Fun-sized fastback

Built as a one-off special, this little Lotus Elan is a prime example of the late Ian Walker’s flawless presentation style
By Richard Heseltine

The death knell of anything cool is the moment it’s widely perceived as such. So if you will please excuse the slightly skewed logic, the car pictured here is exponentially more appealing precisely because it fails to elicit even an iota of recognition. You just know it’s something that bit special. Having risen without trace, this intriguing curio briefly – oh so briefly – enraptured the minority who saw it before disappearing into the ether (or rather Switzerland). But now it’s back. Ladies and gentlemen, please be upstanding and welcome in from the cold the Ian Walker Racing Elan – the other one.

There’s no denying the sense of ambition here. It may be uncomfortable for traditionalists, but this is among the most intriguing Lotus specials – itself quite a subspecies – ever made. It’s just a pity so few people were made aware of its existence first time around. A few press shots appeared in period motoring glossies, the same images showing up years down the line in classic car mags, usually in sidebars listing Lotus-related obscurata. Either that or a mystery car competition. As for the cabal of talented artisans who built it, that’s a different story.

Inextricably linked with Lotus, the late Ian Walker was blessed with an eye for detail that would in time render his cars instantly recognisable thanks to their flawless presentation. That and the fact they generally ran at the front, driven by a roll-call of aces. Having embarked on working life in the family joinery business (it made fold-up seats for the Odeon cinema chain), Walker went it alone in the 1950s crafting precision aircraft dioramas for travel agent displays through his Westway Models concern: having survived two and a half years as a rear gunner in a Lancaster bomber during World War II, his eponymous team’s logo was appropriately a lightning flash flanked by the silhouette of an aeroplane. Introduced to motor sport aged 28 via some Sunbeam Talbot-rallying friends, Walker soon became hooked and found success aboard a series of warmed-over Fords and a works Austin Westminster.

The change of disciplines to circuit racing was merely a means to an end: during the period, many rallies incorporated speed sections on race tracks in place of forest stages. Having displayed considerable flair on the smooth stuff, Walker reasoned that he could raise his game still further by venturing trackside on a more regular basis. After tapping near-neighbour Colin Chapman for his thoughts on how to stop his Ford Prefect rally car from lifting its inside-front wheel when pressed, Walker was subsequently coaxed into buying the ex-Graham Hill ‘Yellow Peril’ Lotus Eleven. Walker rounded out 1957 with 17 wins while his canary-coloured car gained a green stripe flanked by two narrower bands as he wanted the car to look distinctive but couldn’t stretch to a full respray. It would, for a while at least, become his corporate livery.

Armed with a Lotus 18 Formula Junior, Walker continued to show form. Even more so when equipped with the first-ever Elite coupé, a pre-Cosworth Mike Costin supervising the car’s development: by the end of 1958 he’d walked to the Autosport 1300cc Championship with 14 victories. Now also an active member of the factory Ford rally team, Walker’s switch to entrant status occurred early in ’62 while he was trying out the new Lotus 22 at Goodwood. Having already decided not to turn professional, and noticing the speed in which Mike Spence and Paul Hawkins were circling that day, he came away from West Sussex with two single-seaters on order and the foundations of a race team. His own driving career went on the back-burner.

Fast-forward two years and Ian Walker Racing was by now fielding four cars – two Formula Juniors and a brace of Elans. The first of which – and half-sister to the car pictured here – had been conceived in 1963 with Le Mans in mind, specifically with a view to claiming the Index of Thermal Efficiency award. The same patience-battering prize that was seemingly instigated to ensure that French teams won something – anything – even if the exact rules remained a mystery to most rosbifs. And in placing an entry, Walker had his one and only disagreement with Chapman whose 23 sports-racer had famously failed scrutineering (twice) in ’62. Talking to Elan owner and racer Julian Balme, who is currently writing a book on IWR, Walker recalled: “He vowed never to return and I think he thought that included the name Lotus as well.”

No matter, it wouldn’t make it as far as the Circuit de la Sarthe anyway, more’s the pity. Penned by Walker himself, the Le Mans Elan coupé took nine months to complete and emerged a thing of beauty. Having gained considerable experience of campaigning Elans while developing what in time became the 26R competition model (Graham Warner’s works-blessed Chequered Flag concern also playing its part), he was all too aware of the inherent weaknesses. The Williams & Pritchard-clothed, ally-skinned Le Mans car therefore featured a reinforced backbone chassis to reduce flexing, the frame being welded to the body rather than bolted. The diff was raised which enabled the car to be lowered while eliminating the inherent strain on the driveshafts, which were changed to the sliding-spline type.

Powered by a 150bhp Cosworth-fettled twin-cam, the 41in-high device weighed just 1100lb with Autosport trumpeting a likely top speed of 160mph which it reckoned was ‘fair going by any standards’. The same magazine also had Jackie Stewart and Ninian Sanderson down to drive the car at Le Mans in ’64. As a warm-up to the great race, the former was entered in the Grand Prix de Paris meeting at the Circuit de Montlhéry. The future knight claimed class honours and finished a remarkable fourth overall.

Then came the Nürburgring 1000Kms. Here Mike Spence was due to share the car with Peter Arundell, only for brake failure to result in a hefty off. Spence emerged unscathed but the car was too badly damaged to stand a chance of making it to France. To make matters worse, IWR’s ‘regular’ Elan also suffered hub failure with Sir John Whitmore driving. To top even that, the team’s chief mechanic John Pledger had suffered a stroke earlier in the week.

Unbowed, Walker would continue to field the fondly remembered ‘Gold Bug’ 26Rs, being so coloured due to a mix-up by paint supplier Glasso. Desiring a metallic yellow, Walker received a version that when applied turned gold. Without the time (or the inclination) to respray his cars, he added a green stripe and the livery stuck. A further tilt at Le Mans, however, wasn’t on the horizon. It was too costly a distraction. The final straw, though, came at the Grand Prix meeting at Brands Hatch on July 11 when Tony Hegbourne demolished the team’s Lotus 30 at Dingle Dell during practice for the Ilford Films Trophy race. A week later Autosport reported that IWR would be sitting out the rest of the season but that it would return in 1965 – and in Formula 1…

However, among all the doom and gloom, there was one positive footnote. You’re looking at it. During the Grand Prix de Paris weekend, a wealthy Swiss gentleman had approached Walker with a view to buying the Le Mans car only for his offers to be rebuffed. It wasn’t for sale until after the 24 Hours. Come back in July he was told… Mr Huber subsequently changed tack and instead commissioned this car for his father, a sixty-something glass manufacturer who happened to own a private museum of sports and racing cars. Walker demanded a free hand while styling the Lotus and viewed its construction as essentially a fun exercise, a little light relief from racing. Volume production was never on his horizon.

Conceived from the outset as a road car, the new strain nonetheless incorporated many of the mechanical updates applied to the would-be Le Mans racer, but it was the outer dazzle that captivated. And still does. Bodied once again by Williams & Pritchard, the styling differed greatly from the other ally Elan, most noticeably the frontal area. The car was originally to have had single headlights, mounted much lower, but on full lock the front wheels would have fouled the rear of the lamp units. After much deliberation, Walker came up with the quad arrangement which lent the car a slight air of Gordon-Keeble (which is no bad thing…). Finished in French blue – as all of the Swiss collector’s cars were – with red leather upholstery trimmed by Harold Radford Ltd (better known for its custom Minis and Aston Martin shooting brakes), chassis number IWR/GT/2 was delivered in 1965.

But not before it was given the once over by another interested party. Talking to historian Philip Porter in 1987, Walker claimed: “Colin Chapman was very taken with it. He was very excited when he saw it and wanted me to take it over to the works and show it to his people.” Which he did, the car departing for its new home following a quick turn at the Lotus factory in Cheshunt. And it remained in Switzerland in the same family ownership for 37 years before being repatriated by enthusiast Stewart Couch, by which time it had covered barely 69,000 kilometres (42,800 miles).

Suppin’ on a cuppa in Stewart’s garage-cum-playhouse, and flanked by all sorts of great kit (we particularly loved his Cannon trials car…), it’s clear that Stewart has a taste for the good stuff. What photographs cannot fully illustrate is just how small the Lotus is. Elans by their very nature are tiny, effete even, but this stand-alone take looks every inch the baby GT until you realise you’re not actually squinting. No, it really is fun-sized.

Gorgeous, too. Some beauty arbiters may argue, but the proportions are spot on, the lack of chrome addenda and other styling tinsel lending it a purposeful air. And it’s completely original, too, the paintwork being near-perfect save for a few stone chips. Inside, there’s more headroom than seems feasible; the Connolly hide is wearing well, while the glove compartment is home to period Swiss route maps and carnets for travelling on the nation’s motorways. It’s a lovely period piece but one that is nonetheless looking for a new home. Stewart has some serious racing hardware tucked away that requires his undivided attention – and thus far he’s batted away all suggestion of stripping out the cabin and using the car for competition.

How you would price a unique car like this is anyone’s guess, but someone is going to get a lot of enjoyment from it. A regular Elan is a joy, a masterful bit of packaging that still stacks up on B-roads (though driving one on a motorway is a chore), but it’s doubtful that any other Elan was made with this much care. All too often attempts at bettering an already well-received production car end in ignominy – imagination almost always trumps budget or skill. Here, the execution is exemplary, even if ‘different’ is not necessarily a synonym for ‘better’.

And Ian Walker? After winding down the race team, he felt duty-bound to find employment for his loyal spanner wielders. So he established a garage near the team’s Hertfordshire base and took on a Lotus franchise. And at the end of 1966, he enjoyed a brief comeback in what was IWR’s competitive swansong. In keeping with his roots, he entered a 26R in a club rally organised by the London Motor Club: Walker triumphed outright after taking the fastest time on every special stage. Oh, and he’d overtaken the course car within an hour of the start…

Thanks to Stewart Couch, Julian Balme and Marcel Roks (