What goes up...

Lotus designer Len Terry tells Doug Nye about extra-orbital activities

Racing people might be sharply focused, but work hard, play hard has always been the order of the day. Talking recently with Len Terry – designer of Lotuses and much else – he reminisced about a Lotus model which escaped the type number list, and most marque histories – the Hornsey Rocket.

Colin Chapman’s father Stan ran The Railway Hotel pub in Hornsey, north London. Lotus Engineering was established in the stable block behind it. Len recalls: “I often wonder how we managed to get the work done because everybody larked about so much. Around Guy Fawkes night the development shop and drawing office got together and pooled some cash to buy a load of fireworks – bangers. We emptied out the powder and packed it into built-up aluminium tubes with a pointed nose and fins and a launch ramp. After experimenting with quite small ones we fabricated one which was about three or four feet long.

“There was a railway marshalling yard out the back so we all trooped out there, put this thing on the launch ramp pointing more or less vertically and lit the blue touch paper. But it smouldered for ages, it just didn’t seem to want to go off. One of the blokes decided he should investigate and, inevitably, as he got close it fired.

“There was just one hell of a bang and nobody actually saw which way it went, but the flash seemed to suggest straight up! I’d got a stopwatch because I reckoned that if I timed the complete journey up and down I would be able to guesstimate how high it had gone, given that it would accelerate at 1G coming down and faster going up. So it would only be a very rough guesstimate, but for anyone with an enquiring mind this was an interesting exercise…

“As the bloke investigating the fuse hit the deck, everybody else realised what goes up must come down, so lots of blokes dived under the parked railway trucks before rushing back out again. There were no floorboards in them! Eventually we heard the rocket come down, and found it had landed 100 yards away with its nose buried about two inches into an asphalt path. My timing made the flight 33 seconds – which seemed like a lifetime – and I estimated it went up at least 2000 feet. But like all these things, next morning you wake up sensible. We realised Stan’s pub was right on a main road with heavy traffic and a bus route – we could have killed somebody…

“But still Lotus Components got in on the act, filling an old metal tea pot with acetylene gas and applying a light. That blew the teapot lid clean through the asbestos roof.

“It always had to get bigger and better. Later, after Lotus had moved to Cheshunt, they detonated a 10-gallon drum acetylene bomb in the race shop. It was a miracle anything was left standing. Frank Coltman was works manager for Progress Chassis, who built our frames. When they moved to Edmonton they found they’d got rats in the building so Frank left an acetylene gas cylinder leaking into the foundations overnight. Next morning he dropped a match in to kill off the rats… and he was stone-deaf for three days!”

Motor racing, believe it, is dangerous.

A prolific racing car designer, Len Terry started out with his own 750 special, the JVT, then moved into the motor sport mainstream with Lotus and designed a raft of cars from the Terrier to Gilby F1, Lotus 29, 34 and 38 Indycars, Eagle-Weslake, BRM P126, Mirage M2, F5000 Surtees TS5, Leda and many more.