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Lotus Eleven: Meet 'Yellow Peril' a British race legend

The Eleven was Lotus boss Colin Chapman's world-beating inspiration for the 1956 season, and one car, Graham Hill's XJH 902, has a prime place in motorsport history. Daniel Cobbs steps inside

As we all know, actors never want to work with animals or children. The reason is simple; both are unreliable and unpredictable. Likewise, so are cars of a certain age which normally come under the heading of "classic". For me, driving a car older than my latest download or smaller than my bathtub is about as enticing as root-canal treatment performed by Josef Mengele.

That's not to say I won't drive them I have a living to make, after all. I know some of my fellow motoring hacks would sell one of their kidneys for the chance to savour the taste of those so-called halcyon days of the motor car. Call me old-fashioned, but I like a car to have a few niceties about it. I don't expect sat-nav or even electric windows, but seat belts and some sort of heating system I consider the bare minimum requirements neither of which were found in the 1956 Lotus Eleven Sport I was recently invited to drive.

To be fair, I knew it wouldn't come "suited-and-booted" with a leather and walnut interior. It is, after all, the actual car which was assembled and raced by one the greatest motoring legends of his era: Graham Hill. It followed Lotus's charismatic and zealous boss Colin Chapman's decision to put all efforts into one race machine for the 1956 season, and the Eleven would be his magnum opus. It reigned supreme in its class until 1959.

There were three different versions of the Eleven the Club, Sports and Le Mans each were based on a multi-tubular spaceframe chassis with coachwork from the pen of Frank Costin. Success on the track was immediate and the Eleven attracted many other great drivers, including Chapman himself, Mike Hawthorn and Cliff Allison. Stirling Moss established three new international land speed records with an Eleven in 1956.

That same year's Le Mans also saw an Eleven winning its class and finishing seventh overall. Not only was the Lotus quick and agile, it also lasted the distance. All four Elevens which started had also finished, something that eluded teams Ferrari, Maserati and Aston Martin. The Eleven was the car that established Lotus as the world's premier manufacturer of small-capacity sports racing cars.

The "Yellow Peril", XJH 902, is steeped in so much history it is impossible to ignore the importance of the role it played in post-war British motor sport. Hill built the car when he was working as a mechanic at Lotus Engineering in Hornsey, London, and raced it in the 1,200cc class of the Autosport Production Car Championship. To save money, the relatively impoverished future world champion would drive it to race meetings, compete in it, and then drive it home. At Oulton Park on 9 June 1956, Hill gave his Lotus its first race debut; he raced it at a further eight meetings that season and in all nine races finished on the podium, four times in first.

This diminutive Lotus seemed quite medieval compared with today's race cars. Shoehorning my portly frame into the tiny open cockpit was a problem, my right leg wouldn't go past the dustbin lid-size steering wheel. I finally managed to coax my lower limbs deep inside, and then they were swallowed-up, out of sight, by the narrowing footwell. It was, to say the least, a tad claustrophobic. Strangely, though, it felt as if I were wearing the Lotus like a yellow overcoat. And to have that feeling of attachment is something missing in so many modern-day cars.

At the touch of a button on the sparse metal dashboard, the 1,172cc Ford engine sprang into life. Getting to grips with a car designed to be a world-beating racer and crammed full of 50-year-old idiosyncrasies really wasn't as difficult as I first imagined. During its Fifties heyday, the Eleven Sport could easily top 100mph, but exploring anywhere near those limits during my drive through the streets of London would not be an option.

Another problem was that the engine didn't take kindly to being stuck in the congested West End traffic and overheated dramatically, bellowing steam from the engine bay into the cockpit, poaching me from the neck down. And with a turning circle of a Caribbean cruise liner, slow speed manoeuvrability isn't one of its greatest attributes I practically brought the capital to halt as it took a six-point turn to enter Exhibition Road from Hyde Park. All that aside, and the fact that my favourite cashmere jumper wouldn't now fit a person of considerably reduced stature, my overall impression was quite, unexpectedly, a joyous one.

This Saturday, 12 January, it becomes lot 218 in an auction held by Coys at the NEC in Birmingham. It is estimated that it will fetch between 100,000-150,000, which, on reflection, seems a relatively small price to pay for a car with such an august provenance.

For further information on the auction go to www.coys.co.uk