Lotus 15

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Lotus 15

1958 - 1959
United Kingdom
4 cyl. Climax / BMC
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5 star
Lotus 15
Reviewed by Unique Cars and Parts
Our Rating: 5


It was Lotus's most powerful sports car of the late 1950s, with the still-stretching Coventry Climax twin-cam four of either 1.5 or 2.0 litres as a power-plant, and a compact Chapman/Costin chassis (just 60 cm high at the scuttle) controlling the trajectory. While probably not more than 30 Fifteens were built in all (Series One and Two in 1958, and about six of the Series Three in 1959), they were very successful machines in short-distance UK racing, in the hands of private owners as well as works drivers.

And so they should have been. With a dry weight of 445 kg (980 lb, or 8.6 cwt in those days) the Fifteen offered 140 pre-Metric horsepower and 112 Ib-ft of torque in 1.5-litre form, or about 170 horsepower and 160 Ib-ft as'a two-litre, in a chassis which got its power to the ground very well indeed. Thus during 1958, especially in the more flexible two-litre form, well-driven Fifteens left D-type Jaguars astern, and would only be challenged for outright victories by works Listers and Aston Martins of nearly twice the capacity.

Yet major successes - long-distance races like Le Mans or the Tourist Trophy, where the earlier Elevens had scored some notable wins - eluded the Fifteen in Europe, and its career as a front-line contender was fading by the 1960 season. But what was wilting in Europe was beginning to blossom in Australia. Three Fifteens - a surprising number, considering the small total production - found their way here, and led amazingly long and successful racing lives. The three were: chassis 608, imported by Derek Jolly in 1958; 609, imported by Ann Thomson in 1961; and 623, imported by Leaton Motors in 1959.

Each car carved a place for itself in Australian racing history of the 1960s - 608 taking the-then Australian Lotus agent Derek Jolly to some classic sports-car wins, then rebounding into prominence driven by young Bevan Gibson; 609 racing for eight years straight in Queensland and - like 608 in Gibson's hands - defying the rear-engine brigade, in this case with Glynn Scott at the wheel; and 632, the ultimate Cannonball, rocketing Frank Matich to stardom.

The Difference Between The Fifteens

The very first Fifteens differed from all later ones in having the engine laid over some 60 degrees to starboard, permitting a perfectly flat (and aesthetically stunning) bonnet line between the wheel arches, albeit at the cost of available space for any diagonal bracing for the top of the engine bay. In all other ways, the early Series One cars did not noticeably differ from the finalised Series One. Derek Jolly's car, as landed in 1958, arrived in the later Series One form, whereas Ann Thomson's - originally owned by John Coombs and raced by Roy Salvadori - was built with an inclined engine.

The chassis of the Fifteen was a 30 kg space-frame in 18 and 20 gauge mild steel; it was of elegant simplicity, and reminiscent of the concurrent Lotus 16 GP car. While this was the era of "Team Shambles" in Lotus racing, the actual design of the cars was shrewd indeed, with the 15 and 16 having many components in common. In the case of the front suspension (with wishbones incorporating the anti-roll bar as the front half of the top A-arm) components were common with the Series Two Elevens, the Sevens, the Elite and the Formula Two 12. The 15 and 16 also shared the variations in engine inclination, and of course shared the Chapman-strut rear suspension principle, although the wider chassis of the 15 required that the radius arm be shorter, and cranked into an S-shape - a necessary violation of the designer's creed of straight tubes.

Like the smaller-capacity Eleven, the Fifteen was available with either wire or cast-magnesium 15-inch wheels, which (again like the Eleven) had the same rim width front and rear. On the 1958 cars, this width was a mere four inches, carrying 4.50 front and 5.50 rear tyres. Possibly the 1959 cars ran four-and-a-halves, but (at least in the case of chassis 623) widths were still the same front and rear. The wide-tyre revolution was still some years away, and Chapman's primary concern until at least 1960 was minimisation of unsprung weight by keeping both wheel and tyre as small as possible. Despite its small overall size, the Fifteen had the standard Lotus track and wheelbase of the day - that is, in units of that period, 88-inch wheelbase and just under 48-inch track. These dimensions had been established with the Eleven, and were used with the Seven, the Twelve, and the Sixteen.

Carried over from the 12 was the somewhat controversial Lotus five-speed gearbox, a thing of Swiss-watch subtlety and elegance, but still of doubtful reliability nearly a year after its introduction. Rear-mounted, in unit with the differential, it carried its five ratios in less than nine cm (3 1/2 inches) of length, with the output gears fixed on the long differential pinion shaft, and the input gears spinning free until progressively selected by a migrating spline which was itself splined to the tailshaft. This gearbox was very much the Achilles Heel of the Fifteen, and in fact substitution of the less-subtle, but infinitely more reliable, BMC B-series gearbox bolted to the engine, and of the proven Lotus Elite diff-case, distinguished the Series Two cars introduced later in 1958.

Graham Hill in Lotus Works 15
Graham Hill in one of the early works Lotus 15s, pictured at Silverstone in May 1958 - where he won a short Under-1500cc sports car event.

Derek Jolly's Lotus 15 on the Bathurst grid, October 1958
Derek Jolly's Lotus 15 on the Bathurst grid, October 1958.

Glyn Scott pictured in Ann Thomson's 1500cc Ford-engined Series I Fifteen
Glyn Scott pictured in Ann Thomson's 1500cc Ford-engined Series I Fifteen, hammering through the BP sweeper at Lowood.

Frank Matich behind the wheel of an ex-works 2,5 litre Series III Lotus 15, at Warwick Farm
Frank Matich behind the wheel of an ex-works 2,5 litre Series III Lotus 15, at Warwick Farm.

Lotus 15 Series 3 with body off, showing gearbox mountings from a tube across the floor
Lotus 15 Series 3 with body off, showing gearbox mountings from a tube across the floor.

Lotus 72 in action at Brands Hatch Race of Champions
Lotus 15 front suspension setup.

Modifications to the Coventry Climax Engine

At the start it was the engines that gave the biggest headaches. For Lotus aficionados it is almost heresy to consider what Lotus committed on those early engines, and the engineers at Coventry Climax undoubtedly felt the same way. To accommodate the inclined engine, one of the dry-sump scavenge pumps was discarded and the other modified, and the sump itself was drastically reshaped; the inlet ports were counterbored to take spigots for the manifolding, which had to incorporate a 30-degree droop. No matter how hard Climax tried (and to give them their due, they tried hard) the inclined engine was about nine horsepower short of upright-engine figures, and suffered cooling and oiling problems.

None of these things was happening to the FPF engine in rival Coopers, so for Le Mans Lotus bit on the bullet and produced two cars (a 1.5 and a two-litre) with engines inclined a mere 17 degrees the other way - just one degree different to the Cooper! This gave the upright-engined Fifteens a distinctively long and slim bonnet-blister which was reputedly damaging aerodynamically, but the reliability must have been some compensation. Apart from a continuing series of enlargements to the water and oil cooling radiators, the 1958 Fifteen had been finalised.

The Lotus 15 Series III

For 1959, the Series Three car was announced, offering a simpler chassis mainly resulting from re-positioning the front anti-roll bar to become the rear link - instead of the front - in the top wishbone. Engine position, and the important diagonal across the top of the engine bay, carried on from the upright-engine 1958 car. A small change was visible in the cockpit, where the Series Three now had two small down-tubes from the dash, meeting a transverse tube which ran across the floor, whereas the earlier Fifteens had relied solely on the stressed tailshaft cover to strengthen the floor and to provide gearbox mounting for the B-series box.

Press pictures of the 1959 car show it with the BMC gearbox but at least two cars were built with the very compact, front-mounted ZF S4-12 all-synchro four-speed box, and another had a unique development of the Lotus five-speeder which carried the gears astern of the differential. The existence of at least two ZF-gearbox cars can be supported because there were two such cars in Australasia - one the Leaton Motors 2.5-litre car, the other a 2.0-litre which went to New Zealand for 19-year old Jim Palmer. A unique five-speed box was fitted to Derek Jolly's car. That raises the question of how a 1959 gearbox found its way into a 1958 car. The answer involves what is probably the most contentious item of Fifteen history.

Chassis 608

Jolly's car, chassis 608, was one of the two Fifteens that Team Lotus ran at the 1958 Le Mans. One was a 1.5-litre, the other a 2.0 which caused quite a stir with its fast practice laps, but which retired embarrassingly early (blown head gasket) in the race itself. The 1.5, shared by the American Lotus drivers Jay Chamberlain and Pete Lovely, went well in patches between pit stops, and became one of the victims of violent rainstorms during the night when it crashed avoiding a slower car and was in turn centre-punched by a spinning Ferrari.

The sparse published information of the period merely notes that Jolly bought "an ex-Le Mans car", but considering the damage the 1.5-litre car suffered, and the very original appearance of his car when it turned up at Bathurst in October 1958, it may be reasonable to conclude Jolly had bought the two-litre chassis and had a 1.5 engine fitted. Jolly's approach to his racing - do it right, do it reliably - also hints that he may have preferred the smaller-capacity engine anyway, both as a stepping-stone from the 1100 single-cam Climax used in his Decca Special, and also as a gentler companion for the Lotus-12-type gearbox which is what his car used at that stage.

In that 1958 race it was reported that Jolly drove a controlled race and that he finished second - not a bad effort considering the event was won after a great drive by MacKay in his ex-works DB3-S. Next day, Jolly scored his first win, walking away with the sportscar support race to the memorable Davison/Jones/Gray duel in the Australian Grand Prix. It was a very impressive start. Reports then show that it all came crashing down at Albert Park, when Jolly put the car heavily into a tree, causing severe injuries to himself, and smashing the car badly. It was reported at the time that he had been suffering from exhaust fumes from a broken tailpipe, and there was also indication that a rear radius arm tore out from the chassis. But whatever the story, the car - having shone brightly in a very brief period - had come to a comprehensive stop.

Re-building Chassis 608

So back the wreck went to the factory, and chassis 608 did not run in Australia again until late 1959. There is no doubt items of the crashed car were incorporated in the rebuild, but no doubt either that the opportunity was taken to use Series Three features wherever possible. Externally, the most easily recognised is the later style of bonnet, which extended right to the dashboard and carried the centre section of the carefully-curved perspex screen - whereas Series Ones and Twos had a shorter bonnet and a separate scuttle panel, very much in the style of Lotus Elevens.

The Jolly car in rebuilt form also had a very different style of engine bulge - wider based, more gently curved, and open at both ends. There may have been areodynamic reasons for this, but as well the engine under the bulge was now a late-series two-litre, with the taller and far stronger 2.5-litre block and bottom end. Additionally, the original five-speed gearbox - in which the gears were carried just ahead of the differential - had been replaced by a new design, with the gears astern of the crown-wheel and pinion, but on the same fore-and-aft centreline. This meant gears could be swapped far more easily, and it was announced this box would be an option for sports cars. In fact, it seems likely that only the one box was ever built, although the same principles were used - in a slightly different casing - for Grand Prix Lotus 18s, and the closely-related Lotus 19 sports car.

Running at Le Mans

Team Lotus had, earlier in 1959, announced its intention to contest Le Mans with a pair of customer-owned 2.5-litre Fifteens. But this was a time when Lotus resources were spread very thin, an illustration being that only one Fifteen arrived at Le Mans, and that with two-litre engine; the first appearance of the rebuilt Jolly car, still carrying its original chassis number. So the Jolly car emerges as the real 1959 Le Mans 2.5-litre, an identity which has on occasion been claimed for the Leaton Motors car. Jolly's car is probably also the only Lotus other than an Elite or two to have ever contested more than one Le Mans race. And for 1959 Jolly shared the car with Graham Hill.

The two-litre engine was replaced with a Lotus-owned 2.5 after the first practice session, and the untested gearbox showed itself keen to unscrew the nut on the end of the pinion shaft because this shaft now rotated in the opposite direction to previous gearboxes. Nonetheless, despite these indications of haste, the car survived practice and in fact ran for more than 10 hours of the race. Graham Hill at one stage had the car as high as seventh outright - before its habit of jumping out of gear caught co-driver Jolly at 120 mph, changing up to fifth on the very fast run to Arnage. In traditional Climax fashion, number four rod hacked the block almost in half, and demolished the starter-motor for good measure.

The Derek Jolly car went on to became a never-say-die racer; first for Jolly, then for the young Bevan Gibson, and into the 1970s for the other Gibson brothers. Having finished second in the 1958 Tourist Trophy, Jolly then ran the rebuilt car in the 1960 race at Longford and won, sharing fastest lap with Whiteford's 300S Maserati. This was one of Jolly's last races with the car, and one of his greatest successes. Another was his 1962 win in the Caversham Six-Hour race where a report noted that the car's restrained motoring reflected "some differential trouble, but not serious enough to retire." Jolly put the car up for sale, and had the accomplished Frank Coad run it at occasional Victorian meetings to keep it visible. An indication of how thoroughly the sports-racing scene had changed was that a buyer did not come along until late in 1964.

The buyer was Hoot Gibson, a longtime Victorian motor sport identity, who bought the car for his son Bevan as the next stage in a motor racing career which had started with karts and then a Triumph Spitfire. Bevan had just two races with the car before end-for-ending it five times at Warwick Farm in a highly spectacular crash which left him unhurt on the grass as his car somersaulted onwards. Two months later the car reappeared at The Farm, and Gibson won race from the back of the grid. That was the start of a period in which the Gibson team campaigned the car at virtually every available Victorian and NSW meeting until the end of 1968. Engine capacity stretched to 2.3 litres, which put small-capacity lap records out of consideration, while the Over 2.0-litre class was by then the territory of the big V8 cars, so that outright and class wins were relatively few, although the car held the Phillip Island sports lap record for many years.

The vigorous racing left its mark: the bodywork was progressively hacked about to repair minor damage and to accommodate wider rims and tyres, and the gearbox - of course - needed a lot of repairing. But by the time the car was retired in early 1969 it had served its purpose of getting Bevan a faster drive, with the Bob Jane team. It was tragic that very shortly afterwards Bevan Gibson was killed in Jane's Elfin 400, during a drive at Bathurst which had showed his really impressive talent and heart.

Chassis 609

Having again failed at Le Mans, the car was returned to the factory (now moved from the cramped Hornsey site to a large factory in Cheshunt) to be readied to continue an Australian career so its reputation could be recovered. Jolly's two-litre engine was fitted, and the car was shipped to Australia on the same boat which carried the Palmer two-litre. Sister car (at least originally) to Jolly's 608 was the two-litre bought by UK enthusiast John Coombs for Roy Salvadori to drive. This car - 609 - is shown in all its UK photographs to have the flat bonnet line which distinguished the early Fifteens with 60-degree inclined engines, and the fact that its chassis number is one later than the Jolly car raises the possibility 608 may originally have had a 60-degree engine too, but had been modified prior to Le Mans.

That in turn would indicate 608 had some UK racing history, which 609 - the Coombs car - certainly did. It was not as unsuccessful as the two-litre Fifteen that Team Lotus was then running, but Salvadori put 609 amongst the top privately-entered Fifteens in 1958, and the car, distinctive in its all-white paint with blue stripes fore-and-aft over each wheel-arch, was even used to illustrate Lotus advertisements of the time. There's little doubt that originally this car used the 12-type five-speed gearbox. This is indicated by the car's specification when it arrived in Australia in 1961, the chassis in the area of the differential modified to accept the Series Two-style Elite diff case, but with basic tubing still in place to show where the fragile five-speed gearbox differential had been. When this very tidy modification was done isn't known, nor is the car's history between 1958 and 1961, when it arrived, still in Coombs colors but with a very ordinary 105E Ford engine and gearbox, to start yet another Lotus Fifteen second life in Queensland.

Chassis 609 started its Australian racing modestly, as befitted its cooking 105E Ford engine, and owner Ann Thomson often had mere males driving the car. Nonetheless, she won a minor race in 1962, and co-driver Alan Reed another in 1961. An indication of what the 105E could really do was that Frank Matich, attending Lakeside to lecture a driver's school, took Ann Thomson around in the passenger seat of her Fifteen more than six seconds faster than she had until then managed. Top Queensland driver Glynn Scott then got involved with the car, and significantly changed its history. First, the very strong pushrod Cosworth Ford from his Lotus 27 was dropped in during 1964, almost doubling the power. Second, Scott himself was offered some of the driving, and against the then-new shoals of rear-engined Lotus 23s he went exceptionally well, often finishing ahead of the not-so-quick-23s, and sometimes winning outright.

Queensland Motor Sporting Club's Driver of the Year

Ann Thomson went faster and faster, winning (amongst other events) the last-ever race at historic Lowood in October 1966 and being probably the only woman ever to lap this very fast circuit in less than two minutes. Her pinnacle with the car was 1968, when numerous placings, including two wins at Lakeside in September, brought her Queensland Motor Sporting Club's "Driver of the Year" award. It was after the September meeting that Glynn Scott persuaded her to fit a roll-bar and harness, and only a fortnight later the Fifteen tangled with a slower car at Lakeside, overturned, and was very badly damaged. Mrs Thomson was unhurt, but the Fifteen did not race again.

This was a sad, but suitably heroic end for the car's career. It had been racing continuously since 1957, and had admittedly become, as Mrs Thomson put it: "so tired in so many places". Still, it had remained a highly competitive car through to the end of the 1966 season. "He (Glynn Scott) loved that car," Mrs Thomson said, and it's not hard to understand why. Kingaroy farmer Allan Swenson bought the wreck and straightened the chassis most successfully, but was eventually persuaded to sell the project.

Chassis 623

Chassis 623 was built in 1959 as a works Fifteen Series Three, and had one of the-then very scarce 2.5-litre Coventry Climax FPF engines and the ZF four-speed gearbox which was at that time becoming an option in the Elite coupe. Just as a passing note on Lotus interchangeability at that time, the standard Elite box was the BMC B-series unit, the same unit introduced along with an Elite differential case in the Series-Two Fifteens. This 2.5-litre car was briefly among the kings of short-distance UK sports car racing. It had one memorable race against Jack Brabham in a 2.0-litre Cooper Monaco at Aintree, and won, and must have left the traditional Jaguar-powered opposition feeling very breathless. Second was Alan Stacey in another works Fifteen with ZF and a two-litre engine, which probably became the Palmer car.

Leaton Motors bought 623 late in 1959 for Frank Matich to drive, and announcement of George Leaton's acquisition upset some of the Australian Gold Star brigade, who were finding 2.5-litre engines very difficult to get for their Coopers. They might have felt a little better to learn that the car arrived with a highly interim 214 which lacked the main-bearing cross-bolting which was almost crucial for engine reliability. But it was this car, in its sponsor's unexciting cream and black paintwork, which quickly became the most impressive Fifteen of all. With Matich driving, and the 2.5 Climax delivering about 240 horsepower and more than 210 ft-lb of torque, it was a cannonball indeed. Number 623 made its debut at Easter Bathurst, 1960.

Matich didn't in fact race the car for very long. Leaton's number two driver, the very smooth Johnny Martin, took over late in 1961 when Matich's even-faster Lotus 19 was looming. The 2.5-litre Fifteen had been meant as a front-line car, but with the arrival of rear-engine sports cars its brief dominance was eclipsed. Nonetheless, Matich drove 623 to win (amongst other events) the Victorian and NSW sports car championships in 1960, and Warick Farm's Little Le Mans 23-lapper in 1961, where he beat Still-well's 2.5-litre Cooper Monaco. Interestingly, Stillwell's best lap at Bathurst in October 1961 (when the Fifteen suffered a seized differential) was 4.8 sees slower than Matich's 2m 40.1s lap record from that Easter. Moreover, when Martin beat Stillwell at the Farm in 1962, Matich's record there (1:46.3) was a second and a half faster than Stillwell's best in pursuit of Martin.

Dropping In An Olds V8

The writing was on the wall with Matich's new Farm record early in 1962 - 1:44.6 with the Nineteen. Matich didn't finish and Stillwell beat Martin. The Fifteen's last victory as a front-line car was Sandown in March 1962, where Martin not merely beat Stillwell, but set a new lap record in 1:16.1. What a way to go. This Fifteen had won about two dozen races in two years, and set lap records on every circuit it visited. With that history established, it was understandable that the car's next owner, Sydney's Mick Crampton, was a bitterly disappointed man by the time he sold the car after fruitless searching for reliability. Next owner was Town & Country engineering's John Schroder, another skilled tuner-driver, who installed an alloy Oldsmobile V-8 with suitably startling results and actually finished some races, although not without another rear suspension breakage.

By the end of 1966 it was clear the car's handling was quite severely limited against wider-wheeled rear-engine opposition. Rather than cut the car about, the decision was made that Alice (as the Fifteen had become known at TACE) would be gracefully retired. Care having been taken not to butcher the chassis when the Oldsmobile was fitted, it wasn't difficult to give Alice a TACE-rebuilt 1.5-litre Climax, and in that form the car was bought by Sydney's Mike Ryves.

All three Australian Fifteens went on to have remarkably long and successful careers, yet of the three the Leaton Motors car - on paper clearly the fastest of the three - was less successful than its legendary reputation might suggest. For one thing, it was inclined to be unreliable and missed out at two Bathurst meetings (including its 1960 debut, where it left Whiteford's Maserati 300S and Phillips' Cooper Jaguar well behind) and one Warwick Farm, with various rear suspension and differential failures, and the story that the tiny BMC A-series differentials were replaced between a practice and a race might well have been true.
Derek Jolly's Lotus 15 in the pits at Bathurst in October, 1958
Derek Jolly's Lotus 15 in the pits at Bathurst in October, 1958.

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