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Chapter 9 – The diminutive Lotus spreads its wings

by John Watson


By the middle of 1958 four Sevens had been exported to the U.S., but the Americans were not impressed with the Ford side-valve engine and associated 3-speed gearbox offered with it. To them side-valve technology was a thing of the 1930s and then a quarter of a century out of date and whilst the handling characteristics were appreciated this did not outweigh the fact and so there was no demand for the model.


An economical solution was found in the form of BMC’s Austin A35/Austin Healey Sprite 948cc. “A” Series engine and Austin A30 aluminium cased 4-speed gearbox. Infact a Seven customer named Derek Harvey had installed an “A” Series engine in his car a year earlier and this had been seen by Lotus engineers when Derek visited the factory on completing the project.


When they came there were two BMC powered versions of the Seven. The first appeared in August 1959 for the home market with an Austin A35 engine with single H1 SU carburettor and was called the Lotus Seven “A”. Almost immediately, this was followed by Daniel Richmond’s Downton tuning firm advertising a version with more power.


In January 1960 Sports Car and Lotus Owner reported that “A prototype Lotus Seven intended basically for the American market is undergoing extensive testing at Cheshunt. Special equipment on this car includes flared glassfibre front wings, a BMC “A” Series engine to Sprite specification, tubular bumpers, winking indicators, a thermostatically controlled electric radiator fan and an Elite-type windscreen wiper motor. In April 1960, the same magazine reported and pictured the Lotus Seven “America” at the Ford Motor Company car show at Detroit. The same car was featured on the front cover and in a road test report in the June 1960 issue of Sports Car Illustrated.


Whilst smaller in capacity than the old Ford iron, the BMC unit was up on power, had good torque and good tuning potential. With the BMC powered car being dubbed the Seven “A”, the continuing side-valve model was named the Seven “F” and the Super Seven Climax version was re-dubbed the Seven “C”.


Installation of the engine/gearbox combination required changes to the body chassis unit: Firstly the “A” Series 4-speed gearbox was somewhat larger than the old Ford 3-speeder and a ½” x ½” vertical member had to be moved over, narrowing the footwell a little. All the Hornsey cars had bottom mounted clutch and brake pedals with the clutch operating directly off the actuating arm by way of a link rod. The new Cheshunt-built cars had pendant pedals with master cylinders for both clutch and brakes above the footwell. Lastly to comply with U.S. requirements John Frayling and Peter Kirwan-Taylor designed long flowing front wings for the “America” model dubbed “Clamshell” wings. These replaced the static cycle wings which were not approved of in some states.


By 1958 Lotus were bulging at the seams at the little Hornsey works. Already work to the Elite was being carried on elsewhere. With the Elite, the Fifteen and Sixteen Formula car and the Seven, it was only a matter of time before the move came. When it did it was to a new purpose made two unit factory premises in Delamare Road, Cheshunt just up the A10 from Hornsey in Hertfordshire. Operations were moved to the new factory in July 1959 and the premises was officially opened on 14th October with many dignatories attending on the day. Lotus Seven kits were produced in the first floor area above the formula car production area, the chassis frames being lifted via a gantry at the front.


Coinciding with the move to a new factory, Lotus was reorganised into the Lotus Group of Companies. Lotus Components Ltd. produced sports racing cars including the Seven, in component form for the home market and fully built for export under the leadership of Nobby Clark. A new company, Lotus Cars Ltd. produced the Type 14 Elite and subsequent touring cars under the direct control of Colin Chapman. Another new company, Lotus Developments Ltd. staffed by existing development employees were solely concerned with the design and development of new models for the other two manufacturing companies under the control of Mike Costin.


In addition to the move to new premises and the new company structure, a dealer network for the distribution of the Seven and future models was announced. The network included about 18 dealers from all parts of England and later Scotland including Caterham Car Services Ltd. of Townend, Caterham-on-the-Hill, Surrey. Telephone Caterham 2540.


Being light in weight, the Seven was a car popular with the tuners of the day. Firms such as Downton, Speedwell, Alexander with their BMC modifications and Cosworth with their Ford ones, all ‘played’ with the Seven to show what they could do to the best advantage.


In addition to the three standard engine options (Ford sidevalve, Coventry Climax overhead cam and BMC “A” Series overhead valve) the new Ford 105E Anglia engine offered a free-revving readily tuneable unit of over-square cylinder design which was installed by dealers like Caterham a year ahead of the factory themselves.


Between September 1957 and the middle of 1960 some 243 Sevens had left Lotus, 100 from the Hornsey premises and 143 from the Cheshunt premises in the last year. According to the factory records, which are not complete, the approximate percentages of engine types produced were 60% Ford, 30% BMC and 10% Coventry Climax. All ‘weighed up’ it was reckoned that every one of the original Sevens made had been sold at a loss and it was decided that if the model was to continue at all it would have to be in a very different form.


There is a picture of a special bodied Seven standing outside the Hornsey factory in Dennis Ortenburger’s book on the Lotus Eleven (page 14) It shows rear bodywork of Eleven appearance and clamshell front wings on an unregistered Seven. We show photographs of an early 1959 car (chassis #465) registered YXR565 showing the same treatment to front and rear which is presumably the same car, along with two monochrome photographs of the relevant panels removed from the same car by a later owner. The pictures show a rectangular aperture for storing the spare wheel horizontally out of sight. Recently a Lotus Engineering Co. drawing from November 1958 has come to light showing a Seven with Eleven style rear bodywork and clamshell front wings which would suggest that infact this bodywork was the work of the factory and it’s contractors. Both panels and car still exist although alas apart.


As always the race track brought out new ideas for the Seven. Not all of these were generated officially by the factory. One of the more famous unofficial cars was called the Lotus 7 ½ or the Lotus 7/20. David Porter had rolled his Seven around Paddock Bend when racing at Brands Hatch. He had previously been at engineering college with Hugh Haskell who had become a project engineer at Lotus. The damage to the car meant that most of the suspension and running gear had to be replaced and Hugh suggested that they might go all-independent using parts from the Formula Junior Lotus 20 and installing a modified Ford Anglia engine by tuners, Cosworth. The project, although unofficial, had Colin Chapman’s blessing and when completed he was one of its drivers at the Six Hour Race at Silverstone 1962. The car was very successful in the hands of David Porter and co-owners, Keith and Wendy Hamblin for two seasons and then for a further three seasons with Natalie Goodwin. It was then sold to the U.S.A. and then on the Japan where it is believed to be today. The 7/20 was the first Seven with full I.R.S and was the fore-runner of the Lotus Three-7 I.R.S. clubmans car of 1965.

Photographs by courtesy of:-

Ferret Fotographics TEL: 01453-543243

Tony Bates

Sources and further reading:

Lotus Seven by Jeremy Coulter (198?)

Lotus – All the Cars by Anthony Pritchard (1990)

The Lotus Book by William Taylor (1998)



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