Did this one-off Lotus Six signpost the way forward for Colin Chapman?

| 21 Aug 2013

As befitted a surgeon at Paddington General Hospital, Dr John Richard Kenyon – Ian to friends and family – appears to have been a methodical man. In 1953, he decided to have a sports car tailor-made to his requirements, something more modern than the 1933 Frazer Nash he then owned. The motoring magazines were carefully read. A description of the HRG twin-cam conversion of the Singer engine was snipped out; so too was an article on Bertone’s BAT 5 streamliner. Catalogues and price-lists came from British specialist makers.

Buckler sent details of its tubular frames, independent front suspension and close-ratio gearboxes. Kenyon pencilled in calculations based on a Ford Ten engine, costed for different Buckler models. Information on Aquaplane tuning gear and Amal carbs was studied. Various units were compared: a Ford Ten in standard, tuned and blown forms, plus the MG XPAG as a standard 1250 and in 85bhp, 1467cc guise. Alongside, he noted figures for the HRG twin-cam and – as a yardstick – a competition-tune 1500cc Porsche flat-four. 

By September 1953, Kenyon had requested MG’s Special Tuning booklet from Abingdon and made contact with Colin Chapman at his newly formed Lotus firm. His mind was made up: his car would be based on the Lotus Six, which had entered production in late 1952, and it would have a tuned MG engine. It would, however, be more modern than the Lotus in its appearance, with an all-enveloping body to his own design. Not only that, but it would have a de Dion rear axle, again to a configuration laid down by Kenyon.

Lotus Sixes were bodied by Williams & Pritchard, so the construction of the car was brokered by ‘ACBC’ himself, Chapman quoting a price of £160 for panelling the Six’s tubular frame – £100 more than the standard body – with additional materials taking the total cost of the body to £184 10s, on top of the £110 charged for the spaceframe. In March ’54 Kenyon provided drawings to HWM for the construction of the de Dion rear, for which HWM’s John Heath had quoted £100-125 – a fair slice of the calculated £827 total cost. After correspondence with Harold Lester, Kenyon instead plumped for Laystall to do the engine work, the over-bored 1467cc unit featuring a balanced Laystall crank and flywheel, with a Laystall-Lucas cylinder head. This was pretty state-of-the-art stuff for the XPAG engine.

Who built up Lotus Six chassis 18 is uncertain. It seems likely, though, that final assembly was essentially by Ian Kenyon and his brother Alistair. Certainly there are signs of other, less-skilled hands than those of the craftsmen at Williams & Pritchard. The original fuel tank, for example, was just a five-gallon can, and other crude details are numberplates hand-cut from alloy and a wood panel to hold the fuel pumps steady, while all of the wiring is in black and red rather than properly colour-coded. 

In whatever fashion things came to pass, in October 1955 the car was duly registered, with documention showing that by the following year – if not before – Kenyon was a member of Club Lotus. So was the Six destined for a career in the cheery, informal world of ’50s club racing? It is difficult to think why else Kenyon would have initiated the project. Yet the car barely turned a wheel. It was re-taxed in 1956. Black paint was ordered for the body in 1957, but never applied. The car was re-taxed for a final time in 1960. Thereafter it remained in storage. When re-discovered at the end of the ’80s, rusted to its axle stands, it had 50 miles on the clock. 

Having spent approaching Triumph TR2 money on a bespoke sports car, why Dr Kenyon never used the Lotus is lost in the mists of time – and attempts to find out by current owner Jack Taylor have not thrown up any convincing answer. Taylor, a long-term Lotus enthusiast who raced a tweaked Caterham for many years, was tipped off about the car in 1989: “A chap I knew came to me and said ‘My wife knows a lady who cleans the house for a surgeon in Shepperton and he has a Lotus that he might sell. Would you be interested?’. Having discovered that it was a Six, I went to this house. There were a couple of miles of narrow-gauge railway track in the garden and three double garages – one for a turntable, the others full of locos and wagons. There were even steam engines in the house. 

“Thinking the car would be an ordinary Six, when I saw it my face fell. I thought ‘Oh – it’s not a Six at all’. I didn’t realise what I was looking at. It took a year of gentle persuasion before Kenyon sold it to me in 1990. As to why it was never used, all he said was ‘Because I was a surgeon, messing with cars on a Sunday and going into work on Monday with grease under my fingernails would not have been good for my career’. I think it was just something he’d done – something in the past – although the fact that he took some persuading to sell was perhaps proof that he was fond of it.”

Since then Taylor has recommissioned and steadily improved the Lotus, resisting any temptation to over-titivate and destroy its delicious patina. After some ribbing by Lotus Six registrar Charles Helps over the heavily oxidised bodywork, the car’s beautifully formed ally panels now glisten appropriately, but other changes have been limited. The engine has been rebuilt to 1350cc by T-type tuner George Edney, with the Zenith 36VH carbs replaced by SUs, and the brakes have been converted from Ford cables to hydraulic. There is also a period Derrington wheel, while the 15in road wheels have been replaced by Ballamy rims. “The Lotus wheels were badly buckled,” explains Taylor. “Lotus dismantled the Ford 17in wheel, folded the centre to reduce the circumference, riveted on a new rim and added a few tack welds. I didn’t fancy that at 100mph. The Ballamy wheels aren’t much better – their run-out is just on the limit.” A final tweak is a full-width aeroscreen, modelled on that fitted by Chapman to his own Nine.

Neat and tidy in form, the fully undertrayed Lotus is so of its era – and proof that there were ways of doing an effective all-enveloping body that was different from Tojeiro’s appropriated barchetta style. Sketches by Kenyon (see p135) are evidence to the paternity of the shape, possibly influenced by the Type 80/90 Buckler. Nonetheless, it was surely honed by Len Pritchard and Charlie Williams as they built the shell over the Six’s body, retaining much of its original alloy skin underneath the wheeled, 16swg ally curves. 

There are various add-ons, such as a forward tubular extension to mount the flip-front bonnet, and lovely thin tubes for the drop-down doors. At the back, the substantial triangulated rear bulkhead has been stiffened, and given a rearward extension for the de Dion axle. Finally, in accordance with Kenyon’s sketches, there is additional bracing from the side tubes to the main traverse. The result, with its beefy main tubes, thinner verticals and triangulated side panels, looks a solid piece of work and serves as a reminder of how much more lightness Chapman was to add to the elegantly thin-tubed Seven.

Apart from the body, the other unique feature of the car is its de Dion rear, mated to the usual Lotus Six independent front end of a split Ford axle beam on coil-overs, located by long, cut-and-welded Ford radius arms. Some other Sixes had de Dions, in place of the Ford torque-tube live axle, but this set-up is of Kenyon’s conception, and particularly neat in its design. Split so that it rotates in the middle, the de Dion tube has the unusual feature of a plastic block in the middle that slides up and down in two guides. This both allows vertical movement of the axle and restrains it laterally, meaning there is no need for a Panhard rod; fore-and-aft location, meanwhile, is by cut-down Ford radius arms.

Slipping into the cockpit, the car feels bigger and less intimate than a Seven, even if you mentally take away the pods over the original Six body sides. These allow handy storage, as well as elbow room, just as the flip-up tail gives space for the spare wheel a Six normally lacks. Lovely Jaeger dials in a black-crackle panel include a small reverse-sweep speedo and a big rev-counter. The sturdy, hand-made bottom-hinged pedals are Lotus parts, and there is a similarly businesslike conventional handbrake, situated on the passenger side of the tunnel. 

Fire up, and a robust note exits through the twin side pipes – the silencer itself being hidden in a box-section between the inner and outer bodies. The lightened and balanced XPAG revs instantly, sweetly, with the hard edge of a strongly tuned engine, but isn’t temperamental. Tremendous acceleration in second and third is as you’d expect, but, despite its full-race cam, the Morris-derived ‘four’ pulls beautifully in top. Indeed, it will carry fourth from 20-25mph – not that you’d wish to drive the Lotus that way. More relevant is the 55-60mph at which it will cruise, at a relaxed 3-3500rpm. “I do like the T-type long-stroke engine – it’s got lots of mid-range torque,” enthuses Taylor, who has had the car rolling-roaded at 85bhp. “George Edney does a good engine. The faster you go, the better it gets!” 

In part this easy power delivery is down to the relatively tall final drive, which also contributes to the 31mpg Taylor achieves. In theory 118mph is available, and Taylor has had the 11½cwt (585kg) Six to over 100mph. Things are very different, he says, with the special hillclimb back end that came with the car: “With that ratio it goes like a rocket, but won’t get past 80mph.”

Unlocking the pleasures of this versatile power unit is the robust TC transmission. It’s not a gearbox to rush, but with a firm, deliberate hand every change slots sweetly through the tight gate, via a short-travel clutch. 

With such a benign drivetrain, you’re soon curious about how the chassis will compare. It’s a gem. You can flow the Lotus through bends, the car squatting slightly on its de Dion, digging in and sweeping flatly through, aided by the direct (1¾ turns lock-to-lock) steering. A left-hand-drive sidevalve Ford box, turned upside-down, it has enough lost motion to lack the incision of a rack, but the car tracks straight and responds to a gentle grip on the wheel. Just don’t expect the suppleness of a de Dion Caterham. The ride is firm and fidgety, even over good surfaces, and plain abrupt over poor ones. “The springs were so badly corroded that I had to replace them, as well as the dampers,” says Taylor. “I don’t think I’ve got the rates quite right. I think I should have slightly softer springs at the rear.” At least there are no shakes from the structure, which feels good and rigid. “Well, it’s nearly new,” quips Taylor. “I did ask Hazel Chapman if it were still covered by its warranty.”

Perhaps the biggest surprise is the brakes. Were the car still fitted with Ford Pop cables I would have expected a disappointment, but given the conversion to hydraulics, by a well-known Lotus specialist, the board-stiff responses of the four decent-sized drums are a let-down. 

Given the steady honing of the Lotus over the past few years, it seems reasonable to predict that the Six will soon have more progression and bite to its centre pedal. Meanwhile, you can’t help but leave the car with a feeling of sadness. For 35-odd years Dr Kenyon had a beautiful, unique, lovingly crafted and joyful-to-drive motor car in his garage. Why the hell didn’t he use it?

This article originally appeared in the October 2010 issue of Classic & Sports Car magazine, which retains the copyright to all words and images.

Words: Jon Pressnell; pictures: Tony Baker