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May 31, 2016

Best Car I Ever Owned

Lotus 7 in an olive grove in Cadaquez, Spain. By this time it had headlamps: the right
was a foglight and served as low beam, on high beam the left spotlight would come on in
addition to aid in night-time visibility. Note tiny marker lights that were original lighting.
Inside fiberglass nose you can see oil cooler, air horns and electric fan. Car was always
a trial to cool in traffic. Front fenders didn’t do a lot for spray suppression. The license
plate had an attitude, too. And that’s me, a little younger.

I think I bought it for GB pounds 600 (just $860).

It was a clubman’s racer Lotus 7. Like all the 7s it was very simple.

A spaceframe and monocoque combination with riveted aluminum over a steel spaceframe structure that weighed about 300 pounds was the chassis. 

Power was by a Cosworth pushrod Ford four-cylinder at 1558 cc displacement  – the same displacement as the twin-cam Lotus Cortina I owned immediately before this – and another exceptional car I wish I could afford again!

Except, because the 7 was a genuine clubman’s race car, it was a dry-sump genuine Cosworth motor with two side-draft twin-choke 42DCOE Webers, ported head, header exhaust and a Cosworth RSC camshaft.

The cam was an 80-40-40-80 grind from a Cosworth SCA OHC engine that was the de rigeur motor for Formula 2 open wheel racers back then. And we are talking 1969. The camshaft overlap would see flame out of the exposed carburetor inlets, sticking out of the left side of the hood. 

The driveability of the car was awful as it was way too cammy for the road use I intended. And the fuel economy was ridiculous, so I switched out the camshaft for the Formula 3 Cosworth RSA engine after a couple of weeks.

The RSA grind was way better for bigger displacements than the 1000 cc of Formula 3 back then, but it was still a monster. It was still so cammy it would break the Dunlop race drive tires loose in second gear as the revs came on to 5000. And in the close ratio Ford-Lotus gearbox from the Lotus Cortina racers of the day, that would be speeds in the 50s.

In the wet, it was a beast. The peaky camshaft would spin the drive tires as it came on the cam in top gear – about 90 mph! Bear in mind the car only weighed 1300 pounds. But it was the best handling car you can imagine. Set up with all kinds of negative camber on the 5.5-inch R6 shod front wheels, it was neutral into a corner at neutral throttle.

So at a roundabout – there were and still are lots of them in the UK – entry on a trailing throttle would bring oversteer and a step out for the rear even though there were big Dunlop racing R6s on 7.5 inch rims. The oversteer would translate into opposite lock though a touch of steering through the apex of the roundabout and then power-out on opposite lock coming off the roundabout. The 7 was a hugely satisfying – and enormously forgiving – car to drive very fast.

The suspension was responsible for this: coil spring and wishbone up front and an A frame to the base of the diff with coil-over shocks at the rear giving a downward sloping roll center toward the rear. Just like the ’65 Lotus Cortina I had so recently abandoned. That was an equally incredibly balanced car that could be flung at corners, not just driven round. The best thing is that it would always pick up the inside front wheel in a corner to give a few more feet of road space through the apex of a corner!

But back to the 7, because it was a race car, it had no lights and a straight exhaust on the passenger side exiting ahead of the rear wheel. I fixed all that. Back then in the UK, there was no legal requirement for headlamps (driving lights) so I fixed up marker lights front on the cycle fenders and rear on the aluminum flares that replaced the original fiberglass fenders so the lowered rear suspension had sufficient clearance.

That was part of the rewire I did when stripping and rebuilding the car, chroming the suspension, painting it a puce color instead of the Lotus green with yellow stripe. It had no ignition switch, either. You just flipped the switch for the ignition, the next toggle for the electric fuel pump, and then pressed the starter solenoid up under the dash.

The exhaust fix was easy. I just made up a can that looked like a muffler and welded it around the straight-pipe exhaust. It looked legal, but on a still night in rural Essex, a friend said he heard me coming from five miles away.

Driving at night was a challenge with no headlights. At the time I was working for Ford Motor Co, based at the Transit plant in Southampton, but I’d spend weekends back in my home base in Wimbledon, South London. So Sundays would find me heading back to the south coast on unlit pre-motorway A-roads. The trick was to poodle along till something faster would overtake, then tuck in behind till something faster came along and then tuck in behind that.

One night the last to overtake was a spiritedly driven Honda S800 – remember them – and I tucked in and followed like a limpet. Each time he’d overtake, I’d hang back till the road was clear than blast up behind again.

Eventually I ran out of gas. As a race car, the 7 only had a 4-gallon gas tank and no fuel gauge, but I always had a gallon can tucked into a special location in the rear spaceframe. So I cruised to a stop and pulled out the gas can. Meanwhile, the Honda stopped, then backed down to where I was and the driver jumped out.

“I wondered what the hell that was,” he said, or words similar. “All I could see in the mirror were these two little lights dancing and bobbing around. Then I’d pass a car and the lights would disappear until there was a shattering roar and those lights would be in the mirror again.”

I drove that 7 everywhere. On evening, backing into a parking slot in Montmartre, Paris, there was a bang from the rear and that was that. The car had a steel, small diameter race clutch that was all or nothing, and in backing up, I had broken a half shaft in the Standard 10 rear axle (Yes: Standard! It was a Triumph small car of the time and the axle Colin Chapman chose for the 7).

I arranged shipment back to the UK and while I was waiting for the 7 to appear at my doorstep in London I happened on a Standard 10 upended in a ditch while on a weekend in Sussex.  It was the work of minutes to pull both half-shafts from this wreck – fortunate, because only a month after replacing the first broken half shaft, the other let go and I had a replacement ready to install!

Eventually I tired of the lack of heater, wind whistling in through ill-fitting side curtains (there were no doors) and rain coming in from every pore. So I built a beach buggy. Never mind there were no sandy beaches in UK to drive upon. But I did take it to the Sahara Desert, and there’s a BIG beach there! And that’s another story.

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