Friends reunited. Only a handful of Lotus MkVIIIs were made before the wild concept was tamed. Today we drive the example bought new by racer Dick Steed – then test the MkIX he replaced it with. Words Ivan Ostroff. Photography Jonathan Fleetwood.
COVER Steed’s Faithfuls On track in Dick Steed’s 1954 and 1955 championship Lotuses
Driving an old competition car provides a brief insight into a racing driver’s life; a window into a small segment of their career. The opportunity I have today submerges me a little deeper into an epoch when bravery and skill met resourceful, progressive engineering. Not only will I be driving the Lotus MkVIII bought by Dick Steed to campaign the 1954 season, but also the Lotus MkIX he upgraded to for 1955. That’s two seasons of Steed’s racing life effectively condensed into one memorable day, and I’ll be experiencing his step-change of chosen thoroughbred along the way. I’ll also come to find out that the pair shares far more than a previous owner, a manufacturer and some red bodywork flourishes.
Painted in its dramatic scheme of silver with a scarlet stripe, the MkVIII before me is one of six survivors of nine made; it’s so rare it could reasonably be considered an interim model between the MkVI and the later streamlined Lotus sport-racers. Commonly fitted with an MG TD engine, the model dominated 1500cc championships, but Steed wanted to race his new car in the international 1100cc class, so had a 1098cc Coventry Climax FWA engine installed, coupled to an MG TC gearbox. This was only the third Climax FWA – originally conceived as a portable water pump – to be used in a sports racing car, and the first to appear in a Lotus. Quite a milestone, then. As I swing my leg over the VIII’s tapered fuselage, it occurs to me that if Frank Costin’s aerodynamically informed design is striking today, in the Fifties it must have looked like something from outer space, all be-finned, spatted and cowled-over.
‘Six burly friends tilted the body and manhandled it through the house and into the drawing room’
From my perspective sat claustrophobically low in the partially covered cabin, the interior looks pretty basic. There’s no wood or leather to be found on the steering wheel, just a plain sprung Bakelite-rimmed Brooklands wheel straight out of the Fifties.
Through one of its upper voids is a big tachometer that dominates the dashboard; the other is occupied by smaller gauges for oil pressure and water temperature. The Godiva engine has already been warmed up ready for me, so I twist the key, listen for the fuel pump and then press the starter. Once the engine catches and roars into urgent life, I prod the throttle and listen to the air being gulped through the twin sidedraught SU carburettors.
Starting off, I quickly learn to respect the violence of the mechanical clutch. It is either in or out; there’s no window of slip. Owner Malcolm Ricketts has instructed me that to select first gear from standstill, the knack is to push the clutch down, pull the lever back into second, then push cleanly forward into first.
Equipped with this knowledge I attempt a swift but smooth take off. There is no pussyfooting around with this car. I select first gear, give it enough throttle to keep a steady 2000rpm on the tachometer and then bring my foot up smartly. Launch is clean but brutal.
On racing rubber it is difficult to access the full performance of the car until the tyres warm up. The skinny rears spin; I pull back into second and the rear end gradually stops snaking as I push forward and across into third, at which point the car finally straightens up. On every approach to the redline a high-pitched metallic rasp emanates from the side-exit exhaust on the far left-hand side, protruding through its own portal in the bodywork and snarling and banging unapologetically on the overrun.
‘I’m lavished with feedback and know exactly what’s happening up front; the car feels beautifully accurate’
I’m barely protected by the token Perspex windscreen and the sense of the lithe bodywork slipping through the air is palpable, while those sculpted fins stretching out for ever behind me make the VIII feel remarkably stable at high speeds. In typical Lotus fashion I can instantly sense the dynamics of the car and what it is doing as I go into the corners. The car’s restorer, David Abbot, has set it up to feel well-planted with a slight bias towards understeer at the limit, and it handles amazingly. Although it has a 70-year-old steering box rather than a rack-and-pinion arrangement, I can sense no lack of precision through the big wheel, even at circuit speeds. The MG TC gearbox, with synchromesh on second, third, and fourth, is easy to use and not at all slow.
Nevertheless, I instinctively double-declutch on a car of this era, and the pedals are perfectly placed for heel-and-toe downshifts, which are not only kinder to the drivetrain but also help prevent the rear wheels locking up. Add to the fact that through a helmet you often cannot hear precisely, it ensures that I’m not chipping the gearbox and don’t risk buzzing the engine.
Were I driving on the open road I’d have difficulty getting the racing Dunlops up to temperature, leading to unpredictable handling and a tendency to wander. However, on a closed test track there is no sense of lost motion; I’m lavished with feedback and know exactly what’s happening up front. As the car drifts through the corners the steering feels beautifully accurate. I can encourage it by exaggerating the throttle mid-corner to get the back end to move. Rather than any conscious sense of the steering loading up as I enter a corner, there’s a sensory perception through my fingers continually guiding my next move.
Equipped with swing-axle front suspension and a de Dion rear end the ride is firm and flat, but as I begin to lean on it I sense the limited-slip differential pushing the front to track out. After passing through a sharp left-hander in second, I change up into third then give a flick of the wheel just before the road turns right. The Lotus understeers slightly so I use the throttle to get the tail out then hold it in the slide, with the stream of information transmitted through my fingertips being clarified through the base of my seat, which is just inches from the road surface. I do have be wary of carrying too much speed into tighter turns because the nose wants to plough on. But this is a predictable, beautifully nimble car that exudes a sense of inherent firmness and possesses tenacious roadholding.
‘In the Fifties the MkVIII must have looked like something from outer space’
When not braking to a halt but checking corner-approach speed, the stopping power of Fifties drums is more than adequate. What they do not have is that bite that we become acclimatised to with modern disc brakes. While the braking is efficient and there’s relatively little mass to slow, you have to exercise some strength to shed any significant speed. It’s a case of bracing your back against the seat and stamping down for all you’re worth.
The MkVIII is quite at home on the track, but on the road the design was soon judged to be far too unwieldy. The long overhangs were a hindrance, exacerbated by the fact that it would only just fit on the trailer that would tow cars behind Chapman’s transporter. As a result, Colin Chapman turned once again to Frank Costin and asked him to redesign the car, making it short enough to fit on the trailer without problems. Thus, after just seven Lotus MkVIIIs were built, the design was updated; and, as the Lotus MkIX, it was to prove a far more usable motor car both on and off track.
Steed raced his MkVIII regularly with some success – he finished fourth at Castle Combe in 1954 and was placed at Crystal Palace the following year (although his exact finishing position has been lost over time). But when he learned that the model had been superseded by the MkIX, he went to Progress Chassis and asked co-founder Dave Kelsey if the company would build him a new IX. Kelsey agreed to do so in exchange for Steed’s MkVIII body chassis unit as payment. Everything that could be carried forward – including the Climax engine, MG gearbox and suspension – was changed over from the MkVIII to a brand-new Lotus MkIX chassis that was then registered HUD 139, the number from the MkVIII.
The hardware switch was relatively easy. The first MkVIII – the prototype turned works car raced by Chapman – had been designed by De Havilland engineer Gilbert Mackintosh to be light and stiff, but to fit and extract the engine required the cylinder head to be removed. Realising this was unfeasible for customer cars, Chapman decided production MkVIIIs would use a mildly modified version of the more adaptable MkVI chassis. This meant the FWA Climax could be easily swapped over to Steed’s new mount.
From behind the wheel the IX does feel very similar to the VIII. The steering and braking sensations are much the same and fitted with similar engines, performance will be very close. Looking at the two cars together it’s easy to understand why the early Lotus cars did well, because they were so light and handled so well. However, the biggest difference I noticed on driving the IX is that the MkVIII was more ungainly. At a time when these cars were often run on the public roads to and from race circuits, the VIII’s bodywork would have made it relatively cumbersome to manoeuvre. The MkVIII may look like it was just driven across the galaxy by Dan Dare, but the shorter Lotus Mark IX was to prove a far more practical, useable and successful machine.
While Steed was enjoying his newly built MkIX on the road, including driving it to and from various events including the Isle of Man TT – where he finished second in class behind Colin Chapman – in the meantime Dave Kelsey had snaffled a Ford 100E engine and back axle for the ex-Steed MkVIII chassis via Colin Chapman. But this wasn’t any old 100E driveline. It had come out of the MkVIII that Jabby Crombac had just used to win the 1100cc championship.
After moving all the ex-Steed MkVIII components to his house in Hornsey, Kelsey recruited six burly friends to help him tilt the body and manhandle it through the house, destroying most of the light switches in the process. They took it into the back garden then back through the French windows into the Kelsey drawing room, where welding equipment awaited.
Kelsey was still missing a few parts such as suspension units, wheels and tyres, but Chapman came to the rescue, charging Kelsey £140 for the lot. After the engine was fitted in the road outside and with the Panhard rod attached, the rear axle moved around alarmingly as Kelsey drove slowly to the Progress workshop to have the Panhard rod fittings welded into place.
Kelsey used the car extensively on the road, even taking his children to and from school in the morning. They would both climb into the passenger side and while one sat on the passenger seat the other would squeeze down on the floor in the footwell. Kelsey also raced the car regularly; although many results have been lost over time, on 30 April 1955 he raced the MkVIII at Ibsley and at the end of the season Kelsey and the MkVIII were only just pipped in the 1172cc Championship by Mike MacDowel.
At the end of the year, he sold it on. Now spool forward to 2004, when the MkIX appeared for sale in France and was bought by lifetime Lotus enthusiast Malcolm Ricketts. He had recognised the car as the ex-Dick Steed machine and subsequently raced it extensively in historics. In addition to driving the MkIX from his home in Hertfordshire to Le Mans twice, Malcolm also finished second in class in the MkIX at the 2003 Le Mans historic race and won the Historic Grand Prix Cars Association Championship for Drum Brake Sports Cars in 2005.
Suddenly, in 2018, Malcolm Ricketts learned that the very MkVIII that Dave Kelsey had built up from Dick Steed’s old MkVIII chassis was for sale. ‘I just had to buy it. The car had a 1098cc Coventry Climax, which I knew was not the original unit that Steed ran because that had been lost at some point during the car’s active racing career in the Sixties. However, shortly after I had bought the car, a chap approached me at Silverstone and told me that he had the original Climax engine from Steed’s MkVIII.
‘I checked the serial numbers and he was correct; it was the engine that went from the MkVIII into the IX. When I said I’d buy it he said, “Okay, £5000”. I asked if he’d take an offer. He said, “Not a chance. I know why you want it and what you want it for”. I knew it was a runner because it was being used in a Ford sprint car, so I paid him.’
Malcolm’s Lotus MkIX, still wearing registration HUD 139, is possibly the most recognisable example around, and yet it never emerged from the Lotus works proper; the MkVIII registered 918 EMK was not strictly a product of the Lotus factory either. Nevertheless, both of these wonderful, DNA-sharing machines are correct and accepted by Lotus aficionados as genuine sports racers of the period. Now reunited, their joint histories are totally interwoven and if ever these two cars are sold, I feel that they must remain together.
Thin-rimmed wheel allows the driver to feel the VIII’s communication nuances Steed was the first to install a Coventry Climax into a Lotus sports racer. The MkVIII’s striking rear fins make it instantly identifiable amongst its sports-racing siblings. Despite its scything profile, the MkVIII’s bodywork was penned without access to a wind tunnel. The steering is light yet communicative – ideal for long distances Malcolm found the original FWA engine but hasn’t fitted it. Most of the Mark IX parts come from Steed’s MkVIII Steed found his recipe of Climax engine and lightweight chassis so to his taste that he used it a second time.
Thanks to The Historic Lotus Register (historiclotusregister.co.uk)
1954 Lotus MkVIII
Engine Coventry Climax FWA 1098cc flat-four, twin 1.5in SU carburettors
Max Power 80bhp @ 6750rpm
Max Torque 65b ft @ 5000rpm
Transmission Four-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Steering Worm and nut
Front: split swing axle with coil spring/telescopic dampers
Rear: de Dion axle with coil springs and telescopic dampers
Brakes Lockheed Alfin drums, inboard at rear
Weight 521kg (1148lb)
top speed: 128mph
Cost new £800 (component form, no engine)
Based around the corner from the original Lotus works in Hornsey, north London, the Progress Chassis Company was the supplier of Lotus’s separate tubular steel chassis from 1953 to 1963. During this time Progress built most Lotus production chassis, with prototypes and pre-production chassis typically devised and fabricated in-house.
Progress constructed early cars from steel tubing with oxy-acetylene welded joints. With steel in short supply, scrap was used for frame brackets; the original MkVI jig was built from a cast iron bedstead with the springs removed for access. When chassis were completed, two employees picked them up and walked with them from the Progress workshop in Ribblesdale Road to the Lotus works in Tottenham Lane.
Before work started on the MkVIII, Frank Costin asked Progress partner David Kelsey to make a 1:8 scale model for aerodynamic testing. Kelsey’s model resembled a Jaguar C-type, complete with rubber wheels, miniature leather seats, gearlever, transmission tunnel and steering wheel. In the absence of a wind tunnel, Costin tested it by shooting jets of compressed air at tufts of wool attached to the bodywork. Crude calculations made, he took a hacksaw to it, lopping bits off then reshaping them in Plasticine.
When Progress was contracted to build the production MkVIII chassis – essentially a MkVI structure with outriggers for the all-encompassing bodywork – Kelsey soon realised that the bedstead jig was no longer viable. Trams had recently stopped running through Hornsey, so he bought up a load of old tram lines, burnt the old road tar away and used them to fabricate a new jig. Said Kelsey in Jabby Crombach’s book Colin Chapman – The Man and his Cars, ‘Wheelarches and body frame tubes were bent – usually by me, in a hole in an old railway sleeper, inch by inch, matching to a full size drawing on brown paper.’
In total the company built more than 1000 chassis units for Lotus, but the early Sixties saw Progress cofounder John Teychenne prioritise the fruit machine business over Lotus work, prompting Chapman to look elsewhere. Unirad and Arch Motors took up the slack until Lotus gradually moved away from tubular frames to steel backbone chassis.