19th Jun, 2024 13:00

Imperial War Museum | Duxford, Cambridgeshire

  Lot 114

1952 Lotus MkVI Prototype
From the estate of the late Graham Nearn, founder of Caterham Cars

Sold for £45,000

(including buyers premium)

Lot details

Registration No: XML 6
Chassis No: L176/1
MOT: Exempt

  • Prototype of the first volume-built Lotus model
  • Famously came 2nd in its first two races at Silverstone in 1952
  • Entered from the collection of the late Graham Nearn
  • Previously on display at the British Motor Museum

There is no doubting Colin Chapman’s genius in terms of mathematics, stress analysis or talent spotting (the roster of designers, drivers and engineers he employed remains exceptional). However, Lotus may never have conquered the world of motorsport or become a much-loved sportscar manufacturer if Colin Chapman had not been helped by his future wife Hazel Williams (and her parents), the Allen brothers (Michael and Nigel) or his father Stanley. Trainee dentists with a petrolhead father, Michael and Nigel Allen spent their spare time tinkering with cars in an unusually well-equipped domestic garage. A fellow Austin Seven enthusiast who could not help but be impressed with his near neighbours’ facilities, Chapman befriended the Allen brothers and convinced them to build and campaign a trio of cars in 750 Motor Club events for the 1951 season. In the end, the triumvirate only completed one car. Known as the Lotus MkIII and road registered as ‘LMU 3’, its successes were such that Chapman felt emboldened enough to form the Lotus Engineering Company on January 1st 1952 with himself, his father and the Allen brothers as the four directors. Stanley Chapman provided an old stable adjacent to his pub as a workshop and Michael Allen ran the enterprise day-to-day while Chapman continued to work for British Aluminium and Nigel Allen kept up with his studies. The 750 Motor Club’s announcement of a new 1172 Formula for 1953 provided Chapman with a golden opportunity. His response was the Lotus MkVI which took full advantage of the new class’s regulations that allowed entrants to field chassis of their own design (as opposed to Austin Seven derived examples).

Utilising the same spaceframe layout that Mercedes-Benz and Jaguar had chosen for the W196 Grand Prix car and C-Type sports racer respectively, Chapman’s sketches for the MkVI were turned into reality by Nigel Allen who designed and fabricated the prototype’s chassis. Purposefully designed to accept a variety of drivetrains (be they Ford, BMC, MG or Coventry-Climax), the very first MkVI was fitted with a shorter stroke Ford Consul OHV engine displacing 1498cc. The idea being to prove to potential buyers that the featherweight chassis / body unit (which tipped the scales at just 90lb) was strong enough to cope with a heavier / more powerful engine than the 1172 Formula would permit.

Clothed by Williams and Pritchard, another North London company which would play a significant role in the Lotus story going forward (as would the Progress Chassis Company that fabricated all subsequent MkVI spaceframes), the prototype made its competitive debut at Silverstone on July 5th 1952. Driven by Michael Allen, Colin Chapman and Nigel Allen, the diminutive two-seater scored three second places across a series of handicap events. Indeed, such was its performance that well-known club racer Phil Desoutter placed an immediate order for a production version securing it with a £100 deposit!

Returning to Silverstone on 26th July, ‘XML 6’ finished third in the Ladies’ Handicap with Colin Chapman’s fiancée Hazel Williams behind the wheel. Michael Allen was entered by ‘Ecurie Lotus’ for the International Daily Mail 100-Mile Sportscar Race organised by the West Essex Car Club at Boreham on 2nd August and ran in practice the previous day. Unfortunately, his journey to the Essex circuit on race day was curtailed by a run-in with a Co-operative bread van. Contemporary reports suggest that Allen emerged pretty much unscathed, while his girlfriend Pauline suffered some minor bruising. Nevertheless, ‘XML 6’ was deemed a ‘write-off’. The subsequent £800 pay out enabled the Lotus Engineering Company to not only pay off all its debts but also commission the construction of the first commercial MkVI chassis.

Fed-up with Chapman’s tendency to over-promise and under deliver to customers, Michael Allen quit the company as did his brother Nigel who re-focused on his dentistry. Undeterred, Chapman set-up the Lotus Engineering Co Ltd in September 1952 with himself, Hazel and Stanley as directors. The damaged ‘XML 6’ was returned to the road and campaigned by Nigel and Michael Allen throughout 1953 albeit with an 1172cc Ford engine aboard. It is unclear whether the car was reincarnated with a new chassis / body unit or whether Michael prevailed on his brother who had built the Prototype’s structure initially to repair it.

The Prototype left Lotus’ inner circle via a January 1954 Autosport magazine advert. Known to have passed through the hands of Dick Manwaring and Frank Nicholls (who later founded Elva), the latter raced ‘XML 6’ at Goodwood in the March 1954 Members’ Meeting. Owned and campaigned by John Woolfe towards the decade’s end, the Prototype entered the late Graham Nearn’s ownership during the early 1970s. Famous as the man who saved the Lotus Seven by acquiring the design rights to it from Colin Chapman in 1973, Nearn was a true motorsport enthusiast. The proprietor of Caterham Car Sales & Coachworks, and the father of the Caterham Seven, Nearn had ‘XML 6’ restored back to its original specification complete with a 1.5 litre Ford engine.

Graham Nearn loaned several cars from his collection to the British Motor Museum for display purposes in 2003 including the famous MkVI prototype. Interestingly, Lotus’ sales literature for 1953 mentions that customers can buy ‘a replica of the successful MkVI sports car’ which could be read to imply that ‘XML 6’ was the only true MkVI with all the circa 110 subsequent versions being replicas (in much the same way that Frazer-Nash marketed ‘Le Mans Replicas’). Little used over the past two decades, the ex-Nigel and Michael Allen machine would doubtless benefit from a degree of recommissioning. Although, the Nearn family report that it has previously run ‘very well’. The diminutive two-seater’s aluminium bodywork proudly bears a number of minor dents and scrapes which attest to its competitive past. The steering wheel is said to be original but the smart Red upholstery is obviously the result of a more modern re-trim.

It is difficult to overstate the importance of the MkVI in Lotus’ history. Put simply, it was the model that saw Colin Chapman transition from a highly talented special builder to a recognised motor manufacturer. ‘XML 6’ occupies a unique place in marque lore having been a Works machine, the private car of a Lotus director (Michael Allen) and the property of the Nearn family for five decades. Potentially eligible for a host of prestigious events, the prototype MkVI is surely deserving of a place in another major collection or museum.

For more information, please contact:
Lucas Gomersall
07484 082430


Auction: Imperial War Museum | Duxford, Cambridgeshire, 19th Jun, 2024

An auction of classic, collector and performance motorcars held at the iconic and visually stunning Imperial War Museum, Duxford. Venue Details 

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