Len Terry – obituary

Talented racing car designer Len Terry has died after a short illness, at the age of 90. Though involved with some 29 different organisations in his career, two marques in particular stand out – Eagle and Lotus. Terry masterminded Dan Gurney’s beautiful Eagle-Weslake Grand Prix car and many Lotuses, most notably the 1965 Indianapolis 500-winning Type 38. Never one to be awed by powerful men, Terry had a fiery relationship with Colin Chapman in particular, but also earned his respect.

Terry was one of that bright group of engineers who honed their skills in Britain’s flourishing 1950s club scene.

“I had decided aged 12 I would both design and race cars,” he said. The special he bought, the JVT, won him nothing while he worked as a draughtsman and illustrator, but the chassis of his home-built 1152 Terrier MkI impressed Colin Chapman and in 1958 he joined the young Lotus. Within two months he was chief draughtsman, turning Chapman’s ideas into successful sports cars and single-seaters; within 18 months he’d been sacked after deciding to put his Lotus 7-beating Terrier Mk2 into production.

Soon Terry was building sports cars and his first F1 chassis for underfunded Gilby, alongside more Terriers that brought Brian Hart much success, but a lifelong interest in Indy made him accede to Chapman’s overtures to return to draw up the 29 (which would have won the classic 500 in 1963, barring Parnelli Jones’ oil slick), the 34 and the 33 upgrade on the 25 GP car. Still clashing with Colin, notably over the 30 sports racer, Len designed the complete 38 Indycar while Chapman was away.

It brought Jim Clark his ’65 victory, but Terry was already on his way to All American Racers to plan the 1967 Eagle, widely seen as a pinnacle of F1 beauty and winner of that season’s Belgian GP.

Famous for speedy work, Len’s portfolio soon added a Shelby Can-Am chassis, the rapidly concocted BRM P126, the Mirage-BRM M2 for John Wyer and the Surtees F5000 design that took David Hobbs to second in the 1969 US series and led on to BMW’s own 269 F2 car. Always keener on the next idea than developing the current one, he claimed that development was merely putting right the designer’s mistakes, and he didn’t make many – not only his view but often backed by fact. Notably he annoyed Chapman with a two-page critique of the Lotus 30’s flaws; history proved him right.

His final Grand Prix effort was BRM’s uncompetitive P207 of 1977, over which he crossed swords with Louis Stanley, but in the interim he tried again to found his own marque – Leda – with an F5000 chassis. In his own words “too clever”, this failed to take off, and Len subsequently built a Porsche-powered Mini racer, designed the Viking F3 car and produced Mercedes ‘SSK’ replicas and period delivery vans while selling his skills to a range of automotive companies.

In his retirement Terry assisted Classic Team Lotus over restoration matters, notably the ’65 Indy winner, while continuing to scheme an Elise rival of his own. A keen cyclist and table tennis player, he remained fit, active and clear-minded, recalling and explaining each aspect of his many designs and always happy to talk to journalists and enthusiasts. Though his frankness and self-belief brought clashes with men of similar make-up, Terry was himself a quiet and approachable figure who retained a passion for cars throughout his life. Gordon Cruickshank