1958 Lotus Eleven
1958 Lotus Eleven. Click image to enlarge

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Article and photo by Bill Vance

It was such a tiny wisp of a thing, looking more like a toy than a real car: it stood only 686 mm (27 in.) high at the cowl (although it was 940 mm [37 in.] to the top of the fin). It rode on a 2,159 mm (85 in.) wheelbase and was just 3,404 mm (134 in.) long. But in spite of its diminutive size it could accommodate two passengers, although its usual burden of one was definitely more comfortable.

This was the Lotus Eleven, product of the brilliant engineering mind of Colin Chapman who had graduated in civil engineering from London University in 1948, just eight years before the Eleven appeared.

Chapman’s first car, the Lotus Mark I, completed while he was still in college, was a rather crude, square little machine made from mundane 1930 Austin Seven components. In spite of its basic nature it already showed signs of Chapman’s ingenuity; its rear springs, for example, were flattened for better cornering. He was quite successful in “trials,” those peculiarly English events where contestants raced against gravity up muddy, slippery hillsides.

Chapman’s structural engineering training made him appreciate the advantages of ultra-light construction and a good power-to-weight ratio. It would become his guiding light, and the trademark of the cars he called Lotuses.

Upon graduation Chapman worked full time in engineering, building lightweight specials in his spare time. His Mark II and III were so successful in competition he was soon asked to build replicas for sale. In 1952 he formed the Lotus Engineering Company, but kept his day job.

The company prospered, particularly with the Mark VI, of which more than 100 were sold, and by 1955 Chapman entered car building full time. The company went through several more Marks before arriving at the Lotus Eleven in 1956 (the Mark nomenclature had been discontinued).

The Eleven exemplified Chapman’s philosophy of mass reduction to the point that his cars appeared flimsy, a charge that would often be levelled against him in future. The space frame was constructed of multiple small tubes and the body was a sleek, aerodynamic aluminum design by DeHavilland Aircraft engineer Frank Costin. Its drooped snoot looked like a hound on the scent and its wheels were almost completely enveloped.

To appeal to a wide clientele Chapman offered the Lotus in four forms: Sports; Club; LeMans; and LeMans with “Stage II” engine tuning. The Sports had a humble Ford, 1172-cc side-valve four, solid rear axle and drum brakes. Front suspension was by coil springs with a solid axle cut in half and hinged in the middle to form swing axles, a la the English Allard.

Serious competitors opted for the top-of-the-line LeMans model with Stage II tuning applied to the robust 1098-cc Coventry Climax single overhead cam aluminum inline four-cylinder engine that was originally designed for a fire pump. The LeMans version also had a coil sprung de Dion rear axle and disc brakes.

With a weight of just 454 kg (1,000 lb) and a wind-cheating shape the Eleven soon distinguished itself in competition. In the 1956 LeMans, France, 24-hour race one finished first in the 1,100 class, fourth on the “Index of Performance” (based on engine size and distance travelled), and seventh overall, an amazing performance for a new car with such a small engine.

In 1957, an Eleven with an even smaller 750-cc engine was first in class at LeMans, won the Index of Performance, and was 14th overall. The Lotus name was now on the world stage.

Road & Track chronicled the Stage II Eleven’s performance in a March, 1957 test. The test car was fitted with a metal tonneau cover and a wraparound windshield for the driver. With 83 horsepower feeding through an Austin A30 four-speed manual transmission, it accelerated to 96 km/h (60 mph) in 9.0 seconds, to 161 (100) in 22.0 seconds, and reached a top speed of 212 km/h (132 mph). The testers called these a “…truly fantastic array of performance figures…”

Although two passengers could be squeezed in, the Lotus Eleven was meant for competition, not the street. Company records indicate that some 275 Lotus Elevens were built from 1956 to 1959.

Chapman’s Lotus company went on to produce a wide variety of competition cars, including innumerable winners in the top competition of all, Formula One. It also produced many desirable road cars, including the Elite, Elan, Europa and Esprit, and contributed significantly to the design of the DeLorean.

Lotuses would always appeal to the specialized buyer, and few were more specialized than those who bought and raced the groundbreaking Lotus Eleven, Lotus’s coming-of-age car.

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