Lotus 56

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He’s designed some of the greatest and most successful Formula One cars of the last two decades, but Mr Barnard admires the simplicity and potential of Chapman’s late -sixties Indy pacesetter

The car that caught my attention when I was a youngster was John Cobb’s Mobil Special, partly because my father once sat in it way back when. That car always impressed me. It was very advanced for its time, and very successful. If you look at the record they created, it’s stood for so many years. It was not until they built that enormous gas turbine Bluebird that it was beaten. And that was a huge effort compared to Cobb’s team.

However, the car I have chosen is one I sat in: the Lotus 56 turbine that ran at Indianapolis in 1968. Patrick [Head] chose its predecessor, the ’67 Paxton turbine. I suppose he chose that because it was the originator of the concept, but I prefer the Lotus because its execution was so superior. I would have liked to have designed that one because, apart from anything else, it was done on a drawing board, so I know I could still do it!

I guess the 56 was a Colin Chapman idea, but it was pencilled by Maurice Phillippe. In May 1975, I took over from Maurice at Vel’s Parnelli Jones in California, and that’s how I came across it.

When I was there they had the F1 team with Mario Andretti, F5000 Lolas for Al Unser Snr and Mario, and an Indycar programme. Then there were some off-road Chevy-powered specials that Pamelli ran in the Baja 1000. In the back shop was Danny Ongais’ top fuel dragster although I didn’t get involved in it and behind that there was Parnelli’s turbocharged boat That just does not happen today.

Vel Miletich and Parnelli had their offices at the front, and behind that was a warehouse full of bits and pieces, more toys and things. And in there was this old Lotus [chassis 56/1, tested by Graham Hill and Jim Clark, raced by Joe Leonard, and sold to Jones in June ’68].

I had a good look over it, and sat in it Somebody even fired it up one day. There were no electronics, it was all mechanical. I don’t know quite what the procedure was to get the turbine going, but I think you had to heat it up and there was some sort of starter. It was just like lighting a big blowlamp.

I liked its simplicity. Although it was four-wheel drive with a turbine, when I looked at it I thought, ‘It doesn’t look massively complicated’. And I always think that’s a good thing, when a design looks simple enough that you could just sit there and do it in five minutes. It gave me that impression.

It was quite a clean car, with a very pronounced wedge shape and a chopped-off tail. Without the radiators and all the rest, it was very tidy. It must have been reasonably good aerodynamically. The suspension was good because the uprights and wishbones were the same all round, although obviously only the front wheels steered. It was all neatly done.

Like the four-wheel drive system, the turbine engine didn’t look overly com plicated. You’d,expect pipes and wires everywhere, but it wasn’t like that at all. When you stripped the gubbins off the turbine engine, it was just this little device. It was very well executed.

For a race like Indy, turbine power was perfect: you could produce a lot of horsepower in a relatively compact package; it was better suited to an oval, where you have a lap of fairly constant speeds; it was all fairly progressive and repetitive. I think it was pretty efficient fuel-wise, too, and probably made the most of the pits-top strategy.

Looking at the spec sheet, the engine weight of 2601bs was producing 500bhp when running on gasoline. I guess it was a pretty good power-toweight ratio in those days. It didn’t really have a gearbox it basically just powered to the wheels. I think that’s what was so wonderful about it, and made it a lot simpler inside. The weight distribution of 43:57 was pretty much the same as today.

Ultimately, it didn’t win the Indy 500, although Leonard was leading when it retired a few laps from the end, just like with the Paxton turbine the previous year, coincidentally. It did a few races after Indy that year, but turbines were banned by U SAC for 1969. Open-wheel racing has always been done the US way, which is not at all interested in technicalities. It’s interested in drivers running wheel to wheel, and doesn’t really care how that happens.

So I think probably it got banned because the crew-cut good ol’ boys over there were scared witless that they would have to build something like that themselves. When compared with some of the cars running at the time, the 56 must have looked like it came from Planet Zog! It must have terrified them when this fantastic wedge shape arrived with its hissing, whistling engine.

Lotus briefly raced an F1 version in 1971. I think what you’d do today is couple it to a very fancy transmission, a CVT of some sort, whereby the speed variation is done more in the gearbox than in the engine. The engine would run at its optimum power or torque, and you’d be driving the car effectively on this variable-speed transmission.

It’s interesting that so many have chosen Lotuses in this series. Chapman was always looking for that new way. There were a few times when he fell on his arse and got lots of criticism, but he liked being an innovator. Whether he was the one who came up with the fundamental ideas I don’t know, but he was the one who made them happen. That’s why so many of his cars are on this list.

But to be fair, I think a lot of the modem designers have purposely not chosen cars from the last 15 years or so because they didn’t feel comfortable acknowledging their opposition!

John Barnard was talking to Adam Cooper

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