The Lotus Years by Roy Macgregor
The average mechanic is not highly intelligent, although he may become quite proficient at his job. This does not mean that a highly intelligent mechanic is necessarily a very good one, only that the more brain he has, the less likely he is to remain a mechanic. Having only slightly more than the average mechanic's intelligence, and also slightly better than average skill, I fell into the middle somewhere.
It took some years for me to realise I would remain at the same level for the rest of my life in Scotland, both in position and financially. Once I had travelled around England it was obvious I had to move south.
In my youth every trade required service as an apprentice for five to seven years before one was considered qualified. In practice, most experience was gained over a good many years more than that. Sadly, we all became rather greedy and the system was changed because apprentices felt that if they were doing 'a man's job' at seventeen or eighteen, they should be paid as much as those only two or three years older. I thought the same way, but the way things were at that time there was nothing to be done about it. It was common practice to use apprentices in this way until they had completed their 'time', then to push them out when a younger man had reached a similar level of skill.
After having worked in three different garages in Aberdeen, and almost having to take a job forty miles away, I decided that if I had to move, it might as well be a long way off. And so I came to England to work in a garage in St. Albans, earning nearly twice as much as I had in the North. Three years later I thought I would like a change from routine garage work and moved to engines.
During the sixties one could look at a factory from outside and decide to work there, which is how I came to be employed in the overhaul and testing of Rolls-Royce diesels in Hatfield. The testing part of my duties was added when my employers decided I had sufficient skill to do such a job. Unfortunately they didn't pay very well, although in the long term, they treated their staff well. I was greedy and impatient enough to leave long before they had the chance to show their eventual kindness. They did try to persuade me to stay with a small (very small) bribe, but I chose to go a short distance away to de Havilland where I would receive around three pounds a week more. I am referring to sixteen pounds a week in 1961.
Again, it was realised by my immediate superiors that I was adaptable enough to be trusted with what was termed 'snags and mods'; carrying out changes to existing aircraft in the process of being assembled. Like all others, aircraft manufacturers design and develop as they go, and much of my work involved ripping out parts of wings and rebuilding them in situ.
Our work was closely watched by one of the inspectors, many of whom had been involved with the tragic Comets. It was hoped the same would not happen to the new Trident. (In a way it did, but that's another story.) My particular one said if he didn't have responsibilities he would be off, and he couldn't understand a young man agreeing to be locked away in a factory when the sun shone and only allowed out when it stopped. "You should be at Aston Martin or Lotus", he said. "You won't get much money, but you should have some fun before it's too late." This remark stayed with me for some months; I was making enough money then, and the thought of 'not getting much money' did not appeal greatly.
On large aircraft it was necessary to work in pairs, inside and outside, separated by metal, and we two were perfectly happy to be doing these snags and mods. My 'mate' at the start was a young man from Belfast who had worked at Harland & Wolfe and had almost as few qualifications to be there as I had. I was 'only a mechanic' and couldn't possibly have the skills to work on aircraft, but soon our chargehand was handing me the drawings and kits of parts to carry out our tasks.
All our colleagues in the same 'gang' had been transferred to production work, and people were beginning to grumble. Our boss had to start giving us the odd production job to keep the others quiet. In those days a strike would be called if the temperature dropped two degrees. The odd production job was building an entire wing in two and a half days, a job that took thirty-six men two or three weeks to complete before production was properly started. Bonus was attached to the job, not paid until the inspector had cleared it all, meaning that we had to survive on about ten pounds a week before the bonus was added. In effect, we lost a little on the first wing, broke even on the second, and started to make more by the third. A shop steward approached and asked if I intended to claim the bonus. I confirmed that was our intention but was told I couldn't while the union were negotiating for better times for the job and that my time would prove that existing times were achievable and make nonsense of their contentions. It was also pointed out that my partner and I were both small enough to squeeze ourselves into the smallest spaces and could work more quickly in consequence, and that I should remember the others were not so fortunate in size. The shop steward in question could have made three of me!
With the threat of a strike over me, I had to back down and only claim as much as I could. A few weeks later the same man demanded that I should join the union. It was strange that I was looked down upon when I started work there - only a mechanic, not worthy of being asked to be a member, and now again being threatened with a strike if I did not become one. It was the easy option to say I would leave, although I had no idea what I might do. I was called into various offices to discuss my reasons, but I chose the simple way out, merely claiming to want a change. The weeks of waiting for bonus payments combined with the trouble with the union reminded me of the inspector's words.
I wrote to Aston Martin and received a very short reply, but a similar letter to Lotus bore more fruit. I was invited to visit Mike Costin at Cheshunt. As may be apparent from the foregoing, I have usually had enough confidence and 'big-headedness' to demand what I wanted, and my application for consideration by Lotus was no exception. I announced I had no interest in racing cars or in production but would consider working for their development department. This was based on my semi-experimental work at de Havilland's and engine testing at Jack Olding before that. I also claimed to be a competent mechanic. I don't know how Mike Costin read my letter; something must have impressed him. When we met I may have impressed in another way. I consider myself very honest and had no hesitation in admitting I had no experience of many of the fields asked about and, with very little discussion, it was agreed I would start work there in some three weeks, after their annual 'shut-down'.
At the time of that interview I had no transport (the engine of my nearly new 650cc AJS having almost died on the way to Scotland), and had to find my way there by public transport. It was easy then, reliable and cheap buses covered all areas and only two were required between St. Albans and Cheshunt, some seventeen miles, taking a little over an hour. The time spent waiting for my starting date at Lotus was used in overhauling the AJS engine.
Lotus was still growing in 1962 and a new block was being added, part of which was to be our department when completed. It would be some time before that took place, so we had a tiny workshop in one of the older buildings, with only room for one car, and shared with two welders making the old space-frames for some kind of racing-car. I was told, I'm sure, but had no interest. I don't know what kind of department Lotus Developments was before I joined the firm; it seemed there was only one 'fitter', who left for Team Lotus on my arrival, the rest turning up at or about the same time as I. One of my new workmates also left for Team before we moved to our new, spacious to us, workshop upstairs in the new building.
My introduction to the Elan, not then named, was by the man I was apparently replacing, who informed me that the chassis had been tested to somewhere around four thousand foot pounds per degree, which meant absolutely nothing to me; it would be some time before I realised the significance of the figure. It was a bare chassis like nothing I had seen before, having started work with cars that had ladder-like frames under a flimsy body. Although many cars had independent front suspension by that time, to see one with independent rear was quite rare. The closest I had seen to that were such things as Mercedes-Benz with their horrible swing axles. The Elite (independent both ends) had been seen at the Motor Show of four (?) years before, but had not really registered. All I was thinking on that occasion was how beautiful it was.
Another early introduction I had was to a twin-cam engine. Such things existed, indeed, had been around almost as long as petrol engines, but were not part of my experience until then. I had several unhappy experiences with single-overhead cams dating back to Scotland.
There was a mysterious Ford Anglia outside that was, oddly, left-hand drive. This was the car that was allegedly lent to an unknowing Jim Clark. The reason for it being left-hand drive was simply that the Lotus Twin-cam would not fit in a right-handed version, and that approach was simpler than converting a car to suit the engine. This provided a running test-bed for the engine until something more suitable became available.
Going back to my first days at Cheshunt. There was an evil pale-blue bodyshell lying outside that I learned was a Falcon, one of many such things available then for special builders, which had been roughly modified to sit on top of the chassis of the M2, as the Elan was then known. This was lowered and raised like a yo-yo as development proceeded, but was soon abandoned when a 'proper' Elan body was available. I remember there had been some mistake in the modelling, and the doors did not fit the apertures, not even as well as they did later! It was a drophead of course; it was almost unthinkable that a two-seater should have a roof, although the Elite had one, which I later found to be rather claustrophobic. After the pattern shop modelled a hardtop in later months, I acquired the prototype and kept it for myself, fitting it to all the drophead Elans that I later used.
Another mystery appeared in the workshop in the form of a sheet-wrapped parcel containing the new Cortina, said to be the Consul Cortina at the time. This was SECRET and not to be seen by ANYONE. Naturally, that order could not be maintained in a tiny place like Cheshunt and everyone in the factory soon observed it. Others were drafted in to do the work on that. It was converted at the rear to a Chapman design similar to that of the Seven. Tyres had been thrown down and the car rolled on them so that work could be done on the underside, unsurprisingly causing several dents in its aluminium panels. One aside concerning that: An expert arrived from Ford, in a suit, with a small case, out of which came a white coat. This man stood doing nothing for several minutes, just looking at the car. He then produced a small hammer and tapped the side of a dent. It popped out, and he stood looking again before giving another dent a little tap. In this way most of the dents were removed.
In those very early days I was not to be trusted with the M2, only being allowed to take it inside or put it out on occasion. I never even sat in it with the Falcon body. My immediate superior did some testing in Delamere Road. Our first major modification was to the alloy differential housing, which started life with only one torque rod on one side. Right away this rod bent upward like a shallow 'V' and was upgraded to a larger diameter. This proved to be ineffective also, so it was finally decided two torque rods were required, making a new casting necessary. I suppose most of us were amateurs then, for it later seemed obvious that the torque rods were designed with the intention of stopping the diff unit turning in the direction of the wheels when it should have been a well-known fact that torque reaction would be opposite to the wheel rotation. They looked as if they were intended to locate the diff in reverse gear. But then, at the time, no one was employed that had been in the motor industry - such people would have expected a salary twice as large as that paid by Lotus!
I almost hated this little car. Everything was so inaccessible, and it was quite a delicate and precise job to fit the engine and gearbox. That unit had to be hung in ropes of exactly the correct length, at the exact angle, to allow it to clear everything, while some brave soul had to have his hand through the access hole in the tunnel, ready to enter the prop-shaft when the end of the gear box was persuaded into the backbone. During removal of the engine it was often forgotten that pulling the engine forward would result in the gearbox oil flowing out when the sliding prop shaft came out of the rear, filling the tunnel and spreading over the floor! When installing, people with right-angled hands had to connect the speedo cable and the petrol pipe, and all the other things that go with an engine installation. The exhaust was still based on that of the Ford system first used in the twenties, with a belled-out pipe fitting on a tapered manifold casting, held in place by two grooved clamps with nuts and bolts. These fittings were fine when everything was new, but after several assemblings and dismantlings, things were not so happy. Usually it needed someone with three-foot long arms, and four of those!
When we occupied our new spacious premises, things were much better. Soon we had a ramp and could squeeze more cars in than we had dreamed of before. And, not long after the move came a revelation.
I was asked if I would go to Heathrow with Steve Sanville to bring the car back after he departed for Italy. This was the first time I had been in the Elan further than the immediate surroundings of Delamere Road, and naturally Steve drove the car there. As a passenger I did not gain a very favourable impression, but when starting the return journey and passing through the first roundabout, I realised this was something different. I had been used to lorries like MGs, Sunbeams, and TRs and had no idea things could be so much better. Within minutes I was converted to an enthusiast, willing to forget the inaccessibility and other problems associated with the Elan. From then on I tried to make sure that everyone had the opportunity to find out what this car really was instead of remaining in ignorance as I had before.
So much was happening during this early time at Lotus that events are muddled. Hindsight tells me I should have been keeping a note of everything, but at the time we were so busy I never thought of it.
One thing I spent some time on was the 'unfolding' of the headlamps. We tried several different mechanical methods of doing this including an umbrella-like handle sticking out of the dash panel, but it was really the pre-production team who installed the vacuum system and tested the light-flashing relay. These men sorted out several other details; we were too busy to feel left out of what should have been our job.
My first visit to MIRA (The Motor Industries Research Association) came about when the car being tested shredded its (Hillman Imp) drive-shaft couplings. I fitted a new set, mainly single-handedly, lying on my back in the dead of night with only headlamps to help me to see what I was doing. After that experience, fitting Rotoflexes in the relative comfort of a workshop seemed quite easy.
When I next went to MIRA my boss, the project engineer, driving round the track incredibly quickly, terrified me. I even asked if we had to do this. He claimed he was well inside his capabilities and, although I was still a little frightened, I came to accept it. Before long I was also drifting sideways round the bends and soon, when it took me three hours to get to MIRA, it would only take two and a half to get back!
I imagine most of us took a twisted pleasure in frightening passengers. My own was in demonstrating that I could take my hands off the wheel on the banking of the high-speed track and show how the car would climb up with acceleration and come down with deceleration.
One development car we had was fitted with an automatic gearbox. Those otherwise available had no hope of going into an Elan chassis, so we had a Hobbs Mechamatic instead. Hobbs had invented a splendid four-speed box that could be used as a manual one without the hindrance of a clutch pedal. Quite an advantage, bearing in mind the pressure required to press our short pedal. Hobbs were so desperate to get the box into any production car that they fitted one to anything they could. I know Ford had some - it was the only automatic box fitted to the Cortina GT for some years. It was a brilliant box, and the only one of its type I liked, but the idea of a 'sports' car so equipped was disliked by many and, although I prepared the car two or three times for Mr Chapman to test, I am not certain he ever drove it. I used this one almost as my own for quite some time (with my own hardtop, and later, my own seats), and took it to Manchester to learn all about what went on inside the box. It was midwinter the week I was there and the engine always started with the shortest twist of the key, even when the car was covered with ice.
The night I had travelled north had been an evil one, during which I had to stop several times to clean the headlamps, but the night I returned was clear and marked only by one incident.
I had just looked at the speedometer and noted 108 MPH when I saw a man walking across the M1! As I approached, frantically trying to slow, I saw he was walking along the side of a lorry, parked sideways across the carriageway. It became obvious I couldn't stop in time, but there was enough room at the nearside to get round the back. There was no point in stopping; I would have been quite a way down the road before I managed that.
The end of our attempt to offer an automatic as an option was hastened when our engineer boiled the gearbox oil to the point that the box refused to work properly. He succeeded in limping into the Watford Gap service area, and rung us to ask for another car. When I got there the oil had cooled sufficiently for the box to work well enough for me to return to Cheshunt. I'm sure we could have arranged some way of diverting air to the box to cool the oil, but it was taken out and returned to Westinghouse who had taken over the marketing of the gearbox. And by the way, the few people who remember the old Elan chassis may have wondered about the odd holes in the front 'trouser-legs': they were there to provide clearance for projections of the Hobbs box.
In the workshop, we took responsibility for the Cortina, were putting together the chassis for the M20 (the Plus 2), working on door locks, and beginning to think of a coupe version.
Also in the workshop, with a couple of the new extended chassis for the Plus 2, it was decided to find out if it was as strong as the shorter Elan one. Destroying a couple of samples of the latter revealed that the production version came nowhere near the four thousand pound figure of the prototype. This was simply because that one had been hand-built, the panels nickel-bronzed instead of spot-welded, and a hefty tubular front cross-member that was replaced by pressed steel channels welded together. There was no great loss in torsional rigidity in the extended one. This front crossmember later acquired a second purpose. We were buying the tanks used by Ford for their vacuum-operated wipers - until Mr. Chapman asked why we didn't use the crossmember. This meant that it had to be airtight, and may have contributed to the manufacturers raising the price of a chassis from £9 to £11.
During all this activity, it was decided I should become what was then known as the foreman of the development workshop, and this started a period in which I worked an average of seventy hours a week. I did not have time to pay much attention to the work on the Cortina, and the project engineer working directly with 'his' mechanic handled this.
It became part of my job to read dozens of applications from potential employees, some advertised, some (like mine) unsolicited. I had discussion with our director about how and why I seemed to be suited to the work and how we could attract the most suitable applicants. I had no ideas, and all I could do was to reject the ones who were obviously looking for a stepping-stone toward Team Lotus. When an applicant got as far as being interviewed, I emphasised that I didn't want someone who really wanted to work with racing-cars, but that didn't always work. As mentioned before, I tried to convert everyone to be enthusiasts in the same way I had been.
As a coupe body was being modelled and moulded, I made some window frames for the new car. Steel channel was used although I had no means of bending it into the shape required. Naturally, if one tried to bend a channel-section without the tools needed, it merely distorted in all directions other than that required, so I had to cut and weld the curves. It was a case of: cut, weld; cut again; weld again, until I had reached the shape we wanted. Then, working with the design draughtsman concerned, we 'designed' bottom and top rails to hold everything together and provide trim pieces for the visible parts at the top of the doors. After some cleaning up, these were chrome-plated and I was really proud of the end result.
It was not made clear to me how the windows were meant to be operated; I seemed to have enough to occupy me without asking questions. We initially used a system similar to that of the early Elans - a spring-assisted scissor device within the door, there being no room for the traditional winding mechanism, and only the most expensive cars had electrically operated ones, obviously well out of our price range. Electrically operated windows had been fitted to Jim Clark's personal car and the inventor hinted I would 'do alright' if the system was adopted for production, but it was quite out of the question on cost grounds. With the success of the vacuum-operated headlamps, it was decided we would make the windows work by vacuum also.
This was a comparatively easy thing to do. Our development car - DUR 119B - had such a system working fairly well and we had the thought that it would be much better with proper production components. Unfortunately, we didn't take account of the fact that we had built our car with Perspex windows before glass ones were available, and this material was much lighter than glass! Amateurs again! So began a period of intense depression and work when, if asked what I did at Lotus, I said "Windows." This is the only picture of that car in existence. A Perspex panel has been fitted to the roof, which frequently popped out until I fitted metal strips, screwed to roof and panel.
If we fitted a spring strong enough to help the heavy glass up, it was too strong to allow it to go down. One weak enough to allow it down would not help it rise. Many ideas were tried without getting us any closer to the answer, and now cars were being built without doors, left standing outside with tarpaulins closing them until doors with windows were provided. I suppose it may have been decided to fit the old scissor device as the only possible solution, this was certainly done with our pre-production prototype left-hand drive car, but we (me, really) continued to try for alternatives.
We considered driving the windows by electric power again, but were committed to using as many of the parts supplied for the vacuum operated system as possible, which used an endless cable running in little pulleys at the four corners of the frame within the door. There was room for an electric motor inside the door, and we thought we could attach a 'nut' to the cable on its bottom, horizontal run, and drive this with a threaded rod turned by the motor. It worked, but the whole car shook and vibrated so horribly that it clearly needed some refining. I tried larger diameter threads without much improvement, and then tried every suggestion made by any passing stranger. It seemed impossible.
Looking at a wiper motor from a Cortina gave me the idea that it could be adapted to drive a drum for the cable in a way similar to cable drums on ships. It had a right-angle drive and I found that reversing the polarity reversed the motor, so I took it to my boss and made the suggestion. He was rather gloomy, saying that we had tried everything else so I might as well try that. Below is the pre-production RHD Elan Coupe with the first set of electrically-driven windows; the left-hand drive one had manually operated side windows, and never had the electric ones fitted!
With the help of the draughtsman, I made up brackets and mountings to fit the motor to the existing bottom rail. I machined a plastic 'bobbin' and tried the system. Although it showed promise, the cable overlapped itself and jammed, making it necessary to machine a thread in the bobbin for the cable, and then it worked! We experimented with different sizes of bobbins and found a larger diameter lowered the window rapidly but was painfully slow in raising it. The compromise reached resulted in a slow rise and a slightly quicker drop, and was the best we could do. I think more development would have found an even better system, but we were glad to have achieved anything that worked.
It was thought more cost effective to engage 'professional' drivers to carry out long-term testing, and one of them was startled by a pheasant flying over the edge of the high-speed banking. Perhaps he thought he could save the bird by braking. He didn't!
While thus engaged, I was also supposed to be keeping seven others occupied, although I was quite unsuccessful as any kind of supervisor. It was my habit to hand out those jobs I felt less demanding to the others and spend twelve or more hours a day on those I thought myself more competent to complete - after everyone else had gone home. This was not an ideal way to run a workshop, but I had always made it clear that I worked best alone, often literally, and often through the night. I was spending more and more time away from the workshop testing tyres, brakes and other such things. At times I would be away for two or three days at a time trying to sort out brake pad material or damper settings with our suppliers and this would eventually lead to changes in the organisation.
Some Cortina work demanded by Ford meant covering high mileage on the Pave at MIRA and I, together with our 'boy' would go there for the weekends to do that.
The new Plus 2 was progressing in the background. A body had been modelled and moulded after several three-eighths scale styling exercises had been looked at and approved. It was unfortunate that Mr. Chapman was not often available. He would describe what he wanted verbally, then disappear for some weeks, then come back and deny that was what he wanted.
A car we always called the 'Lash-Up' was built to test the running gear of this new car by sawing an Elan Coupe body in two - behind the doors, across the roof and floor - and the two parts bolted to the chassis in the usual way. The gap between was filled in with GRP roughly finished and never painted. The wheels stuck out about four inches and the wheel-arches had to be cut away to provide clearance for this and for bigger wheels. It was never pretty. Two of us trailered the lash-up to MIRA to do the running in and covered about twelve hundred miles in a two-day weekend. Just for amusement I did a few laps at high speed while my colleague manned the timing hut. With the 3.5 diff, four and a half inch wheels with 600 by 13 tyres, and an SE engine, I had three runs recorded within a few points of each other at over 137 MPH. Coming in from that, the back of the car gave a lurch that caused me to drive back very gingerly. Inspection revealed that the rear wishbone attachment had parted at the front.
Naturally, this caused panic, and a draughtsman was immediately detailed to redesign the mountings. It has always been my opinion that we should have incorporated his new design, because it happened again. The reason that was not done was that the metal of the offending part was tested by Enfield Tech and found to be sub-standard and everyone was happy again. I don't know why I was the one chosen to visit the suppliers - a tiny firm in Enfield who had probably hoped to make their fortunes supplying chassis to Lotus - but I was the one delegated to tell them the news. I will always remember that visit, not for the disappointment of it all, but because of an incident on the way. I was using a Lotus Cortina at the time and getting past the ninety mark on the Great Cambridge Road when a lorry pulled out of a transport café on the left. Panic hard braking started wild fish-tailing that would probably end in a somersault, pumping the pedal had more success, but the lorry driver chose to stay where he was, blocking the road. I touched his lorry - that was all! There was pea-sized dent in the headlamp trim and nothing else. I have never seen anyone, dead or alive, that looked like that driver. I just waved up at him and told him there was no damage, and waited till he recovered enough to move his lorry. He had not uttered a word.
I did thousands of miles with the lash-up; first with no doors, as it was when we had it at MIRA that first time, always with no trim, and only one seat. I built boxes where the rear seats were to be, and loaded these with small sandbags to simulate a complete car. I soon acquired a pair of doors with our electric windows and made it as habitable as possible without going mad. It had a full set of lights, but the headlamps were fixed in the erected position instead of folding down into the front wings. I don't know why I never fitted a second seat; perhaps I hoped to keep every one out so I could have it all to myself. I used this lash-up as my regular transport for many months and, although I had fitted alloy eyebrows over the extended wheels, it might have been considered illegal. But strangely, the law never stopped me, only people who wondered why I had made such a diabolical thing out of Elan bits. There was an unfortunate girl who had to sit on the sand bags in the back when we went out, but didn't complain.
Another surprise about not being stopped was that the car was never registered, it was always on trade plates, with me pulling the book out from under the seat and filling in my journey and purpose - when I remembered. An unfortunate result of most of the serious testing being done on the track was that I ended up with something that was a little harder than it might have been. Driving flat-out on a track a lot had me choose stiffer suspension than was really necessary for a road car. In those days, the design draughtsman worked everything out with a slide-rule without even a calculator to help, and came up with three sets of springs and three sets of dampers that he hoped would cover the requirements. They did, with a bit of juggling and some fine-tuning by an Armstrong driver, who just happened to be a racing driver...
I never had any breakdowns during my vast mileage in works cars, possibly because I had been a mechanic and had an idea that something was going wrong before it actually caused trouble, but there was an incident on a run from Cheshunt to MIRA, when there was a bang at the rear of the lash-up, close to the Watford Gap services on the M1, coincidentally, just as my colleague overtook me in DUR 119B. (Which was the original fixed-head car remodelled from a production Series 3 that I managed to keep until a car was required for crash testing a few years later.)
I limped to the service area and found the hub carrier casting had a broken lug attaching the brake calliper to the carrier. Somehow, this appeared to have caused the loss of some of the drive pegs that were pressed into the hub. Maybe it was the drive pegs that came out first.
All my tools were in the car now heading north at great speed, and I had some difficulty in persuading a mechanic in the nearby garage to allow me the use of a jack. That achieved, I stole drive pegs from other hubs and 'fitted' them using a small boulder I found nearby. Naturally, my workmate didn't choose to retrace his steps to see what had happened to delay me! The following morning we had to return to Cheshunt to collect spares to make the repairs.
Our director made the journey to try out the final set-up although he was a stylist rather than a driver, and made a few circuits of the ride and handling course in about four minutes a lap, while the two of us mainly involved were expecting to do a lap in slightly less than one and a half minutes.
There came a time later when we were short of an engine and I said that the 'lash-up' had served its purpose and the parts, including the engine, could be used as spares. This caused visible surprise because it was thought I would never part with the thing!
Some time later, after a 'proper' car was available, Colin Chapman fully approved our choice of suspension, and so we must have got it right - he was a hard driver.
The first car built was called the Metier to disguise it a little. It is shown on the left with one of the sets of tail lamps tried, high-level petrol fillers (one each side), and a false number plate. I worked day and night on this, sometimes two and a half days non-stop, to get it ready for presentation to the directors and sales people. I was still working at night with an appointment at Alexandra Palace at ten the next morning. I was told that whatever the time that it was mobile, I was to go to the project engineer, then to the director. I got out about one in the morning and headed towards Enfield to pick up the first, and for the first time, was stopped by the police. All they wanted was to see the car and had no interest in the trade plates. They asked what it was and I told them I wasn't supposed to say, but suggested they might guess at a manufacturer of such things in the area.
We all had a drive round for an hour or so before driving the director home. The two of us then decided we might as well carry on to 'Ally Pally' in good time for the presentation. Lots of people were there and we looked at all the other Lotus cars and compared them with the new one. Then I took the car inside the building, which was not appreciated by the caretaker. He was told to go away, or something like that, and the senior people - which was all of them except me - had a meeting in an office elsewhere in the building, leaving me to watch the Metier crouching on what I took to be a dance floor.
Some time later we all went home. I understood things had not gone well and Mr. Chapman didn't like it at all, and was displeased things had gone as far as a complete car and moulds, to make something he didn't like. He could easily forget that he didn't give precise instructions before he disappeared to race in the States.
I don't know if this caused the development of the Europa to be done elsewhere. I never heard, but suspected, that Mr. Chapman wanted to demonstrate that a car could be designed and built in record time under his own supervision. I also suspect he kept a closer watch on progress than he had on our department. After completion of two prototypes, the Europa went into production for sale only in France initially. Later, it was turned over to us to 'redevelop' it for a wider market. All Series 1 and 2 cars had a Renault engine and gearbox unit from the R16, which was a front engine, front-wheel drive car, the crown wheel in the diff being reversed to allow for four forward gears rather than four reverse. More than a year after its conception, I started to drive it.
I enjoyed living and working near London so much that only two weeks before the date we were to occupy our new, huge workshop, I had decided I just couldn't live in Norfolk. However, I also enjoyed working at Lotus and in particular, driving the cars. So when I was called into our director's office I was fairly easily persuaded to make the move. This was done by advancing me the deposit on a house of my choice in Wymondham and making me a full-time test engineer, with the title 'Chief' before it.
In time, the Plus 2 was redesigned to something that was approved, not all that different in my opinion, and a pre-production model was completed in time to be driven (unpainted) to the new factory at Hethel. This car was finished in white as the best way to conceal imperfections of glassfibre moulding. Although it has been disputed, it was the first car we had registered in Norfolk - KPW 176D, and as usual I used it extensively for the next couple of years until one was required for crash testing.
There were no badges fitted, in a futile attempt to keep it secret, and a memo reprimanding me for driving through Norwich was sent to the department. I asked how I was supposed to do any testing if I wasn't allowed to drive it anywhere, and was told that our managing director had made his point and would now be quiet.
On a Sunday trip to Coventry (from St. Albans, where I had retained a place to live), the girl who previously had to sit on sandbags now sat on a more comfortable seat. Stopping at a hotel on the A5, she said perhaps I should put a duster or something over the horn button, as it was the only thing that said 'Lotus'. During lunch we were approached by an Alfa Romeo owner who asked if we were the owners of the Lotus outside, saying that he wouldn't have known but for the steering wheel.
I had somehow managed to avoid the upheaval of most of the move from Cheshunt by being at MIRA for the week or two before the move. I'm not sure what I was doing; I would imagine I was still driving the lash-up Plus 2 there because I remember bringing that to Hethel on a trailer soon after the opening. I was using a Cortina at the time, to which I had fitted a tow-bar for the purpose, originally intending not to use the lash-up on the road.
Some were already complaining that it was taking them four or five hours to get to the Midlands, going down to Cambridge, on to Bedford, then joining the M1. I studied the maps and picked out a cross-country route, which was reduced and refined as the next few years passed. Eventually, I was crossing the country from MIRA to Hethel in two and a half hours (nearly a hundred and fifty miles). This was easily surpassed in later years by Esprit, though not by me.
One quite interesting thing I had to do at Hethel involved teaching myself the aerodynamics of demisting and de-icing. It was thought, even by experts, that if hot air were blown out at the bottom of a windscreen, both of these would be achieved. This was soon proved false by testing for American Federal requirements. Of course, it was much more easily done on their huge cars: If you can have a huge heater and lots of space, it is possible that several outlets blowing hot air will have the desired effect. Most cars of the period had quite small, inefficient heaters that cooked the toes nearest the lower outlets and did little else. In our case, we were restricted to the most basic, probably cheapest, heater available. Not only at Lotus, but at most other manufacturers as well, heater installation was largely standardised and very few had much hope of reaching the requirements of the American market. I'm not sure that much has changed where the standards are not so high.
Tests were carried out in a 'refrigerator' at Smith's at Witney, near Oxford, and I made many trips there, spending days at a time trying different approaches to the problem, but I probably made most of my discoveries at Hethel by using a steaming kettle inside the car.
The car 'soaked' overnight in the fridge at minus 20 degrees C, and was then started and the heater switched on. In the time allowed to clear 95% of the screen, we could only clear about a square foot! I re-installed the hot air outlets at an angle closer to that of the screen without great improvement, although there was some. By trial and error I found that the hot air could be directed to follow a curve. It would 'stick' to this curve and spread out at a greater angle than a plain outlet would allow, so pushing hot air right to the corner of the screen. I also found the air was hitting the middle of the screen and bouncing off before it had the chance to clear the top. Given long enough, the screen would clear, but not in the time laid down by Federal regulations. Creating a curve on the rear face of the outlet had the same effect as it had at the sides: The air would follow the curve and reach the top of the screen, and on the final test the Elan was successful.
The Europa was harder; that screen was forty-eight inches from bottom to top and the first test was quite a joke. At the twenty-minute deadline it had cleared a diagonal strip on both sides about two inches wide and a foot long. However, the experience gained with the Elan proved to be the answer, and I was delighted with the success of a curve-sided bezel round the repositioned outlets. Hundreds of these were ordered as an ABS moulding and were never used! It had been decided we were not going to attempt to market either the Elan or Europa in the States. I had started trying to do the same thing with the Plus 2, and already found the heater - a huge one from a Cortina - had been strangled at the front by having the fan inlet almost touching the wall of the plenum chamber, so that was doomed from the start; the air just couldn't be moved fast enough to achieve the same results as with the others. This meant that none of our three cars were to be exported to the States on a volume basis. It seemed that the regulations could be ignored if private individuals chose to buy cars in limited numbers, so months of work, probably amounting to thousands of pounds, was wasted, which may have hastened the events that were to follow.
When I was finally let loose on the Europa I went to MIRA with the project engineer who had been responsible in its development. He had been seconded to Mr. Chapman for the duration of the early work on the new car, and returned when the responsibility came to us.
By that time, he had covered quite extensive mileage in the car, so he came out with me the first time I tried to drive it. I had always been of the opinion that a car should have its engine in the front, not at the back, so it is not too surprising that the first puddle I hit on a bend caused me to spin off into the field. My companion said he had been trying to tell me I had to 'set it up' for that bend before hitting the puddle. A few laps had me driving automatically and I came to realise I had been wrong about the engine position.
About that time, a party was supposed to be going to France to work with Renault and our Paris agents, and it was thought I should go as well. I had a spare-time (such as I had) occupation that seemed more important than a trip to France, and didn't go. When we started to rework the Europa to turn it into something a little more civilised, it was again suggested I should go and help to drive it around Europe. By then I didn't have any real reason to refuse, and went.
It was just the two of us; my immediate superior and myself, and we found the best way to cross the channel was by aircraft. Long gone, it still seems a wonderful idea to park at Southend Airport and not see the car again until it rolled out of the nose of the freighter at Marke, near Calais.
It was a beautiful day, the plane only undulating slightly, but my boss wished he was on the ground again. I had made up a few boxes of spares I thought we might need and the customs people were insisting we paid duty on these, which they said would be returned if we didn't use them. We told them to keep them and we would, if necessary, cable them for what we needed. Driving away, we realised it might be useful to remember to do the same in future because so much interest had been shown in the spares, they forgot to look closely at the car. In the door pockets were a few dutiable presents for our French friends, and the only spare needed was a rear radius arm tucked down the side of the engine. Above is our first Europa Phase 2 - not yet fitted with electric windows - at Ostend.
I had never driven on the 'wrong' side of the road before, although I was quite accustomed to left-hand drive cars, and it had turned into a dirty, wet night. Some miles outside Paris I took over the driving so that the other could do the navigating.
I never understood why the French believed so strongly in yellow lights; as far as I'm concerned they are very poor and reduce visibility to an alarming degree, so I had fitted a Lucas 'Flame-thrower' on a bracket bolted to the area ahead of the front boot lid. Anyone seeing a white light in France felt obliged to flash on all their ten auxiliary lamps, which seemed to me to indicate some mistrust of the pitiful yellow glow from their normal ones.
Driving through a wet Paris was not a happy experience, and I was even less happy to circle the Place D'Etoile (as it was then) three times before we found the exit we wanted. I couldn't believe I had to thrust my way into six lanes of traffic coming from the left and know they would stop to allow me in.
This journey took place in February, that often suffers extremes. Although it had been a pleasant Channel crossing, conditions deteriorated on the road south to Paris as previously related, but improved again when we went out in the evening to 'see the sights'.
I had never been there before, of course, so merely followed directions given by my companion, and arrived at a small restaurant somewhere in Montmartre, where we sampled frogs legs, steak that just might have been horse (it was very good, but seemed coarser than beef), and also emptied a couple of bottles of wine. It must have been the frogs' legs that caused me to stagger a little when leaving! The photo shows that first Phase 2 Europa at Ostend.
I made the usual mistake going back to our hotel - I drove briefly on the wrong side of the road for the first and only time. A large Citroen simply swerved over to clear my way, the driver apparently not thinking it worthwhile doing more.
I had a free day in Paris while the senior man had business with Renault. I saw some of the sights and marvelled at the Eiffel Tower, but I never considered ascending even as far as the first platform. I don't care much for heights, though later that year I did my first solo flight in a glider. I had trouble finding my way back to our agents and I found Parisians to be very polite and helpful. I had only to start opening up my street map for one to step forward and ask if he could assist.
Arriving back at the five-floor workshops of the Paris Lotus agent, I found that at six o'clock everyone dropped everything and ran. I had seen a man welding some stiffening plates to the chassis mounting of the rear radius arm of a Europa before they all left and, standing alone in the workshop, I could smell smoke. The felt behind the welding was quietly burning away. In a strange place, I was not certain what to do. I saw no obvious means of stopping an explosion (the point being welded was surmounted by a petrol tank!), but fortunately others arrived and I believe it was their sales director who actually killed the fire.
That night it turned nasty again and three of us went out with two Europas. I ended up with the French one with its poor lights and wipers while the other two were in 'ours'. The rain and lack of decent lighting left me far behind, but fortunately, they had the sense to stop in a prominent place so I could find them. The French liaison man who was with us that night took us to his home where I saw the largest collection of model cars I have ever seen, before or since.
That evening we tore off south to Lyons, and the next day continued on to Marseilles. Heading roughly north-east to where we intended to follow a cruel little road over the edge of the Alps to our next destination that was Geneva. Having spent a lot of time driving in snow that often demanded the use of chains, I had doubts about the wisdom of picking a tiny road off the map in the Alps. My companion, who had probably never seen proper snow, had no doubts and was confident we could just 'drive at it' and get through. That proved to be a false assumption. I was driving up and up into something approaching a blizzard when the wiper failed. It was a huge single blade driven from the centre, and the snow proved too much for it. The cable rack started to slip over the pinion wheel and the box had to be 'modified' by bending the top of the box down to press the cable closer to the pinion. It was possible to take off the wiper arm and the nut outside, then crouch inside in comparative comfort and remove the motor and drive complete.
I was still driving upwards when I lost all traction - it just refused to climb any more. I had to let it slip backwards into a hotel yard that happened to be right there. The woman there insisted that "Jamais, jamais, jamais", should anyone try to negotiate that road without a Landrover or something similar, and certainly not with something like that - pointing disparagingly at the Lotus outside!
Although it was now late at night, we retraced our steps all the way back to where we had left civilised roads that were clear of snow, but couldn't have made our next destination before sometime in the middle of the night and had to stop overnight on the way. My boss had to sneak out in the morning to a bank, as he had hoped not to need any more French franks and didn't have any to pay the bill.
Geneva was bathed in sunshine and looked very attractive. After organising our accommodation, we proceeded to the Swiss Lotus agents, who took us to their place of business, and the two partners went off to play with the new version of the Europa. My colleague suffered a headache the next day and decided to stay in the hotel room. I went out on my own and drove right round to the end of Lac Leman. Leaving this behind, I continued a good way south-east and stopped in a small town that must have been close to Italy as people were using that language. There, I went into an apothetique to get some pills for my friend back in Geneva. I could not think of the words and was reduced to pointing at, and rubbing my head. In the way that strange foreigners can understand the words, I realised he was saying that he thought I was asking for a toupee, then reminded me that I meant mal-de tête.
On the way back I climbed out of Vevey, where I had noticed a strange sign on a café: Tearoom. It was a moment before it registered, but many ex-patriots live there. In what seemed like yards, I was looking down on the rooftops and climbing into snow. I decided not to venture further alone just in case something awful happened. Next day we covered much the same route together.
The following day our agents took us out to lunch, in an Aston-Martin, where among other things, we had fondue without the cheese. We cooked our cubes of steak in the pot of hot oil and, since I like garlic, I consumed a lot of that. That must have caused me to be sick several miles later - it couldn't have been all the wine I had!
I had driven out of Geneva and successfully passed through both sets of Customs, but deteriorated rapidly and had to give up. We decided to stop for the night, although earlier had hoped to get further. Into Troyes, I spotted two other Europas and we had to stop and visit a bar nearby with a group of enthusiasts. The next day I was surprised to feel so well that I drove on quite happily.
Our next call was to our Belgian agent in St. Denis Westrum, near Ghent, where we were entertained well, and the following day went to Oostende to watch a shipment of Europas arrive at the dock. As personal transport, the agent had a Honda S800 that we had tested for a few hundred yards and decided that was enough! We had seen it lift its inner rear wheel well clear of the road on the way and the short trip we did in it only confirmed that it could be better. It was my pleasure and discomfort to be driven back by the agent's young woman companion who cheerfully drove past a stopped Europa on the way. I don't remember what went wrong, but her friend was rather scathing about her failure to stop. On that journey I glanced over at the revcounter and saw something over 13000!
It was such a snowy day in Belgium that the wiper-box got tired again and had to be 'adjusted' with a hammer.
There were many amusing meetings and incidents during our journey and I found it all very exciting to cover and see so much on my first trip abroad.
That year we started getting reports of rear brake pads on the Plus 2 being changed after only a hundred or so miles. Naturally, we assumed this could not be necessary and guessed the agents were trying to con us for unnecessary guarantee work. However, we were obliged to look into the matter. We had been sent some worn out pads that were certainly the correct material, and equally certainly worn out. I dumped a load of sand on the edge of our test-track at Hethel and drove up and down without reaching a conclusion. I cut holes in the body of one of our cars and fitted Perspex windows and had someone else drive so I could watch what was happening. That didn't work. I thought it a good idea to go to Pendine Sands to see what happened there. I thought of getting in touch with the local authorities to see if this was permissible, but decided it probably wasn't and just went. I had a friend with a guesthouse in Saundersfoot who refused payment although I assured him I would get it back from the firm, so saving them a little. I had friends in Coventry who frequently did the same.
A Sunday morning found me driving up and down the sand without learning very much apart from the danger of doing high-speed drifts on the beach, and four hours later I was back in Norwich. It was decided we must simply make some kind of protection for the rear brakes without any proof this was needed, and so the 'tin cans' as they became known were made and fitted to one side of one of the cars. GRP had been intended to do the job until I mentioned that the discs could attain 600 degrees in certain circumstances.
We went to Norway and Sweden. The night before departing, I took out the Plus 2 for a final test and I thought I felt the rear twitch at one point. Since it didn't do it again I assumed it had been something on the road surface. With two hundred and fifty six miles to go to Tynemouth, we set out next day and after only fifteen the chassis broke at exactly the same place as before.
Returning to Hethel, I welded it up and added a rod over the whole wishbone mounting, and two hours after setting out the first time, we were away again. Being rather pessimistic, I had moaned that we had to cancel the trip; we couldn't possibly get to the ferry in time. My boss said: "Look, we're going on holiday even if we have to push the car on board." That did not become necessary, and I kept a steady hundred most of the way north and made the ferry with time to spare.
We had a garage in Bergen reinforce my quick repair, but it broke again in a different place close to the Arctic Circle. I think the material was changed as a small concession. We found Sweden quite useless for us; we would have found the same conditions here. Norway had few metalled roads at the time; they were mainly gravel and sand. We found there had been no exaggeration about the rapidity of wear. The open side was consuming pads to the point I had to start refitting those removed earlier to allow us to keep going. I had only taken a dozen pairs, and one set did only last a hundred miles. (It was the underside shape that was different from the smaller Elan that caused the trouble, aiming mud directly at the rear callipers, and something that never happened here.)
After Norfolk it was very exciting to see real mountains with waterfalls round every corner and also having to use ferries to cross fjords regularly. Ferries were regarded as a normal part of the road system, and bridges had replaced few. Because of this, the cost of using them was minimal, unlike ferries in this country.
It was approaching the Arctic Circle that I felt the rear end give its almost familiar lurch. The wishbone mounting had again parted - in a different place this time; my temporary repair, reinforced by the Bergen garage, had survived. A welder had to be brought in after he had given up for the night to do the necessary work, and it proved successful for the rest of our journey until we changed the chassis back at Hethel.
A young apprentice-type there was easily persuaded to accompany my companion that night and I believe he said he had seven young people in the car for a hundred mile trip he did that evening. It was that trip that revealed the full story of the short-lived brake pads. I had changed them for our last new pair that afternoon and they were almost worn out by nine the following day! I had to take the practically unworn set from the protected side and start putting the worn ones there for the rest of our time in Norway. Above is the first LHD Plus 2 in Norway.
It was during that night there that a powerful sun shining in the window awakened me - it was 3am!
Apart from my constant inspection of the rear pads, the rest of our time there was fairly uneventful and I decided I must get back to this wonderful place as soon as possible. It was to be several years before that was achieved, this time in my own Elan Sprint, but it was just as wonderful the second time. Unfortunately, there has never been a third visit.
Later, some of my work on the demist/de-ice systems overlapped another test I was doing. Some models of the Plus 2 were making heavy demands of the dynamo and battery and it had been decided that an alternator was required. Ford had trouble with the brackets failing due to vibration at a constant 6000 RPM, and the accepted test was to maintain this for at least two thousand miles. This, and other high-speed tests kept me occupied for a few weeks. At one time I thought it would be amusing to see if I could cover a thousand miles in a day, including fuel stops. This was achieved in ten hours.
It may sound exciting to drive at speed round a banked circuit, but it is very boring, and I was breaking off from that to go back to my favourite ride and handling track.
I suppose I must admit it was my fault; there was no one else there to blame, but I wrote off a perfectly good Plus 2. I was determined to cut a few seconds from my previous best lap time. Accelerating hard up the hill with the left bend, I lost it and hit the fence, spun, and ended up facing the way I had come. Apart from a bruise on top of my foot that somehow got under the brake pedal, I seemed complete and saw no reason why the car shouldn't be the same. I was turning the key and nothing was happening. I got out and was surprised to find nothing behind the back wheels. The fence had swept away the entire boot with the battery.
I had to make my way to the control tower to report and to make arrangements for an outside breakdown service to remove the car. Unfortunately, the breakdown men did almost as much damage to the front as I had to the back. I had to stay there for a day doing nothing until someone could come and pick me up.
When I got back to Hethel I found that I had been banned from driving for a month. Not a severe punishment, but it was like losing an arm. Amid the sometimes-heated words, I said that such things were likely to happen when one man was driving full-time without any relief. Being told I didn't have to drive non-stop silenced me. The final insult to me was that MIRA decided to withdraw my General Permit that had allowed me access to any of the tracks at any time of the day or night. This was due to a controller not bothering to write me on to the log as being on the ride and handling circuit. I could probably have argued it back again by causing him some trouble, but I didn't like to do that.
The eventual agreement reached was that I should have an assistant, though my choice was not popular. He was thought to be more valuable in the workshop than helping me, and it was suggested I should choose one less useful there. I had my way however, and for some months we travelled about from Mira to Smith's and various places between.
Returning from Witney one Friday night, I dropped him at his home before returning to Hethel, where I found my boss almost alone in the big office. He announced that the cold winds of economy had blown through the department and had taken me with it. A possible rumour suggested that the department had to save a few thousand from their budget and the easiest thing to do was to get rid of a couple of people.
They gave me all I was entitled to in the way of money, so I had no complaint about that. The thing that was slightly annoying was that although I, or the job, became redundant, my assistant carried on as soon as I was gone.
Thus ended my four years at Cheshunt and four at Hethel. It was sometimes irritating and frustrating, but never dull.
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