Marcus Pye's Diary
Authenticating a Lotus 23 with a real pedigree before making his pilgrimage to the Jim Clark Room at Duns
Jim Clark put Colin Chapman's lightweight, agile Lotus 23 on the map at a stroke in June 1962 when, in a sensational debut, he thrashed the hulking Ferraris, Aston Martins and Porsches in the Nürburgring 1000Km. At least until he got woozy from fumes wafting from a split exhaust manifold and crashed out, which restored the status quo — if only temporarily.
A new order had just begun. Customers flocked to Cheshunt to buy these sports-racers — 131 were made according to records, priced from £1495 — and, as history has a habit of repeating itself, they remain favourites in historic racing.
Success was hardly surprising, given the 23's pedigree and specification, the majority being fitted with the potent Ford Lotus twin-cam engine which endowed the hottest Cortinas of the day with spectacular performance. VW-derived Hewland transaxles packaged the drivetrain neatly, while comparatively wide-track wishbone suspension ensured a stable platform — even in torrential rain, as I discovered while racing Bob Tabor's in the 1997 Spa Six Hours. My overalls are almost dry...
In my capacity as Historic Consultant to the Motor Sports Association I get to see many 23s, although there are rather more now than there were. It was fashionable among the unscrupulous in the late 1970s to take the corners from early (by then uncompetitive) Formula Ford Lotus 51s — themselves based on the Formula Junior 22 of '62, which shared 23 running gear — and bolt them onto replica sportscar frames for fun and profit.
Several applications for Historic Technical Passports have crossed my desk this year from 23 owners, reflecting huge interest in Carol Spagg's Sports Racing Challenge events, in which period battles with Elva and Merlyn rivals are relived.
The latest example, which I saw on a test day at Silverstone, is particularly interesting, with an impeccable continuous history.
Run in period by favoured Lotus entrant Ian Walker (who still oversees son Sean's racing in a recreation of his subsequent IWR 'Gold Bug' Elan), American Michael Gans's chassis 23-S-86 was raced in the USA by Graham Hill. Now based in Europe, the car will lower the noted Bugatti exponent's sight lines — and reset his speed parameters.
The death of Clark, by then double World Champion and the greatest driver of his era, on April 7 1968, numbed the motorsport community. Even I, as a lad who rejoiced in his Dutch Grand Prix victory — the first for the Cosworth DFV engine — which fell on my ninth birthday the previous year, felt the impact.
To immortalise Jim's achievements, his parents magnanimously gifted the majority of his trophies to the council of Duns, his home town in the Scottish borders from the age of six, as the basis of a memorial.
The charming Jim Clark Room, established in a pretty house at the end of the high street in Duns, duly opened in 1969. Hundreds of thousands of enthusiasts have made pilgrimages ever since.
I spent a happy hour there recently with Mike Wilds, who reached grand prix racing's fringes in the mid-1970s (see p106). We travelled the glorious local roads upon which, as a young farmer, Jimmy honed his sublime driving skills.
The room is crammed with unexpected treasures, including a fine DVD show. Photographs span Clark's career, from the Sunbeam Talbot in which the legend started in 1956 through his time at Border Reivers and onto his success at Team Lotus. For me, though, a wonderful shot of him wrestling Ian Scott Watson's humble Goggomobil at a post-Suez crisis autotest in 1957 epitomised the passion of a bygone age! But the most poignant exhibit is a programme signed by Jimmy just before he drove his F2 Lotus 48 onto the Hockenheim circuit, never to return. Believed to be his final autograph, it was presented to the museum by its respectful owner. A marvellous gesture.
See it for yourself. It's open daily from April to September (Monday-Saturday 10.30-13.00 and 14.00-16.00; Sunday 14.00-16.00) and Monday-Saturday 13.00-16.00 in October. The pleasure far exceeds the nominal admission charge.