In the shadow of greatness. What better way to mark 50 years since the brilliant Jim Clark’s passing than a return to his old stomping ground in his very own car? Words Julian Balme. Photography Tony Baker.
JIM CLARK’S ELAN GP hero’s Lotus returns to his Scottish home ‘Most engineers would be happy to create one great car in their life; Chapman and his team were producing more than that a year’
DRIVING JIMMY’S ELAN Lotus fan Julian Balme drives to his hero’s homeland in Clark’s company car
For several years, the inhabitants of Duns on the Scottish Borders have been dusting off their red, white and blue bunting and hanging it the length of their small town’s High Street in an annual celebration of its most famous local resident, James Clark Junior (as he was known within farming circles). Outside the modest museum dedicated to his achievements, a gazebo is erected and a small collection of cars driven and raced by the legend is assembled underneath. Over a spring weekend, the town plays host to hordes of Lotus drivers and fans, all drawn north of the border by their admiration for the greatest racing driver of his generation – and for many, including me, of all time.
This year was the event’s most poignant staging. Brought forward to coincide with the 50th anniversary of his death – still, to many, incomprehensible – at Hockenheim on 7 April 1968, it was organised by the museum’s trustees and Club Lotus, with an expanded programme including a church memorial service, a gala dinner and an automobilia exhibition. Even the nearest pub to Clark’s farm, the Waterloo Arms in Chirnside, entered into the spirit by serving Racing Green ale all weekend and hanging a portrait of the two-time World Champion and Indy 500 winner over its usual roadside sign.
There’s surely no better way to make the pilgrimage to Scotland than in one of Clark’s old road cars, his first Lotus Elan, registered 997 NUR. I say ‘his’, but although he ran it for nearly a year and clocked up nigh-on 15,500 miles behind the wheel, it was always the property of Lotus Cars on account of it being one of the preproduction development models. As with the prototype Lotus Twin Cam engine fitted in an Anglia, Jim was used to test Chapman’s roadgoing replacement for the Elite – not that he was initially very impressed. In a letter to Team Lotus manager Andrew Ferguson, he chided: ‘That never-reliable motor car, the Elan, has broken down again and is at the factory.’ From our base in the south, we decide to retrace Clark’s ‘commute’ from Cheshunt, the second home of Team Lotus after Hornsey, up to Duns. These days the former factory building that housed the company’s racing activities is a health club, the ironically named Monster Gym (surely a misspelling), where we meet employee Steve Killan. “Small, ain’t it?” observes the Lotus Elise owner. “Makes mine look big.”
In the early 1960s, the A1 – or Great North Road – was a very different beast. It passed through city centres such as Newcastle, so even top racing drivers struggled to achieve startling journey times. Today it’s two- or three-lane motorway all the way up into Northumberland, before becoming a single-lane environment more suited to the Elan. The National Speed Limit is the fastest you’d want to travel in the diminutive Lotus on such busy roads – any quicker and that delicate steering becomes a liability as the whole car starts to move around. Even passing a lorry demands the driver’s attention as its bow-wave attempts to push the tiny sports car into the central reservation. The monotony of the A1 also shifts your focus to other things, such as the lack of comfort in the seats and the subsequent numbness in the backside. Despite being far more sensitive than mine, Jim’s was half my age when he sat there.
As far as Morpeth, I’m wishing we were luxuriating in the plush surroundings of Clark’s other road car, a Ford Galaxie 500. In an interview given to Derek Jewell in 1966, Clark claimed: “I want a car to be very easy to drive, and one that does things quietly without any fuss. I like the comfort of the Galaxie… Off the track I’m just lazy about driving. But for a town car, well you can’t beat a Lotus Elan. That’s my other car. It has all the size advantages of a Mini, and it’s fun to drive.” Indeed it is, but not on major motorways in the 21st century: stay well clear if you don’t want to spoil the lustre.
These days, it’s on B-roads where the genius of the Elan truly shines. Its cross-country ability for a car created 56 years ago is nothing short of astonishing. That it does it in such an engaging way is what really sets the Lotus apart from other pretenders to the title, and why it tops so many ‘all-time’ sports car lists. As Simon Hadfield (who we will come to later) recently told me: “Pressing on, you can average 50mph without ever topping 70mph – it’s that good.” A combination of softly sprung, lightweight body, skinny tyres conducted by pin-sharp steering, and propulsion from the gutsy Weber-carburetted 1558cc Twin Cam add up to an unsurpassed package. Even the off-the-shelf Ford gearbox is a joy to use in this incarnation.
On our trip north, we make a detour off the A1 over to Lindisfarne, or Holy Island. Apparently, once he’d got his pilot’s licence, Jim would fly up the coast in his Piper Comanche, the first of which was sold to him by Jack Brabham, and wait until he could spot the Northumbrian landmark before guiding the plane west to his local airstrip at Winfield. While we photograph the Elan on the causeway, it is recognised by a couple who have just visited The Jim Clark Museum in Duns. Resplendent in red, with its distinctive silver hardtop and bolt-on steel wheels, NUR is immediately recognisable, though back in 1997 when it was discovered languishing in a scrapyard near Mallory Park it was anything but.
Lotus specialist and historic racing guru Hadfield picks up the story: “Michael [Schryver] had been offered a dead S1 Elan and, because I was restoring my wife’s car, he thought I might be interested in some of the bits. Although it was painted in Gold Leaf colours and had a later nose grafted on, it was definitely an early car. When he told me the registration it rang a bell immediately and I told him he had to restore it!”
The Elan had no doubt eluded recognition because the rear numberplate had only three digits left on it and the front grille was missing. From the paperwork, Schryver and Hadfield deduced its significance – not just that it was ‘Jimmy’s car’ but also, after consultation with Lotus, that it was unit 001, chassis number 002 and one of only eight Elans originally equipped with the smaller 1498cc version of the Twin Cam. The latter had been replaced by the car’s second owner, Ian Scott Watson: “It gave trouble and, after a conrod let go spectacularly, Colin [Chapman] sent up a larger 1558cc engine by train to Berwick the next day.”
Following Scott Watson’s ownership the Elan was sold back to Lotus, which in turn freshened up the car before it was prepared for John Surtees’ secretary Gloria Dollar to race. She had a change of heart and it was sold on, and there the trail goes cold until Schryver’s intervention.
With the help of glassfibre wizard Kelvin Smith, he carried out a sympathetic rebuild, retaining as much of the original as possible and returning it to the road in ’99 complete with rear-mounted ‘1500’ badge. After nearly 20 years’ ownership, Schryver sold NUR last spring to London-based Scot and classic car dealer Gregor Fisken.
Being so intrinsically linked with Clark, the Elan has become a regular visitor to the Borders for the annual festivities, and on the Saturday morning is duly parked on Duns High Street. Despite his death now being half a century ago, Clark’s reputation and following are undiminished, with the event attracting a considerable number of visitors. Not all are driving Lotus cars, the marque Jim so loyally drove for, but you can’t help noticing the enthusiastic group of Dutch Elise owners who have convoyed faithfully from The Netherlands to Scotland.
I notice a gent in his late 60s leaning wistfully against the barriers, staring at the Elan. When I enquire whether he has travelled far, he replies: “Quite a way. I flew back early from a holiday in New Zealand the day before yesterday so that I could be here.” His name is Tony Attwood, and Clark has remained his hero ever since he met him at Brands Hatch in 1964: “I was 16, and at school in Hastings. On the days before the Grand Prix there was free practice so I rode up on my motorbike. In those days you didn’t have to pay and access wasn’t a problem. I was looking at Jim’s gleaming Type 25 when a voice behind said: ‘Nice-looking car, isn’t it?’ It was Clark. We chatted for a while and he ended up signing one of my schoolbooks, which I still have.”
Clark’s near neighbour – and rally legend – Andrew Cowan observes that “there are a lot of old people here today”, which is not entirely unexpected given the years since Jim’s passing. What is surprising is the response I elicit from a sharp-looking young man who’s half the age of most of those gathered. He is German, and has made the trip to the UK specially: “I’ve always admired Jim Clark. Such a modest, gentle man. Not like today’s Formula One drivers.”
As the day unfolds, we encounter a raft of Clark admirers including ex-British Touring Car Champion John Cleland and former Rootes works driver Peter Proctor. “Living in North Yorkshire, I’d see Jim from time to time and even asked him to do the grand opening of a business I was starting,” says Proctor. “Not long before the event he won the Indy 500 and as a result was being pulled from pillar to post, honouring all manner of press and publicity commitments. To be honest, I didn’t expect to hear from him, but one night he rang and said could I move the opening forward by 24 hours. True to his word he turned up, cut the ribbon and greeted all those that had showed up to see him.”
Everyone I speak to agrees that he was a very special man. Not only a phenomenal driver, but also a decent, funny and kind human being, all qualities not always associated with sporting personalities. Sadly, we’re not able to drive ‘his’ Elan as much as we’d like to due to the demands on its time at various events, such as Saturday afternoon’s memorial service at the church in Chirnside where he is buried. NUR and Peter Windsor’s yellow fixed-head are parked on either side of the gates as the weather becomes suitably gloomy, reminding everyone of that miserable Sunday in Germany.
Afterwards, we drive the short distance to Clark’s treasured home, Edington Mains, where we are kindly allowed to recreate the photos of the red Elan on the driveway by the farm’s current owner David Runciman. He is incredibly tolerant of visiting fans – there are three Jaguars already there when we arrive – and like the folk of Duns and Chirnside, he appreciates Clark’s significance and the fondness with which his memory is held, not just in the UK but around the world. The following morning I have one final scoot around the near-deserted Borders roads in NUR so that photographer Baker can get those last few driving shots. It’s a good time to reflect on the car, and its first custodian.
Most designers or engineers would be happy to have created one great car in their lifetime; Chapman and his band of followers were producing more than one a year. They were on fire with creativity in the early ’60s, the products of their imagination dominating motorsport and giving enthusiasts road cars to savour. Of all the small sports cars at that time, nothing came close to an Elan and in Clark the firm had the perfect ambassador. My favourite toy as a kid – no doubt due to the cars’ connection with Jimmy – was a Corgi Lotus set with two Elans, a Type 25 and a VW tow vehicle. The loss of my schoolboy hero was tough, but the fickle nature of youth meant that I soon recovered and had a new sporting hero: a Northern Irish footballer who also drove a Lotus. For those close to Jimmy, however, it must have been devastating.
Today, an aura of melancholy continues to surround Clark. His demise at Hockenheim in a minor Formula 2 race, after a rear tyre deflated on the long straight heading out into the forest, appeared beyond tragic. Friends still get emotional when talking of him, and even the scene at Watkins Glen from the Ford promotional film 9 Days in Summer, shot six months before he died on a damp upstate New York day, has a sombre musical accompaniment worthy of a Hollywood tear-jerker. For me he represents a longed-for, bygone golden era, when road cars were exciting, affordable and involving; when Formula One cars sounded amazing and looked beautiful; and their drivers were handsome, down-to-earth and hugely talented. Definitely something worth celebrating.
‘Of all the small sports cars available at the time, nothing came close to the Elan and in Clark Lotus had the perfect ambassador’
‘Most engineers would be happy to have created one great car in a lifetime; Chapman and his band of followers were producing more than one a year’
‘These days, it’s on B-roads where the Elan truly shines. Its cross-country ability for a car created 56 years ago is nothing short of astonishing’
Above: Monster Gym (or should that be Jim?) now stands on the site of the old Team Lotus Cheshunt base, as marked by tribute to Clark (left). Below: the Elan at rest at Lindisfarne.
Main: delicate tail-lights for earliest Elan – and snug roof is a boon on a chilly Scottish morning. Top: outside Clark’s old house at Edington Mains, recreating iconic 1965 Sport Auto cover shot.
Elan chassis 002 was originally fitted with a 1498cc Twin Cam, but after it failed Chapman gave then-owner Ian Scott Watson a 1558cc unit.
Clockwise, from main: the S1’s incredible balance is best exploited well away from the motorway; Clark Elans reunited at Chirnside Parish Church; Lotus cars of all ages pay tribute to Jimmy in Duns High Street.