The Series 1 Lotus Esprit racer...
...that almost made it to Le Mans
December 2019 by Seán Ward for www.goodwood.com
Lotus built its foundations on motorsport. The company’s founder, Colin Chapman, was a pioneer, an engineer determined to race and to win. To get there Chapman adhered to the simple but highly effective philosophy of “simplify, then add lightness”. It was that philosophy that gave birth to some truly great race and road cars, including the Lotus Esprit racer you see here. This car’s story, however, is a little unconventional.
At Peter Auto’s 2019 Spa Classic we caught up with one of the car’s three owners, Leon Douch, a self-confessed petrolhead who knows this Esprit’s story inside out. Leon co-purchased the car with long-time friend Ken Baird and driver and race team owner Greg Caton.
“Both Ken and I had Series I Lotus Esprits,” said Leon. “We’re both massive petrolheads and have known each other for years, and I’ve known Greg for years as well. We wanted something that we could race, basically, something a bit different.
“Snooping around I came across this, in period, and that it ran in the world endurance championship. So it was eligible for the Classic Endurance Racing series that Peter Auto runs, pre-1980 cars. So we thought why don’t we try to track it down. And it turned out that it was still with Richard Jenvey who was the original owner.”
Richard Jenvey was the founder of Jenvey Dynamics in 1987, a company that builds throttle bodies and other race parts.
“Basically, Richard Jenvey is a privateer, an engineer by background,” Leon explains. “He approached Colin Chapman to race this – there weren’t any others homologated, so he got this Esprit homologated. It was for the ’79 season but it was a Series I Esprit, so a 1976 car. And Chapman basically gave him a chassis and a body – I don’t know whether or not he gave engines or anything else like that, but he gave him what we later found out to be Esprit Chassis 02. It sort of when out the back of the factory at Lotus, so it was obviously a development car of some sort that was surplus to requirements. I think Jenvey kept the chassis, sold the body and built his body off of moulds. And it went to race at Zolder, Nürburgring, Silverstone, various others.”
“It was quite quick but it was hellishly unreliable,” says Leon. “I think mainly because Jenvey made it unreliable. We’ve got all of the technical drawings and everything that he was using for the cranks and all this sort of stuff, so I think it was more an engineering exercise for him… He spent a lot of time on the engineering side of things without spending enough time on making it reliable…”
Once Leon, Ken and Greg discovered the car they were keen to find it again, if it still existed. One call to Richard Jenvey brought very positive news. “I got in touch with Jenvey to see what state it was in, what he had left of the car, where it was, and it turned out he had most it.
“He’d got rid of the original gearbox – he’d lent it to someone and never seen it again, which is a bit of a shame because they’re about £20,000… Because all of the back end is basically March F1. All the uprights, all the rear suspension, is March sourced stuff. The ‘box is a Hewland FG400, so Formula 1 spec gearbox.
“So Greg and I basically turned up [at Jenvey Dynamics] and, as you can imagine, two guys in their mid-thirties turning up to Richard’s, a seasoned driver and engineer, he’s thinking ‘what are these two guys doing here’… I don’t think he took us seriously, I think he thought we were just tyre kicking to begin with. But then Greg spotted the back end of it was basically a March Formula 1, so Greg said ‘oh, it looks like you’ve got March uprights on the back there’, and Jenvey’s cigarette literally fell out of his mouth. That sort of broke the ice and I think he knew we were pretty serious after that. That was five, nearly six, years ago now.”
From there Leon, Ken and Greg bought as many parts as they could get their hands on, all in the hope of bringing the car back to life. But it was a challenge.
“There were bits in Jenvey’s home, there were bits in the Jenvey warehouse – there were bits up in the roof space so we had to get a forklift to get the body down… It was completely random! But loads and loads of stuff. We got a whole hoard of useless spare parts, parts that had been modified… It was basically a bare chassis when we found it, a pretty Heath Robinson set-up for some of the structural stuff. We’ve done a huge amount of work to get it to where it is now, which is why it’s taken so long, to basically pick it all apart.
“We’ve kept it as original as we possibly could – we’ve used a lot of the original aluminium tub but most of the suspension we had to replace because of cracks. I don’t think they had the same sort of focus on health and safety then as we do now. It’s as it would have been, just a lot stronger.”.
As for the engine, it’s a “normally aspirated Lotus unit, 2.0-litres”, says Leon. “Putting out around 240bhp. It’s decent enough but needs a bit more. We’ll try and work on that in the next six months or so I think. We just wanted to race it and get it reliable. It’s competed twice and finished twice, which is probably more than it did in period, two races in a row!”
The ultimate goal, Leon reveals, wasn’t just to rebuild a classic Esprit and have a few jolly weekends racing, but to take the car to a legendary theatre of motor racing that it was due to visit many decades ago.
“The aim is to get it into the Le Mans Classic next year. It was entered for Le Mans in ’79 but it didn’t turn up, so we’re hoping if we run in this series we’ll get the nod. The trouble is it’s a one of one car, so there aren’t any others. It’s not like the Porsche 911, which is eligible for Le Mans so there are 300 Porsche 911s that could run at the Le Mans Classic, very few of which would have appeared in period… We don’t know for sure. We’re just trying to get it dialled in and get it quicker.”
Given the work that’s gone into the rebuild, the engine’s incredible noise, the story behind the original build and that Le Mans is the race that it never quite managed, we certainly hope it makes it.
Spa Classic photography by Pete Summers, historical Silverstone image courtesy of Motorsport Images.