Lotus’ first F1 race car heads to auction

The first Lotus Formula 1 car will be among the featured lots at a Bonhams auction scheduled for May 10 in Monaco.

The original Team Lotus dissolved in the early 1990s (other unrelated teams subsequently used the Lotus name), but it was once an F1 powerhouse, winning seven Constructors’ and six Drivers’ Championships with innovative cars designed under the supervision of legendary Lotus founder Colin Chapman.

This car—chassis number 353—is the one that started it all. A Lotus 12, it was raced by Team Lotus eight times between 1957 and 1959 in both F1 and F2, as the rules of the time allowed crossover between the two categories.

The car’s outings included the 1957 BRDC International Trophy, a non-championship race for F1 cars at Silverstone. While not part of the official World Championship calendar, it marked the F1 debut of both Lotus and driver Graham Hill, who would go on to win two F1 championships and the “triple crown” of the Monaco Grand Prix, Indianapolis 500, and 24 Hours of Le Mans.

1957 Lotus 12, chassis number 353 (image via Bonhams)

Chassis number 353 was also the first Lotus to race in the F1 championship proper, when Hill drove it in the 1958 Monaco Grand Prix. Historic significance aside, the car didn’t have an especially good racing record, with its best finish being second, achieved in a pair of F2 races.

Exemplifying Chapman’s philosophy of “simplify, then add lightness,” the car is claimed to weigh just 700 pounds in racing trim thanks to a chassis made from aircraft aluminum. A Coventry Climax inline-4 makes 141 hp in F2 tune, which is sent to the rear wheels through a 5-speed sequential gearbox with an unusual lefthand straight-line shift pattern.

Lotus sold chassis number 353 to privateer John Fisher after the 1958 racing season. Fisher raced it four times in 1959 before selling it to Australian Frank Gardner, who had plans to continue racing the historic Lotus but soon sold it. The car passed through a few more owners before being acquired by current owner Mike Bennett and a partner in 1991. Bennett acquired full ownership of the car in 1995 and had it fully restored.

Bonhams expects the first Lotus F1 car to sell for between $310,000 and $420,000 at auction. But to dedicated Lotus fans, it just might be priceless.