The winner always takes all the spoils. Number one goes down in history. But number two is all too often forgotten and overseen. That’s just how our society works. But it might not always be entirely fair, as number two might just have something even better on offer.
I dropped by to check on my 1963 Rochdale Olympic last week, and I think there’s been just about enough progress to justify an update. If nothing else, seeing the entirely bare fibreglass monocoque shell was really quite exciting, and kicked off the above thought process. Of course, everyone knows and loves the beautiful little Lotus Elite which was introduced in 1959 as the first ever full monocoque fibreglass car. It’s place in the history books is forever ensured – rightly so as well. And don’t get me wrong, I too adore the exquisite little Lotus. But the Rochdale Olympic introduced two years later was the next production car to have a full monocoque fibreglass body. It was number two in line. As such it is often forgotten.
But let’s have a closer look at this. At the time where the Elite and the Olympic were developed, many cars still had a separate chassis of sorts, ranging from a simple ladder chassis to a complex tubular space frame. The body of the car was a separate unit which would be attached to the chassis. However, the monocoque – or unibody if you prefer that term – was gaining in popularity, and over at Lotus the brilliant Colin Chapman was the first to combine fibreglass with a monocoque.
But what is a monocoque? Well, if you want to define a monocoque as an automobile which does away with the separate chassis, then the Lotus Elite was indeed the first using a fibreglass body to achieve this. But if we were to be a bit more pedantic about the true definition of the word – and yes, you’ve probably already guessed that this is of course precisely what I intend to be – then the Elite wasn’t actually a true monocoque. The word monocoque stems from the French with “mono” meaning “single” and “coque” meaning “shell” – Single Shell. Well, that’s hardly what the Elite was. Instead it was multiple separately moulded fibreglass parts (I’ve been told as many as 57 separate parts, but I’m sure some Lotus enthusiast will put me right here…) which were glued together with epoxy resin. These glued joints were of course weak, and in an accident or even just exposed to heavy stressloads during motorsport, the Elite body would – and still does – come apart along the glued joints.
In stark contrast, the Olympic body was indeed fabricated as one single fibreglass part. There were only two separate parts to begin with – an upper half of the body and a lower half of the body coming out of two separate moulds. But rather than glue them together, they were laminated together to unite them as a single fully bonded fibreglass body. It took two men a full day to produce one Olympic shell in what was practically a one-step work process which could not be interrupted as the laminating needed to be completed to ensure the structure was homogeneous. This made the Olympic body extremely strong and rigid – something which the poor Elite could only dream of. Arguably, it also made the Rochdale Olympic the first true fibreglass monocoque – or at the very least a vastly superior fibreglass monocoque.
Granted, with the Elite being the pioneer, Lotus was always going to have the steepest learning curve. Both Harry Smith and Frank Butterworth – co-owners of Rochdale Motor Panels – have since confessed that they obviously looked at what Lotus had done with the Elite, and thereby knew what notto do with their Olympic. So I believe every Rochdale enthusiast will happily give due credit to the Lotus, as without it the Olympic would most likely not have been near as good as it ended up being.
However, it’s not just the extreme strength of the Olympic body and the fascinating method by which it was constructed which impresses me. With the striped shell mounted high on caster wheels it was an opportune moment to inspect the underside of the body. I know, it’s hardly an area we as enthusiasts usually commit much of our time to, but this is just amazing. A very youthful Richard Parker had joined Rochdale Motor Panels, and put a lot of effort into the aerodynamics of the Olympic. So much so, that he probably even spent more time on making the underbody nice and slippery, than most other specialist sports car manufacturers did on the top part of the body. As a result, the complete area around the transmission is full enclosed and even the exhaust is recessed into the floor. No wonder that relatively modest engine power was sufficient for spritely and entertaining performance.
Equally impressive is the little amount of steel strengthening which was required for the Olympic shell. There’s a steel roll bar built into the moulding of the A-posts which continues up into the roof section, but that’s really it. Well, and then there’s of course the separate steel front subframe to which both engine, front suspension and steering is attached. But elsewhere, if further strengthening was deemed necessary during the development, they simply applied more layers of fibreglass during the laminating process. As such there is no rear subframe and the rear suspension components merely bolt straight onto the fibreglass body. In fact, in period the fuel tanks – sometimes a single on the right side and other times dual tanks with one placed either side – weren’t even made of metal! Instead the body was moulded with a cavity within the fibreglass, stick a fuel cap above the cavity, and presto – you have a fuel tank. Well, while I’m all for retaining originality, in the name of safety we’ve decided to divert a little from factory spec here, and instead insert two aluminum fuel cells into those two cavities. There will be no visible difference unless you shine a light down into the fuel tank, and I feel this should prove a much better and safer solution.
Keith Hamer of Scholar Racing 96, the Rochdale specialist above all others, has been making some very decent progress on my Phase 1 Olympic shell, despite also devoting time to finishing off two other complete restorations of an orange and a dark blue Olympic – both Phase 2’s. Everything – and I really mean everything – has come off the shell, and repairs to the fibreglass are currently ongoing. The condition of the fibreglass was basically in surprisingly good condition – a testament to the high quality of the work performed at Rochdale Motor Panels back in the sixties. But there was some damage to the left front corner which required some pretty serious work. This has all been sorted now along with a few other smaller repairs here and there. At this point, there are still few small holes which have been drilled in the body at various stages of the Rochdale’s 55 year life, which all need to be closed. But once Keith has plugged them all up so the body again presents factory fresh, it’ll be time for a coat of paint in order to move the restoration on to the next stage. I can barely wait…