Amusing adventures in Lotus Indycar research...


How Certain Long-time Members of Team Lotus Found Out Someone in the U.S. Knew More About Some of Their Cars Than They Did


Why You Shouldn't Depend on Human Memory to be Accurate


This story has the most entertainment value if you get the whole long version, complete with arcane technical details, so I hope you all will bear with it. It started back in the fall of '88, when we were trying to conclusively identify which historical car a particular Lotus 38 was.

It's the one which is shown in the article "Stalking A Champion: Jim Haynes and his Mystery Lotus" (Automobile Quarterly, Vol 20, No 2). I'm not quite sure which was more prominent in the mind of the person who wrote this article; extremely wishful thinking and unconscionably shabby research seem to have run a close race.

The number of errors, many of which a simple check of easily available documentation would have shown up, is mindboggling. (I should write up a list of the errors... but it would be a lot of work.)

True Identity

Anyway, it was pretty obvious that the conclusion of this article (that the car in question was the Clark '65 winner) was wrong; however, that didn't answer the question of which car it really was. In some correspondence between the prior owner of the car and Team Lotus just prior to my arrival on the case, Andrew Ferguson (who had been manager of Team Lotus in the '60's) suggested that perhaps the car was a '66 Team car. However, this was a guess, and it remained to be seen what the truth of the matter really was.

I was fortunately introduced to a guy called Walter Goodwin, who has a shop in Indianapolis that restores vintage racing cars (and in particular Indy-cars); he had done some work on one 38 (the '67 Clark car), and had a second one (the '66 Clark car) in his shop, being fully restored. He had figured out a fair amount of the story, and knew something of the history of the cars after the Team sold them; I spent some time going over all this with him.

All the reference books (at that point in time, anyway) talked about 6 or 7 Lotus 38's having been built, but in reading the history books, knowing something about what had happened to some cars, and knowing a fair amount about how many Lotus 38's there still were, it was clear that this was wrong, and that there were probably actually 8 cars.

However, there were still a number of open points. Most were of the form "the Team ran two 38's in this year, and came back the next year and ran two 38's again; which one was which the second year"?

IMS Photo Archive

At this point, accident gave us an amazingly powerful tool. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS) maintains a massive photo archive in the IMS Museum, including the original negatives to all of them, and you can order copies of any one for a modest fee.

They take tens of thousands of pictures each year, many (in that era) in B&W, but some in color. The negatives are of different size as well; many are 35mm, but they have 3"x5", and even larger as well. These larger negatives are particularly useful, as portions can be greatly blown up to show fine mechanical details, without loss of resolution.

Anyway, I adopted the brute-force but simple strategy of going through the proof-sheet catalogs and ordering an 8"x10" copy of every single picture that showed a Lotus 38 from the 3 years they ran ('65-'67), about 500 pictures in all. I then spent several months poring over them.

I soon noticed that these cars had all been built without any reliance on jigs for the placing of rivet holes (as on some other mass-produced aluminum monocoques). So, for instance, the fuel fillers on the front of each one were in slightly different locations on each one; these and similar differences acted like fingerprints for each tub, allowing conclusive identification.

This allowed me to conclusively identify the car at hand as Graham Hill's backup car from '67. (He actually spent a great deal of time in it during practise, but was unable to get it up to speed, leading him to abandon it for a Lotus 42.)

More Questions

However, there were certain things no picture could tell me. In '66, Al Unser had crashed his car badly. The Team was back with two apparently new 38's the next year; was either one (i.e. perhaps the '67 Hill backup) a rebuild of the crashed Unser car, and if so, which one?

After a chat on the phone with Andrew Ferguson (the details of which I don't recall any more), I wrote a longish letter to him in the summer of '90, hoping he could help. I apparently felt, as a result of the phone conversation, the need to prove to Andrew that the two '67 cars were brand new cars for that year, since I included a lengthy section on this topic. I include some extracts from that section.

Comprehension of this will be improved if you understand that the Lotus sheet aluminium monocoque tubs of this era all had basically the same layout; there's a 'U' shape (in cross-section in a vertical plane across the car) formed by the bottom skin and two inner side skins. A pair of 'C' shapes (in cross-section - with the open side of the 'C' facing in towards the rest of the car) are added to the sides of this 'U'; these are the outer side skins.

The driver sits down in the 'U', and the closed in space between the inner and outer side skins holds the fuel bladders (now usually called cells). A pair of grooves (in the shape of upside-down V's) is often provided in the bottom of the tub to hold lines which run forward from the engine to the radiator.

Anyway, with that picture in mind, here we go, explaining to Andrew why the '67 cars were new cars. (Material inside []'s has been added to make it clearer.)

    "... both tubs differ in a certain ways from those of previous years. ...

    The major difference seems to be the construction of the bottom of the
    tub. On the 1966 tubs, the grooves in the bottom in which the water and
    oil lines run to the radiator are formed from the [bottoms of the] bent
    out inner [side] skins (which form the outer side [of the groove]), and a
    small [longitudinal] strip joined to those inner skins and the bottom plate
    ([this small strip] forms the inner side [of the groove]). The bottom plate
    is flat all the way across; when it gets to the groove, small tabs [along
    the edge] of it protrude across [the groove] to the side skins, forming
    straps across the groove to hold the pipes. [Thus, viewed from below the
    car, the bottom plate has a number of small tabs which project out on the
    sides of it, across the radiator pipe groove.] ...

    However, the Hill car has a bottom plate [the edges of] which bends up to
    form the inner side of the groove; the separate strips [forming the inner
    side of the groove] and the tabs of the bottom plate forming the straps
    are gone [the tabs being replaced by separate straps riveted in place].
    It is not absolutely certain that this is original, but the Hill tub is
    basically unmodified otherwise, and this change would both make it easier
    to construct (involving two less pieces [per tub, as well as one less row
    of rivets the entire length of the tub per side]), and easier to work on
    (since the pipes do not have to be slid into the groove from the end)
    [since the previous tabs across the groove were an integral part of the
    tub, and could not be removed, unlike the straps]."
As near as I can reconstruct events, when this letter was received over at Team Lotus, people were just about rolling in the aisles over there in England, with this crazy guy over in America who was totally confused about how these cars were built, had everything all wrong, etc, etc, etc.

Another 38

Anyway, time passed, and we had another car to research; this one, as proved conclusively by the same sort of identification of the rivet patterns in the tub with blow-ups of the original photo negatives, was the Andretti backup car from '66. The car was brought to Walter's shop, and completely stripped of everything mechanical, so that the paint could be cleaned off the tub via an immersion bath procedure (i.e. the whole tub is dunked in a giant vat of paint stripper, and left to marinate).

I took the opportunity to take a complete set of photographs (about two dozen or so; top, sides, bottom - both shots of the complete tub, and sectional closeups, etc, etc) of the tub in its contemporary condition, for documentation purposes, prior to the restoration. I sent copies to Andrew, since I'd started to send Andrew photographs for his files.

This car was of the older style, where the bottom skin has tabs which extend across the grooves on the bottom of the tub, to hold the pipes in. Of great interest (as far as I was concerned) was the fact that in this car, alone of the 38's which remain (as far as I know), these tabs were still there; in at least one other car (the '66 Clark car), they have been snipped off, and replaced with the easier-to-deal-with riveted-on straps. A number of the pictures I took of the car showed these tabs prominently.

The pictures arrived at Andrew at about the end of the week.

Worlds Collide

As it happened, Andrew was planning a "get-together" for that weekend, for the Team mechanics who had worked on the Indy-cars, to aid in the research he was doing on the Lotus Indy-cars. He was planning on asking about various things, and taping the whole works. He wound up showing some of my pictures around.

The pictures I'd sent of the Andretti tub were passed around, and caused some comment. The business of the bottom skin having projecting tabs which held the pipes in caused a certain amount of incredulity on the part of the assembled multitude.

To begin with, they were sure that this was the result of work done in the US, after the car passed out of the Team. Beyond that, there seems to have been agreement that whoever had done this was missing several screws. I gather that the comments were along the lines of "look what the silly bozos in America have done to the car". Etc, etc, etc. You can imagine.

Anyway, here's where it gets funny.

The Denouement

As it turns out, I had prepared a large packet of duplicates of some of the photos from the IMS photo archives, and sent them off to Andrew shortly before. As fate would have it, it arrived the Monday after the weekend.

One of the pictures in the set showed Al Unser's 1966 car, up on its side, in the Team garage at Indy in '66, from the bottom. I.e. they had just taken the car, with wheels/tires still on, and just tipped it on its side; it was apparently stable like that. (The bottom of the oilpan, clearly visible, has a large hole in it, which perhaps explains why they had the car up like this! They presumably were taking the engine out!)

You can guess what's coming next.

Yup, there on the bottom, plain as day, are those tabs, an integral part of the bottom plate, sticking across the radiator pipe grooves!


Andrew was somewhat chagrined when he reported all this to me. Anyway, after that, whenever I used to call up Andrew and tell him some fantastic story about what I'd discovered about the Lotus Indy-cars, he seemed to listen somewhat more closely!


As I'm sure many of the Lotus fanatics reading this know by now, Andrew Ferguson passed away very unexpectedly in October, 1994. We all miss him terribly, and I'm very sad that I never got to meet him in person, given how much time we spent on the 'phone together over the years.

Before he parted company with us, though, he did manage to basically finish a wonderful book on Team Lotus' adventures at the Indy 500. With a great deal of assistance from Doug Nye, and various photo sources, most notably the IMS Museum Photo Shop (thanks guys!), this has been turned into a fantasic large-format book with a great number of pictures, most never before in print; "Team Lotus: The Indianapolis Years". I hope you will buy one, and follow the story of Lotus' tremendous impact on racing in America, as it looked from the inside.

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© Copyright 1997-2013 by J. Noel Chiappa

Last updated: 24/May/2013