© Werner Henisch, courtesy of Artcurial

The archetypal Formula Ford, the Lotus 51 is also one of the most aesthetically successful models.

Listed in the Historic Lotus Register, chassis 51FF123 was delivered new in 1967 to the famous Jim Russell Racing Driver School in England that played a role in the development of drivers such as Derek Bell and Jacques Villeneuve. In fact, the first-ever Formula Ford race took place that year, on July 2 at Brands Hatch, in a simple competition between this institution and rival school the Motor Racing Stables.

In 2015, the engine and gearbox were rebuilt to Formula Ford specification, and the car has been raced for approximately eight hours since. The owner has confirmed that, subject to the usual checks, it is ready to race and its FIA passport will need to be renewed. An opportunity to race a single-seater of this prestigious marque, with reasonable running costs and an outstanding aesthetic, this is a winning formula.

SCM Analysis

Detailing

Vehicle:1967 Lotus 51A Formula Ford
Years Produced:1967–68
Number Produced:218
Original List Price:£1,000 ($2,750)
Chassis Number Location:Tag on dash
Engine Number Location:Boss on right side of block
Club Info:Crossflow Cup
Website:http://www.norwestff.com
Alternatives:1961–63 Formula Junior, 1964–71 Formula B, 1964–72 Formula Vee

This car, Lot 118, sold for $33,660 (€28,608), including buyer’s premium, at the Artcurial Monaco Auction on July 19, 2021.

Formula Fords are the ultimate non-collectible vintage racer. They are as exotic as dirt, as there were thousands made over the years and not one of them, at least within a year or so of each other, is substantially better or worse than another.

That said, Formula Ford is without question the most “bang for the buck” available in vintage racing. The cars are a joy to drive and they are fast. On all but the highest-speed tracks, a well-driven Formula Ford will turn similar lap times to a Corvette or Cobra, so don’t snicker.

They are wonderfully inexpensive to race and maintain, which is sort of the whole point. They can still be insanely competitive. The fact that they are effectively all the same indicates that consistently running at the front means that you are a damned good racing driver. Forget the pocketbook — win in a Formula Ford and you really are faster than the others.

The only downside is that from a spectator standpoint, Formula Fords make a boring grid to watch. From the paddock, you can tell when they are out because it sounds like a swarm of bees has moved into a local treetop.

Democracy and meritocracy

Ever since the democratization of automobile racing after World War II, there has been a consistent effort on the part of the people in charge to find an affordable and effective route for talented young drivers to learn the skills of motor racing and allow the best ones to move up. In England in the 1950s, 500-cc Formula 3 served well, introducing drivers like Stirling Moss, Peter Collins and Jack Brabham to their craft. But it was too parochial for international viability, and died off.

Count Giovanni Lurani took a shot at it in 1958, when he established Formula Junior, based on 1,000-cc or 1,100-cc production engines. It was meant to be a junior Formula One and proved successful over a number of years. But it had the misfortune of straddling years during which motor racing evolved exponentially.

In Formula One, relatively large, commodious front-engine cars with 2.5-liter power were evolving to become delicate and tiny 1.5-liter missiles. Formula Junior tried to follow. It also became sufficiently important that the big factory teams entered to win. As a result, what was supposed to be an amateur training ground became as expensive and dangerous as the professional top series. It too was discarded.

Off to school

Everybody knows that racing is expensive, but if only the wealthy can afford it, where and how do you find new talent? Motor-racing schools provided an excellent option. Drivers could agree to a fixed charge and show up for a week while the school provided the equipment and instruction. If you were good, you could move forward. For this to work, however, the school must survive as a business, which means controlling costs. Engines and tires were the killers.

In 1963, Geoff Clark moved his racing school to the Brands Hatch circuit, and there he inherited several old Formula Junior cars in which stock 1,500-cc Ford Cortina engines had been installed, replacing the otherwise-similar racing units. They were magic. The bigger engines had about the same horsepower, but in such a low state of tune, they didn’t break. He then developed the idea of both a school and a competition car that used the Cortina engine (Ford was willing to sell them for about $150 each) and radial tires that lasted far longer.

Clark approached various constructors to find someone to supply a cheap racer like this. Brabham and McLaren both demurred, but Colin Chapman was willing to dust off his old Lotus 31 tooling and build a few “Type 51” cars for about $2,400 each. He insisted on using a Renault gearbox, as they were cheap and he was also using them in his Europa. There were plenty of machinations getting it all done, but eventually Lotus and rival Alexis were building Formula Fords at £1,000 (about $2,750) each. A new era had begun.

A winning formula

The new formula took off quickly in 1967 and became the de facto motor-racing training series for the next 20 years. With all the essential characteristics (a tubular frame, engine, 4-speed transmission, brakes, tires, weight) controlled, Formula Ford achieved the desired goal of being relatively affordable, competitive and a true test of driver skill. James Hunt, Tom Pryce, Emerson Fittipaldi and Mauricio Gugelmin all started in Formula Fords.

Designs evolved over the years and cars got marginally faster as engineers strove to optimize the details, but the driver remained the critical factor. Rule changes after 1972 moved the designs forward, so 1972 is generally considered to be the last year of “Classic” Formula Ford for vintage racing.

Personality over performance

Our subject car is one of the first Lotus 51 cars built, and the shape is generally considered to be the prettiest. They are quirky. The Renault gearbox uses synchromesh gears, which means always using the clutch to shift. The lever is on the left and the pattern is both inverted and mirrored to what you would expect (first is down and towards you). Learning to shift is a challenge in itself. The ratios that come with it are all you will ever have.

This may give personality to a collectible, but Formula Fords aren’t collectible. If they were, a Lotus 51 might be the one to have. While this car would be welcome at any vintage Formula Ford event (and you might even be venerated for bringing it), you will still be consigned to mid-pack at best when the flag drops.

Virtually every other Formula Ford uses a Hewland transaxle, which is a dog box (no clutch, just flinch the throttle and move the lever) and has individual gear ratios that are almost infinitely changeable in half an hour or so. This alone costs the Lotus 51 a few seconds a lap.

Values reflect this. Today the range for “classic” Formula Fords is around $30k–$40k, with the best 1971–72 cars at the top. “Gentleman” cars like our subject car are towards the bottom.

At least the Lotus 51 has remained remarkably stable as an investment. In 2005, a similar car sold for $24,500. Adjusting that for real dollar inflation gives us $34k today. The top cars have gone up faster (from maybe $20k then to $40k now), which reflects the emergence of a serious set of venues in which to compete in them. These are purely weapons-grade cars, after all, and having a winning car is worth a premium.

The Lotus 51 is a niche car, valued more by Lotus buffs and history aficionados rather than serious racers. As such, this car was both fairly bought and sold. ♦

(Introductory description courtesy of Artcurial.)

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