When you dream about cars, your vision is unclouded by the ugly compromise of abstract rules and the occult demands of modern competition. Instead, you envision a pure, beautiful form: a torpedo-shaped body, wheels dancing at the end of airfoil suspension arms, an operatic, high-tuned motor that breathes through rows of polished intake tubes.
In other words, you picture the 1967 Lotus 49 – the most beautiful Formula One racer ever constructed. Designed in England during a creative golden age that included the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper album, the miniskirt and Antonioni’s Blow-Up, the 49 was the automotive equivalent of Audrey Hepburn: slim and elegant, with an allure that would last for generations.
As the racers take to the track in Montreal on June 7 for the running of the Canadian Grand Prix, try comparing their new F1 cars with the Lotus 49. The current-generation cars look like mutant insects, their bodies contorted by the insanely complicated set of technical rules that govern F1 (unless you’re an engineer, you will never understand the byzantine virtuosity that creates a car like the Red Bull RB9).
The shape of the 49, on the other hand, looks like it was created by an industrial Michelangelo: Its body is a slender aluminum cigar tube mounted with four wheels and a V8 engine; its lines etch perfect ellipses through space. But the 49 was much more than a pretty face – it was a dominant car that led every F1 race in the 1967 season, winning four of them. Many consider the 49 the most influential design in the history of Formula One, and every car since has included at least some of the Lotus’s racing DNA. The 49 didn’t have a frame; instead, its aluminum body acted as a structural shell that carried the loads of the suspension and mechanical components. The rear suspension arms were mounted to the transmission, saving weight.
The 49 was the product of a brilliant but controversial team: Lotus president Colin Chapman and chief designer Maurice Philippe. Chapman was a genius cut from the same cloth as former Apple CEO Steve Jobs, with a laser-sharp mind, a vision of the future and a quick temper. Chapman was obsessed with making cars as light as possible: He reduced the number of rivets, shaved down panels and personally measured each drop of fuel that went in during pit stops.
This did not always sit well with drivers, who were terrified that one of Chapman’s fragile beauties might break beneath them, costing them the race – or their lives. Champion driver Mario Andretti once recalled the first time that he met Chapman: “Colin said, ‘Mario, I always want to make a car as light as possible.’ I said, ‘Well, Colin, I want to live as long as possible. I guess we need to talk.’ ”
The 49’s spare beauty made few concessions to driver safety: There were no crush zones around the cockpit, the steering shaft was a skewer-in-waiting and the fuel cells wrapped around the driver, turning the car into a rolling bomb.
Unlike current F1 cars, the 1967-model 49 had no aerodynamic wings to push it down onto the track and increase traction (wings would first appear on the 1968 version of the Lotus, a development that would change the sport forever).
The 1967 car epitomized the age of analog racing, when a car rode the track like a stereo needle skating across a vinyl record. Without the aerodynamic downforce that glues today’s cars to the track, drivers could slide the cars through corners in awe-inspiring drifts that called for a maestro’s touch on the controls.
Today’s cars are digital – with massive aerodynamic forces Velcroing your tires to the asphalt, the line between traction and a spin is so thin that it becomes binary. You are stuck or you are unstuck. There is no playful middle ground. When the wingless 49 ruled the track, epic slides and passing duels were the order of the day. Today, passing is rare, and most races are won by smart pit stops and fast qualifying laps that put a driver out in front of the traffic, where the physics of modern F1 conspire to keep him, protected from the pursuing pack.
To watch a modern F1 race is to witness the triumph of corporate technocracy: It costs hundreds of millions to compete, the cars stream live data to computer banks in distant control centres and drivers disappear into the depths of their machines (if not for the tops of their helmets, you wouldn’t know there are actual human beings aboard).
The Lotus 49 was different. Its star driver, the legendary Jim Clark, sometimes wore a cardigan over his driving suit, and you could see his hands flashing over the steering wheel and the stubby steel shift lever as he arced through the corners. Today’s drivers shift with buttons that control pneumatic shifters buried deep in the machine, but Clark worked a stick and three pedals, an act of virtuosity that conjured Vladimir Horowitz playing a Steinway that happened to be going 200 miles an hour.
Today’s F1 cars are better than the Lotus 49 by every quantifiable measure: They accelerate faster, they brake better and they go around corners with about five times the force that the 49 could muster (a modern F1 car can pull G’s laterally).
But there are other standards to consider, such as aesthetics, longevity and resonance. Almost five decades after its introduction, the Lotus 49 still matters, and its beauty remains timeless. Five decades from now, how many of today’s cars will be able to meet those criteria? We’ll see.