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So this is where it all started.
Sliding down into the narrow cockpit is familiar enough, to find you’re faced with a basic but recognisable and comprehensive set of dials and gauges.
Your elbows rest naturally on tunnel and ‘door’ cut-out, feet buried in the footwell; sitting low and semi-reclined you’re almost on the ground, contributing satisfyingly to what you just know must be a low centre of gravity.
Turn the key, flick the switches for fuel pump and ignition, push the button and there’s a bit of a blat from the sidepipe as the little ohc ‘four’ fires, but the FWA Climax sounds more like the slightly racy sister of a midwife’s Moggy Thou than the louche rasp of a twin-Weber Ford crossflow.
The steering connects well, pedal travels and gear throws are short and direct, and it’s out on to the track to have a go.
Instantly, this car feels as if it’s on your side.
The flapping cycle wings signal its very obvious minimalism, but everything that’s on it does its job in making this a very secure-feeling chassis.
There’s more front-end bite than you’d expect, with steering so direct it’s subliminal and, although it moves around nicely on Dunlop Racers, it’s basically neutral.
It’s not that quick – there’s just enough power to push the tail slightly wide out of corners, not to set up lurid slides – but the Six will let you have just as much leeway as you want, coming back into line faithfully and with almost no conscious correction from the driver.
Lifting the throttle has no effect other than to shade a little emphasis back on to the pointy end.
Very quickly the chassis gives you the confidence to go in faster than you’d imagine, having discovered that the brakes are better than you expect, too.
The big drums, with radial fins to dissipate heat, bite well but don’t snatch or pull to either side, and they don’t fade after the short straights of Curborough Sprint Course.
That might be a different story on a longer track but, with only 420kg plus driver to arrest, I suspect not.
This is a car that requires only a light touch and is not exhausting to drive as fast as it will go: it is more than the sum of its mostly humble parts.
As a Lotus Seven fan – okay, evangelist – it pains me to admit that the Six that preceded it possibly handles even better, on a smooth track at least.
Time to unclothe some of it and find out what we’re dealing with here.
Although advanced for the 1950s, the spaceframe is just as you might expect: neatly constructed and with perhaps more substantial tubes – and more of them – than you might anticipate if you’re familiar with Lotus founder Colin Chapman’s later work.
The first few chassis, built from Easter 1952, had the ‘picture frame’ closing the structure and supporting the radiator cross-braced, while later examples had a single diagonal.
Even so, the whole spaceframe weighs only 55lb, or 90lb when clad – the side panels and undertray are riveted on to help improve torsional rigidity.
At the rear, surprisingly, given Chapman’s minimalist tendencies – he would always have one component doing more than one job if he could get away with it – we find a five-link arrangement locating the axle, where in Anthony Colin Bruce Chapman’s world that looks like two too many.
The first Sixes used a torque tube, radius arms and a Panhard rod, later changed to an arrangement continued on to the Seven of 1957: two upper parallel links connecting axle to chassis longitudinally, while an A-frame picking up on the diff casing resists sideways movement and torque reaction.
It’s terrifyingly simple, but there are just enough links to locate the axle in every direction and against wind-up.
It was good enough to transfer from the Seven to the Lotus Cortina (but not without glitches) and even V8 supersaloon Baby Bertha, although in that celebrated car’s case the third link points rearwards, looking like a giant Watt linkage when viewed side on.
This car’s five links look like overkill in comparison, but do the job.
Axles for Sixes generally were harvested from the upright Fords that gave up their front beams and sometimes engines and transmissions, but later BMC components were an option.
This one is Austin Metropolitan, owner Alex Postan thinks. Its limited-slip diff makes itself known when manoeuvring it by hand or chuntering around the paddock, but I’d suggest that, given the limited power and the competence of the chassis in putting it down, it’s not needed.
At the front there’s a split axle, which looks conflicted in basic geometric terms because it allows massive camber change, but not if you trim its movement to a couple of inches as on the Six – further evidence of Chapman’s genius economical pragmatism.
Unlike the Ballamy system, which Chapman basically copied, the radius arms are split and link back to the lower chassis rails rather than meeting in the middle somewhere behind the power unit.
In this case, vertical displacement of the front wheels is tempered by a posh pair of coil-overs that Colin would have killed for in 1953, but the principle remains the same.
Steering is by Ford Pop box, but you’d never guess it from the intuitive feel and lack of play at the wheel rim – that’s down to clever location and minimising the number of balljoints between steering and road wheels.
The default power unit for the first Sixes, like all Ford-based Specials of the time, was the 1172cc sidevalve engine, although Chapman used a slightly destroked Consul lump (originally 1508cc) in order to race in the up-to-1500cc class; the 1250cc MG XPAG was an option, too.
This car uses a 1097cc Coventry Climax making about 95bhp, and it is fitted out with a rather more sophisticated fuel system than anything that came out of Hornsey, with twin aluminium tanks mounted high on the rear bulkhead.
That’s just as well, because the original would have been mounted low, behind the axle and with just a thin sheet of aluminium between it and the outside world – “And the first thing to touch the Armco,” Postan observes wryly.
As you might have guessed, this car did not come out of Hornsey – at least, not all at the same time.
But only the ‘works’ cars did.
Its exact spec represents Postan’s ideal of what a Six ought to be: it has the early-type rounded rear end with fully enclosed wheelarches, both discontinued after 1953 (although, according to Graham Capel’s book Lotus History 1951-1955, there may have been another in 1956), and the sohc all-aluminium Climax engine available as an option after ’55.
The brakes are backplate-less twin leading shoes, expanding in aluminium copies of the radial-finned magnesium drums developed by Lotus for the MkIX and first offered as a Six accessory the same year.
Wire wheels were offered by Lotus for the Six from ’54, after being developed for the MkVIII.
Early cars originally ran the 17in pressed-steel wheels from the donor Pop and a rear axle from the same source.
Hydraulic brakes were available after the Ford 100E was introduced in 1953.
The first MkVI, XML 6, finished second in two races at the 5 June 1952 MG Car Club meet at Silverstone, one each for Chapman and Michael Allen, one of his original collaborators.
Even though it recorded a DNF in the final heat of the event, that led to the first customer order for a Six, when four days later an impressed Philip Desoutter visited the Lotus works in Hornsey and handed over a £100 deposit.
The Six marked a turning point, as Chapman and friends moved from being builders of specials for their own enthusiastic use into a fledgling series manufacturer of cars for a profit.
The Lotus Engineering Co Ltd was incorporated on 25 September 1952, when Chapman thought the market for the Six was probably six cars.
“It represents the foundation of Lotus Cars,” says Postan.
“According to Dave Kelsey at Progress Engineering [which built the ‘production’ chassis following the first Six], Colin had orders for four cars and they did two more.
“He thought that would saturate the market, but they ended making about 90.”
Lotus never supplied a complete Six, though: they were sold for home assembly, as kits, in greater or lesser states of completeness, partly to avoid the then 60% Purchase Tax on new cars – or indeed an unwelcome enquiry into the business from HM Customs & Excise.
An owner might buy a chassis, with or without panels, then source or make the rest of the parts themselves, or have them modified to suit by Lotus.
Early cars were, in effect, Ford Specials, which is how the Historic Lotus Register categorises this one, because the identity of its chassis cannot be proven.
It wouldn’t be the only one: chassis numbers were dot-punched and later stamped into the split-axle pivot and could be eroded by rust, accident damage or welded-on towing eyes.
Postan is comfortable with the car’s status and has no plans to register it, but points out that it came into existence more than likely in the way that many of them did: “It’s an old chassis, but we don’t know where from.
“It has been suggested that this frame was constructed out of the remains of one that was cut up and stuffed into a garage pit in Nottingham in the late ’60s.”
He continues: “As an art dealer, my interest has always been in the growth of Modernism and new ideas in Britain.
“The art film-maker Tony Halton, researching for his next film, made contact – it turned out that he was amazed to find that I was still alive, and as a petrolhead he became a chum.
“He’d been collecting the parts to build a Six, but he was moving and one of his projects had to go.”
“I’d finished my 30-year Lamborghini Jarama rebuild,” he goes on, “having sold my Lotus Cortina to fund it, so to fill the empty space in the garage the Six moved from Folkestone to Oxfordshire.
“I thought it would be an easy assembly job, but it came in a van as a heap of parts and was a much bigger task than I expected.
“Lockdown helped me. I found an early engine of the right sort of period and had it built by Tony Mantle of Climax Engine Services.”
“The Austin A30 ’box has Sprite internals and the brakes came from Mike Brotherwood,” Postan explains.
“The bodywork, built by Len Pritchard of Williams & Pritchard, was originally on [the famous Lotus Six] UPE 9.
“I made the transmission tunnel, the bulkhead and the aluminium tonneau cover, plus the fuel system.”
Postan finishes: “It’s on 60-spoke wire wheels; I’ve got some 48s, but these are stiffer.”
Too stiff, perhaps.
This car is more than the sum of its parts, which all work beautifully together. Too well, maybe.
True to Lotus form, during our drive, something eventually broke.
This was essentially a post-rebuild shakedown session, but after about 30 laps of giving it a mild to enthusiastic seeing to, a rear-axle bearing let go, allowing the wheel to flap around, which, on such a keenly focused chassis, was instantly detectable.
But it stayed on the car and brought the driver home – in Chapman’s world, that probably would have counted as a result.
Images: Olgun Kordal
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