Cliff Allison drives Colin Chapman's first F1 car – the Lotus 12

When Lotus made their first tentative Formula One steps, Cliff Allison and the Nimble 12 scored the first points for this famous team. After 43 years apart, we reunited them. David Malsher reports

Cliff Allison Lotus 1958 Belgian GP

Allison "tricycles" his way to Lotus' first F1 points at Spa '58

Bernard Cahier / Getty Images

Blip, blip, buzz — pause — clunk, sputter, sputter. This Lotus ‘queerbox’ is in perfect condition. But it’s still a sod. Next lap, into the first corner, there’s a confident blip, blip, and a creamy sound of dropping revs. Perfect. And the driver is smiling. This is only Cliff Allison’s second lap in a Lotus 12 since stepping from the cockpit at Casablanca 43 years ago, yet already he has mastered the gearbox, the balance between clutch and throttle, and is rapidly learning Mallory Park, a circuit he has driven just once, in a road car.

The night before, our honorary track tester was a little worried about the prospect. “It’ll be all right,” he said, hesitantly. “I hope I can remember how to use the queerbox, it is a bit of a knack. In those days I could handle it quite well. It was a positive-stop arrangement like a motorcycle — push down the lever to go up the cogs, flick it up to go down. You just do it with your hand rather than foot.

“It was a brilliant idea — if it could have been more reliable. It’s the co-ordination between your clutch foot and your hand that’s the tricky bit. But I had graduated from F3 cars with motorcycle engines and positive-stop gearboxes, so I was ready for it.” He needn’t have worried. Natural talent doesn’t disappear. Suffice to say, I’m impressed. And so is Neil Davies, who runs the car for owner Peter Gooch. Cliff himself? “I could soon get used to it again, but it would take a while. I didn’t get on too well with the gearbox. I had no problems changing up, but had a little bit of trouble going down three gears for the hairpin.”

Cliff Allison Ferrari F1 driver

Allison was one of F1’s bright young things when first appeared on the F1 scene in the late ’50s

Bernard Cahier / Getty Images

Cliff admits he was cautious. “I only took it to 6000rpm. I had my fill of breaking bones when I was racing.” Had he redlined it, at 8000, as Neil subsequently assured us would have been okay, I dare say the dainty 12, Colin Chapman’s first Lotus single-seater, could have given some of the other cars circulating Mallory a surprise — 1.5-litre engine, skinny Dunlop cross-plies and all.

“The cockpit is just how I remember it,” says Cliff. “Of course, like most of the cars you see at historic festivals these days, it’s in much better condition than when we raced them seriously. Back then they were just workhorses.”

Cliff has one reservation about this 12’s current incarnation: “I had a problem with the pedals. The clutch isn’t too bad, but the relationship between accelerator and brake pedal is a bit strange. I like the throttle much closer to me. Since the accident, I can’t move my legs properly.”

From the archive

Ah yes, the accident. The 8.8-mile Spa-Francorchamps was an exhilarating but daunting place to race the 1.5-litre F1 cars. Cliff, on a quick lap in practice for the 1961 Belgian Grand Prix, was pressing on in UDT-Laystall’s Lotus 18 when he arrived at Blanchimont too fast. “I got as much opposite lock on as I could, but it was becoming obvious it was going to spin. Then the nose of the car went onto the grass, and it just flipped over. “The first roll almost threw me out, but my lower legs were trapped by the steering wheel and got crushed as the car went over.

“Had I not got thrown out on the second roll, I would have been killed because the car was a complete write-off. As it was, along with the broken legs, I had shattered the nerves that tell the muscles when to lift your feet up.” It was the end of Cliff’s racing career, but bearing in mind what had happened to Chris Bristow and Alan Stacey at Spa the year before, you can only conclude he was lucky. Certainly, snapper Malcolm Griffiths, Neil and myself feel privileged to be standing at Mallory 40 years on talking to this kindly-faced fellow in period overalls, Les Leston boots, original varnish-bonded canvas crash hat and goggles. Cliff, by contrast, isn’t in awe. Quite the opposite, in fact; he’s giving us a debrief on his half-hour reacquaintance with the 12.

“It was great fun. I never got the line of the long first corner right; I was changing down, until I realised I was better off leaving it in top and concentrating on the line. Once I’d got it right, I did feel it skipping on the exit.”

Cliff Allison Lotus 12 1958 Italian GP Monza

Allison’s Lotus 12 before the 1958 Italian GP at Monza

Grand Prix Photo

I get a flashback of the photograph Cliff had shown us the previous evening, of him tricycling the 12 around Spa on his way to fourth in 1958. It was a brilliant drive that could so easily have been rewarded with victory, since the three cars that beat him that day — the Vanwalls of winner Tony Brooks and third-placed Stuart Lewis-Evans and Mike Hawthorn’s Ferrari — would not have lasted another lap.

“But there wasn’t another lap, so that’s that. I didn’t regard it as a missed opportunity, really. To be honest, we were very pleased to have come fourth. For a spindly thing like a Lotus 12 to have done so well compared to the might of Ferrari, Vanwall, Maserati and so on — it was quite a good result, wasn’t it?” Neil drives the car regularly, and says the 1.5 Climax is plenty powerful enough for him, since the 12 can get pretty twitchy. Its pared-to-the-bone lightness does wonders for its turn-in, but its consequent skittishness could necessitate the brown corduroys. Neil has been impressed, therefore, by tales of a 12 being clocked at 178mph at Spa. He seeks confirmation. “Oh yes, that would have been me,” nods Cliff. “With a 2.2 engine, it was like riding on a bullet. Out of tight corners, especially, it was like a dragster.”

From the archive

Chapman was one of Cliff’s biggest fans, their relationship cemented when the man from Westmorland joined the short list of drivers who have chalked up a top-six finish on their grand prix debut, in Monaco 1958. But who else on that list worked on the cars, as a mechanic, the night before the race?

Cliff finished sixth at Zandvoort, then scored Lotus’ first points (no cigar for sixth until 1960) with that brave Spa effort. He lined up fifth at the British GP, equalling the time of Mike Hawthorn’s Ferrari, and two weeks later at the ‘Ring, using the new 16 fitted with a 2-litre engine, he was again in with a shout of victory.

“I had had only one practice session in a brand-new car, but we clearly had potential. I loved the Nürburgring because it was made up of roads similar to those from my area, the Lake District. Also, I found I could memorise circuits easily, so was able to race quite well there. I was in third place, in touch with the leader [Tony Brooks’ Vanwall] on the last lap, when the radiator burst.” He had done enough to attract Enzo’s attention. Hawthorn had told Il Commendatore of his intention to retire at the end of ’58 — and recommended Cliff as his replacement.


Allison in Buenos Aires, 1960, where he finished second – his best World Championship race result

Grand Prix Photo

Ferrari was convinced. Cliff remembers fondly his first year with the Scuderia. “It was a terrific team. Tony Brooks was lead driver, and was unlucky to miss the title that season. Phil Hill and I were only in our second seasons, and Dan Gurney was a rookie. Dan became a close friend,” he enthuses. Aside from startling everyone with the quickest time at Avus (the lap didn’t count as he was listed as a reserve driver) and a fifth at Monza, the season was a learning one for him, gaining experience, developing a rapport with his Italian mechanics.

The following year started on a very positive note, Cliff winning the Buenos Aires 1000kms in a Ferrari Testa Rossa shared with Phil Hill. It was in Argentina that matters F1 also started to look up. In the heat of Buenos Aires, his 246 Dino was second despite nimbler rear-engined Coopers showing the way forward.

From the archive

Then, disaster. Cliff crashed in qualifying at Monaco. He was hurled from the cockpit and struck the straw bales, which were reinforced with telegraph poles and huge metal bollards. “I misjudged my altitude,” he chuckles. “Had I got it right, I could have emulated my idol, Alberto Ascari, and gone into the water.” An arm was so badly broken that his 1960 season was over. “There were three alternatives, as I saw it: to stay with Ferrari; to retire altogether; to get a Formula 1 drive somewhere else. I took the last option which, in retrospect, was probably the worst”

After the Spa shunt, and the consequent decision to retire, Cliff’s next visit to a GP was at Silverstone in 1963. “All my friends made a fuss of me, but seeing them racing when I couldn’t made me so miserable. I didn’t go again for about 20 years.

“One of the nice things I do remember from that weekend is going to see Colin Chapman, who said: ‘I only wish I could have given you a better car when you were racing for me’.” A typically blunt ‘Chunky’ assessment that perhaps sells the 12 a little short, but which speaks volumes for Mr Allison.


And Chapman said: Let it be light

Lotus Colin Chapman

Lotus 12 was an early embodiment of Chapman’s obsession with ultra-light racing cars

The first purpose-built Lotus Single-seater was intended for the new 1500cc F2. The car had a spaceframe chassis with an aluminium floor hard-riveted to the bottom to increase rigidly. It housed a 1475cc Coventry-Climax FPF, producing 141bhp.

Packaging was typical Chapman, aimed at reducing frontal area and drag: the engine was canted downwards so the prop passed as low as possible under the seat to the rear wheels, facilitating a low driving position; the radiator was angled backwards to allow for a sleek sloping nose.

It featured a novel gearbox, designed jointly by Chapman, Richard Ansdale and Harry Mundy. A small, lightweight, five-speed sequential unit, some wag at Lotus christened it the ‘queerbox’. The first chassis had a de Dion rear axle, but on subsequent cars this was replaced by a ‘Chapman strut’ — an angled spring/damper assembly, a radius rod to take fore and aft loads and lateral location provided by the halfshafts. At the front, a lower wishbone plus upper link stabilised by the anti-roll bar located the Standard/Triumph Alford & Alder upright, while braking was provided by discs, outboard front, inboard rear.

From the archive

The ‘Wobbly Web’ wheels were another innovation included in the interests of weightsaving. The whole package was wrapped in a cigar-shaped body, sketched by Chapman and produced by Williams & Pritchard.

After testing the prototype at Silverstone in March 1957, a new 12 made its debut at the Goodwood Easter Monday meeting with Cliff Allison at the wheel. It retired with a twisted rear halfshaft.

Results that season were peppered with retirements, usually caused by failures in the driveline and/or suspension. Mac Fraser and Allison’s second places at the Brands Whitsun meeting and Oulton Park Gold Cup were the best of the year.

After solving initial problems caused by poor lubrication, the queerbox was further enhanced towards the end of ’57 by a move to a positive-stop mechanism. Its designer, fresh out of university, was Keith Duckworth. For 1958, Team Lotus stepped up to Fl, using a stretched FPF of 1960cc, and a further evolution of 2207cc. The first appearance of a works Lotus in Formula 1 spec came in the BRDC International Trophy on May 3, Graham Hill finishing eighth in a 2-litre Lotus 12. A fortnight later, Hill and Allison made their GP debuts at Monaco. By the French GP, however, the team was focused on the 16.

Works and privateer 12s were raced in F2, Ivor Bueb scoring the only international wins for the model, the Crystal Palace Trophy and Helsinki’s Elaintarhanajo-Djurgaardsloppet, at the wheel of Motor Sport’s test car, 359.

The final works appearance of a 12 was in the Lavant Cup F2 race at Goodwood in March 1959, Hill netting fourth. Twelve chassis were built, the majority of which survive. Sadly, the first running prototype, 351, was destroyed by fire after being shipped to Australia late in 1957. Three cars (352, 353 and 359) are currently running and they should soon be joined by 357, Cliff Allison’s regular mount.

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