Lotus founder Colin Chapman is best remembered for having a lot of success with unconventional and revolutionary racing cars. One of the most outrageous Lotus designs was the Type 56, prepared for the 1968 Indy 500. Although the novelties found on the 56 were not new, but the combination proved to be a package very well worth the Lotus badge.
Designed by Maurice Philippe, the 56 was not equipped with a regular internal combustion engine, but with a Pratt and Whitney industrial turbine engine. Such an engine was used previously and proved very reliable. Due to the nature of a turbine engine, no gearbox was needed. Using the proven Ferguson four wheel drive system, the turbine engine's power was transferred to all wheels.
Although the turbine was not quite as powerful as the Turbo charged internal combustion engines used by the competition, Chapman was confident that the four wheel drive system would give Lotus the edge over the rest. The operation was partly funded by Andy Granatelli's STP company and the wedge shaped cars were livered in STP's striking orange colour scheme.
Lotus intended to enter their two Formula 1 drivers, Jim Clark and Graham Hill and Granatelli himself would enter another two cars for American drivers, including Parnelli Jones. Unfortunately Clark lost his life in a Formula 2 accident earlier that year. His replacement, Mike Spence, was struck by tragedy as well, losing his life after a high speed accident with Lotus 56 in one of the Indy 500 test sessions.
Eventually Graham Hill, Joe Leonard and Art Polland entered the race with the turbine Lotus. Again Lotus' bold move proved successful with Leonard on pole, closely followed by Hill. Hill crashed out early in the race, and Leonard and Pollard both retired with fuel pump problems. Leonard was in the lead with just a few laps to go, when his turbine engine died.
A grief strucken Chapman had returned to Europe with Spence's body and left the turbine Indy cars in Granatelli's hands. He campaigned the cars with little success. At the end of the season the innovative cars were left obsolete when the sport's governing body (USAC) banned both turbine engines and four wheel drive.
Featured is Parnelli Jones' Type 56, which has benefited from a ground up restoration in recent years. It is in full running order, but it is no longer fitted with the original turbine engine. This unique racer is pictured here at the 2004 Eyes on Design exhibition held at the Edsel and Eleanor Ford House.