Lotus 47: Colin Chapman’s road-racer

| 24 Jan 2024
Classic & Sports Car – Lotus 47: Chapman’s road-racer

Lotus was never one to abide by convention.

While most roadgoing competition cars were merely exercises in development and wringing performance out of the base model, that didn’t always suit the unorthodox Colin Chapman.

He’d adopted the evolution approach for the 26R, the racing version of the Elan that the firm had never intended to build, but which was eventually produced in small numbers (fewer than 100) to satisfy the appetite of privateers.

Classic & Sports Car – Lotus 47: Chapman’s road-racer

The Lotus 47’s vast rear tyres are as a wide as those on a Lamborghini Countach

When it came to Ron Hickman’s mid-engined follow-up, the even rarer 47, with no more than 55 constructed according to current thinking, Lotus took the opposite approach.

It may look little more than a mildly tweaked Europa – which itself was based on a years-old pitch for a contract that went instead to Eric Broadley for what would become the GT40 – but that familiar outline shrouds a completely different car.

Period tests routinely described the mid-engined Type 46 Europa as a formula car for the road, but that was a statement of fact rather than journalistic flourish for the racing variant.

While both look similar and use the reversed-backbone chassis that was devised for the Elan – actually just as a testbed for the Rotoflex couplings, but then incorporated into Hickman’s design – they share barely any components.

Whereas the S1 Europa was launched in 1966 with the 1.5-litre ‘four’ derived from a Renault 16 unit mounted longitudinally, the Type 47 reverted to the feistier Twin Cam.

This could provide 175bhp-plus (180 with fuel injection) without becoming any more temperamental than the stock motor that had served so well in competition.

Classic & Sports Car – Lotus 47: Chapman’s road-racer

The Lotus 47 bears its patina and competition pedigree with pride – any Lotus of the time sported a badge marking the firm’s successes

The difference in performance is alarming.

While the 9.3 secs 0-60mph time and 115mph top speed are pretty impressive returns from the specced-up 82bhp Renault engine, the Twin Cam 47 reaches 60mph in under 5 secs and a maximum reckoned to be around 165mph.

Similarly, while both have one-piece glassfibre bodyshells, the 47’s is made of thinner, lighter GRP than the road car, reducing the already lightweight 610kg S1 to a flyweight 558kg.

Suspension? Same story: same system (independent all round by modified Chapman struts at the front and coils with telescopics at the back) but uprated in every way.

Even the front wishbones are off a Type 41 single-seater.

The early, 296-off Europa Series 1 did share some of the spartan characteristics of a racer, however, such as no doorhandles, fixed windows and seats, plus minimal internal trim.

Classic & Sports Car – Lotus 47: Chapman’s road-racer

The Lotus has a full F2-spec rear set-up, and its Twin Cam engine now runs twin Weber 45 carburettors instead of the original Tecalemit fuel-injection system

It became more practical with later S1 cars (fewer than 400 examples, now dubbed the S1A and S1B), and by the comparatively big-selling Type 54 S2 (3615) there was all manner of luxury such as electric windows and adjustable seats.

These decadent features were carried over when the Twin Cam Type 74 (later the Special when it used the big-valve head) was finally made available to the public five years after production had started.

These runout models, which sold nearly 5000 units before being replaced as the sporting flagship by the Esprit in ’75, shortened the 0-60mph time to 6.6 secs and raised top speed to 123mph.

This was despite carrying a passenger for the testing and bulking up to 740kg, a full 20% heftier than the original Europa.

Just imagine that sort of pace – and then some – therefore, in a car that weighed so much less than even the S1.

Despite the 47 having a higher Type number, mindful that there would be demand for a competition model, Lotus had developed it alongside the clubman’s variant – some argue that the 47 was built first – and unveiled the two together.

Classic & Sports Car – Lotus 47: Chapman’s road-racer

The oil tank for the Lotus 47’s dry-sump engine sits up front

Built by Lotus Components rather than at the factory, the clues included fat rear rubber, bigger arches, no bumpers and, shortly after launch, engine bay vents to aid cooling.

Like the clubman’s/road model, the glassfibre body was bonded to the backbone chassis, which as in the Elan was folded pressed steel but shortened to make way for the rear wheels and tyres.

Attached to, or cradled by, that chassis were the workings of a pure racer, much of it lifted straight from the Lotus 22/23 and 69.

In this case that means the 1594cc 165bhp Cosworth-Ford 13C Twin Cam, a Hewland FT 200 five-speed transaxle, plus full F2 rear suspension by reversed bottom wishbone top link and dual radius arms.

The featured car is the extremely rare F spec, which was (slightly) more roadable. Just six, or arguably seven were made – Lotus ledgers always raise more questions than they answer!

Despite a radically different colour scheme to the archive photos, this one is highly original with history from 1971 (see below) plus a marvellous patina to match.

Classic & Sports Car – Lotus 47: Chapman’s road-racer

The Lotus 47 has a clear, functional cabin

Put into storage in the early ’80s, it came to its current owner as “a box of bits” and has since been restored “precisely how it would have been built in the first place” with a determination to retain all its history.

Since then, it has been used only on the road and for the odd track day.

Probably its nicest feature is that, if you didn’t know otherwise, you would happily believe that it is untouched from new, that it has never been disassembled and rebuilt.

“It does drive like a new car, though,” advises the owner. We’ll see.

Fire it up and a riot of raucous noise shakes the car around you, briefly distracting the driver from the more pressing concern of being deafened by the engine so close to their ears.

Slot it into the dogleg on the remote lever for the ’box that’s slung off the back of the engine, then use those vast back tyres – the 6.00/12.00-13s are as fat as the rears on a Lamborghini Countach! – as a clutch.

Classic & Sports Car – Lotus 47: Chapman’s road-racer

The Lotus 47 sits on big magnesium centrelock wheels

It spins them easily before friction bites and you are fiercely catapulted forwards with no hint of lateral movement at the back.

This car originally had injection, but when it passed into the current ownership it was, like most, fitted with Webers for tractability.

Given its high circuit gearing and the fact that it took 5000rpm to move it off the line with the injection, the pair of 45s provide a dose of usability.

According to the previous keeper, when the Lotus had its Tecalemit-Jackson system, plus massively tall ratios in the FT 200, the top speed that it achieved was 171mph on an airfield, briefly revving to 10,000rpm… and praying that it didn’t blow up.

The mind boggles at the prospect of an FVA-engined version, but there is plenty of evidence that they were used in period.

Even with such lunacy supposedly tempered, the pace is enough to make your eyes water, the 47 being so sharp that you can hardly believe it.

Classic & Sports Car – Lotus 47: Chapman’s road-racer

The Lotus 47 has a hinged window which helps to cool the compact cabin

It feels so much more of an out-and-out race car than a 26R, yet also feels far more rigid with less body flex and a probably incorrect sensation that you are a little less vulnerable.

What grand perceptions can be influenced by something as simple as the thickness of seat padding, hey?

But it is in the more delicate matters that the 47 most astonishes.

The completely original yet slightly ramshackle cabin suggests a much-used car that has just been kept going, but the accuracy of the responses tells a different story.

The super-sensitive throttle is phenomenal, the steering via the 5.25M-13 fronts more direct and feelsome than you dare to expect from even a design with the engine so far away from the front axle.

On a lengthy burst at high speed the rack system does lighten perhaps a little too much, though.

Classic & Sports Car – Lotus 47: Chapman’s road-racer

‘Attached or cradled to the chassis were the workings of a pure racing car’

The steering adds to a skittishness over bumps, kicking back like a baby having a tantrum, but the 47 is so low that you almost feel at one with the road anyway.

It’s the same when you hit the brake pedal hard. Whereas the standard set-up overheated in competition, the all-round discs and special calipers react as if you’ve dug your own heels into the asphalt.

The Hewland, true to type, is sublime when you get it right, but truculent if you fudge those closely spaced gears.

So tactile is the 47, so involving, that in this car you almost feel like a cog in the works.

There is loads of mechanical thrashing and the engine is noisy and wonderfully fruity, yet it is the transmission that provides all the aural discomfort.

There are lots of other minor worries for those moments when you are not 100% focused on driving (ie, only when the 47 is stationary), but each is balanced by something surprisingly thoughtful.

Classic & Sports Car – Lotus 47: Chapman’s road-racer

A big oil-pressure lamp dominates the Lotus 47’s centre console, with the handbrake to the left

Drinking in that cockpit and its original harnesses, admiring the amount of stowage space (there’s even a glovebox) and the brushed-aluminium dash, replete with 180mph speedo and redline-free 10,000rpm rev counter, or spotting the ashtray, you might for a moment be kidded into thinking that a 47 is a proper road car. But it isn’t.

Even sunk low in the fixed seat and peering upwards, playing with the lovely thin-rimmed wheel and the high gearlever, there are telltales.

There’s the lack of a fuel gauge, the fact that everything is tagged or labelled – with the original Dymo tape – that the window catches (opening for the passenger, portholed for the driver) are stamped 47F.

And that’s just on the surface: you could also throw in the facts that it is all rose-jointed, that there is a brake balance bar, and that much of the back end has to be dismantled to do almost any job (the top link of the rear suspension has to be released to take off the wheel).

Even the chassis is shortened and the rear cradle is different.

Classic & Sports Car – Lotus 47: Chapman’s road-racer

Exquisite steering enables the Lotus 47 to be placed with millimetric precision

Then why not consider the history, the dominance of the great John Miles with a 47, ruling Group 4 until usurped by the Chevron B8s?

Yes, this £2600 kit car (plus £50 if you wanted it built and exported) took on and vanquished, some would say humiliated, the big boys.

That’s not to say that it is a racer that you can’t use on the streets – the beauty of the 47 is that you can, just.

Make no mistake, though, this is not even some homologation special, but an out-and-out racer masquerading as a road car. Think McLaren M6 rather than F1.

If that doesn’t convince you, just fire it up again. Hell, just fire it up anyway…

Images: Tony Baker

This was first in our February 2016 magazine; all information was correct at the date of original publication

Lotus 47: restored without losing its soul

Classic & Sports Car – Lotus 47: Chapman’s road-racer

The Lotus 47 was resprayed in a JPS livery for the car’s second owner, here hustling 8880 TW at a sprint meeting

This particular 47 has a fascinating history, but with some big gaps.

Chassis 54 was delivered to the Scottish Auto Tech racing team in East Kilbride in December 1967 with the registration NUS 685F, which was changed to its current 8880 TW in 1970.

It’s pure conjecture, but could this have been for up-and-coming local hotshoe Tom Walkinshaw?

It changed hands, going to the other end of the country in Cornwall, in ’73 and was kitted out in JPS livery (in the history file, there’s a charming letter from the owner asking Lotus for permission to do this) and campaigned extensively.

Classic & Sports Car – Lotus 47: Chapman’s road-racer
Classic & Sports Car – Lotus 47: Chapman’s road-racer

The Lotus 47 was taken off road in the early ’80s for an overhaul that never happened (left); the car remained untouched for 20 years

After a crash-free career, the 47 was taken off the track for a rebuild in the early ’80s. Work stalled, however, because no replacement parts were being manufactured at the time.

As a result, the 47 remained in a semi-dismantled state for 20 years until the owner reluctantly decided to sell the car in 2003.

It was then bought by Peter Hartnett, who embarked on a full restoration to 1967 spec, with great care being taken to preserve as much of the original car as possible.

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