Precious cargo

Jim Clark’s Indy winner is among the cars being restored and race-readied this year by Classic Team Lotus

A visit to Classic Team Lotus is a magical step back in time. And it’s not just the cars: the buildings themselves are those that housed Team Lotus when it first moved to Norfolk in 1966.

Clive Chapman (below) has been running the business since it started in 1991 and looks after not only the 22 cars owned by Classic Team Lotus and his family, but also a dozen or so owned and raced by customers. Open the door today you find not only the 79, but an Aladdin’s cave of fabulous Grand Prix cars. Here there’s a 72, there a 25. Under a cover there even lurks a twin chassis 88. Away from the world of F1, there’s a Mk4 – the fifth Lotus ever built – a 69 Formula Junior and a ferocious 30 sports car that’s for sale if you think you’re brave enough.

The business splits its time between running race cars for customers and restoration work, though it also operates a patron scheme, whereby someone without their own Lotus can race one belonging to Classic. This year the Lotus 79/2 will be raced on exactly that basis.

Clive says restoration work is usually quite straightforward. Not only does he have all the original drawings for all Team Lotus cars, he has a sizeable inventory of parts left over from the old days. “It’s amazing what we can supply, because so many cars got built over the years.” Interestingly, too, most of these old components remain in perfect condition and pass crack testing certification without problems.

However there are challenges: a total restoration of a Lotus Grand Prix car usually amounts to around 1000 hours of work, but 79/2 took half as much again. “It was as it was when it finished its last race in 1979, wearing Martini colours and with quite a few engineering modifications. So it wasn’t just a question of restoring what was there, it involved putting it back to 1978 specification, which caused a few headaches.”

But the real challenge sits on a stand in the corner of the workshop. It’s a bare tub which, philistine that I am, I’d not have recognised unless Clive had told me it was Jim Clark’s victorious Indy 500 Lotus 38. Unused in over 40 years, it is to be made to work in time for this year’s Goodwood Festival of Speed, before returning to the US for next year’s Indy centenary celebrations. But what’s really taking the time is preserving its originality. Classic Team Lotus is not just re-using the major components – every nut, bolt, washer and screw that has survived in usable condition has been catalogued and stored and will be re-used. “The only major parts we can’t use again are the wishbones because they are no longer safe,” Clive says, “but even they will be retained and go back on the car when it returns to the Indy museum.”

On top of that, Classic Team Lotus has a full race programme for the year, supporting customers in three major series as well as taking four cars to the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix and a cool dozen to the Malaysian round. None of this seems to faze Chapman and his team: they just quietly get on with the job of looking after some of the most important racing cars this country has ever produced. It would be hard to imagine a team better qualified for the job.