Lotus salad

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76

by David Scott-Moncreif

Most chaps very often learn that while any form of sporting motoring may be sanctioned during the courting period. it is definitely not compatible with married life. A family saloon for transport and that’s it.

My wife  Averil, is the exception. She liked to drive Bugattis as fast as they would go, even if, sometimes, she went motoring the less usual way up. It is hardly necessary to add that this Bugattisme put us in the most appalling financial jams. The last one, caused by the disintegration of a roller-bearing crankshaft, involved a bill from Molsheim that put us out of motor racing for two years.

When at last we recovered, we drew up a short list of motor cars which would give the same fun for a lower maintenance cost. Finally, after the third bottle, we decided on a Lotus. At that time it was believed that a Mark VI could be built for an outlay of £450 on bits and pieces. I did some costing, but gave up when the sum total exceeded £600 as we did not have that much money. 

So we went to see Colin Chapman who had, I think at that time, supplied the parts to build about a couple of dozen cars. I told him that I thought his chassis was technically superior to almost everything, but that as much as we would like a Lotus Mark VI we could not afford to build one. Chapman reacted immediately and and produced with the same apparent ease that a conjuror produces a rabbit out of a hat, a charming young man called Robin Howard, who had built a very good one with a 1.172 cc Ford engine, and then didn’t want it after all.

I drove it back to the Midlands from London and fell in love with it at once. I felt that it was, like the Mercedes 300SL I had driven in Germany (they were hardly in production at that time), a car that was with you the whole time, but I couldn’t help feeling that if there had been a good deal more power the Lotus would have been rather tail happy on wet surfaces.

Next day when Averil went to go motoring the cylinders were full of water. The much vaunted aluminium cylinder head was found to have assumed the shape of a fairly steeply-curved rainbow. We had it milled flat and it promptly did it again. So we threw it away and fitted a Ford Eight head which cost two bob secondhand. The performance was no worse, and, if anything, slightly bettor.

We ran the Mk VI with the 1.172 cc engine in about a dozen events and had relatively little trouble. At Rest and Be Thankful the Buckler high second gear kept jumping out in practice. So I spent half the night, with the help of a Polish welder, constructing the sort of appliance that might be made for a disabled driver for Averil to hook round her knee and hold the gear lever in second. I don’t think she was quite bottom of her class but needless to say she did not make very good time.

The only other serious trouble is that the back-end has twice chewed up. This seems a fairly common occupational disease in Loti. The reason is that the taper pin holding the tail abaft of the pinion to the prop-shaft, shears. The splines are then free to “work” and eventually twist off. However, with a new crown and pinion costing £7 10s this does net present a very serious financial hazard.

But there was one inescapable snag. Whatever you do to a 1,172 cc Ford engine, you can’t get more than something slightly in excess of 40 hp out of it. Here again Chapman was wonderfully helpful. He told us exactly what to do and most religiously we did it. But whatever we did we could not squeeze much above 80 mph on the flat.

Our final outing in 1955 was the six-hour relay race. The other cars in the team all ran into trouble, and Averil’s Lotus-Ford went round and round as reliably as any steam engine. She carried most of that race on her back. In spite of this fine effort however, it was quite clear that we were getting nowhere at all with a 1.172 cc Ford engine,

We considered an ohv head, but this would take us out of the Formula into a class with cars infinitely more powerful than an ohv 1,172 cc Ford could ever begin to be.

We did not have the three hundred quid plus necessary to install a Climax engine, we bought an XPAG (1,250 cc) MG engine. Ted Lund, who. after all these years knows as much about MGs as anybody, was entrusted with its installation, and a very good job he made of it. We hoped. to have it ready for events at the tail end of’ the season. But we were unaware of the incredible fact that it is far far easier to get spare parts for an obsolete 1927 GP Bugatti, than for a 1955 BMC product.

We had been unable to get a gearbox with our second-hand engine, so we ordered a new one (a TF) from the Makers. It took months to come. Just think of that, BMC the largest automobile building corporation in the country, unable to supply one gearbox for a current Model ! I can only hope that Sir Leonard Lord reads this, seeks out the man responsible, and kicks his backside till it resounds like a gong.

What with one thing and another of this ilk we did not get the Lotus back till the spring of this year, and, I must say, we were delighted with it. The only fly in the ointment was that the extra power given by the 1,250 cc MG engine made the tail distinetly tricky on wet surfaces. But, before we had a chance to tackle this, we had a fresh calamity. As you probably know, on most BMC products the gudgeon-pin is nipped by a bolt located in the connecting rod. These bolts, unless specially treated, are apt to slack off or break, with pretty far-reaching results. We had barely finished running in and Averil was motoring modestly at 4.000 rpm, when it happened. We were lucky and got away with a bent con-rod, a broken piston and a slightly damaged block.

As there are very few events nowadays which run a 1,250 cc class, always lumping everything together under 1,500 cc, we decided to rebuild it as a 1,446 cc TF, we darted down to Abingdon to see Eric Blower, who has been simply wonderfully helpful all through. He is a chap of encylopaedic knowledge and acts as technical liaison between customers and works. This is similar to what Kling, the racing driver, now does at Stuttgart. The TC head we learned, does not fit the TF 1,146 cc block. This did not surprise us very much but what did was that there not  a single head to fit this last year’s model in the stores. It really does not seem surprising that overseas buyers foam at the mouth at the mere mention of  those three letters BMC. In the end they found us a Vaun cross-flow head that had been used for one or two tests only.

Now, we thought, we shall be motoring again soon. But it did not work out as easily as that. When we were at Abingdon we ordered a new crankshaft. There was not a lot of room left in the car so we arranged to have it sent on by passenger train. One whole week elapsed between the time it was ordered and paid for in advance, and the time it was dispatched. Then, after this brilliant piece of stores efficiency British Railways promptly lost it !

It is not by any means the first time that British Railways have lost goods consigned to me, so I know the drill pretty well. It is not the very slightest use complaining at a low level. You simply get the stock renly : “We have sent a telegram about it.” A BR telegram takes anything from 24 hours upwards to get answered, and, certainly as far as I have found, never produces results. If you want to see your bits and pieces inside a month or six weeks, you must get on to the head boy for parcels traffic for your district. You will find him invariably a person of the greatest helpfulness and charm. He is also a man of considerable importance within the structure of the railways. When he picks up his telephone things happen. I learned this long ago when a Type 51A Bugatti consigned to me in Scotland was irretrievably lost for three weeks. The underlings just said they didn’t know where it was. I got on to the big shot and within 14 hours the van containing the Bugatti was found (it had been shunted up a siding near Carlisle) and coupled on to the next passenger express, a privilege normally only available to Royalty. It was, I thought, a charming gesture.

As soon as British Railways had discovered and delivered our crankshaft, we ran into fresh trouble. But this time we had the BMC stores system to reckon with, a much more difficult proposition. With the crankshaft I ordered, naturally, a complete set of big-end bolts. A curt note was enclosed to say that the works had not got any. I made the rounds of half-a-dozen BMC Main Dealers before I located any. I don’t know what they do when they overhaul engines. I can only suppose that they replace the old ones. The big end bolts, when we did eventually get them, pulled out like chewing gum long before the requisite tension was reached with the torque wrench. I must give the MG people full marks for faulty material however. On those rare occasions when such material was supplied they always, immediately, received a ‘phone call, have despatehed the same day, without fuss or arguement, replacements free of charge, by passenger train, always assuming, of course, that they had them in the stores.

Anyway, after a few more troubles we’ve got it together again and the 1,446 MG-Lotus bids fair to be a charming little sports car.

But in my chase after bits and pieces I sampled quite a good cross-section of the stores system of BMC dealers. My local concessionaires Peppers. I finally gave up as hopeless when they quoted me one week to get some standard ignition parts from Lucas at Birmingham, barely fifty miles away. The Stafford distributors have had a half-shaft and one floorboard for my 11-hp Morris van on order for seven weeks so far, and up to the time of writing “can’t say when they will come.” As there are literally thousands of 11-hp Morris vans on the road this could not be more disgraceful. The stock reply I have had on all occassions is “Other people have been waiting much longer than you.” This seems to me no excuse at all, merely an additional irritant. I can’t help contrasting it with Lloyds, the Stafford Ford agents, who (this was the first time I had ever dealt with them, telephoned every Ford dealer within a 60-mile radius till they found a bit I wanted. And, what’s more they didn’t even charge me for the calls….

I had a long chat with Oscar Stevenson, manager of Kennings, BMC concessionaires. This is what he says “We are in this business to make money and it does not pay us to carry large stocks of spares just in case someone needs one in a hurry.” My contention is that if, as a recent law case revealed, there is a differential of 200% on the cost of spare parts, BMC can afford to maintain an efficient spares service. Alternatively, if, as Stevenson maintains, the distributors cut of 200% does not justify the holding of considerable stocks, the manufacturers should make it worth their while.

Then there is another debatable point. There is a very considerable profit on the sale of new cars. Are the concessionaires justified in regarding this as clear profit, or should a small portion be allocated towards the amortisation (ie, writing down in the books) of existing stocks of spares so that they can remain on hand for the benefit of customers who like, or have, of necessity to keep their cars for several years? I am but a lone voice crying in the wilderness and it is unlikely that Sir Leonard and his co-directors would take the slightest notice of my insignificant writings. But just take a look at the export figures, now that the gilt is of the gingerbread of the post-war boom. There is writing on the wall, for all to see.

Let’s leave this rather disagreeable subject and get back to the Lotus, or rather Loti, for, last year I acquired Colin Chapman’s original 750 cc Lotus. Since the time that Chapman sold it this grand little car has had rather a hard life, and with all the bothers in connection with my wife’s Lotus, not nearly enough work has been done on it. The first trouble that manifested itself was a tendency to break valves, but I think that we have got over that one. The two big headaches at present are the cooling, she boils like a tea kettle the whole time –and the designing of a new manifold. When the 750 Formula was brought in it outlawed siamesed-ports with tongues projecting into them. The problem now is to design is new manifolding which complies with the Formula and still maintains the same power. It looks as if I shall have to borrow Ulenhaut’s sodium-cooled slide rule for that one. At present the little car has to run with the 1,172 cc boys, and although I can, occasionally, catch one or two of the slower ones, we have little hope of doing any good. Apart from this the car generally is in a somewhat tatty condition and will need many, many hours spent on tidying oddments. It has the makings of the most fascinating seven-fifty I have ever known and promises several years of extremely cheap motor racing. It is also the most admirable road car and can be driven to meetings instead of being transported on a 12-mpg truck. Being so small and light it does a very honest 50 miles to the gallon on the road. I think I shall keep it for a decade or so till Colin wants it for a place of honour in his Bond Street showrooms and offers me a Mark XXXIX Lotus in exchange.

To return to Averil’s 1,446 cc Mark VI. I should like to conclude by recording two occurrences which may be of use to other Lotus owners. A week or two back both our stub-axles snapped off with finely crystallised fractures. When I told Colin he said that I had naughtily omitted to change them every two years. I didn’t know this, perhaps some other Lotus owners don’t either. So if you didn’t know now count quickly up to two and if the age of your car exceeds this change ’em immediately. Being basically Ford they are both cheap and easily obtained.

The other thing is that we couldn’t think why we couldn’t get maximum revs out of our engine and there was a flat-spot big enough to play billiards on. This turned out to be because we had bolted the carburetters direct on to the manifold and the engine vibration joggled the petrol in the float chambers around, thus upsetting carburation. We cured this with a thick neoprene joint. This should not be nipped too tight and is secured by bolts with similar self-locking nuts.

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