Return of the Mongoose

A tiny, lightweight Lotus 26R with an illustrious racing past and a voracious appetite for Cobras is still punching above its weight on the track

If cars could speak, Lotus Elan 26-R-9 would have quite a tale to tell. Built in the latter half of 1964 it was supplied to Stateside Lotus distributor and enthusiastic racer Peter Pulver that same year. 

Pulver was a keen amateur racer and big on the US Lotus scene. Dutchess Autos’ main interest might have been selling Buicks, but it had also served as the sole distributor of Lotus cars in the Eastern States since 1960. Known as Lotus East, this dedicated business (co-owned by Pulver and Newton Davis) prepared street cars for sale, sold and ran competition cars for Lotus East customers and, of course, those of Pulver and Davis. It was a nice set-up – modest, but capable of strong results while still having fun. Just like the Elan, in fact. 

26-R-9’s wheels could only just have touched the ground at Dutchess Autos and Lotus East’s workshops in Millerton, upstate New York, when it was whisked to Nassau for the famous Bahamas Speed Weeks. Pulver’s Bahamian adventure was a great success, bagging class wins in the Nassau Tourist Trophy and Governor’s Trophy before finishing third in class and 31st overall in the Nassau Trophy. 

It must have been quite an experience mixing it with a terrific grid of cars and some of the best drivers of the day. The 250-mile Nassau Trophy feature race was won by Hap Sharp and Roger Penske in a Chaparral 2A, with Bruce McLaren second in an Elva Mark I and Pedro Rodríguez third in a Ferrari 330P. Not a bad podium. It’s no wonder Pulver enjoyed the David and Goliath nature of taking his small English car to big American races. 

As if to prove the point, the following season Pulver took 26-R-9 to the Sebring 12 Hours. A small privateer team competing in the second round of the 1965 World Sportscar Championship sounds like a pretty daunting challenge, but that was the joy of sports car racing in the 1960s. The grids were big and classes numerous (a dozen at Sebring) so everyone had someone to race against. 

The Dutchess Autos Elan qualified 48th in the 66-car grid, some way back from the Autodelta-run Alfa TZs that presented the main opposition in the GT9/GT1.6 class, but respectably enough for a non-factory effort.

The grid for that race was pretty special, even by the standards of the day. Viewed from 2017 it looks like the most diverse and extraordinarily valuable gathering of cars you’re ever likely to see. Highlights included a brace of Chaparral 2As, a quartet of Shelby Cobra Daytonas, multiple Ferrari 250 GTOs, 250LMs and 330Ps, GT40s, A3C Bizzarrinis, Porsche 904s… The list is mouthwatering. 

The 1965 Sebring 12 Hours was also noted for a biblical deluge that lasted for more than an hour and a half. Grainy archive shots show cars butting through standing water like brightly coloured ships in a storm, the track surface invisible beneath the flood. It must have been appalling, yet 43 of the 66 starters survived the rain to take the chequered flag. Among the finishers was the valiant Pulver, who together with regular co-drivers Newton Davis and Lance Pruyn piloted 26-R-9 to 38th overall and fifth in class. A respectable result for an amateur team, and you can bet they had a blast in the process.

Pulver returned to the Bahamas at the end of 1965 to contest the 12th Annual Speed Week, his Elan now running in a dramatic speedster configuration with hardtop roof removed and a low perspex aeroscreen in place of the regular windscreen. He continued to campaign the Elan sporadically in big league races in 1966, once again heading to Nassau at the end of that year. In all Pulver started more than 100 races in 26-R-9, driving the Elan to and from each race with his tools in the boot and running on race tyres. Those were indeed the days.  

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The story of 26-R-9 then went cold for a few years, Pulver having sold the car in 1967 to another American racer, who kept it for a few years before selling it to Robin Dickins. Dickins repatriated the by now really rather tired 26-R-9 to the UK, where he converted it for Modsports racing. It seems rather ignominious for a car with such interesting international provenance to have been so unsympathetically modified. Yet with no historic scene to speak of this was often the fate of ageing race cars that were no longer eligible or quick enough in frontline competition.

If there’s one good thing about the burgeoning values of old racing cars it’s that most will eventually come out of the woodwork. Thankfully this was the case with what was left of 26-R-9, which together with a truck-load of original components, spares and extensive documentation from its time at Lotus East was acquired by Dave Hughes. Hughes knew the car well, having regularly worked on and occasionally raced it while in Dickins’ ownership. Hughes was in the process of restoring the car to race-ready condition when the present owner acquired the car in 2013, and committed to returning it to original Dutchess Autos specification for the 2014 season.

It’s at this stage where mine and 26-R-9’s paths cross, as I was already sharing a Mk1 Lotus Cortina in the Under 2-Litre Touring Car (U2TC) championship with the Elan’s new owner. By now the 26R had been fully restored by Hertforshire-based Raceworks Motorsport, period correct down to the Dutchess Autos livery and distinctive roof-mounted identification light. According to Pulver, who now lives in Florida, he always ordered his cars unpainted because the factory paint jobs were so bad, and he chose grey because he reckoned the Corvette and Cobra drivers wouldn’t see him coming in the braking areas! I like his style. As for the shark fin-like roof light, according to a former mechanic at Lotus East, it’s a running light from a 1960s Chevy truck. 

During the rebuild the owner took the opportunity to commission the design and build of an all-new roll cage, as he was desperate to own and race a 26R, but didn’t feel the existing cage designs offered enough protection in the largely glassfibre Lotus. 

Initial design work for the new cage was completed by Wiet Huidekoper (whose CV includes F1, Group C, DTM and GT1 cars, notably Porsche’s 1998 Le Mans winner) with the manufacturing and homologation process handled by Andy Robinson. It’s a great piece of work, providing solid mounting points for the driver’s seat with improved side impact and pedal box protection in the event of a major shunt. More on which later…  

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It seems hard to believe now, but in its original 1963 specification the pre-26R Elan didn’t make a great racing car. Too much flex and bump steer, weak wheels and snap oversteer were its nasty-sounding repertoire. Despite this, Colin Chapman wasn’t interested in developing it as a competition car as his focus was the Lotus 25 Grand Prix car. That didn’t stop privateers such as Ian Walker Racing and Graham Warner’s The Chequered Flag working independently on improvements to address the Elan’s shortcomings. But not before Jackie Stewart’s famous assertion that the Elan was the worst car he’d ever raced! Hardly a glowing endorsement from one of the leading drivers of the day. 

Aware that Elans were being bought to race and being developed by privateers, Chapman soon relented, rather cheekily using elements of both Walker and Warner’s upgrades to inform his own suite of modifications. This included flared bodywork with a choice of faired-in or pop-up headlights, magnesium wheels and a single-skin glassfibre roof, along with extensive revisions to the suspension, driveshafts, brakes and a more potent state of tune for the familiar 1558cc twin-cam motor. The Elan 26R was born. 

Homologated for the 1964 season it was an instant hit, finding favour with privateer teams and drivers at national level in the UK, and reaching a variety of overseas customers, including Pulver. 

There’s some doubt over precisely how many 26Rs were built, with 97 is the most commonly quoted figure, but there’s strong evidence to suggest the truer figure is 101: 52 S1s (including 26-R-9), 43 S2s, plus a further six S2s bearing duplicate chassis numbers! Many regular Elans have since been uprated to 26R spec, muddying the waters further. Needless to say genuine cars are hard to find and extremely sought-after on the rare occasion they come onto the market.

Inevitably prices have leapt, from £170,000 or so a few years ago to anywhere between £250-300,000 for the quickest ready-to-race cars with notable history and entries to the best international race and tour events. That’s a lot of money for a plastic car, albeit a very quick one. However, it’s also around a quarter of the money commanded by the E-Types and Cobras that a good Elan can race against, and beat. 

Drive one and you’re left in no doubt why a good 26R is worth every penny. By modern standards, and even by those of the day, the Elan is a truly tiny car. Exquisitely proportioned and very pretty, but with just enough attitude thanks to the slightly more muscular bodywork and squat stance courtesy of those fat magnesium wheels and chubby racing tyres. With a homologated weight of just 580kg a puff of wind will roll one around the paddock. Back in the day the most potent BRM-tuned twin-cams were kicking out around 160bhp, but today – like most historic racers – power outputs have risen, with twin-cams now routinely developing a reliable 180bhp. You don’t need to be a mathematician to deduce that makes for a rather lively power-to-weight ratio.

It’s been my great pleasure to race 26-R-9 for the past three seasons in Peter Auto’s fabulous Sixties Endurance series, which has a generous two-hour/two-driver race format, packed grids and circuits such as Spa, Dijon, Monza, Jarama and Paul Ricard on the calendar. Continuing Pulver’s habit of running the little car in big races, 26-R-9 has also contested three Spa Six Hours (no finishes, sadly, though it was running as high as seventh overall) and a class victory and an overall Plateau 4 Index of Performance win at last year’s Le Mans Classic. 

As in period the diminutive little Lotus punches well above its weight. So while it fights other small-engined cars for class honours, its raw pace enables it to qualify among far bigger and more potent machinery. In Sixties Endurance it’s common to be sitting right up at the big boys end of the grid amongst the Jaguar E-types, Ford Mustangs and Shelby Cobras. Hilarious if you’re in the Elan, but doubtless rather annoying if you’re in one of the big bangers. It’s given rise to Raceworks giving 26-R-9 the apt and amusing nickname of ‘The Mongoose’ on account of its appetite for Cobras. I suspect the Shelby drivers have given it some less repeatable soubriquets. 

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Before you can start mixing it with the Cobras your biggest challenge is simply to get in the car. You really do have to fold yourself up into a semi-foetal position and post yourself through the door aperture. If I was just a few inches taller than my, er, compact 5ft 9in frame I’d favour going in headfirst then dragging my legs in afterwards as the taller drivers do, but with the steering wheel removed I can just about scrunch myself up and slide in sideways. You don’t so much climb in a 26R as put it on like a coat.

Once in it’s surprisingly roomy. OK, that’s a slight fib. Tailored is probably a more accurate description, but the reclined driving position creates some headroom and feels good once you’re clamped down by the shoulder straps. The expanse of wooden dash looks slightly odd amongst all the glassfibre, but there’s a certain charm to it. Slamming the flimsy driver’s door is sobering though, for it wobbles in your hand and shuts with a clack, it’s so light.

Those of an easily rattled disposition might look around them and blanch at sitting in little more than a brittle plastic capsule, but new roll cage with its stout, strategically placed tubes offers genuine reassurance that you’re not insane to go wheel-to-wheel with bigger, heavier cars. I don’t tend to think too much about that stuff: I just do what I can to avoid putting myself in positions where I’m at the mercy of other drivers. What I’ve learnt – the hard way – is you can’t legislate for incidents that are beyond your control.

Incidents like having your brake pedal sink to the floor on the 90mph descent towards Rivage. Looking back at the in-car footage it’s a sickening impact, the only levity on offer coming from my repeated and clearly audible utterance of a short if rather profane mantra from the moment the brake pedal hits the floor to the moment the Elan’s nose hits the wall. I’m still swearing as I tumble out of the door, shaken but otherwise unscathed, and walk across the gravel trap towards the incredulous marshals. 

The Mongoose took a severe mauling in the shunt (later traced to a front brake caliper seal failure) but the fact that I got out with just a few bruises is testament to the cage’s strength. That’s why after its winter rebuild I was quite happy to get back into the tiny tearaway and resume our crusade against the cumbersome Cobras.

There’s nothing quite like racing a 26R. It requires unusual sensitivity combined with a kind of hot rage and tenacity. Divergent emotions certainly, but the 26R only really works if you can wring its neck mechanically while ensuring you’re not completely over-driving it dynamically. It’s a fine line to tread. Never finer than in qualifying, where the Elan’s outright single-lap pace is entirely reliant upon finding space. Not easy when Sixties Endurance grids regularly top 60 cars, none of which are blessed with the 26R’s braking ability or corner speed.

You never lose a sense of wonder about just how small and light the 26R is. Powering out of the pit lane is always a great feeling, the way it gets up an goes with such freedom and energy is wholly inspiring. I’ve raced Cobras and love the brutality of their performance, but the Elan is a lesson in purity and dynamic guile. It seems to think its way around a lap, stringing corners together with a delicious unbroken flow. It’s packed with mischief, too. Or maybe that’s just how it makes you feel.

Whatever, it (or you) just can’t resist teaching ‘quicker’ cars a lesson; humbling them in the braking areas, hooning through corners and relentlessly harrying them into mistakes. At Dijon, where the circuit is essentially a tight knot of twists and turns with one long straight, the Elan is an absolute menace. In 2015 we actually had pole position, at least until our fastest time was subsequently disallowed for a flag infringement (boo-hiss etc), but it was a graphic illustration of the 26R’s speed. However, if you really want to witness that pace at point-blank range, I recommend standing at the foot of Eau Rouge and watch a 26R. Compared to any other car the speed it carries though the compression and into the heart of the incline really is quite remarkable.  

That said, the 26R is not entirely without vice. Especially in the rain, where its minimal mass can play against it. It must have been quite a handful for Pulver and crew during that monsoon at Sebring. You have to change your driving style to compensate, making soft inputs and leaning on it with progressive insistence until you feel it begin to slide, then apply similar smoothness to your throttle inputs. It’s an absorbing and enjoyable process, but it pales compared to revelling in the feeling of strong, fluid grip and zero inertia as you do in the dry. 

Wet or dry you have to work the brakes with sensitivity, for it’s easy to grab an inside front as it unloads on your way to the apex. Surprisingly big fuel loads (it can do the Spa Six Hours with one refill!) don’t upset it as much as you’d think. At least once you learn to work with the fuel-filled tail’s slightly pendulous feeling through quicker corners.

As you can probably tell, I love the 26R. More particularly I love The Mongoose – because of its unusual history and the bond I’ve formed with it through good times and bad, but mostly because of its voracious appetite for Cobras. Though it be but little, it is fierce.