Development of the Lotus Eleven

The Mark VIII, which had appeared in 1954, also inspired the Mark X, which used larger engines, but its direct replacement was the smaller, and more delicate, Mark IX of 1955. But Chapman was still not satisfied, so he oversaw the development of the Lotus Eleven (the first Lotus whose number was always spelled out). It was launched in February 1956.

lotus eleven le mans
© 2007 Publications International, Ltd.
This original 1956 Eleven Le Mans was first raced by Anita Taylor, sister of Lotus driver Trevor Taylor, and has seen many historic races.

Here was a car that pushed Chapman's -- and Frank Costin's -- automotive knowledge to the limit. There were to be no compromises, even though the entrepreneurial Chapman wanted the new car to do several jobs for him. This was the first Lotus which was really a range of cars, rather than a single new model.

Chapman was not only looking for success, but for much increased sales; naturally he saw the Eleven as a racing sports car but, somewhat optimistically, he also expected to sell a few for road use.

Not only did Chapman want a winning sports car for his own purposes, but he wanted to finance his racing by selling lots of cars to customers. On the one hand, he wanted to sell the very best and very fastest possible car in the sports car classes; on the other, he wanted to attract Britain's clubmen with cheaper and simpler types.

There had been Lotuses with a choice of engines before, but this was to be the first Lotus with a choice of engines, body styles, and rear suspensions!

When Lotus' rivals saw the new Eleven, they were aghast, for this was a real advance on anything that had previously been sold from Hornsey. It was very easy for them to become depressed, for to produce a better car than this they had a mountain to climb.

Compared to any previous Lotus, and certainly against any rival product, the Eleven was smaller, lighter, more wickedly attractive, and more effective. The cynics -- pundits and motoring writers alike -- could only clutch at straws. Surely, they muttered, such a car would have to be fragile. Surely such a car would be unreliable. Surely the air intake was too small and the car's engine would overheat.

They were at once right -- and wrong. For the next few years, Lotus would gain a well-deserved reputation for building cars that suffered from component breakages, but in the face of criticism Colin Chapman maintained an Olympian calm.

There was nothing wrong with the design of his cars, he insisted -- breakages only occurred if the cars were badly maintained or roughly driven. For those whose cars suffered from chassis frames with fractured weld joints, or from brackets that cracked at a relatively early stage, this was no consolation.

Go on to the next page to learn about the production of the 1956-1958 Lotus Eleven.

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