Any reference to Lotus automatically conjures up the name of Colin Chapman, the Englishman who founded his car manufacturing company along with Colin Dare in 1952. Under Chapman’s direction Lotus won seven Formula One titles, six drivers championships and an Indy 500. However, for a period in New Zealand in the early and middle 1960s young motor racing enthusiasts could have been excused for thinking that perhaps a local man, Jim Palmer, was Mr Lotus.

I was certainly one of these. Palmer’s cars were always immaculate and, in races throughout the country, he often emerged as the leading New Zealander in an era when the overseas stars still came out to New Zealand to combine a summer party tour with a spot of racing.

John Milligan at the wheel of his Lotus replica

During the 1960s, Palmer won four New Zealand Gold Star titles, initially racing at the top level with a 1.5-litre Ford Cosworth-powered Lotus 20, followed by a 20B. Palmer then raced Brabham cars before returning to Lotus in 1965 with 2.5-litre Climax-engined 32B.

Palmer also dabbled with Lotus sports cars. In 1959 he imported an ex-works 15. A highlight of his time with this car came when he won the sports car race at a Lady Wigram meeting and then finished fifth in the Trophy race. In the same car he came third at Levin. Arthur Moffatt then purchased the Lotus, followed by Barry Porter. Both enjoyed considerable success with this 32B.

In 1962, the first Lotus 23 sports car saw the light of day in New Zealand. Two of these cars would find their way to New Zealand in that decade, the first via Christchurch racer Ron Rutherford. He installed the 1800cc Ford twin-cam engine that had previously seen racing action in Paul Fahey’s winning Lotus-Cortina. Ivy Stephenson bought the Rutherford 23 in 1969 and is reputed to still own the car.

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