The Mystery of the Gullwing Eleven
Lately, I’ve been captivated by the sleek designs of 50’s race cars, particularly the Lotus Eleven. Blame my friend for this obsession. We’ve discussed his desire to restore a Lotus Eleven for months. The elongated hood and rounded fenders have an undeniable allure. One day, after our conversation about a modified hardtop Lotus Eleven, I couldn’t resist the temptation to search for coupe variants. To my surprise, a Google image displayed an aluminum-bodied Lotus Eleven coupe with gullwing doors.
“What?!” I exclaimed.
Indeed, a stunning Lotus Eleven with a sloping Kammtail roof and gullwing doors existed! I had no idea that Lotus Eleven coupes, referred to as Eleven GTs, were ever produced. There’s even a Lotus Eleven GT Breadvan! Intrigued, I delved into the image results, hoping to unravel the enigma surrounding this unique car. And thus, the mystery of the Lotus Eleven Gullwing Coupe unfolded.
The de Havilland Connection
According to a 1974 exposé written by Rod Leach, published on LotusEleven.org, this particular car was discovered under a tarp at the old de Havilland Aircraft factory in Hatfield, Hertfordshire, England. Leach speculated that the car was likely incomplete. Its exact stage of completion remained unknown when a local dealer “rescued” it, subsequently stripping parts like the engine and bonnet. From there, the car changed hands among private dealers until 1974, when Leach met its then-owner in a workshop in Huddersfield, Yorkshire.
Upon closer inspection, Leach was surprised to find the car in remarkably good condition despite the disassembled engine and missing bonnet. Impressed by its quality, he purchased it and entrusted Lynx Engineering in Rye, Sussex to make it roadworthy. Leach’s exposé elaborated on the challenges of getting the car operational, its participation in several races, and detailed descriptions of its construction. Notably, he praised the exceptional craftsmanship of the internal and external aluminum work, reminiscent of aircraft manufacturing standards. Every internal panel was precisely shaped and riveted in place, with the underside covered by a riveted undershield. The car’s edges showcased exquisite rolling and wiring, showcasing de Havilland’s advanced construction techniques. According to Leach:
The thing that impresses me most about it is the internal and external aluminum work, carried out to the extremely high standard one would expect in an aircraft manufacturing company. Unlike most Elevens, every internal panel is boxed and shaped to perform its particular function and then beautifully riveted in place. The whole of the underneath is totally enclosed in the riveted undershield, save a very small hole for the sump. The edges of this undershield are beautifully rolled and wired, and they still bear the original aircraft marking for the individual panels.The Gullwing Exposé, by Rod Leach, 1974.
Leach drew a connection between the aluminum bodywork and the De Havilland aircraft factory, emphasizing their shared commitment to high standards. It is plausible that the car was constructed by apprentices at the factory during their off-time, although it was never conclusively proven. In the preface to The Gullwing Exposé, Victor Thomas (2003) mentioned Leach attributing the design and construction to Frank Costin, the original Lotus Eleven designer. However, Thomas noted that he failed to find anyone who could offer a firsthand account of the car’s history. Despite speaking with Frank Costin, no recollection of working on the car could be confirmed.
The mystery deepens, as Thomas states in the preface:
Two other sister cars were mentioned, but there have never been any signs of these. It was suggested to Rod that the GT Eleven was commissioned with the intention of it being raced at Le Mans.Preface to The Gullwing Exposé, Victor Thomas, 2003
Could this elusive coupe have been part of an abandoned Le Mans program involving Lotus, Costin, and the de Havilland Aircraft Company? If so, why was development abruptly halted?
A Stillborn Le Mans Prototype? Or, a Special Construction for a Wealthy Customer?
Author’s Note: The following is pure speculation based on Rod Leach’s account, my observations of the car’s design and construction, and Lotus’ Le Mans racing history. I present a few theories regarding the car’s purpose and the reasons behind its abandonment.
Team Lotus last outing at Le Mans was in 1962. After enduring unfair treatment from the Automobile Club de l’Ouest regarding the Lotus 23 race car, Lotus withdrew from Le Mans. Victor Thomas described the Gullwing Exposé’s car as “a very pretty Gullwing Coupe fitted to an otherwise conventional Series II body.” Assuming the Lotus Eleven Gullwing Coupe was based on the Series II model, it must have been built between 1957 and 1962, before Lotus’ exit from endurance racing. Could this coupe have been intended as a sister car to the Lotus Eleven race cars, featuring gullwing doors, a removable rear window, and even a pigskin leather interior with a cigarette lighter? Although it seems peculiar for a race car to have a functioning cigarette lighter, smoking was more commonplace and accepted during that era. Hence, my theory:
The Lotus Eleven Gullwing Coupe was a “Privateer Special.”
Privateer racing has been prevalent in the history of motorsports, wherein private racing teams acquire older factory race cars and compete independently. Some private teams even received limited factory support. While the Lotus Elevens remained competitive, rival vehicles were becoming faster. Lotus needed funds for developing new race cars. Is it possible that a wealthy race car driver commissioned the Gullwing Coupe project?
The preface to the Lotus Eleven exposé hinted at the car’s potential commission by a private party for participation in Le Mans. It is also conceivable that two additional sister cars were commissioned, although no evidence has surfaced to confirm their existence. The confusion might have arisen from other Lotus Eleven GTs racing during that period, including the “Breadvan” Eleven GT.
The presence of a more refined interior suggests the car was intended for road use. It was not uncommon for racers to drive their cars to the track and back home after a day of racing. Could the Eleven Gullwing Coupe have been designed for this purpose? Unfortunately, the car’s origins and builders remain shrouded in mystery, as no documentation or surviving individuals associated with its construction have come to light.
Nevertheless, a question lingers: Why was development ultimately abandoned?
Reasons for Abandonment
Multiple possibilities exist for why the development of the Lotus Eleven Gullwing Coupe was halted. The simplest explanation could be that Lotus had already progressed to building faster race cars, prompting the private party involved to withdraw from the project and purchase one of the swifter models. The presence of the iconic Ford Cortina taillights, which suggest a production timeframe around 1962, coincides with Lotus racing and selling the Lotus 23B to privateers. Perhaps the private party redirected their investment toward the 23B instead of the Gullwing Coupe?
Another possibility is that the car was initially intended for a private individual who withdrew from the project, prompting Colin Chapman to consider completing the car for sale. This scenario might explain why the car was discovered unfinished at the old de Havilland factory. Once again, the Cortina taillights could provide insight into when the car was constructed and why its development was abandoned. In 1962, Lotus withdrew from endurance racing due to its strained relationship with the Automobile Club de l’Ouest regarding the Lotus 23B at Le Mans. If the Lotus Eleven Gullwing Coupe was being built during the same period, its abandonment might have resulted from Lotus’ shift of focus to Grand Prix racing.
The last possibility I consider is that the Lotus Eleven Gullwing Coupe represented an “evolution” of the Lotus Eleven GTs, optimized for road use and potentially offered for purchase directly from the factory. The inclusion of road-legal components like the Ford Cortina taillights and creature comforts such as the radio and cigarette lighter supports this notion. Lotus’ decision to withdraw from endurance racing after 1962 could have resulted in this car becoming an unfortunate casualty.
A mystery that may never be solved
Regrettably, the origins, purpose, and builders of the Lotus Eleven Gullwing Coupe may remain forever obscured. However, the car’s existence is a source of delight. With its timeless aesthetics and polished aluminum finish, the Gullwing Coupe is undeniably captivating. The fact that someone discovered this abandoned race car and completed its construction speaks to the enduring enigma surrounding the car and Lotus’ expertise as a race car manufacturer. The Lotus Eleven Gullwing Coupe, gullwing doors and all awaits the day when new information may emerge, bringing us closer to unraveling its mystery.