Twins Separated at Birth

The challenge and satisfaction of “relational collecting”

Parked in one corner of Revs Institute are two British cars conceived and built 30 years apart. To one side is a 1962 Lotus Elite Series II, and a few feet away, set perpendicular to the Lotus, a 1995 McLaren F1. And yet all is not as it seems between these two very different cars, because they are not so different after all. They are twins separated at birth.

It is axiomatic that different things are, well, different. Chalk is not cheese. Difference is the expected default condition among things, ideas, people, places, even cheesecake desserts. When building collections or just contemplating objects in one, finding and highlighting differences is unexceptional, trite and, frankly, boring. But what if we discover hidden correspondences, similarities between chalk and cheese?

The process of repetition, where things in the past occur again and again, is one of the central phenomena of archaeology. Sacred landscapes are used and re-used by successive peoples. Similarly, many artifacts or, in our modern era – products, are invented, discarded, and then, later, reinvented, repurposed, and re-used. For example, the pneumatic tire was first invented in the 1840s by Robert Thomson for use on heavy wagons and coaches. As the invention was very expensive and conferred only marginal benefits, It didnt catch on and was soon forgotten. Then, in the late 1880s, John Dunlop, a Scottish veterinarian, obtained a patent for a pneumatic bicycle tire. This time the stars were in alignment, and the pneumatic tire was just the thing to transform the brand new “safety” bicycle into the universal conveyance we know today. The ensuing bicycle craze of the 1890s was the direct outcome of Dunlops pneumatic tire. Quickly, the Michelin brothers applied the self-same technology to automobiles, and the rest is history.

That process of repetition, re-creation, rediscovery is driven by the same old human needs and wants expressing themselves in different ways at different times: the heavy industrial tire of the 1840s is rediscovered as a feather-light aid to self-propelled recreation and mobility. Our two twins separated at birth are an example of similar wants being satisfied decades apart by two supremely clever engineers working from the same playbook of physical principles to produce two remarkable cars.

The Lotus Elite was the product of racing car designer, A. Colin B. Chapmans fertile engineering imagination in the 1950s. It was Chapman who said, More power makes a car faster in a straight line, less weight makes it faster everywhere”. And Chapman was a faster everywhere’ kind of guy. The Elite was Chapmans first real attempt to get into the high volume, car making game. The earlier Lotus 7 sports car, while roadable, was a crude, thinly disguised racer. It was far from what the market wanted for everyday use driving down to the shops, or out to the local bistro on a cold, rainy night.

Meanwhile, fast forward to the late-1980s when Gordon Murray was earning his reputation designing winning racing cars just as Chapman had thirty years before. McLaren Cars tasked Murray, a road car neophyte, with leading the F1 effort, their first volume production road car. It should come as no surprise that Gordon Murray was a “faster everywhere”  kind of guy as well. An obsessional focus on light weight is the first common denominator of these two very “different” cars.

The lightest stress-bearing structure is the monocoque, unibody, or stressed skin design –  nomenclature varies. Chapman eliminated the heavy, flexible ladder frame from his new car in a ground-breaking move. He designed the worlds first all composite, fiberglass, unibody automobile. Only a lightweight steel “ski”  in the front suspension area, and a tubular windshield hoop to support the door hinges were bonded in for extra strength. With weight under control, good aerodynamics was addressed to ensure high top speed with the Elite’s small engine. Chapman enlisted the help of aerodynamicist, Frank Costin to refine the timeless lines penned for fun by chartered financial accountant, Peter Kirwan-Taylor. The Elite really was a car designed by a bean counter.

Gordon Murray came to the same conclusion as Chapman: an all composite structure would be the way to reduce weight to the 1000 kg he required for more speed everywhere. This time, with the advance of materials technology, carbon fiber would be the material of choice. And so he specified the worlds first all-carbon fiber composite, unibody road car. Of course, carbon fiber unibodies were fully proven in racing cars, but the high cost, high labor, low production potential, and complex engineering made it a non-starter for road car application… except for the cost-no-object F1. As Engineer Murray wasnt given a price target for the finished car, but merely told to build the best sports car in the world”, the F1, unlike the Elite, was not designed by bean counters.

Being a racing car designer of the 1980s, Gordon Murray was fully conversant with the nuances of functional aerodynamics. The F1s timeless form, developed by designer, Peter Stevens, was equipped with both active and passive aero features.

Neither Chapman nor Murray planned to produce their own engine. Indeed, both had a practice of contracting for power plants with outside suppliers. Chapman went with long-time engine supplier, Coventry-Climax. The result was a purpose-built 1216 cc variation on the 4-cylinder, single overhead camshaft, 1100 cc Climax FWA called the FWE, “E” for Elite. Based on their relationship with BMW, McLaren hired the Munich firm to build a special, 6064 cc, normally aspirated V-12, poetically designated the BMW S70/2 V-12.

When unveiled at the London Motor Car Show – Earls Court in 1957, the new Elite was stunning. Its avid reception was equaled only by the special VIP unveiling of the prototype McLaren F1 at Monaco in 1992. But in both cases, despite plaudits from experts and enthusiasts, problems were lurking in the background. The Elite was unexpectedly labor intensive and consequently, too costly to produce profitably. At a price of £2000 in the early 1960s, the Elite cost more than a Porsche 356 Super 90.

By the early 1990s, McLaren knew their new car was going to be eye-wateringly costly. Its one million-dollar price was as stunning to prospective buyers as the car itself. The result of build technology driving price made for disappointing sales numbers in both cases. The Elite was just too expensive for what it was, a small-bore, GT coupe with minimal amenities and no open-topped alternative. Production was stopped in 1963 after a tick over 1000 units in two series had been produced.

The McLaren came to market just in time for a worldwide economic downturn that ultimately limited sales to a mere sixty-seven road-going units. Fortunately, the arena of motor racing offered compensation. At the time of the F1’s engineering, Murray had made it clear that he was designing a pure road car. There were to be design considerations that, if competition were envisioned, would have been handled differently. Nevertheless, many owners wanted to take the F1 to the track. The whole racing experiment came to a glorious climax in 1995 when mildly modified for racing GT1 class McLaren F1 GTRs won Le Mans outright while taking four of the top five places. Roughly thirty more F1s in various forms of competition trim padded out McLarens slim sales book.

Having been designed with Lotus 11 sports racing car rear suspension, and a sophisticated independent wishbone front design, the Elite was right at home on the track. Elites won class victories at Le Mans six times along with two Index of Thermal Efficiency awards as well.  Circuits around the world saw Lotus Elites racing and winning for years.

So, there you have it – twins separated at birth. History recapitulated itself when two supremely talented racing car engineers with much the same experiences addressed the same problem. Unsurprisingly, they came up with two cars that, while they were very much the product of their time, were the same where it counted. And remarkably, the careers of the two cars proved to be similar as well.

Identifying hidden relationships such as that of the F1 and the Elite makes collecting, owning and using such twins a rich and satisfying experience. This type of relational collecting” is a compelling, albeit challenging, approach to parking that next interesting car in your garage. And related cars dont have to be McLaren F1s. They only have to share remarkable correspondences. Look for some yourself.