Your classic: Lotus Seven (Fiat twin-cam)

| 7 Aug 2020
Classic & Sports Car – Your classic: Lotus Seven (Fiat twin-cam)

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The story of Lotus building cars under licence in Argentina is a peculiar one. So often overlooked, it barely seems credible to many.

In 1968 Lotus was at the very top in motorsport and becoming a serious contender in the sports-car market.

Yet the firm retained hints of its humble beginnings in both fields and the decade-old, evergreen Seven was still in the catalogue, albeit reluctantly.

Classic & Sports Car – Your classic: Lotus Seven (Fiat twin-cam)
Vignoles’ Lotus that started the local Seven

Richard Vignoles, a Uruguayan of British descent working for Ford in Dagenham, received a call from close friend Jorge Mutio proposing to investigate building Sevens in South America under licence.

Vignoles, whose day job was to bring to Hethel the Cortinas for Lotus, made easy contact with Mike Warner, who ran Lotus Components where the formula cars and Sevens were assembled.

The ball was rolling. Boss Colin Chapman, interested in generating funds for industrial projects as well as Team Lotus, considered the idea a way of expanding the business and paying Lotus Components’ bills.

An agreement was finally settled and Vignoles purchased a kit from Lotus. He was trained in the whole assembly process, from the chassis build at Arch Motors to the final inspection and registration of the car.

In the meantime, the Uruguayans decided that assembly would be in Argentina instead because it represented a broader market and the local car industry was better developed in order to supply components.

Classic & Sports Car – Your classic: Lotus Seven (Fiat twin-cam)
Classic & Sports Car – Your classic: Lotus Seven (Fiat twin-cam)
Classic & Sports Car – Your classic: Lotus Seven (Fiat twin-cam)
The Lotus Argentina workshop in all its glory, where the licence-built run came into existence

Edgardo Boschi, a friend from Argentina, was brought in and Lotus Argentina was founded with three partners. Fiat mechanicals would be used instead of Ford because they were widely available and the local Fiat branch showed interest.

Vignoles boarded a boat to South America with his newly assembled Seven, a bright yellow, British Racing Green-striped S3 registered JCL 883G.

The car was dismantled in Buenos Aires and every part was replicated – the business plan considered the development of suppliers among the local industry to avoid expensive imports.

The prototype was introduced to the press in July ’69 and production started the following year.

Fiat had asked to study the cars thoroughly in order to establish its powertrains could be used and a warranty could be offered – a Britishcar was even sent from England to Turin to get final approval, such was the extent of Warner’s involvement.

Classic & Sports Car – Your classic: Lotus Seven (Fiat twin-cam)
The Seven being enjoyed in the mid-1980s

The prototype sported a Fiat 1500 pushrod engine, gearbox and diff, evolving for the production cars to a larger 1600 engine by means of a local development of the earlier block.

A total of 47 cars were built until 1975, the final eight or so offered with the classic 1.6-litre Lampredi twin-cam taken from the local Fiat 125.

The cars were delivered fully built, with no kit offered, and a five-speed gearbox was a rare option – a first for any Seven and some 10 years before Caterham introduced it in British cars!

These Fiat twin-cam Sevens are by far the most sought-after of the series.

Classic & Sports Car – Your classic: Lotus Seven (Fiat twin-cam)
Here the Seven has its original yellow scoop and wheels

One such car is my JPS-liveried Seven, chassis 1044. The Lotus started its life as a leisure toy for a young student who kept it for a few months, tiring of the car’s unreliability.

The original colour was black, but the owner ordered it be painted before delivery in dark blue with yellow wheels and scoop.

The following two owners used the car for touring, but Baltazar Fernández Rivas, its fourth custodian, was determined to race it in the local Club de Automóviles Sport championship, then the only series where such machinery was eligible.

He must have been talented, because he twice claimed the title in the early ’80s.

In 1990 Rivas sold the car to a gentleman who painted it red and used it sparingly in Mar del Plata, the popular seaside city; I acquired it in November 2014 and began its restoration.

Classic & Sports Car – Your classic: Lotus Seven (Fiat twin-cam)
Chassis 1044 as found by Marin

I have one of the ‘continuation’ cars built in the’90s, but always wanted to own a ‘proper’ Argentinian Seven.

My brother Leon is the owner of chassis 1021, another local jewel from 1973, meaning that nearly 5% of total production is in the same family!

The Argentinian Sevens have always been recognised as true Lotus models by the Hethel firm, and by the Lotus cognoscenti.

Sanctioned by Chapman himself – he inspected the car while he was in Argentina for the 1971 Temporada with his F2 cars – and it is every bit a Lotus, with all the qualities and foibles of the British ones.

My search for such a rare car was not easy. Many Sevens were advertised but most of them were cheap plastic replicas, quite usual during the ’80s.

I finally got a call from Miguel Angel Lastra, a fellow journalist from Mar del Plata, claiming that a friend owned the genuine article and could be persuaded to part with the car. Viewing the specs and photos, I was determined to get hold of it.

Classic & Sports Car – Your classic: Lotus Seven (Fiat twin-cam)
Restored and on show with the local club

The reluctant seller was offering resistance not to my price, but to something rather more difficult: emotion.

After two interviews, the ‘prospective candidate’ was deemed suitable enough. I brought the car back to Buenos Aires in 2015 and displayed it ‘as found’ on the Lotus stand at Autoclásica, the largest classic car event in South America.

The then red Seven caused quite astir among Lotus circles and unexpected interest from members of the Club de Automóviles Sport, who recognised and remembered the car from its racing days.

I was tempted by huge sums to sell the Seven, but refused. After all, a 10-year wait and the undeterred will to own such a piece of history was worth much more to me.

In January 2016 the car was sent to well-known sports-car specialist Nestor Salerno to start a complete restoration.

What seemed to be straightforward and simple turned into a 30-month adventure, full of surprises and tough decisions.

Classic & Sports Car – Your classic: Lotus Seven (Fiat twin-cam)
Enthusiast owner Marin enjoys track days with the Lotus

The Seven needed a thorough rebuild and the original aluminium skin was mostly replaced because the car’s life as a racer had taken its toll.

Salerno’s craftsmen used the correct aluminium grade and gauge even though it’s uncommon here.

The chassis seemed fine but severe scars appeared, the worst being a smash on the front-right corner of the spaceframe. Salerno kept most of the original tubing.

A weird arrangement was found at the rear: a Hillman Avenger axle had taken the place of the original Fiat unit, supported by four trailing arms, Renault 6 shocks and dubious unidentified springs.

The original pick-up points of the A-frame and the single trailing arms were still there, so it was easy to revert.

The axle casing was reinforced and a ball-bearing articulation was installed instead of the fragile rubber bushing.

Classic & Sports Car – Your classic: Lotus Seven (Fiat twin-cam)
On track with an eclectic bunch in Buenos Aires © David Rotondo

The engine was rebuilt, but here things were easier because the Fiat twin-cam was widely used in Argentina and race experience had put it to the test.

A mild tune included different cams, a reworked head with bigger valves and forged pistons, plus twin Weber 40IDFs, but the original Fiat 124 Sport manifold, the free-flow exhaust and rare five-speed Fiat gearbox remained.

It hasn’t been on a dyno, but 125-130bhp could be possible. Weighing only 520kg, that’s more than enough.

All five original alloy wheels were refurbished and mounted with fresh, period-correct rubber, and the original electrics, switches and instruments were rebuilt.

Unbelievably, its weather gear has been preserved; the sidescreens, tonneau and top were just cleaned and readjusted.

The trim was remade over the original frames using soft leather, a rare option on these Sevens and almost unheard of in Britain (the ultra rare Twin Cam SS was fitted with leather).

Classic & Sports Car – Your classic: Lotus Seven (Fiat twin-cam)
Marin’s car has an evocative paintjob and his Peterson lid suits the livery © David Rotondo

The car runs smoothly and is a strong performer, the twin-cam engine a revelation in such a light car but not so flexible in 1.6-litre form.

It revs hard in all gears, and the disc front and drum rear brakes are by no means weak. Direct steering and compliant but precise suspension complete the package of the Argentinian Lotus.

Any Lotus Seven driver will be familiar with this version because it drives noticeably like the British car.

High praise for the craftsmen that restored it, but hats off to Vignoles and his men who built the first ever Lotus outside Britain. Colin would have been proud.


Factfile

  • Owned by Diego Marin
  • First classic Fiat 1500 Coupé Vignale
  • Dream classic Aston Martin DBS V8

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