Hollywood ruled the movies in the 1950s, but European sports cars were coolest - and none more so than Lotus. Emerging as the racer to have, it caught the eye of the era’s hippest star: James Dean. I tracked down his Mark X Lotus - and uncovered a few controversies in the process.
‘Live fast, die young’ was a throwaway line beloved of post-war Hollywood, and both aspects of that offhand slogan came true for charismatic ’50s idol James Dean. The 24-year old Adonis had flirted with chicken-run fatality in Rebel Without a Cause and, bizarrely, was photographed sitting in a coffin not long before his death. In fact Dean coined a more subtle phrase of his own: ‘Dream as if you’ll live forever. Live as if you’ll die today.’
He did go fast, too. Alongside his burgeoning acting fame, Dean embraced motor racing, setting the trend for film-star race drivers Steve McQueen, Paul Newman and James Garner. A student motorcycle racer with a Triumph Tiger 110, Dean began competing on four wheels in 1954 with an MG TD. Bit too trad, maybe. So, who else was starting to make a name for themselves on track? Well, Porsche - and Lotus, up-and-coming European makes, glamorous giant killers both. Jimmy Dean tried his hand with the German car first, a 356 Speedster, entered at Palm Springs on Saturday 26th March 1955 in the F-production class event, which he won by nearly half-a-mile, placing 2nd the following day. He also did Santa Barbara Road Races on 28th and 29th May ’55, despite being forbidden to do so by Giant director George Stevens. Starting 18th, he got up to 4th by lap five, when a piston failed. So far, so good. But he wanted a real winner. Warner Brothers’ studio in beautiful downtown Burbank where parts of his three big movies were filmed just happened to be opposite the Olive Street showroom of Lotus concessionaire Jay Chamberlain, no mean competitor himself behind the wheel of early Lotuses, and Dean immediately took a shine to the sports racers gracing the forecourt. East of Eden producer Elia Kazan proclaimed, ‘I’ve made him a millionaire in a year!’ - and Dean was like a kid in a sweetshop who’d suddenly got money to spend.
A man in a hurry, he wanted what Chamberlain had, which was a Mark VIII Lotus, sleekest, most aerodynamic racer on the planet - a silver space rocket for the blacktop.
Author and racing driver Lee Raskin (James Dean at Speed) believes Dean was motivated to order the Lotus because he craved success, but the ‘no racing during filming’ rules laid down by Warner Brothers held back his racecraft; a proven winner like the Lotus would immediately increase his chances of victory. No doubt he was excited about the prospect of owning it. A racing buddy of Dean, Herb Jones, tells of barbecued chicken and partying in the paddock, swapping Speedster with XK120 to race each other along Mulholland Drive. He recounts Dean playing bongos at a post-race Caribbean gig and, afterwards at Jones’s apartment, spreading out the Lotus brochure on the floor for them to study while they ate raspberry jelly. He says Dean contemplated having the Mark IX painted white to match his Jaguar racer.
A little background on Lotus numerology is in order here: back in the day, founder Colin Chapman identified his creations as Mark II or Mark III, for example, using successive Roman numerals and it wasn’t until 1958 that Lotuses started being referred to as Type 15 or Type 16 and so on. That was somehow more cool, as by then Lotus was a sanctioned member of the SMMT, (the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders), a manufacturer in its own right.
The nitty-gritty of the quiffed one’s prospective Lotus needs more definition too. During the early ’50s Colin Chapman attracted talented aircraft design engineers to his workshop, including brothers Mike and Frank Costin, and it was Frank who styled the Mark VIII Lotus, first of the streamlined sports-racing cars that exemplified the Chapman philosophy that specified lightweight, aerodynamically efficient machines powered by relatively small-capacity engines. With rakish tail fins and shark-like profile, hand-crafted in aluminium by specialists Williams & Pritchard around a tubular spaceframe made by the Progress Chassis company, this was the car that set Dean’s pulse racing. During 1954 when Dean was making East of Eden, Chapman and a few other visionary club racers in Europe established Lotus’s giant-killing reputation, matching by agility the pace of the multi-cylinder Jaguar, Ferrari and Maserati opposition in big-league events at Silverstone, Goodwood and the Nürburgring. In discussions with Chamberlain, a spec was drawn up. The Lotus model line-up overlapped, but in May 1955 Dean ordered what would presumably be the next in the series, the Mark IX. There’s no question of intent – there’s a letter to Dean from his agent that confirms the deposit had been paid. The envisaged 60-day delivery was delayed so, as a stopgap, he traded the 356 Speedster for Porsche’s frontline racecar, the 550 Spyder.
By now Chapman and his associates were busy in north London designing and building the Lotus Eleven (whose designation was always spelled out) - a sports-racer in the same vein as the earlier streamliners, set for launch in 1956, after which it occupied the forefront of sportscar racing for the next five years - an extraordinarily long lifespan for a competition model. And this is where the waters get a tad murky: based on photos of the car in action in the hands of its post-Dean owner, it seems that what was delivered was actually a Mark X. There’s no such thing as a production line in any race workshop, and every hand-made car varies slightly. That’s part of the charm. The Lotus Marks VIII, IX and X were all based on the Mark VI chassis, with only small changes in detailing to the scuttles, radiator positioning, brackets for mounting the De Dion rear axle, and different outriggers for the bodies and suspension. Bereft of bodies and mounting hoops, they all look similar. The Mark X body is very like the Mark VIII. But the Mark IX shell is quite different, being 2ft shorter with stumpier, more upswept fins and shorter front overhang, and that’s not what we see in the photos from ’56. The longer bodyshell and humped bonnet identify it as a Mark X. Also, the Mark X has two Dzus fasteners (each side) holding the rear edge of the nosecone in place, whereas an VIII has three (the Mark X inner wing slopes in more sharply to let the extra heat out from under the bonnet. The fact that the Dean car was a Mark X rather than the Mark IX he ordered is confirmed in Ian H. Smith’s The Story of Lotus 1947-1960 (published 1970) on page 57. With Lotus embarking on its implacable mission, the car would have suited the character Dean portrayed in each of his major films, Eden, Rebel, and Giant: compelling coming-man, nervy underdog, edgy iconoclast, and doubtless there was angst in the Hornsey workshops to match.
Back then, customer racecars were generally delivered without engines: it was up to the buyer to source and fit what he deemed most appropriate. According to Jones, the idea of a fire-pump engine (the Coventry-Climax which would soon sweep the board) was a little too zany for Dean. The star was keen to use a homegrown Offenhauser engine, albeit a 1.5-litre (91 cubic inch) version rather than the Offy unit specified for American Midget racing which displaced 2.0-litres (105 cu in), though in the event, Meyer-Drake produced only three 91-cu-in engines, one of which was installed in a Mk VI Lotus. Dean’s interest in the Offenhauser engine derived from a trip to the Indy 500 in 1949 (he was an Indiana boy) when the 252-cu-in (4.1-litre) Offy engine was ubiquitous. Instead of the heavier and taller 2.0-litre Bristol engine, which was the preferred power unit for the Mark X - hence the humped bonnet - Dean shrewdly sought a lighter solution and, according to Raskin, befriended Burbank speedshop proprietors Karl and Vida Orr who readily agreed to provide him with the potent 91-cu-in four-pot Offenhauser motor. He put a $50 deposit on it and agreed that the total cost of the engine would be $1150 - quite a price for a race engine in 1955. But things were hotting up: hot-rods were in their infancy, and the Orrs, old hands at dry-lake racing, were in on the ground floor. So would Dean have been too, and he’d already lined up Karl Orr as his partner to open a European car franchise. Orr was even on Dean’s list of possible passengers for that last ill-fated drive to Salinas raceway.
There’s another explanation for Lotus despatching a Mark X rather than a Mark IX to Jay Chamberlain in August ’55. Two other Mark Xs were commissioned at the time Dean’s order arrived, and because Williams & Pritchard and Progress Chassis were tooled up for making their bodyshells and spaceframes, it was quicker to produce another rather than revert to a Mark IX.
The spec matters because of what happened to the car, which arrived at Chamberlain’s showroom after Dean’s fatal crash in the Porsche Spyder on 30th September ’55 at Cholame on Highway 41. The Lotus went on to have a US race career in the hands of John Timanus, who’d bought it from Chamberlain a year after Dean’s demise. Timanus painted it Persimmon red and fitted a 1466cc MG engine, followed in 1957 by a supercharged 1500cc Climax FWB unit, then an 1100cc Climax FWA engine and bodywork reminiscent of a Lotus Mark VI. The final ignominy was the installation, post-Timanus in 1962, of a 3.5-litre Buick V8, which must have made it pretty scary. Fast-forward 30 years, and the car – or what was left of it - was repatriated around 1980 by Westfield kit car boss Chris Smith, who had a brand-new chassis built, fitted with a Mark IX body and Climax powerplant, all done by leading firms. The discarded original chassis then passed via Historic Lotus Register member Graham Capel into the hands of prominent historic racers John Morley and his son Peter. A restoration was implemented and undertaken by historic Lotus specialist Mike Brotherwood, based on what Dean would have raced if he’d ever had the chance, to wit, a Mark X fitted with a 1500cc Offenhauser engine. The difference is, the ‘Westfield’ Mark IX is basically a brand-new car, based on the spec of what Dean ordered, while the Morley Mark X is actually built on the original chassis, clad with a similar body and powered by a similar engine to what Dean would have actually got. So, which is the ‘real’ car, the authentic Dean Lotus? You choose!
Curiously, the 1500cc flat-four engine that powered Dean’s ill-fated Porsche 550 Spyder was obtained from the wreck by Californian racer Dr William Eschrich and installed in a Lotus Mark IX chassis, also bought from Chamberlain, and known as the ‘Potus’. It’s probably the only air-cooled Lotus ever. Weird? It wouldn’t have mattered to Dean: ‘Life is short, break the rules; they were made to be broken,’ he said. Chapman would have probably agreed.
And here’s a thing: had Jimmy Dean made the trip to Salinas to race the Lotus rather than the Porsche, history would have undoubtedly been different. For starters, the Lotus was a racecar and not road-registered and so it would have been on a trailer, while the Porsche was eligible for both road and track, hence driveable to the circuit. Of the many aphorisms attributed to Dean, perhaps this one is most apt: ‘If a man can bridge the gap between life and death, if he can live on after he’s dead, then maybe he was a great man.’ And here we are, 55 years on, talking about the life and death of James Dean. And his memory lives on in at least one Lotus.
Other strands in the James Dean Lotus saga? US importer Jay Chamberlain, later noted for fitting demon camshafts in the Coventry-Climax engines of the day, was a close confidant of Colin Chapman and campaigned Elevens and Elites successfully in the late ’50s and early ’60s, including the celebrated class win at Le Mans with an 1100cc Climax-powered Lotus Eleven in 1957. He even raced an F1 Type 18 Lotus at Silverstone in the 1963 British Grand Prix.
And John Timanus, the first person to own and race the James Dean car, was an SCCA (Sports Car Club of America) official. He was Chief Scrutineer at Long Beach in early 1981 when the radical Lotus Type 88 twin-chassis F1 car made its first appearance, and he declared the car legal. Then the stewards bowed to pressure from other teams and decided that the Type 88 was not eligible to race. However, Timanus also assisted Colin Chapman later that year at the FIA hearing in Paris, though to no avail, as the ingenious twin-chassis car was finally declared illegal. As a postscript to that, 30 years later Dan Collins set fastest time of day up the Goodwood hill in the Type 88 at the 2011 Festival of Speed.