POTUS, since late 19th century short for President Of The United States, has been used more than ever in the last few months on social media. Not in the least by The Donald, Orange Man Bad. However, the abbreviation has another, less familiar but according to some far more interesting meaning. Introduced in 1956, it was used to indicate a unique sports car: the one and only Lotus IX, powered by a Porsche 550 Spyder engine. This combination in itself is unique, the fact that the engine originated from the James Dean 550 Spyder wreck makes it even more worthwhile to dive into the history of this one-off.
Lotus Mark IX
The Lotus IX was the first Lotus sports car developed by Colin Chapman after he decided, in January 1955, to start working full time at Lotus. After the succesful introduction of the Mark VIII the demand for a more advanced sports car with a smaller enigine was growing. Next to keeping a low weight and advanced aerodynamics Frank Costin’s mission was to design a body that would fit inside the new transporter. This meant the Mark IX had to be a full two feet shorter than the Mark VIII.
The Mark IX was accepted by the Automobile Club de l’Ouest to participate in the 1955 Le Mans 24 hours. The works type was build with a lightweight chassis, aluminum body and a 1098 cc Coventry Climax engine and Colin Chapman himself took part in the endurance race together with Ron Flockhart. Although the car was black-flagged while Chapman was behind the wheel, the team succeeded to be the quickest on a lap in relation to the power available.
During 1955 30 Mark IX’s were build and one of them was bought by hero-at-the-time James Dean. He wouldn’t live to receive his new race car though …
James Byron Dean was an American actor from Indiana who had settled in California near the movie industry. He is remembered as a cultural icon of teenage disillusionment and social estrangement, as expressed in the title of his most celebrated film, Rebel Without a Cause (1955), in which he starred as troubled teenager Jim Stark.
In 1954, James became interested in developing a career in motorsport. He purchased various sports cars after filming for East of Eden had concluded, including a Triumph Tiger T110 and a Porsche 356. Just before filming began on Rebel Without a Cause, he competed in his first professional event at the Palm Springs Road Races, which was held in Palm Springs, California on March 26–27, 1955. James achieved first place in the novice class, and second place at the main event. His racing continued in Bakersfield a month later, where he finished first in his class and third overall. Dean hoped to compete in the Indianapolis 500, but his busy schedule made it impossible.
After the summer of 1955 James’ schedule made it possible to race again. He had ordered an engineless Lotus Mark VIII/X from Lotus. At the time it was not really clear whether is was a VIII or a X, but since James had planned to build in an “Offy” chances are it was a Mark X. While the delivery took some time, he traded in his Porsche Speedster for a new, more powerful and faster 1955 Porsche 550 Spyder from John von Neumann’s Competition Motors for the time being. With that race car he entered the upcoming Salinas Road Race event scheduled for October 1–2, 1955.
Dean’s German mechanic Rolf Wütherich, who had encouraged Dean to drive the car from Los Angeles to Salinas to break it in, accompanied James in the Porsche on 30. September 1955 on the way to the race track. At 3:30 p.m., Dean was ticketed for speeding. Two hours later, James Dean crashed into a Ford Tudor. All persons involved were more or less o.k., except for James Dean. He died soon after the accident on Route 466 (now SR46).
Dr. William Eschrich, a Southern California physician and active sports car racer, had campaigned a Simca bodied, Offenhauser-engined Special in the Southern Californian Sports Car Club events with some success. He had acquired an engineless Mark IX Lotus from Jay Chamberlain, the local Lotus dealer, intending to install an Offenhauser engine. James Dean’s crash and the availability of the wrecked Porsche Spyder, which he bought from the insurance company, unexpectedly changed Dr. Eschrich’s plans. The chance to acquire the exotic four-cam Porsche engine was too good to pass up.
The 550 engine has come to be known as the “Fuhrmann engine”. The four-cylinder flat engine with four overheard camshafts is considered to be one of the most successful Porsche engines of all time. He ran the race car with this engine, developed to be put in the back of a car, in the front of the Mark IX, bolted up to an MG gearbox. Because of the way it was built, the engine didn’t fit under the hood of the Mark IX; hence some adjustment to the bonnet had to be done.
The Potus was entered for the first time at Pebble Beach in 1956 and it competed in a few events after that race, beating Porsche 550 Spyders several times. The last appearance for the car was at The Fairgrounds in Pomona in 1956. Dr. Eschrich was dueling for the lead with Richie Ginther’s Porsche Spyder when both cars hit a patch of gravel and spun off the course and out of the race. The Potus was retired from active racing after the Pomona event and it is believed the Eschrich family still owns the Potus.
What happened to Dean’s Mark IX?
James Dean’s Lotus eventually arrived in Southern California. No one was able to accept delivery since Dean had died earlier in the desert crash. The car was put into storage until his estate could deal with the matter. Soon rumors began to circulate. One story claimed that the car sat unclaimed for months exposed to the weather on a Los Angeles dock.
Peter Darnall found out what really happened to the Lotus. It was not left to deteriorate on the docks. John Timanus, a well-known Southern California racer, purchased the car, without engine or running gear, from the Dean Estate. Lotus had used, as was quite common then, a combination of early Lotus components, working with whatever bits and pieces were on hand at the time. The car soon appeared in race programs as a Lotus MK VIII/X, but later campaigned as a Mark X. At any rate John Timanus ran the car with considerable success using a variety of engines for several years.
Lee Raskin, author/ James Dean biographer/ Porsche 356/550, historian, commented on this post as follows:
Fact: James Dean cancelled his down payment contract with Lotus West coast agent, Jay Chamberlain, to purchase the Lotus VIII in late August, 1955. James Dean purchased a Porsche 550 Spyder instead on September 21, 1955 from Competitor Motors in Hollywood. Chamberlain took delivery of the Lotus well after James Dean’s death, 9-30-55. Dean’s estate had absolutely no ownership in the Lotus. John Timanus purchased the Lotus VIII from Jay Chamberlain in 1956. Everything referred to as James Dean’s Lotus is completely false. Source: James Dean On The Road to Salinas, 2015/2020.
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