Car profiles

A life with Colin Chapman’s old Lotus Eleven

by Bob McKay
23 October 2023 4 min read
A life with Colin Chapman’s old Lotus Eleven
Bob McKay has had a half-century-long relationship with his Lotus Eleven, which was raced on both sides of the Atlantic before landing in his New York garage. Images: Jonathon Rudolph

I see cars at shows and on TV that have been really spruced up and chromed and look better than how they came out of the showroom. I like keeping a car the way it was, with all the little nicks and bumps. Anybody with enough money can fix a car up to be 100 per cent, but it takes the personality away from the car. It just becomes a piece of hardware. The fact that I can sit down in my Lotus Eleven and hold on to a steering wheel that Colin Chapman, Cliff Allison, Innes Ireland, and Gregor Grant held – that’s special.

This is perhaps the most-read-about Lotus Eleven ever, thanks to that last person – Gregor Grant. He was founder and editor of Autosport, the racing magazine, and drove this car in the 1957 Mille Miglia in Italy. After the race, he wrote and published “One Man’s Mille Miglia” in his magazine, and his article was also included as a chapter in Ian Smith’s book, The Story of Lotus.

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Colin Chapman Lotus Eleven rear three quarter

After the 1,000-mile race, the Eleven (chassis number 308) was quickly converted to single-seat/headrest configuration and a 1500-cc engine was added. It raced in 1957 as part of Allison’s Team Lotus. Lotus founder Chapman drove it, as did Ireland. It was a consistent first- or second-place finisher and in August, it took ninth place in the 2.0-litre class and 18th place overall in the six-hour Swedish Grand Prix.

In October 1957, Lotus listed it for sale. It wound up in the eastern United States, raced primarily by Warren Rohlfs and Francis “Frank” Macauley (who likely bought the car, although records for this period are thin). Both men were part of the Madison Avenue Sports Car Driving and Chowder Society, formed in early 1957. (Among the early members was a broadcaster named Walter Cronkite – a first-class driver who might very well have gone pro had he not chosen to pursue his other career instead.)

The car raced on East Coast tracks in this period – Thompson, Bridgehampton, Montgomery, and most of all, Lime Rock –but its entry record dries up after 1962. It likely failed to meet tightening SCCA safety requirements (such as a full-width roll bar). The car resurfaced in 1971, when Lotus’ American racing shop, located near Lime Rock, was approached by a woman enquiring how she might sell a Lotus Eleven she received as part of a divorce settlement.

Colin Chapman Lotus Eleven front three quarter black white
Chassis No. 308 saw action at many of the great East Coast racetracks during the golden era of sports car racing in the late 1950s and early 1960s. When McKay bought it from Lotus’ racing shop in 1971, his first task was to reassemble it. Image: Courtesy Bob McKay

In those days, I lived about an hour and a half from Lime Rock, in Monroe, New York. I was an art director for an advertising agency. I was also a big Lotus fan – I owned a Europa and an Esprit and was doing some work for the local Lotus dealership, including big illustrations that were displayed on their wall. The owner had heard about the fate of the Mille Miglia Eleven and connected me with Lotus Racing East. I went up there and, sure enough, the car was there – in pieces. Sections were hanging on a wall and the frame was sitting on a wooden horse.

For about a year, I kept in contact. Lotus evidently was having financial problems in America, and the shop was dwindling. We finally made a deal and I purchased the car. They promised to put it back together (it’s one thing to put together a car you’ve taken apart yourself, quite another to assemble one that someone else has taken apart) and deliver it to my house.

They came to my house with a flatbed truck that also had several new Lotuses that were being shipped someplace downstate in New York. My wife looked at the truck and asked, “Which one is yours?” I pointed to the old rolling chassis with the pile of boxes.

Colin Chapman Lotus Eleven interior

It took me maybe a year to put everything back together. The hardest part was welding the aluminium – few know how to do it and the panels on this car are very thin, so no one wanted to touch the project. After a long search, I found someone on a dairy farm in the boonies who could do it, because the milk container trucks are aluminum. Then I painted it, piece by piece.

Colin Chapman Lotus Eleven aero body

Lotus had been restoring the car, but they understood its history and the importance of keeping it original. The only thing they physically replaced was the bottom panel, which is one big sheet of aluminum.

The first time I drove it was at Lime Rock, on Memorial Day weekend. Coming into Lime Rock, you cross a bridge that goes over one of the straightaways. I heard a tremendous roar underneath me – a bunch of Can-Am cars were practicing for a race the next weekend, huge canary yellow and red monsters that looked like they were a block wide. My insides kind of sank. I got suited up for the next practice session and did a couple of laps with them, and that scared the daylights out of me. I quickly decided to spectate the rest of the day.

I did get back up there, though, and eventually I ended up joining the Vintage Sports Car Club of America. The most exciting races were at Watkins Glen, which is where I met Colin Chapman. Our cars were lined up, because we were the race just before the Formula 1 cars were going on, and Chapman said, “By Jove, that’s my old car!” He recognized her right away.

Colin Chapman Lotus Eleven engine

After more races (and a few more scares, particularly at the Meadowlands Grand Prix, where I drove in a torrential downpour), the car got put away and then moved up with me to Maine. I hold on to cars and don’t let them go. They become part of the family.

My dream was to drive it in the Mille Miglia. I spent months filling out all the paperwork, getting the car certified, and was in the process of getting shipping lined up. After sending in the approved paperwork, I was contacted by the officials: “We noticed from your application that you were born in 1940. We’re sorry, but you’re too old to qualify.” That was upsetting to me, since I’m pretty active – my wife and I have a large sailboat and we go sailing all through Maine for most of the summer. Still, my body would probably have hurt after three days of sitting on a sheetmetal seat.

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Comments

  • Nick Morton says:

    A lovely story, and another important piece of history saved from the boxes of bits graveyard.

  • Philip Lynes says:

    Thanks

  • Philip Lynes. says:

    Allways had respect for Colin Chapman.

  • John H Taylor says:

    I am a fan of the late Colin Chapman, in my early twenties wanted to buy a Super Seven could just about to afford the car but insurance !! Still have the manual for it, which if anybody interested is ready to move on.

  • Reddo says:

    Nice story…maybe could have got someone else to drive it in the MM – his wife 🙂

  • Jeremy Ray. says:

    Bob,
    You are a very lucky boy. Lotus history indeed. I see you live in Maine. I hope you never take that Gem out in a Maine winter. 😄 🇬🇧

  • Bryan Gore says:

    best looking lotus of all time! I have a elanm100 live in Spain Fab roads just right for your car. Plus the weather! Best of luck Bryan

  • Nigel Payne (in South Africa) says:

    I worked at Lotus in Hornsey N8 most of 1957 as a mechanic/draughtsman in the experimental department alongside Mike Costin, Keith Duckworth, Graham Hill and at times Colin himself. I’m pretty sure I worked on “your” car when it was driven by Colin or Cliff Allison. I eventually got to drive a Lotus 18 Formula Junior in the South African Grand Prix (non-world-championship) of late December 1960 which while totally outclassed, was a memorable experience. I still have the the full race lap time sheet for all entrants. I loved your article and am BritishRacingGreen with envy!

  • Simone Grant says:

    Such a lovely story, thank you. My father, Gregor Grant, had quite an adventure in the Lotus Eleven driving in the 1957 Mille Miglia and was always so sad and sorry that it ended in devastation.
    I think that because of the split in the petrol tank when it had been badly riveted, Colin Chapman introduced a honeycomb protection tank to his later models. Basically my Dad was sitting in a pool of petrol and had a very sore backside. Fortunately he remembered the Italian for Petrol as helpful people, with lit cigarettes ran towards him.
    I am so happy that the Eleven is in good hands.
    Best wishes
    Simone Grant

  • Keith Whiting says:

    Very interesting article. Thanks

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