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John Miles was an uncompromising Lotus hero – Thank Frankel it’s Friday

10th September 2020
andrew_frankel_headshot.jpg Andrew Frankel

For a combination of entirely coincidental reasons, the name of John Miles has been popping into my head quite a lot in the last week. It was triggered by the piece I wrote last Friday about the 50th anniversary of the passing of Jochen Rindt and Miles’ comment to Colin Chapman about the wingless Lotus 72 being the ‘most awful racing car’ he’d ever driven. Whether the observation had anything to do with it I don’t know, but John never raced for Lotus in Formula 1 again.

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And then his name popped up all over again in the Goodwood paddock on Monday. I was there doing a track day for Mission Motorsport, the wonderful Forces charity that does such sterling work retraining and rehabilitating injured former services personnel. I can’t really describe what I was doing as ‘work’ per se, as it involved hooning a BMW M2 CS around the track until quite literally the tank ran dry, but I think and hope I gave the charity beneficiaries who were unlucky enough to sit next to me something to remember. Most had been on tracks before but only one had ever been around Goodwood and they could scarcely believe what a fast, beautiful and unforgiving circuit it was.

But I digress. John turned up in conversation with Graham Macdonald, CEO of Caterham Cars in one of the few moments in which he wasn’t tearing around the track at terrifying speed in his 620S Seven. Not sure how, but the we ended up talking about the Caterham CSR I first drove in 2005 and which I presumed had ceased production years ago. Not so. They’re still made in very small quantities and are particularly popular in France. If you’re struggling to recall it, the CSR was a kind of premium Seven with a 2.3-litre engine, lots of aero mods, inboard front suspension and remains to date the only Seven to benefit from a fully independent rear end. And John Miles was the man who led its development as an external consultant.

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And then I thought of him all over again when I realised that this weekend marks the 25th anniversary of the Lotus Elise, another car in whose preparation John was intimately involved. And I bet if you drove a CSR and an Elise you’d be able to tell the same bloke had hands in both. Unlike any other Seven, the CSR flows and breathes its way down the road. Actually I was never very sure that such fine riding qualities were very important to the Seven – they removed some of its trademark immediacy and it was a very expensive upgrade, but John would not have seen it that way, because he was a purist to his boots. He would have told you his solution was just better in every way that could be measured and leave it at that. And he’d have been dead right.

John could be a fantastically prickly character at times and would smell bullshit from a thousand paces. I got to know him quite well because long after he stopped being an Autocar columnist (anyone remember ‘Miles behind the wheel’?) he continued to help us out at track days and even tutored a few of us in the finer elements of car assessment up at Lotus where he worked until quite late in life. And I can remember at an event at Goodwood one of my more junior colleagues proudly telling the assembled company he’d just taken Fordwater flat in something. ‘No you didn’t’ came the instant reply from John, bursting this bloke’s balloon in three words. My colleague then made the mistake of trying to argue with John without realising he’d already been through the same corner in the same car. After John stumped off muttering under his breath, someone turned to this chap and said, ‘you do know that’s Jochen Rindt’s team-mate don’t you?’ He had no idea.

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But my favourite John Miles story, at least of those I witnessed, came in around 1992. The Autocar road test team were in a meeting room at Lotus, being taught by John the Lotus way to drive and assess cars. The telephone rings. John scowls and ignores it. After a while it stops ringing and then almost immediately starts again. John grabs the receiver and growls ‘what?’ into the mouthpiece. The rest of his side of the conversation went something like this.

‘No I can’t, I’m busy.’

‘Well where is he?’

‘It’ll have to wait.’

‘I told you I’m busy.’

‘Oh bloody hell. Alright I’m on my way.’

He slams down the receiver, turns to us and says, ‘Look, I’m sorry. I have to go and do something. Apparently there’s no one else in this entire organisation who can do it. I’ll be back in an hour.’ Whereupon he turns and marches out of the room.

About 20 minutes later we hear the searing scream of a modern Formula 1 car howling around the Hethel track. We find out from one of his colleagues that Mika Hakkinen’s plane had been delayed, so it is John out there shaking down Lotus’ very latest F1 machine. An hour later he is back in the classroom, apologises once more, picks up where he left off and never mentions it again.

Images courtesy of Motorsport Images.

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