Intended purely for racing Down Under, this Lotus 49 suddenly found itself carrying the world champion’s Grand Prix hopes at Silverstone
Writer Gordon Cruickshank, photographer Simon Clay
It can’t be often that half a car has turned the racing world on its head, but Colin Chapman’s Lotus 49 was an evolutionary surge – yet only half the story. The other half, of course, was the single most successful Grand Prix engine ever, the Cosworth Double Four-Valve. Genius in both camps.
And if both sires are geniuses, the offspring is bound to be something special. With a mere nine chassis built, give or take some destruction and reconstruction in period that spawned 12 chassis numbers, and fewer than that surviving, it’s a rare thing to see a 49 changing hands. But Goodwood’s Festival of Speed is the home of rare things, and this year a 49 with World Champion Graham Hill’s handprints all over it is going to auction with Bonhams. It’s going to be an exciting few minutes in that marquee come June…
You already know the 49’s clean-cut concept: unbolt the four mounts of the DFV and you’re left with a two-wheeled torpedo and an engine with onboard suspension. That compact V8 handles virtually all of the suspension loads through a small rear subframe; the only forces handled directly by the monocoque come from the radius rods that locate the reversed wishbones fore and aft. Thanks to all that volcanic activity inside it the engine block is already more than tough enough to handle suspension forces, so any chassiswork alongside it is redundant weight. Bolted together, that short monocoque and super-stiff engine further meant an exceptionally rigid unit, allowing delicate handling adjustments. Chapman was far from the first to realise this, but this was the first time he had been able to shape chassis and powerplant together, a mechanical symbiosis that catapulted racing car design into its next generation.
We’re very used to the principle now – the load-bearing engine/transmission/suspension lump forming an affordable race-winning package that created the ‘garagiste’ era: if you could assemble a halfway decent front end you were immediately on the same grid as the big boys. But, as with so many of Chapman’s Big Things, few saw just how seismic a shift was coming when he and Cosworth’s Keith Duckworth huddled over a drawing board to plan both motor and machine in parallel.
Not that the load-bearing engine was a surprise. Like everyone else, Lotus had been heading this way already, and the BRM-powered Type 43, the team’s contender for 1966’s new 3-litre regs, had finally dispensed with any rear chassis extensions. But the H16 was a wide unit that meant a wide chassis and little chance of switching power plants if it wasn’t successful. And it wasn’t, which made the secret Type 49 all the more crucial. Bob Dance, the legendary Lotus spanner-wielder, remembers that although the 49s were assembled in the main factory at the new Hethel base, the doors were kept firmly locked and you needed a cast-iron excuse to get inside.
While Lotus would effectively have exclusive use of the DFV for 1967, the engine’s godfather Walter Hayes saw major publicity benefits for Ford, the name on the cam-covers, and persuaded all parties it should then be available to all. Duckworth also knew this was something he could sell to many teams, but the layout was shaped in very close parallel with the Lotus. According to Jabby Crombac, “The positions of the two mounting bolts at the base of the engine were dictated by the width of Jim Clark’s bottom”, and you can hardly get finer tailoring than that. Otherwise Maurice Philippe, handling the detailed chassis design, inserted no other leaps forward – one step at a time, chaps: the rocker-arm front end with inboard coil/shock and leading link was current Lotus practice, as was the ZF gearbox, though this would prove problematic. And most of it was on view: bodywork consisted of the slenderest of glassfibre cladding up to the driver, and nothing behind. Chapman had figured out that behind here the flow was such a mess anyway that another panel was just dead weight that got in the way at pitstops. Dance confirms the accessibility advantage of the whole layout: “You could get to the oil pumps and filters and the water pumps easily instead of having to remove the engine. And changing engines was very straightforward too – just those four 3/8th UNF bolts.”
The result, revealed at that unforgettable Dutch Grand Prix of 1967, was a machine of such obvious engineering brilliance that hearts must have sunk along the pitlane. Not that it swept the board that season. Despite that maiden victory at Zandvoort in June 1967 and a succession of pole positions, the rapid and revolutionary 49 kept losing out to conventional machines. It was the way forward, but it took upgrades to suspension, half-shafts and brakes, plus solving DFV timing gear problems, before the 49B would realise the potential. With its forward-angled rocker arms to give a longer wheelbase, better-located rear wheels through a heftier subframe and a Hewland gearbox for simpler ratio changes, not to mention an assortment of fins, flips and frighteningly tall wings, the B would bring Lotus the 1968 world title – but for Hill, not Clark as all expected…
But before the B, the 49s had a holiday in the sun in the Tasman series, that off-season racing riot in which Europe’s Grand Prix drivers headed south for the winter to mix it with the Antipodes’ best around the circuits of New Zealand and Australia. The parties, the water-skiing and the fun were legendary, but the racing was serious, and like the other teams Lotus loaded the best cars it could onto the freighter – in this case a pair of F1 chassis. Bob Dance confirms that there was no spec difference for racing down under, barring a capacity drop: Tasman cars ran to 2.5 litres, which meant Cosworth assembling a short-stroke DFV to suit – technically known as DFW, of 360bhp. Team Lotus simply bolted this to chassis R1 and R2. Equally simply, Jim Clark ran away with the 1968 Tasman title. And suddenly the green and yellow paint was gone and the cars were covered in tobacco. Gold Leaf, to be precise, a red, gold and white eye-catcher that grated with some as a sell-out – and then became passionately popular, a gilded blazon of success.
That Lotus not only carried on racing after the death in April of the great Jim Clark but also collected that year’s World Championship owes much to qualities Hill discovered in himself, levels of grit and leadership some might have doubted he possessed. Nor was it a hollow achievement: facing the Cosworth-powered Matra MS10 of Jackie Stewart, Hill had a tough battle; but aided by increasingly effective aerodynamic aids on the 49B, and the fact that Stewart missed two rounds through injury, the 1968 crown came to Hethel.
By the end of that season chassis numbers were heading for double figures when it was time to think about a Tasman tour. “They just picked a couple out of the group,” says Bob Dance, “and sent them off to Australia with a couple of mechanics – I think they sent guys who had come from Australia or New Zealand.” The two chassis fitted with the small V8 and sent on that long sea voyage to Pukekohe, for the New Zealand GP in January ’69, were R8 and R9. However, as mods had continued through the season these late chassis incorporated some B-spec improvements, such as radius rod mounts tunnelled into the monocoque to reduce rear toe-in.
It’s chassis R8 you’re looking at in these photos; it was Hill’s mount in the series, and though it let him down in the first two rounds, he brought it home second in the next brace of races. But by then no one could catch Chris Amon’s 2.4-litre Dino Ferrari, and it was Hill’s new team-mate Jochen Rindt who almost upheld Lotus honours by finishing runner-up – to Graham’s displeasure, as having crashed R9 the Austrian had ended up with R10, a new car to full B spec. Suddenly Hill’s vehicle looked dated in comparison, and as if it felt unloved it turned in problem after problem. When their southern trip ended Hill was more than happy to be getting back into his B-spec R6 (the second chassis with that number), which had brought him victory in Mexico the previous year and would take him into the 1969 F1 season too – at least for three and a half races.
This, of course, was the era when aerofoils took off. Tried out in Australia, the 49Bs, like their rivals, now sported high-rise wings acting directly on the suspension – phenomenal extra grip with virtually no weight penalty, which naturally excited Chapman immensely. But as both Hill and Rindt discovered at Montjuïc, the wings weren’t stressed to handle the reversed loadings over humps; they broke up, sending both cars spinning to destruction. While Hill took over the team spare, Rindt’s Tasman mount R10, for Monaco, R8 was hurriedly pressed into service for Richard Attwood (replacing the injured Rindt) to use in the Principality. Despite being dropped into a car almost of the previous year’s specification, minus all wings following their sudden banning, he delivered a fine drive to fourth, while Hill took a record fifth victory at a circuit where he sparkled.
That should have been R8’s last works outing, as Chapman was determined to concentrate on the 4WD 63, and arranged to sell R8 to Jo Bonnier to force the issue. But so unwieldy was the 63 that both his drivers rebelled ahead of the British round, forcing the Lotus chief to postpone the sale and put Graham back into the Tasman car, by now rebuilt to full B spec and fitted with a low rear aerofoil and twin top radiator exits. It was hardly his finest hour: all the 49s stuttered with fuel-feed problems and Hill toured to seventh.
Having been made by Chapman to struggle with the ill-fated 63 at Silverstone instead of the handier 49 promised to him, Swedish privateer Bonnier finally got his gloves on R8 for the German GP, but his excitement was dashed by a fuel leak that put him out in four laps, and things got worse back in England for the Gold Cup at Oulton Park when a huge practice smash smothered Ecurie Bonnier’s hopes for the car. Once again it returned to the works for surgery, where it received some of the latest Team upgrades that would in the end keep the landmark 49 design competitive for a remarkable four seasons.
But if 1969 had petered out into disappointment for this example of arguably the best F1 design available, it was about to experience a triumphant second life, far away below the equator, in the hands of another privateer, Dave Charlton.
Though born in Yorkshire, it was South Africa that gave Dave Charlton his stage and he became a bit of a racing legend locally. Despite being 24 when he had his first race (he won that, and his last race too), he went on to win the Formula 1-based national championship six years in succession, matching rival John Love. Funded by his construction magnate patron Aldo Scribante, cat-loving Charlton not only bought ex-works machines but even achieved a dream by driving for Team Lotus in a 72D alongside Emerson Fittipaldi – though only once, in the 1971 British GP at Silverstone. He retired, but took the car home to South Africa, where it brought more success for Team Scribante. He would achieve some fame in ’72 when he contested three European rounds in it – not for his results but for bringing 200 gallons of his own fuel from South Africa to please his sponsor, oil firm Sasol.
Before that, though, Charlton was the next guardian of R8, obtaining it from Bonnier at the end of the ’69 season, switching its tobacco branding to Lucky Strike and proceeding over the next two years to string together a run of victories, so many of them at Kyalami that it was referred to by one commentator as ‘the Charlton centre’. A regular entrant in his home GP, Charlton achieved his best South African GP result in R8 in 1970 – only a 12th place, but the car also rewarded him with the first two of his national titles. Taking him to nine wins in 1970 and another four the following season, the ex-Tasman Lotus proved a remarkably reliable mount until July 1971 when Charlton crashed it at the Roy Hesketh track, just before his works debut in the UK and his switch to the later Lotus. It had been an impressive record for a privateer, and a fine achievement for a team thousands of miles from both Cosworth and Lotus keeping a DFV going so well for a complete season between rebuilds.
Repaired yet again, R8 passed to another South African, Piet de Klerk, who entered many of the same national events as Charlton but without much of the success, and after a last run of DNFs and retirements, the now weary machine was taken over in mid-72 by airline pilot Meyer Botha. It was in Botha’s hands shortly afterwards, 32 laps into the False Bay ‘100’, that the Lotus had the big smash that finished the first part of its career.
That could have been it for an out of date and very second-hand racing car, its monocoque too bent to be worth resurrecting when historic racing was broadly still in the future. It could have met the fate of most of its fellow 49s, sliced, diced and melted back to minerals; but thank goodness for enthusiasts like the Hon John Dawson-Damer. With his brother the Earl of Portarlington, DD as he became known shipped out in his 20s to Australia where he became a champion rally co-driver and a major figure in the historic racing world. He was also a passionate Lotus fan, saving several racing chassis from oblivion and assembling an impressive private collection that he eagerly demonstrated and raced wherever possible, including at Goodwood. It was he who collected the remains of R8 and slowly had them built up into a complete car once again, proudly racing the finished machine at Adelaide in 2000. Sadly that same year his 4WD Type 64 went out of control on the Goodwood hill, killing both him and a marshal.
Last of Dawson-Damer’s collection to be sold by the family, R8 recently went to Classic Team Lotus when it reached the UK. It has been cosmetically returned to the form in which Graham Hill had his last outing in it – nose wings, low-mounted rear aerofoil, red and gold paint and the champion’s number 1 in its roundels. It’s a wonderful link to a great driver. But more than that, wherever this prime exemplar of Chapman’s vision ends up, it will always be a tribute to the man whose passion saved it from scrap, John Dawson-Damer.
The men behind the wheel
The half-dozen who took a turn at Lotus 49 R8’s helm
Double world champion, 14 GP wins, Le Mans and Indy winner
Drove R8 in seven Tasman races (best result 2nd) and one GP, Silverstone – 7th
Le Mans winner and GP racer
Drove R8 in one GP, Monaco – finishing an excellent 4th
Double Targa Florio winner, GP winner
Drove R8 in one GP, Germany – DNF – and crashed in practice at Oulton Park Gold Cup
GP and F1 driver, six-time SA Champion
Drove R8 in 20 F1 races – 13 wins in South African domestic series
Piet de Klerk
GP and Le Mans driver
Drove R8 in 12 F1 races – best result 2nd in SA domestic series
Airline pilot, sports car and F1 driver
Drove R8 in two F1 races – best result 5th in SA domestic series