X-ray spec -- Lotus 30

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Sometimes there are good grounds for saying “it’ll never work”. Keith Howard hears a few

To paraphrase the famous Richie Ginther quip, the Lotus 30 was a 40 with 10 fewer mistakes. But still too many to make it anything better than occasionally successful, even in the hands of Jim Clark.  Ever the loyal Lotus professional, Clark did what he could with the car but, like everyone else who drove the 30, he disliked it, and it sometimes got away even from him.

Designed to compete in ‘big-banger’ racing against Lola and McLaren, the 30 sold quite well in 1964 — 21 were built — but quickly earned a reputation for evil handling. An improved Series 2 version was prepared for 1965, but only 12 of them were made. Although the 30’s modified 4.7-litre 350bhp Ford Fairlane V8 was inferior to the Chevy opposition, that was the least of its problems.

One person who foresaw the car’s failure was Lotus’s own Len Terry, but his concerns were largely ignored. “Colin Chapman gave me the scheme and asked for my comments,” recalls Terry. “I studied it for two days and by the end I’d produced a critique covering two foolscap pages. Of all that I considered wrong with the car, the only thing he agreed to change was boxing in the rear chassis members. That was it. He was not prepared to change anything else. That’s when I told him somebody else would have to draw the car because I didn’t want my name attached to it.

“The project came about because Chapman wanted to get back at Ford. Colin had been absolutely certain he was going to get the contract for the car that eventually became the GT40. He called a big meeting of all the staff at Cheshunt and told them he was sure he would get it: he thought he would because of the Indianapolis tie-up with Ford, and because of his previous experience. But Lola had already produced the Mark 6 GT, and Colin had nothing similar. I think Ford decided that this gave it something to build on, whereas with Lotus it would be a matter of starting from scratch.

“Colin was so mad when he found out, he wanted to prove to Ford and the world that he was a better designer than Eric Broadley. But it didn’t turn out that way, and it had happened once before: when the Lola Mark 1 began hammering the Lotus Eleven, Chapman designed the Type 17 — and that too was a disaster. I also fell out with him over that car, and that time he fired me!”

***

With a car over 5ft wide it seemed to me silly to have a backbone chassis that was only 5in wide. To get maximum torsional stiffness you need chassis members as far apart as possible. In the 30 the chassis was a tuning-fork shape and, as first proposed, the forks were of channel section as on the Elan. I saw straightaway that structurally that was a fault, and Chapman agreed that we should box in the rear members. Even so it just wasn’t stiff enough, particularly in the 20-gauge steel he originally specified (it was increased to 16-gauge). We put the first one we built through a rudimentary torsion test and it took a permanent set at quite low loading, well under 1000lb ft per degree. I think this lack of stiffness accounts for the poor handling of the car. What kept Colin’s mind on it was that the backbone was so cheap to produce by comparison with a monocoque or spaceframe. And because he’d envisaged production versions of the car he wanted to keep it.”

***

“It wasn’t only the backbone chassis that was wrong: there were so many other problems with the car,” says Len Terry. One of them was that it had a one-piece glassfibre body, which dropped over the frame and was bolted on to it. That was fine for a road car, but for a racing car, where you constrantly want to adjust suspension and other things, it wasn’t.  Previous sportscars of this type, almost without exception, had lift-off front and rear panels. The 30 only had small removeable bonnet and engine panels.  Every time you wanted to adjust, say, the front suspension, you had to take the wheel off to get at it, which in turn meant you had to jack the car up.  So from a set-up point of view at the circuit it was dreadful.  Again this was all down to the fact that eventually it was going to be a production car. 

***

The fixed bodywork wasn’t the 30’s only access headache. “The brake and clutch master cylinders and the brake-balance bars were all buried inside the front chassis box. You can see that there are two sausage-shaped holes in the top of the box, which was where a mechanic had to delve down to make adjustments. Of course, once you had your hands down there up to the wrists, you could no longer see what you were doing! It really was a pig’s car. I also didn’t think that front box gave either the upper or the lower suspension wishbones a wide enough base. And it was subject to torsional loads itself, never mind those elsewhere in the chassis. I’m sure there was unwanted wheel movement because of this, and the same applied to a certain extent at the rear.”

***

“The bodywork was the only part of the 30 I had anything to do with. It was, in effect, a smoother version of my 1962 Terrier Mk6 sportscar. Aerodynamically the car was good but (contrary to contemporary reports) it wasn’t wind tunnel-tested while I had anything to do with it.” In customers’ hands Type 30s began sprouting spoilers front and rear, suggesting lift problems. Was that a concern during the body’s design?  “Yes and no. You must appreciate that aerodynamics didn’t really come into race car design until later in the ’60s when we began using wings. In ’64 it was an unknown subject, basically, and we worked by guess and by God what looks right is right. I should think there was a lift problem with almost all sportscars of that period.”

***

When John Blunsden track-tested the modified JCB Type 30 for Motor Racing in 1965, he described the ZF gearbox as having a bit of a truck feel about it, That resulted from Chapman’s placement of the main fuel tank. “The central fuel tank was within the main chassis member, which was a good place to have it in many ways because it was closer to the car’s centre of gravity. But it meant that the gearchange, which would normally have been there, was moved over to the right-hand side. As you can see in the drawing, that meant there was quite a dog-leg in the gear linkage, which was what made the gearchange less than sweet.”

***

“The 30’s brakes were another bone of contention. Chapman decided from the start that all the car’s variants would run on 13in wheels. I thought them completely inadequate fitted to a 4.7-litre V8-engined sportscar, and so it proved. The brakes were far too small and you couldn’t get cooling air to them as you could with an open-wheeled car. Eventually the 30 was switched to 15-inch wheels and ventilated discs. Colin may also have chosen 13-inch wheels because he wanted to keep unsprung mass to a minimum but the main reason for it was that he wanted to standardise everything across all the proposed five models.”

***

The first of the line:

“What is not well known is that the Lotus 30 was the first of five projected variants. Number two was basically the same car but with a 1.6-litre Lotus-Ford Twin Cam engine. Numbers three and four were going to be closed, road-going coupé versions of one and two, and number five was going to be a racing version of number four. Number four eventually became the Europa, and after that the Esprit. This was all planned from the outset. When Colin first brought the scheme in for me to evaluate, he told me this was his idea. But I may be the only one he told, because when I mentioned it to Ron Hickman he was surprised.”