The Lotus that never blossomed

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McLaren and Lola were already there, so why shouldn’t Lotus join the Brits at the Can-Am party? Planned but never realised, this is what Colin Chapman envisaged

writer Clive Chapman

Recently, Classic Team Lotus unearthed a fireproof case packed with 28 rolls of microfilm, which contained images of the Team Lotus original design drawings, a record initiated by Peter Warr in the 1980s. (This was done in advance of the intended disposal of the originals; happily this never took place and the originals reside in the CTL archive.) Digitising the microfilm images uncovered various interesting schemes that never saw the light of day. One that caught my eye was a number of schemes for a ‘proposed Can-Am car’, initiated in September 1969. Based on type numbers issued at this time and type numbers unallocated, it is most likely that the project would have been identified as the Lotus Type 66.

The growing popularity of the Canadian-American series caught the attention of my father Colin Chapman at a time when the American market was a potentially vital sector for Lotus road cars. Team Lotus was no longer competing at Indy and US dealers were keen to exploit what they perceived to be the high value of the ‘race on Sunday, buy on Monday’ appeal of the Lotus brand.

Can-Am had developed into a glamorous, high-profile race category with good commercial potential. Furthermore the relatively light design restrictions were right up my father’s street. The competitiveness of the readily available stock-block Chevy was the final piece to complete an appealing jigsaw. 

Geoff Ferris was the Team Lotus draughtsman tasked with developing an initial scheme for a Lotus Can-Am car. At the time in Can-Am high wings were the order of the day, so inevitably that was a key feature of the early design. This was despite the Team Lotus trauma of rear wing failures at the 1969 Spanish GP and the subsequent outlawing of high wings in F1. Four months on and Team Lotus was draughting a high wing bigger than ever, but with the benefit of its rapidly developed knowledge and understanding of this still fledgling aspect of aerodynamics and the associated structural and installation considerations. 

A large front wing indicates confidence that rear downforce would be significant, requiring commensurate front downforce for balance. 

Front air intake for the radiators was standard practice at the time, although the Ferris approach is distinctive. Ferris also adopted a typically Chapman attitude regarding the cockpit regulations, scheming a cockpit enclosure feature that would both reduce drag and improve airflow to the rear wing. (The Ferrari Can-Am design featured a similar approach and was considered acceptable.)

The most distinctive aspect of the design is the very long tail, at a time when such tails became a feature at Le Mans but had yet to appear in Can-Am designs.

Then the brief changed, when Can-Am caught up with the F1 regulations and banned high wings. The actual regulation was something of a grey area – just what Colin Chapman liked – which left room for significant rear aerodynamic devices, as long as they could be considered to be ‘part of the bodywork’. This led to Ferris incorporating a low-level rear wing, much in keeping with the approach adopted by other designers at the time. However, Lotus ultimately did not have the spare resources to pursue the idea and it remained on the drawing board.

Upon rediscovering the Can-Am schemes, I approached Russell Carr, head of design at Lotus Cars who enlisted the volunteer support of Pete Reach and Barney Hatt to assess the schemes and establish if they could extrapolate the information to realise a 3D rendering using the state-of-the-art software at their disposal. Many hours and several review meetings thereafter, the Lotus Cars Design Studios team pronounced themselves satisfied that they had been able to represent the essence of the original Geoff Ferris design.

Back in the day, all works Team Lotus racing cars were presented in Gold Leaf Team Lotus livery, so there is every reason to expect the same would have applied to Type 66. Indeed, perhaps the project was encouraged by the title sponsor considering a move into the USA market, in concert with Lotus Cars’ objectives.

Given that the 1970 Can-Am series featured 10 races it is hard to see how either Jochen Rindt or Emerson Fittipaldi would have entertained the idea of racing the car, even though only the Mexican GP clashed. It is reasonable to think there would have been no shortage of Stateside drivers keen to secure a works Team Lotus drive; alternatively the Type 66 could have been principally a customer car, much like the Type 70, although the 70 proved to be the last customer-focused racing car for the marque. 

As is the way with motor racing teams, Team Lotus was always stretched to its very limits; at times even beyond the limits of its mechanics’ endurance. Given the Formula 1, Formula 5000, Formula 2, Formula 3 and Formula Ford activities of Team Lotus and Lotus Components, it would have been an immense effort to take in Can-Am as well. But for Colin Chapman, running a business employing hundreds of people, the commercial imperative was the strongest force; if it had looked like it might work financially then it is likely that Team Lotus would have realised these Geoff Ferris schemes and headed for North America, to join in one of the most spectacular racing categories ever.