THE CASE BOOK OF 23s

The Racing 23s & 23Bs In Asia…a subject where angles fear to tread

By Eli Solomon

The ex-Normand Racing Lotus 23B made its first appearance in South East Asia in January 1964.

You’re on a slippery slope, the experts said. Yet, everyone agrees that there are more 23s today than when the factory made them between 1962 and 1963. Add to this the variety of engines available to the racer – from the 742cc Coventry Climax FWMC all the way to the 23Bs 1,594cc Cosworth Mk XIII engine – and you have a recipe for disaster for the unaccredited researcher from motoring’s terra incognita.

Let’s forget for a second how many 23s Lotus made and look at how many appeared in Asia instead. There are an abundance of local experts who will all tell you they once owned/sat in/touched/restored/disposed-of-for-next-to-nothing…a Lotus 23B. Naturally this automatically makes them Lotus gurus where I come from. And since none have attempted to write about the 23/23B (or any other model from Hornsey, Cheshunt or Hethel – the Zhejiang history doesn’t count here), I’ll have a crack at it.  

Graham Capel, in his seminal book, The History Of The Lotus Twenty Three (published in 2006), stated that total production of 23s and 23Bs amounted to 130 or 131 units. He listed just three cars that went to Asia, to Hong Kong’s Lotus distributor Harper Motors in 1963. All three were in Capel’s chassis allocation are 23Bs, two with 1500cc motors and one a twin cam. All were delivered white in colour. Ok, so that’s our starting point for new cars coming to my neck of the woods.

RIDING THE SPORTS CAR WAVE

Yet we know there were several more that actually arrived – 23s and 23Bs for Albert Poon (Hong Kong – see LUNCH WITH CHAMPIONS – ALBERT POON), Lee Han Seng (Singapore), Alan Bond (Singapore) and Richard Wong Wai Hong (Singapore). That puts the list to six Lotus 23/23Bs, seven if you count the second Lotus 23B that Lee Han Seng obtained in 1966 (having sold his first to Teddy Yip in 1965). Any protests so far?  

In Rewind Magazine’s 039 issue (March 2018), I wrote about one of the cars, the tragic story of the white 23 that legendary Hong Kong racer Albert Poon purchased. Whether Harper Motors facilitated the import of this car is a moot point. Suffice to say, Albert told me that he purchased it out of his own pocket. It carried race number 23, and made its first, and very successful, appearance in the Malaysia Grand Prix, held in Singapore, in April 1963. This effectively dates the car as a pre-April 1963 production.

Albert Poon and his Lotus 23 on the way to winning his first Grand Prix – the 1963 Johore Grand Prix – See JOHORE GRAND PRIX – Part 2: 1960-1963. That made it two Grand Prix wins on the trot for then Police Inspector Albert Poon.

While there was just Albert Poon’s Lotus 23 racing in Singapore and Johore, there were now two in Macau in 1963 – Poon and his future backer L.C. Kwan in the #32 Lotus 23.

RACING 23s

The first big event for the 23 in 1964 was the Malaysia Grand Prix in Singapore in March. Albert Poon’s car was shipped back to Singapore, still in white and still with the now familiar number 23. Albert was now part of Team Hong Kong and it seems the car may have had some work on it – including installation of a 1.6-litre motor from Bob Harper’s Ford stock.

Poon aside, there were now five Lotus 23s entered in the Grand Prix in Singapore. Bill Wyllie led the Hong Kong Harper entries with his #77 23, with the local entries consisting of Alan Bond in his newly acquired 23B and Richard Wong in his newly acquired 1.6-litre twin cam 23B1).

Sadly, the 1964 race was red flagged due to inclement weather, a huge disappointment for Singapore racer Rodney Seow and Albert Poon, the two front-runners. Rodney had his Merlyn Mk5 single-seater, and assuming no anomalies with these new single-seaters, on paper, his Merlyn or Lee Han Seng’s Lotus 22, ought to have run away with the win.

How many Lotus 23s can you count in this photo of the start of the 1964 Grand Prix in Singapore?

Albert Poon wins the 1964 Macau Grand Prix with his Lotus 23.

23s FOR SALE

Every time I look at old race car adverts of the 1960s, this Roger Miller song springs to mind: 

Trailer for sale or rent

Rooms to let, 50 cents

No phone, no pool, no pets

I ain’t got no cigarettes…

So recorded Roger Dean Miller Sr. in his chart-topping King Of The Road song in November 1964

You’d think that Harpers were on a roll with Lotus 23s in Hong Kong, racing in Macau, Selangor, Johore and Singapore. But this was business for Bob Harper and while a good race car is only as good as its last win, the idea was to sell road cars to the public (like the Lotus Cortina, Lotus Elan and Seven, for example). So it was perhaps no surprise to see Singapore’s Lotus distributors Universal Cars Limited put an advertisement out in March 1964 (just before the 1964 Grand Prix), offering “5 of the Team Harper cars will be available for sale after the Singapore Grand Prix…Also available new Lotus Elan and new Ford Lotus Cortina.”

These cars comprised of Lotus Warner Elan (#32 driven by John Kirk); Lotus 23B (#77 driven by Bill Wyllie); Lotus 18 Formula Jr (#59 driven by Steve Holland); Lotus Super 7 (#60 driven by Don A. Bennett); and Lotus Cortina (#57 driven Bill Wyllie).2 You’ll note that the Lotus 23s numbered just one! The other two that appeared in Singapore and Selangor that came from Hong Kong were the Albert Poon 23 (#23 – now racing under Team Harper) and the L.C. Kwan 1,498cc cars (#66). Collectively, there was the Poon, Kwan and Wyllie cars from Hong Kong, Alan Bond’s (#32) and Richard Wong’s Twin Cam 23B  (#69).

Albert’s Lotus 23 was back in Hong Kong for the Macau Grand Prix later in 1964, self-entered by Albert and now backed by Team Harper. It was a very satisfying win for Albert against several single-seaters. He also set fastest lap, shaving 1.4 seconds off Dodjie Laurel’s 1963 course record set in a Lotus 22. Mind you, there were two additional Lotus 23s on the grid – Bill Wyllie’s Team Harper-entered 23B and L.C. Kwan’s 23.

Meanwhile, out in Singapore, professional diver Alan Bond had acquired what was said to be the ex-Jim Clark Normand Racing 23B.3

Racing on street circuits can be hazardous, as Bill Wyllie found out in his Lotus 23B in Singapore in March 1964. So did Alan Bond in the other Lotus 23B.

The ex-Normand Racing 23B in the hands of Alan Bond in Selangor in 1965.

Another shot of Alan Bond in his 23B, exiting Peak Bend during the Grand Prix in Singapore.

Come the 1965 Grand Prix in Singapore, Albert had hooked up with “The Wallet”, Richard Wong. Number 23 now was replaced by the Chris Williams-tuned twin cam 23B running number 69. Albert won his second Grand Prix in Singapore! Number 23, now part of the Richard Wong Wai Hong’s Racing Organisation, was offered to Hong Kong pilot, Steve Holland. The car remained in Singapore and straight after the Grand Prix on Upper Thomson Road, it was trailered over to Kuala Lumpur for the TAR races in July 1965.

The Lotus 23 was the in-thing to have and the TAR race had Lee Han Seng and Alan Bond with 23s, Lee’s being a 23 while Bond’s was a 23B. In any case, all wanted to take the game to the Hong Kong champion.

Han Seng’s 23 was soon sold to Hong Kong casino tycoon Teddy Yip at the end of the 1965 South East Asian season. Yip took it out for Thursday’s practice ahead of the 1965 Macau Grand Prix and wrapped it around a lamppost at Solitude. Broken ribs and a lot of bent tubes. One 23 out of the equation.

LOTUS BENEFIT

When everyone gathered for the 1965 Macau Grand Prix, there were five 23s on the grid, a Lotus 23 benefit it seemed – Steve Holland had the ex-Poon car, now running #14. Albert had his Richard Wong 23B, running his regular number 23 instead of 69. L.C. Kwan had his 23 (#6) and John Kirk had a Harper 23B – possibly the ex-Bill Wyllie entry (#13). Teddy Yip’s ex-Lee Han Seng 23 had crashed out on Thursday.

The trio of Kirk, Holland and Poon took off like they’d stolen Bob Harper’s cars. Holland seemed to have the race in hand when, on Lap 41, he noticed smoke bellowing from the car. He pulled over at Melco Hairpin and, as film footage reveals (yes, there really is film of this tragedy), the #38 Lotus burnt to a crisp. Two 23s were destroyed in Macau in 1965. A Lotus won the Grand Prix, but it wasn’t a 23. /efn_note] The race was won by John Macdonald in the ex-Steve Holland/Team Harper Lotus 18 Formula Jr. [/efn_note]

Lee Han Seng racing his first Lotus 23 in Singapore, 1965 Grand Prix in Singapore. The car would make the make the journey to Hong Kong and Macau at the end of the year, property of Teddy Yip. Note the lack of a roll hoop and air scoops on the lower front of the bodywork. 

But wait a second…Lee Han Seng later showed up in April 1966 with another 23 – this one bearing a roll hoop and a couple of subtle differences to the earlier car sold to Teddy Yip. Lee continued to race this 23 (with 1,598cc motor) in 1967 but in 1968, it was with his buddy Steven Kam who raced it still circa. 1970.

But wait a second…Lee Han Seng later showed up in April 1966 with another 23 – this one bearing a roll hoop and a couple of subtle differences to the earlier car sold to Teddy Yip.

Lee Han Seng racing his red Lotus 23 (his second 23) at the Old Upper Thomson Road Sprint. Note the roll hoop.

Steven Kam with the ex-Lee Han Seng Lotus 23B (#88) in the paddock area for Sports and GT cars at the 1969 Singapore Grand Prix. R to L: Cooper Jaguar, Elfin 300, Lotus 23B, Lotus 47.

The 1965 Grand Prix (Singapore) winning car was back in action for the 1966 Singapore Grand Prix. Here Albert Poon leads eventual winner Lee Han Seng (Lotus 22) round Range Hairpin. Poon raced #23 because his backer Richard Wong was racing a Lotus Cortina bearing #69 in the Grand Prix.

Backed by his friend L.C. Kwan’s Lotus 23 (with revised rear bodywork), Albert Poon returned to Singapore in 1966 to defend his 1965 victory (in the ex-Richard Wong 23B). This car raced with a 1.6-litre Alfa Romeo twin cam at the inaugural Batu Tiga Circuit Race in September 1967.

Albert wasn’t done with 23s. Partway through the 1966 season, the Richard Wong car was sold to Singapore racer Chong Boon Seng, with Albert moving to L.C. Kwan’s new team, Equip K.L.C. Yet another 23 for Albert to run, but 23s were now long in the tooth and many competitors were starting to import single-seaters with more powerful engines – Brabhams, Lotus, Merlyns. Only Alan Bond, Lee Han Seng and Chong Boon Seng continued to run 23s, but even then, these were usually in the Sports Cars support races and all three (Chong’s single-seater was a Lotus 41 from Tony Dean Sports Motors, purchased in 1967)4 were already onto single-seaters for the main Grand Prix races. It’ll explain why Poon’s car was soon listed as a Lotus Alfa Romeo – a 23 with an Alfa Romeo twin cam motor strapped in (In 1965 Poon and a few friends snagged the Alfa Romeo agency for Hong Kong and Macau and set up Milan Motors). See LUNCH WITH CHAMPIONS – ALBERT POON

Chong Boon Seng in his remodelled ex-Albert Poon Lotus 23B on the front row for the 1972 Singapore Grand Prix Sports & GT Cars support race. Alongside is Malaysian  Harvey Yap in his Datsun 240ZG.

Chong Boon Seng’s remodelled Lotus 23B alongside Jan Bussell’s Palliser WDB3 on practice day for the Selangor Grand Prix in September 1972.

The front row of the grid for the 1967 Johore Grand Prix. The Lotus 23 behind John Macdonald’s Lotus 30/40 is Hardy Burmester’s 23B (#50 1,594cc), the second time Hong Kong-based Burmester appeared with the car in Malaysia/Singapore (the first was at the inaugural Batu Tiga Circuit Races a week before the Johore Grand Prix.5

Hardy Burmester’s twin cam Lotus 23B in Singapore.

Despite what the 1968 Selangor Grand Prix race program says, this is a Lotus 23 running number 47, on the way to winning the Sports Car race at the newly built Batu Tiga circuit in April 1968. Steve Holland entered a Team Harper Lotus 47 (race No. 47) in the Grand Prix but the car fell off the truck on the way to the circuit. His Hong Kong mates at Harper stepped in with this Lotus 23.

I count a minimum of seven Lotus 23s that raced in Asia. Here are the 23s featured in the article above:

1 – Albert Poon – 23 destroyed by Steve Holland, Macau 1965.

2 – Albert Poon – 23B Richard Wong car – to Chong Boon Seng till 1970s. Later on in the possession of a Singaporean Lotus racing guru. Salvaged and exported to Australia circa. late 1980s. History of 1) later incorrectly merged with 2).

3 – L.C. Kwan – First raced by Kwan in 1963. Later raced by Albert Poon, also run with Alfa Romeo motor. Last raced by Albert Poon Johore Grand Prix, September 1967. History not known thereafter.

4 – Bill Wyllie – 23B – Team Harper car. History not known after 1964. Possibly raced by John Kirk in Macau in 1965.

5 – Alan Bond – 23B – ex-Norman Racing. First raced in Asia January 1964. Advertised for sale in December 1969. Sold to Desmond P. White and first raced by him in Singapore, March 1970. Last see Malaysian Open Championship, 19-20 December 1970.

6 – Lee Han Seng – Raced from April 1965 until sold to Teddy Yip in late 1965. Destroyed in practice, Macau Grand Prix 1965.

7 – Lee Han Seng – Raced from April 1966 till sold to Steven Kam- who first raced it in the Singapore Grand Prix, April 1968. Last seen running #88 by Kam, 1970 Singapore Grand Prix.

Unverified ownership history: John Kirk (23B), Hardy Burmester (23B), Robin Ormes (Singapore GP 1968), Mike Allen (23B), Charles Ching (23?) and S.Y. Tam (23B).

There area a couple of things that have never been resolved:

1) Steve Holland’s 23, the Albert Poon 1963 Grand Prix-winning car, was a pile of incandescent magnesium at Melco Hairpin in November 1965. Chassis number? Not a clue, though Albert will tell you it was chassis 23 because why else would he have run it with race number 23?

2) Were the three Harper imports in 1963 the Poon 23, L.C. Kwan 23 and later on the Bill Wyllie 23B?

3) The ex-Lee Han Seng 23 was crashed by Teddy Yip in Macau in 1965. Was it salvaged in the early 1970s and eventually restored?  

4) Charles Ching raced a Lotus 23 in Macau (#92) in 1968. On the grid was Hardy Burmester in his Lotus 23B. Was the Ching car the ex-L.C. Kwan-Albert Poon Lotus 23?

5) Mike Allen raced a yellow #83 Lotus 23 in the 1969 Macau Grand Prix. The car had a roll hoop. The only other Lotus 23 on the Macau grid that year was Hardy Burmester’s #15 Lotus 23B. Was this either the L.C. Kwan-Albert Poon or Harper car?

6) S.Y. Tam raced a Lotus 23B (#35) in Macau in 1970. As with the previous year, the only other 23 on the grid was Burmester’s #15. Was this either the L.C. Kwan-Albert Poon or Harper car?

Footnotes

  1. On 10 January 1964, Richard Wong was quoted in the press as saying that he had taken delivery of a Lotus 23B from the factory and had tasked Chris Williams and Co. to modify the car. The twin cam motor was supplemented with a spare 1,100cc motor. Source: Straits Times, 10 January 1964, pg. 21.
  2. The advert first appeared in Singapore’s Straits Times on 3 March 1964 (p.17). The same advert appeared a total of six times before the Easter Grand Prix in Singapore.
  3. Alan Bond first ran his newly acquired Lotus 23B at the Old Upper Thomson Road Sprint on 19 January 1964.
  4. Chong Boon Seng’s first drive in a single-seater (after crashing the ex-Albert Poon Lotus 23B in Singapore 1967) was at the first Batu Tiga Circuit Races (the Sixth TAR races) 2-3 September 1967. The car was a Lotus 41 (Chassis 41-F3-5) purchased from Tony Dean Sports Motors.
  5. Hardy Burmester had already raced in Macau in 1965 and 1966 (in a Lotus Super 7). He appeared in the Lotus 23B in Macau in 1967 (No. 50), the only Lotus 23/23B on the Grand Prix grid that year. From 1968 till 1970 Burmester raced in Macau with No. 15. Burmester’s Lotus 23B was eventually offered for sale by Newton Enterprises’ P.H. Wong for SGD$6,000 in January 1972 – with 1,594cc twin cam, new cylinder block, tuftrided and cross-drilled crank, heavy duty Ford 125E (Ford’s designation for the Lotus Cortina Twin Cam) competition con-rods etc.

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