1971 Lotus 61 Formula Ford
Last Lotus Race Car
This is reported to be the very last Lotus customer racing car built. It was purchased in person at the Lotus factory. As such it is a piece of Lotus racing history, and at a remarkable price. Below is the original owner’s story.
In the Fall of 1972, my wife, Judi, and I few to RAF Mildenhall via military plane from Ankara, Turkey, where I was stationed with the United States Air Force. The purpose of the trip was to pursue the dream of attending the London Motor Show, visit several race car manufacturers, and experience a driving tour of the country where sports cars were born.
On arrival, we rented an Austin Mini 1000 and eventually found the London Motor Show, which met all expectations. (The new models for 1973 were most impressive especially the BMW M1 in magnificent pearlized silver.) With appetites thus whetted, the next morning we aimed the Mini towards a dot on the map called Hethel, which is best known to tourists for its cathedral but, to automotive purists, as the home of the Lotus works.
We found the village, but there were no signs directing us to our destination. A kindly chap gave us directions that took us down narrow, twisting country lanes until we came upon a scene reminiscent of an old WWII movie: a tall wire fence topped with barbed wire, a guard shack, and nothing else to distinguish it from any Spitfire base. For texture, it was windy, cold, and raining.
I walked to the guard shack and “enquired” if this was the Lotus works, and was told the facilities are not opened to the public and not much was going on as “The London Motor Show is this week.” Thus rebuffed, but not wanting the pilgrimage to end in this manner, I whipped out my wallet and showed the guard a picture of my 1965 Autodynamics Mk III Formula Vee and said, “But I’m here to hopefully buy a race car!” That white lie was sufficient, as he picked up his telephone, made a call, gave me directions to a specific building, and raised the red and white gate. We were “IN!”
We were met by a Mr. John Doherty, who introduced himself as something like “the chief parts stockist,” invited us in, offered us tea (what else?), and asked how he could be of service. Figuring the wallet picture worked once, I produced it again and mumbled something about wanting eventually to “move up” into something a bit quicker. He seemed impressed enough to suggest that a Formula Ford might fill my requirements then added, “except that Lotus doesn’t make them anymore!” His dramatic pause had me thinking I’d been “had,” that my bluff for entry onto this hallowed ground was about to be terminated because of my gall, and that possibly I got this far because of our allied status in the War effort. But then he said, “However, we may have something that may be of interest to you.”
He then invited us on a walking tour of the Lotus works, showing us the modern engineering department a large, circular affair with desks on ascending levels like an amphitheater. We lingered at the main entrance where Emerson Fittipaldi’s “John Player Special” Formula 1 car, flanked by Wilson Fittipaldi’s matching Formula 3 car, were displayed. We continued on to the Parts Department (of course!), the assembly area (black JPS Europas), the test track (more black Europas), a glimpse of Colin Chapman’s silver Mercedes 450SLC in a carport (he was out of the country), and the engine manufacturing room (a remarkably quiet, automated facility with almost no human presence).
It was at the back of this room where Mr. Doherty said, “Here we are,” as we passed through a temporary wall. “We’d like to sell this car as we want to take down the wall, and use this storage space to expand the engine room.” The lights came on, and there sat an orange Lotus 61 Formula Ford.
He explained the car we were viewing had been shown on the Lotus stand at several 1969 international motor shows (Brussels, Johannesburg, Paris, and London were mentioned). He said it was displayed along with Formula 1 cars to show the range of Lotus competition cars and, because it was always shipped by air, the engine and gearbox had no internals to save weight.
Everything was shiny and new, chromed suspension, Lotus emblems in the center of each wheel, immaculate ¬ and, in a trial sitting, it was comfortable! I started to ask questions and, in sum, he said the engine and gearbox were the only two components requiring attention prior to adding fluids, a Varley battery, and testing. (Testing! I liked the sound of that, but how could I afford such a machine on a captain’s pay? And what about engine and gearbox internals?)
We returned to the engine room where, under a metal-covered counter, there resided three brand new Holbay-Ford dry sumped engines with dyno sheets attached. “You could pick one of these, and we have some matching Hewlands from which to choose, as well.” (And I’m thinking: does he think all Yanks are rich? Why is Judi so quiet? What have I gotten myself into on a captain’s pay?)
Soon, we were sitting at Mr. Doherty’s desk in that circular engineering room, which he said was designed so everyone could see his counterparts and communicate with them directly without the use of intercoms or walking about various walled offices. (It became obvious this was no ordinary parts man!) The moment of truth had arrived ¬ we were going to talk price, and I dreaded being embarrassed due to inadequate funds. Mr. Doherty excused himself “to check some invoices” relative to the Holbay and Hewland units, and Judi and I chatted about how we would gracefully exit from this wonderful experience with a bit of dignity intact.
Our host eventually returned, made some penciled notes, and handed me the total: Seven Hundred and Fifty Pounds Sterling for a new Lotus 61, Holbay engine, and Hewland gearbox. (Out with the calculator: about $1,850 (1972) U.S. dollars! For a whole new kit? Could that be right??) With my head spinning, I mumbled something about needing time to discuss the issue with Judi and think it over, and we were politely escorted to our waiting Mini.
The next day, we found ourselves driving along a blustery coastline, and I wasn’t noticing much because my mind was on the previous day and what seemed the bargain of a lifetime. The next day, the Mini bounded back to Hethel, the gate guard waved us through, and kindly Mr. Doherty was waiting to say, “Yes, the Lotus 61 was still available; yes, I could choose the accompanying engine and gearbox which I did. (Engine # LH232 and Gearbox # LC424.) and, yes, they could arrange three separate shipments of car, engine, and gearbox.
The reminder of our English touring and flight back to Ankara was a blur, and I kept wondering if I had done the right thing, how the logistics of shipments could be handled, if my Formula Vee mechanical and driving experience would be transferable to such a machine, and so on.
A few days later in Ankara, I received a phone call from Mr. Doherty who informed me that “Emerson’s team is lying fallow this week and they wondered if it would be alright if they assembled your Lotus 61 and tested it on our track prior to shipment as sort of a lark.” Of course, I agreed!
The following weeks passed slowly as, bit by bit, administrative details concerning the car fell into place. Because I had shipped car to Turkey and was able to sell it there due to my diplomatic status, I still had authorization to send a car back to the U.S. at government expense. After much lobbying and cajoling of officialdom, I was granted authorization to ship a car from England (rather than Turkey) under the guise of cost savings. As stated in the shipping documents and my letter exchanges with Mr. Doherty (Which contain added details), a Lotus employee (who also raced Formula Ford) agreed to take my Lotus to the docks on his trailer and act as my agent with the shipping company at minimum charge.
In December 1972, I was transferred to the Pentagon, and the Lotus arrived at the docks in Norfolk, VA, shortly thereafter. With a rented trailer, we arrived at the deserted facility and, seemingly from nowhere, a half-dozen workmen walked up and one asked (while eying the trailer), “Is you here to pick up dat race car?” I asked if it was still in one piece, and they told me they had hand-pushed it off the ship and placed it in a small chain-link enclosure to protect it.
After a short walk, this curious and friendly band watched me lift a beautiful new fitted car cover (British racing green with a day-glow orange panel across the back, presumably to enhance visibility) to find an unblemished orange Lotus. In the cockpit rested a spare orange-tinted windscreen, and a small box with “Lotus 61MX Kit” written on it. Pleased with the condition, the friendly crew helped push the car into the trailer, and waved us goodbye.
Until September 1973, the car sat in the basement of our new home in Virginia, where I often marveled at the meticulous workmanship, the safety wiring, and the fact that here sat a British car with no leaks! Because I was working six (sometimes seven) days a week at the Pentagon, there was no time or spare funds to race. So, without ever even starting the car, I placed an ad in Autoweek (then a newspaper), and sold the car to Lyle and Dick Freemen (father and son), who said they wanted the car to display in their small museum. Judging by their size (neither tried to sit in the car), I believed them. Sale price: $3250.
Now it’s almost thirty years later, and a picture of that Lotus has always been on my garage wall everywhere we served, and now in our retirement home. In recent years, vintage racing has developed into a useful venue for such cars, and I wish I had been able to keep Lotus 61 #222 an impossibility in a nomadic military career. In 1999, I contacted the Lotus Registry to see if there was any record of #222. Receiving no reply, I purchased and spent two years restoring a 1977 Lola T-328 SuperVee for vintage racing with the Society of Vintage Race Enthusiasts (SOVREN).
In November 2002, I received a surprising and delightful call from John Mihalich, new steward of the Lotus Formula Ford Register, who found my earlier inquiry and put me in contact with the current owners of #222. The history of the car continues
Last vintage raced in May, 2016. Still has its long, original nose, bodywork. To see current photos of the car, you can go to:
This is probably the least expensive significant Lotus racing car available anywhere. It would be a great addition for any Lotus collection, and will likely never be seen near this price again.
Chassis Number: 61-FF-222