On road and track with the Lotus Elite

Some competition cars which are outwardly similar to others in their class win far more races than their competitors. This is very often due to the car having a. superior driver or a more powerful engine, or better “sorted” handling, but very seldom is the success of a car attributed in part to its gearbox. When the gearbox is an automatic one then the chances of success appear to be remote indeed, however good the car or driver may be. In the case of David Hobbs and his Lotus Elite fitted with the Hobbs Mecha-Matic automatic transmission one can merely let the results speak fur themselves. Apart from successes in International competition during 1961 and 1962 he has won numerous Club and National events, including a run of 14 successive wins during 1961.

The history of the red and blue Elite 5649 UE began, as far as David Hobbs was concerned, in November 1960 when the car was purchased from the Chequered Flag sports-car garage in Chiswick. The engine was removed and sent to Lotus for Cosworth to bring up to stage III tune, and when it was returned it was giving 108 b.h.p. Meanwhile a standard Hobbs 1015 automatic gearbox as made for the Ford Anglia was prepared for the Elite. The main preparation consisted Of removal of the safety jets which limit the r.p.m. at which downward changes occur. On the standard box this ensures that the engine cannot be over-revved, but in competition it is sometimes necessary to get into a low gear really quickly in the event of brake failure or similar contingency. The tow start valve was also removed. Other work on the Elite consisted of stripping out all non-essential trim and sound deadening material, including some of the double skinning of the glass-fibre chassis/body unit in parts where stresses are not high. The sidesereens and rear window were removed and replaced by Perspex ones, although the laminated windscreen was of course retained. The seats were removed and replaced by lightweight glass-fibre seats as used in the Lotus Formula. Junior cars, these being fixed in one position and braced at the rear to prevent any movement. The driver’s seat was fitted with 3 shoulder harness safety belt. The battery was removed from the boot to the floor in front of the passenger as the voltage drop along the cables gave the battery little chance of turning over the engine with its 11:1 compression ratio. A 15-gallon fuel tank was fitted in anticipation of long-distance racing and a large petrol filler cap was fitted. Twin S.U. electric petrol pumps fitted in the boot above the tank ensure that full fuel pressure is maintained at all times.

In the interior the speedometer was replaced by a Key Leather 9,000-r.p.m. electronic rev.-counter although the standard Smiths rev.-counter was retained. All the switches on the facia were retained but there is no heater or direction indicators and the hooter is now a pip-squeak of a thing from a Mini Minor. On the vertical face of the gearbox tunnel two temperature gauges are fitted, one for the engine oil and one for the transmission oil.

Having carried out all these modifications, David Hobbs entered the car fur its first race at Mallory Park on Easter Monday, 1961, with no success at all. This was followed by a Silverstone meeting on the long circuit with no great success, the car doing around 2 min. 12 sec., against the 1 min. 55 sec. of David Buxton’s Team Elite car. At the next Mallory Park meeting he was third behind a Team Elite car and Fergusson’s very quick Turner. At Snetterton the following week David Hobbs thought he would be clever and put only three gallons of fuel in the 15-gallon tank for a short race, but on the corners the fuel surged away from the pumps and the engine cut out when the car was in the lead. At Brands Hatch throttle linkage trouble forced the Car to retire, and at a Silverstone Club meeting the Elite indulged in a dice with Dawson’s Lotus XI, Hobbs leading the XI all the way round except on the long straight into Woodcote, Dawson just holding him off at Woodcote to rob him of his first win. He was also second in several other races that day. The next event was the Silverstone International meeting where, because the car was not homologated with the F.I.A. with its automatic gearbox, it was put into the sports-car race, which was won by Stirling Moss’ Lotus XIX. He held tenth place in this exalted company until a plug lead fell off, the subsequent pit stop losing him over a minute; but he still finished twelfth. The next day, at the Lords Taverners meeting at Brands Hatch, he got his first big win by defeating Les Leston in another Lotus Elite. This led to his run of 14 successive wins in G.T. races in this country.

The first foreign outing was at the Nurburgring 1,000 kilometres, where the car was protested out of the G.T. class into the sports-car category. Hobbs and co-driver Bill Pinkney limited themselves to 6,500 r.p.m. but managed to lap every other Elite except the Lumsden/Riley car, which beat them, as well as many Porsches and Alfa Romeos. They finished 20th overall and won the 1,600-c.c. sports-car class after Heini Walters’ RS61 Porsche had crashed. The car had no less than seven stops for oil which lost it a lot of time. Straight from the Nurburgring Hobbs went to Oulton Park and in the wet, using Michelin “X tyres” won three races including one for unlimited sports cars. Many other Club races came his way, including the Astley Trophy at Aintree, and at the British Empire Trophy meeting he finished fifth overall in the G.T. race, the cars that beat him being two Ferraris, a Jaguar and an Aston Martin. However, he gained no class award as he was told just before the race that the car did not comply with the rules despite being assured that it was eligible when it was entered. The next foreign trip was to Pescara for the four-hour race. In practice Hobbs and Pinkney were miles faster than the hot Alfas in their class so were moved by the organisers into the 2-litre sports-car class! Pinkney started the race and was out after 1 1/2 laps with a rod through both sides of the block due to a big-end bolt fracture. This was repaired and the car next appeared in a Club Silverstone meeting, where a front Wishbone mounting tore out of the glass-fibre body when braking for Woodcote. This is a trouble that the Elite is prone to and after it happened again David Hobbs’ mechanic, Ken Taylor, fitted a bar across the car connecting the two wishbone mountings, which seems to have cured the trouble. The other Elite trouble of the chassis-mounted differential twisting and finally tearing away from the body was forestalled by more rigid location of the differential when the car was being prepared by ex-Lotus mechanic Henry Lee in the winter of 1960. The season wound up with the Clubman’s Championship, in which David Hobbs finished fourth in the G.T. race despite losing a lot of oil from the gearbox.

Nineteen sixty-two started with a couple of class wins in Club meetings but as Hobbs was by now in the Peter Berry racing team driving 3.8 and E-type Jaguars he had little time left to drive the Elite, but managed a return trip to the Nurburgring, where he was ninth on the first lap in front of works Ferraris and Porsches. They had been put into the 2-litre sports-car class against works fiat-eight Porsches. When in 12th position after 5 1/2 hours racing and having lapped all other Elites the cylinder head cracked due to overheating and they were forced to retire. In this race Hobbs and co-driver Richard Attwood were using 7,000 r.p.m., as against the 6„500 r.p.m. of the previous year. The rest of the season saw little activity for the Elite as its owner was busy in bigger cars, but it was taken out to Clermont-Ferrand for the three-hour race. Unfortunately, when lying seventh overall, a stone became wedged between pad and disc of one of the front brakes, with the result that when the brakes were applied the wheel locked and the car left the road and hit a bank rather hard. The resultant severe damage required a completely new bodyshell, although Lotus managed to rustle up one which had been involved in a minor prang, so all the bits and pieces were transferred to this car. This brings us practically up to date; the last outing Of the car was at the Guild of Motoring Writers’ test day at Goodwood, when dozens of journalists thrashed the car round Goodwood, completely ignoring the owner’s pleas not to exceed 6,500 r.p.m.!

This short trip whetted our appetite ibr more experience with this car and David Hobbs readily agreed to our suggestion to carry out a test on the Elite. On a sunny but cold day in early November we met at Silverstone where the car was to be put through its paces on the Club circuit.

The Elite has a normal looking gear-lever in the usual position but this moves only in a fore and aft plane, and a plate on the gearbox tunnel shows the gear positions. Reverse is obtained by lifting the gearknob and pushing the lever right forward, with neutral being selected by bringing the lever back one notch. The forward gears are then selected by bringing the lever back one further notch for each higher gear. The rearmost position of the lever selects top gear and is also the position for fully automatic operation of the gearbox. For road use the lever can be left in this position and the gearbox will do all the work. On a light throttle upward changes occur at 15, 30 and 53 m.p.h., but the Hobbs box can have its gear-change speeds adjusted to suit the customer. The 53 m.p.h. at which this particular car changes into top is rather higher than would normally be the case but this is done on the racing Elite to eliminate any chance of plug wetting due to lugging in top gear at low speeds. On the circuit David Hobbs selects the gears manually so that he can hold any gear to any revs he likes, and in moments of stress in Club races he has seen 8,000 r.p.m. in top, although he does not exceed 7,500 r.p.m. normally. Having warmed the car up on soft plugs a set of hard plugs were inserted, which promptly refused to fire more than two cylinders, so the soft plugs were re-inserted, which meant that high revs could not be indulged in for long periods as the points have a habit of disintegrating. Acceleration and top speed is also adversely affected. David Hobbs took me round for a few laps to show me his technique with the automatic box. Racing starts are made by holding 5,000 r.p.m. on the tachometer with the box in neutral, then pulling the lever back to first gear. After a momentary pause the car screams away up to maximum revs in first, the lever being pulled back into the next higher gear with the throttle flat on the floor, only a mild jerk and a drop in revs indicating that the box has changed gear. Procedure for downward changes follows normal practice to a certain extent as David Hobbs .brakes to the required speed, pushes the lever to the lower gear then blips the throttle with his heel, which has the effect of engaging the lower gear slightly quicker than if he waited for it to change itself. Having acquainted myself with the technique, I donned David Hobbs’ crash helmet and ventured out on to the Club circuit. Having driven several Elites already I was fully aware of the cornering capabilities of the car, but it is always a pleasure to renew acquaintance with such superb handling. The stiffer suspension gives virtual roll-free cornering and the Dunlop R5 racing tyres are reluctant to break away unless pressed extremely hard indeed. On open bends handling is near neutral but at 13ecketts some understeer becomes apparent, although David Hobbs creates oversteer by twitching the car into corners slightly faster than they can safely be taken! In the Elite Copse corner is taken in 3rd, at around 6,000 r.p.m., Maggotts in top at maximum revs, the drift to the right of the track being halted in time to swing over and brake really hard for Becketts, which is taken ill 2nd gear. Maximum revs in top are reached halfway down the straight, my -self-imposed maximum on the first outing being 7,000 r.p.m. For Woodcote the brakes go hard on just befiire the too-yard board and 3rd gear selected, although David Hobbs goes down to 2nd to give better acceleration out of the corner. However by using 2nd the revs are dangerously high, so as I was due to take the car away for road-test afterwards I settled for 3rd gear. After about to laps in this exhilarating car I pulled in and handed over to David Hobbs, who soon settled down and lapped in 1 min. 13.1 sec. in live laps or so. After his spell I got back in and by using 7,500 r.p.m. My previous best time of 1 min. 18see. was lowered first to 1 min. 16,3 sec., then to 1 min. 15 sec., and finally to s min. 14.1 sec. Since the best Elite time ever recorded on the Club circuit is around min. 11 sec. and that by a car with a special body/chassis unit which is so light that, in David Hobbs’ words, ” I don’t know how it stays together,” it can be seen that the combination of this well-maintained Elite and the Hobbs transmission form a combination which a driver of average ability can take round a circuit in very creditable times. Far from detracting from the performance the Hobbs box obviously consumes very little power and the time saved by eliminating the clutch is reflected in the excellent lap times.

Having enjoyed the car on the circuit we prepared to enjoy it on the road. The preparation consisted of taking off the short system and replacing it with a longer pipe with a small which reduces the noise level to acceptable limits for town but also reduces performance somewhat. To give a softer ride on the road the wheels were changed for a set fitted with ” X ” tyres. As David Hobbs has proved, they also better handling in the wet on the circuit but cannot match tyres in the dry. Without a crash helmet the noise inside the Elite is cacophonous, noises of gearbox, final -drive, engine, suspension and exhaust combining to make a fearsome racket at high speed. However, outside the noise is not quite so apparent and the Elite could be trickled past policemen on point duty without attracting their attention at all. Many road users recognised the car and some tried to keep up with it, but the superb handling and useful turn of speed allowed it to pass virtually anything with ease. We took a set of perfOrmance figures just to see what a well-tuned Elite would do and despite our inability to make a good getaway from rest it reached So m.p.h. in 16..2 sec., which is not hanging around by any standard, while too m.p.h. is available in under half a minute from a standstill. In deference to the soft plugs which are used on the road we did not exceed 7,500 r.p.m. and at this figure we obtained speeds of 44, 62, 82 and 106 m.p.h. in the gears. A higher axle ratio would give more impressive speeds in the gears but the present ratio is most suitable for short circuit work.

The gearbox behaved in a most impressive fashion in conditions ranging from flat-out cruising to trickling through town traffic. The engine temperature never exceeded 9o”‘ C. at any time, while the transmission oil temperature never Went above 70 C. even during performance resting. l3y leaving the lever in ” Automatic ” the tar could be driven in a most relaxed Manner. the only snag on this particular installation being that top gear will not engage until 5,opo r.p.m. is reached. This means that in 40-m.p.h. limits the car is in 3rd gear all the time. Changes take place with only a moderate jerk bath up and down, and on engines with a better torque curve these jerks are claimed to be much less severe. Of course the great advantage that this transmission has over other automatic types is that any gear can be selected at will and held until the lever is moved.again. Putting the lever in a particular gear does not mean that it sticks in this gear. and if speed drops to Such an extent that a lower gear is necessary it will change automatically, so that the lever Can be left in the 3rd-gear position and the car allowed to come to rest, then accelerate away again until 3rd gear is attained once more.

The fitting of the Hobbs gearbox in a racing Elite is probably one of the most difficult applications that an automatic transmission can have. I am happy to report that it. is completely successful in every way. Fitted in a more conventional car it must be many people’s idea of the perfect car. Stirling Moss thinks so, for his personal Elite is fitted with a Hobbsgearbox.—M.L.T.