At a small industrial estate in Dudley, West Midlands, the observant passer-by who glances into a small, neat factory unit may be surprised to see what is apparently a congregation of Lotus XIs and 7s. Apparently, because closer scrutiny will reveal that most of them bear a small badge which says “Westfield”, rather than the circular yellow sign of Colin Chapman. At a time when “replicas” of one sort or another proliferate, this may seem upsetting to supporters of the marque. Yet the man who has brought this project into being is a devoted Lotus fan himself.
Chris Smith has been racing his own Lotuses for some years, and is currently campaigning a 17 in Historic racing, with which he won last year’s Bellini Championship outright. Having learned to maintain and repair his cars by hard experience, he agreed to a friend’s request to build a new Lotus XI chassis from scratch. In the event he built two, and when the first appeared in a magazine article clad in a GRP body which was indistinguishable from the original, the response was enthusiastic enough to prompt him to go into full-time production. That was in 1982; last year the XI was joined by a 7-lookalike based on the same mechanicals, although the latter, of course, is in a rather different light since the original model is effectively still in production under the Caterham name. (In order to minimise any obvious comparison the Westfield 7 utilises the cycle-type front mudguards of earlier Lotuses rather than the flared wings which succeeded them.) The two models have been a surprising success – during 1983, 110 cars were delivered, of which a high proportion were sent across the Atlantic. Most of these sales were in kit form, in which case the purchaser provided certain components himself, these being from the MG Midget, namely the engine, gearbox, propshaft, rear axle, steering column and brakes. Despite this re-use of proprietary components, Smith is at pains to distance himself from the “kit-car” image, pointing out that what he is producing is very similar to what Chapman offered originally. In fact, he claims, his cars offer improvements over the originals in certain areas, such as replacing the riveted alloy transmission tunnel with a steel tube tunnel.
In other respects, the chassis are perfect copies of Chapman’s designs, although built in square steel tubing rather than round, and under the GRP body are clad in aluminium panelling of very high quality, all of which is carried out by Smith’s own workforce.
The simplicity of the cars and the kit option means that the price is very low – £2,750 for the 7, and only £2,268 for even the most complete version of the XI kit. This means that a purchaser could build a complete running vehicle for £3,000.
Perhaps surprisingly, therefore, Westfield’s customer does not tend to be the impecunious young car enthusiast, but is more likely to be someone who remembers the Lotus XI in its heyday, someone who has always wanted to own the real thing, or who perhaps did and now regrets selling it. Up until this year, the only opportunity to enjoy such a car was the occasional afternoon spin on a warm day, since there is of course no weather protection, but in 1984 a new option presents itself. The 750 Motor Club, for long to the stalwarts in low-cost racing, are organising a race category which will accept replicas, and here the Westfield should be a popular choice.
The steel tube chassis, as previously described, is panelled internally in aluminium, and mounts fabricated wishbones at the front, and trailing arms at the rear. The Midget axle is modified to accept coil-spring units, and a steel fuel tank sits behind the engine, filled via a large alloy filler-cap.
Clothing all this is the sweeping form of Chapman’s body design, executed flawlessly in GRP, complete with a very low wraparound screen. A raised headrest with fairing is available as an option. The entire nose and tail sections can be removed, which makes for very easy access not only to the engine, but also to the suspension. As on the original, the thick, shallow doors let down like drawbridges once the small clips holding the top edges of the screen together are undone, but it is debatable whether access is any easier this way than by stepping over the closed doors. Sliding down inside reveals that there is surprisingly little legroom, leaving a lot of pilot exposed to the slipstream. The level of trim is up to the buyer; the XI that we photographed just before it was shipped to Canada was fully trimmed with bound carpet and leather, and managed to exude an air of luxury despite the basic simplicity of the dashboard and cockpit.
Naturally the performance with a Midget engine does not compare with the racing version, but the light weight of the complete car combined with the proximity of the ground and the tarmac rushing past the screen add a tremendous veneer of speed to what is actually quite respectable acceleration. As to the handling, Smith claims from his own experience that it is “probably slightly better than the early solid-axle Lotus, but not quite as good as the later cars with IRS”.
As it seemed a little unfair to experiment on a wet day with the gleaming metallic green XI just before it was prepared for its sea voyage, we settled for trying a 7 and immediately came up against a snag – there was nowhere for MOTOR SPORT’S photographer to put his camera equipment. It really is a car for driving, not for transport. Easier to slide into than the XI, it also has a great deal of legroom; in fact, the legs are fully extended along the floor, with only a thin seat cushion under the driver. This car had only the standard Midget engine, compared to the much quicker car we were loaned later on, but it served as an introduction to the sharp responses and skippy ride. The thin-rimmed wheel is comfortably close to the chest, and the slick-acting gearlever is perfectly placed, although as usual on this type of car, the handbrake is tucked under the driver’s leg. It is easy to drive, pulling in any gear, and reacting quickly to the mildest twitches of the wheel, something the driver comes to appreciate after bounding through the first few potholes. It is not that the ride is hard, just that suspension travel is limited, so that the rear tends to hop a little on its skinny 4 ½ in. wheels. However, it is so predictable and easy to catch that one soon begins to wish for a more powerful engine. Thus we were glad to be offered the loan of a 7 equipped with a Coventry Climax power-unit.
Power to Spare
This all alloy block was tremendously successful in racing of all classes in the late 50s and early 60s and it is surprising to learn that you can order your Westfield with one of these engines installed – but beware, the engine is worth more than the car. That in our test car displaced 1,220 cc and produced something like 86 bhp, together with a glorious snarl from the exhaust that kept one’s foot to the floor even in some very unsuitable places.
The seemingly endless urge of this engine and the very effective braking of the Midget discs made the 7 a real pleasure to squirt through winding roads, one elbow protruding vintage style from the narrow cockpit, and even at high motorway speeds the excitement outweighed the buffeting. Handling tends to the oversteer side of the equation, especially on wet surfaces where the limited traction of the thin lightly-loaded tyres allows opposite look at relatively low speeds. It is wet weather, of course, which shows up the worst problems of running a basic car like this. With no side-screens, it filled with water even standing still with the hood up; on the move it is easy to see why Lotus changed to flared wings, as water and muck are deposited in the cockpit in a gentle stream by the front wheels. The tiny wipers clear a space just big enough to peer through, and if you wear glasses your problems are multiplied by the spray that settles on them…
Obviously it would be sensible to wait for a sunny day to enjoy the undoubted pleasures of this car, but British weather being what it is, it is wise to carry the detachable hood too, which brings us back to the complete lack of storage. The space behind the seats is quite open, with the axle and 5-gallon petrol tank exposed to view, whereas even a shallow shelf here would make all the difference.
Only the nosecone and mudguards of the Westfield 7 are of GRP, the rest being aluminium, including the bonnet, which lifts off once four catches have been released, and under which nestles the gleaming block and twin SUs of this remarkably tractable engine. There is no fan, and when a rush-hour traffic journey proved inevitable, the temperature rose swiftly, but fell quickly as soon as the lights changed to green.
As a pure fun car, either Westfield must be good value, combining a very stiff frame with simple components and good handling, yet somehow the 7 does not quite have enough style to offset its impracticalities. The Westfield XI, on the other hand, may be usable on even fewer days, but each of those days will be an event to be savoured.