It’s Lotus-based, so it’s light. But the body is aluminium, not gold. Drive-My drives the unique and illustrious Goldbug Elan. Words James Elliott. Photography Paul Harmer.
LOTUS ELAN ‘GOLDBUG’ Unique aluminium coupe tested at Goodwood
IWR LOTUS ELAN GOUPE WORTH ITS WEIGHT
Loday, being universally referred to as the ‘Lotus B team’ might be construed as a bit of a putdown, but in the early-to- mid-1960s it was quite the opposite – a great compliment, a badge of honour.
Colin Chapman was sweeping all before him. His Team Lotus was young and energetic, having effortlessly made the leap from fragile lower-formula racers to worldbeating (though still fragile) Grand Prix winners, the pace of his progress was unprecedented, from launching Lotus Engineering in 1952 to Stirling Moss’s famous win at Monaco in the Rob Walker Lotus 18 less than a decade later. It is all the more remarkable because Team Lotus, which had split from Lotus Engineering in 1954, hadn’t even built a single- seater until 1958 when it launched an assault first on F2 with the Lotus 12, and by the end of the year it was ready to chance its arm in motorsports highest echelon. Its career in the top flight lasted 30-plus years, and spawned seven constructors’ championships, six drivers’ titles and some of the most innovative Grand Prix cars ever built.
This meteoric yet all-consuming rise is relevant because, running parallel to all of it, of course, was the Lotus road car company that Chapman viewed – rather as did Enzo Ferrari – as a necessary evil to fund the glitzier world of F1. While the Seven had been capable of road use, no Lotus had been designed specifically for that purpose until the Type 14, possibly better known as the Elite.
‘THE COUPE NEVER MADE IT TO LE MANS. IT WAS CRASHED HEAVILY DURING PRACTICE FOR THE NURBURGRING 1000kms’
And what a car with which to introduce yourself as a manufacturer. As the world’s first glassfibre monocoque, the gorgeous Peter Kirwan-Taylor-styled, Coventry Climax-powered car was groundbreaking, but sadly proved as delicate in spirit as it was to look at. And so the Elite, despite multiple class and index of thermal performance victories at Le Mans, as well as dominating sports and GT racing with the likes of David Hobbs and Graham Warner, was supplanted by a baby sports car that appeared to be a backwards step technologically.
The Type 26 Elan’s body was still glassfibre, but it rested on a lightweight folded and pressed steel backbone chassis that weighed about half as much as an Elliott in January. According to the late Ron Hickman – Lotus linchpin and the man credited with engineering the Elan – the chassis was developed from a test-rig built for the Rotoflex couplings, the quartet of rubber doughnuts that formed an integral part of the driveshafts in a land without constant-velocity joints, and about which Chapman was deeply sceptical. Power came from a Ford Anglia-derived 1558cc engine (the very first few were 1498cc) that had an unsightly but highly effective twin-cam head grafted onto it and drove through a Ford Classic four-speed ’box. After its launch in 1962, in various incarnations and available as a kit or factory-built, the Elan would remain in production well into the 1970s and sell well over 10,000 units, ten times what the Elite had shifted.
Its success presented good and bad news. Chapman’s resources were already spread thin when the little sports car proved a revelation, pliant on the road thanks to its soft suspension and impressive on the track even without modification, the combination of slender backbone chassis and thin glassfibre body offered little in the way of side-impact protection, but the Elan was a nimble, driver-flattering missile that could humiliate bigger- engined cars of haughtier pedigree, the clamour to take the Elan racing started at launch, and demand ultimately gave rise to a specialist racing version in 1964: the 26R.
The focus was to cure issues with the soft suspension, driveshaft failure (Chapman was right abut those doughnuts) and fragility around the suspension pick-up points. Competition-spec wishbones, a bit of chassis strengthening, thicker anti-roll bars, sliding-spline shafts and (allegedly) a lighter bodyshell transformed a splendid sports car into an out-and-out racer. Power was up to between 140 and 160bhp. And this is where Ian Walker, the main protagonist of this story, comes in. Finally.
‘WHAT MAKES THIS CAR SPECIAL IS NOT ONLY ITS WINDCHEATING SHAPE, BUT THE FACT THAT IT HAS A ONE-OFF HANDBUILT ALUMINIUM BODY’
Walker was an ex-RAF man – he served as rear-gunner in Lancasters during World War Two – and a fierce competitor in his own right, deeply embedded in British post-war motoring. He was a restless engineer, inventor and entrepreneur. Remember those impossibly impressive BOAC aircraft models that were essential decoration in every travel agent’s window, promising jet-set journeys to exotic destinations? One of Walker’s companies made them, the Merit Kits Lotus Eleven model? Walker again. Who suggested to Chapman that tobacco sponsorship might be a good idea and had struck an ultimately stillborn deal with John Player Special long before Lotus linked up with Gold Leaf? You guessed it.
He also started a light aircraft taxi company, made models for Stanley Kubrick and Doctor Who, and built a prototype slot-racing game long before Scalextric hit the shelves, but his first love was motorsport, starting with rallying and becoming a specialist in upgrading Fords for competition. He was a key figure in motoring circles and counted the likes of Graham Hill (with whom he shared a Ford Falcon on the Monte – it didn’t end well) and Colin Chapman as friends. He was, of course, a Lotus customer and had campaigned both Elites and Elevens in the 1950s.
Walker was well-respected as a driver, if not a household name, but it was when he hung up his boots and turned to team management that he started to shine. With Lotus and Ford as his allies-cum-supporters and the roster of Lotus drivers often at his disposal, he turned Ian Walker Racing into a big concern in competition across Europe.
He pioneered the use of custom-built transporters and, as well as keeping the likes of Jim Clark, Graham Hill and Frank Gardner well-fed, blooded a new generation of drivers including the late-starter Tony Hegbourne, Doug Revson and Mike Spence.
A bright future in F1 was predicted but the attrition rate of his proteges took its toll and the death of Tony Hegbourne (he perished at Spa when his Alfa Romeo TZ1 cartwheeled during the 1965 500kms) prompted Walker to focus on safer pursuits, though he never lost his love of competition and was delighted to see his passion pass down a generation to son Sean, a big name in Histories.
During its heyday when that Lotus B Team moniker was most apt, Ian Walker Racing became best-known for a distinctive Lotus Elan 26R dubbed the Goldbug. there were actually three Goldbugs, all run with Chapman’s blessing and two being stock 26Rs, but it was to just one of them that the sobriquet really stuck. Ironic, really, seeing as it was the one that had the shortest career and fell furthest short of its potential. But it is that car that is most famous and which we test today, and what should properly be referred to as the Ian Walker Racing Elan Coupe.
What makes this car special is not only its windcheating shape, but the fact that it has a one-off handbuilt aluminium body by Williams & Pritchard (the tail-lights and more reflect the fact that Walker could get Ford parts for free). It was put together by IWR chief mechanic John Pledger for a single purpose: to win the index of thermal performance at Le Mans in 1964. that looked well within its grasp when a young tyro called Jackie Stewart put it on pole for its maiden outing at Montlhery.
But the Coupe never made it to Le Mans. It was crashed heavily by Mike Spence during practice for the Nurburgring 1000kms. Did that deprive the IWR Coupe of glory at La Sarthe? Probably not. For La Sarthe the car was to be equipped with special gearing, and the unused crownwheels and pinions were sold on. When fitted in their new home they were destroyed within two laps.
After its Le Mans no-show, the Goldbug was repaired and passed into privateer hands, first with British Hillclimb Champion David Good, before embarking on a long and successful hillclimbing career with marque gurus Paul and June Matty from 1982. It was Historic racer Martin
Stretton who prised it out of Matty’s hands and restored it for the track. ‘I first became aware of it about 30 years ago via Paul Matty, who became a very great friend. Many years later I had an ordinary 26R and about ten years ago Paul, knowing that I have always been entranced by its history and had always wanted to return it to original spec and take it racing, asked if I wanted to buy it.’
The restoration included replacing the cracked windscreen, best described as a shrunken – not cut down – Elan item, but also brought to light the quality of the build. ‘Welding aluminium in the 1960s was a dark art,’ says Stretton, ‘but the Williams & Pritchard work is incredible, the welds just look like stains on the metal; you can’t feel them when you run your fingers over them.’ Of course, you can’t see that with the sun glistening on the IWR Coupe in the pitlane at Goodwood, where Stretton has trusted Drive-My to drive it. Pottering onto the track, if you take your eyes off the lack of interior and all the exposed metal, you could be in a standard Elan, such is its docility. Working up through the four close-ratio gears en route to Madgwick, you start to sense the hornet-like ferocity of a 26R, a fizzing little machine as bare as it is beautiful. Setting it up for the double apex, you suddenly become aware of lots of noise, but still comfort is uncompromised. Brake, aim one metre left of the first apex, power in and hold that line to hit the second, mindful of the 26R’s reputation of being very easy to drive… until it isn’t. Nothing untoward at all, though.
Trough Fordwater and towards my personal nemesis, the corner with no name that precedes St Mary’s. Again nothing; with a flick of the wheel the Coupe jinks through with such ease that I arrive at St Mary’s well before I’d intended. No need to tiptoe through Lavant, and on to the long straight before braking too hard for Woodcote and easing past the pits for a repeat performance. It is more fluid the second time. Promise.
It is not valid to compare the IWR Coupe to the stock Elans I have owned and driven, but the 26Rs I’ve enjoyed do merit comparison. To be fair, this is the same in most respects – except one crucial area, the IWR Coupe might weigh a little more at 580kg (ish, with ballast), but it doesn’t feel as though that has blunted performance. On the contrary, whereas a 26R on the limit is sometimes a bit of a leap of faith, so much body noise and flexing at the extremities that it can feel as if you are driving a balloon, the Coupe, with its metal body and extra metalwork underneath connecting it to the chassis, simply doesn’t have the knife-edge sensations of a backbone-chassis car. It drives like a spaceframe or a monocoque.
Martin Stretton has routinely wrestled everything up to the trickiest Historic Formula 1 cars around the world’s circuits for 40 years, but that doesn’t mean he loves the Goldbug any less. ‘I tell everyone it is my retirement car,’ he says. ‘People think I mean I will sell it to fund my retirement, but I mean that, when all the other cars are gone and I am too doddery to be offered the really serious machinery, this will be the car that I drive and which puts a huge smile on my face. It is the car for my dotage.’
What a lovely ending to the IWR Coupe’s story, except that it might not be. Since Ian Walker died in 2008, son Kevin has been looking for ways to honour his father’s memory. First came the comprehensive masterwork on the subject, Ian Walker Racing – The Man and His Cars by Julian Balme (ISBN 978 1 90235 1476), and now Kevin is offering recreations of the IWR Elan Coupe.
they will not be the first – brother Sean previously raced a faithful replica – but the cars will be brand new from the ground up, with an FIA-homologated rollcage, and Walker intends to go ahead only if a minimum of three are ordered, each taking a year to produce. On board, crucially, is 26R prep king Mike Loughlin; but, thanks to the demise of Williams & Pritchard, his biggest headache was the bodywork. ‘I have had loads of quotes of up to £80,000 per shell, but I now have my man in the Midlands and we are ready to go. The idea came about after the book; a few small marques were being resurrected and this seems a natural way to keep dad’s memory alive.’
He quotes a price of around £200,000, about the current value of a ‘normal’ 26R, but tot-up the numbers – including £25,000-30,000 for a top-notch 160bhp engine – and Walker has built in little margin for himself. ‘It’s not really about the numbers, it’s about dad. He wasn’t capable mechanically – if you gave him screwdrivers and hammers he would have just done a lot of harm to his hands – but he was a visionary engineer and brilliant at setting-up cars. If I just wanted to make a big profit, I’d buy stock Elans, uprate them to 26R spec and paint them gold with a green stripe, but that would be too pedestrian.’
And in a nutshell, that is why the Goldbug – sorry, IWR Elan Coupe – is so special.
TECHNICAL DATA FILE SPECIFICATIONS 1964 Ian Walker Racing Lotus Elan Coupe
Engine 1558cc DOHC four-cylinder, iron block and aluminium head, two Weber 45DCOE carburettors
Max Power 150bhp @ 6500rpm / DIN
Max Torque 125lb ft @ 5000rpm / DIN
Transmission Four-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Steering Rack and pinion
Suspension Front and rear: double wishbones, coil-over- dampers. Front anti-roll bar
Brakes Servo-assisted discs, inboard at rear
Weight 580 kg
Top speed 150mph (est)
From top: As Mike Spence left it during practice at the Nurburgring in 1964, and why the Goldbug never had a chance to fulfil its raison d’etre at Le Mans; under construction at IWR; the artists at Williams & Pritchard made the body. Clockwise from opposite: Goldbug was one of only two cars penned by Ian Walker, the other being a quad-headlamp Elan that resembles a Gordon-Keeble and now belongs to son Sean; twin-cam four has a lot more power in 26R; unfamiliar dash for an Elan, redline at 8000rpm.