jordan Rimpela
Jordan Rimpela Digital Editor
7/17/19 2:09 p.m.

In reply to Jakespeed :

Would make for a good story!

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