Jay Chamberlain was a sports car racer who competed almost exclusively in Lotus cars, for whom he was an early US distributor. He won his class at Le Mans in 1957. Tried a season of F1 in 1962 under the Ecurie Excelsior banner, driving a Lotus 18.
Jay Chamberlain was born in Hollywood, California. In 1950 he built a hot rod in his Sherman Oaks garage intended for competition in the California Racing Association, a dirt-track circuit that produced a number of Indianapolis stars, including Troy Ruttman, Jim and Dick Rathman, and Jack McGrath. He welded up the car using 1920s-vintage Essex frame rails and a 1925 Ford Model T-bucket body. But after a while Chamberlain lost interest and switched to road racing in sports cars. He moved into larger premesis at 4110 Lankershim Boulevard in North Hollywood where he sold, serviced and race prepared European sports cars
Chamberlain’s first encounter with a Lotus car was when one of his customers brought in a new Lotus Nine to prep for the next racing season. Chamberlain was amazed at the simplicity, elegance and low weight of the car. By then he was also involved in racing, first in midgets and later in sports cars. He was so excited about the Lotus he ordered one for himself.
Chamberlain was immediately successful in his Mark Nine and began to import them on a demand basis. He imported several Nines, a Ten (intended for James Dean) and eventually the Eleven. Meantime, Colin Chapman had taken notice of this fellow in California who was not only selling a lot of Lotus cars (considering their small production capacity) he was also winning races in them.
In 1956 he met Colin Chapman at Sebring and he invited Chamberlain to become the sole distributor for Lotus cars in America.
Shortly after this Colin Chapman announced the new Lotus Elite and Chamberlain saw an opportunity to expand his distributorship to include a Lotus road car besides the Lotus racers.
Chamberlain was not only a good driver he was also a charming salesman not to mention an innovative one. Making payments on a new car was common practice but this method to pay for a racing car was unheard of. Obviously, the purchaser had to have certain credentials; not only as a competent driver but also the income necessary to complete the contract whatever befell the car in competition. Evidently, the scheme worked and Chamberlain was known to use this sales method for all of the Lotus cars he would eventually be involved with.
Chamberlain travelled to Europe in 1957 to race. He finished 9th overall at Le Mans with Herbert Mackay-Fraser, winning the 750 cc class, he also came second in a sports car race at Rouen. However he sustained serious injuries in a crash during practice for the Reims 12 Hours and returned to the States to recouperate.
He was back at Le Mans in 1958 but crashed on the Mulsanne Straight fortunately without injury.
The first Elites to arrive in the States were two cars entered in the 1959 Sebring 12 Hour race. Car number 45 was driven by Colin Chapman and Pete Lovely. Number 46 was Chamberlain’s car co-driven by Sam Weiss.
The Chamberlain car was a DNF but Chapman and Lovely took second in class and 21st overall. Interestingly enough, Lovely is still active in historic racing and racecar preparation in Seattle, Washington.
After the race the two Elites were loaded onto Chamberlain’s transporter for the trip to California. Chapman’s car was stripped of its numbers and placed in the Lankershim showroom. Number 46 was to be Chamberlain’s racecar.
Several adverts in the enthusiast’s press appeared shortly after the Sebring cars arrived in North Hollywood. They were identifiable by the number light on the forward part of the door and the fender tank. Maybe the background scene on the left was supposed to represent the Sebring racetrack.
Chamberlain, incidentally, added a silver accent stripe to the front of his Elite, which made it easy to spot on California racetracks.
As soon as Chamberlain’s Sebring car arrived back in North Hollywood the numbers were removed and the car was taken to Griffith Observatory for a magazine photo shoot. One of the pictures was used on the cover of the short-lived Sports Car Guide magazine. The fender tank and exposed metacones were clearly visible.
Several more Elites arrived on the heels of the Sebring racers and one was exhibited inside the Chamberlain showroom next to a Triumph and a Borgward, two of the several makes that made up the dealership.
Chamberlain had his ex-Sebring Elite returned to the shops for further race prep. This consisted of experimenting with Crane and Iskendarien camshafts. Several profiles were chosen that effectively improved horsepower over the entire power band. In later years Chamberlain maintained these grinds were shown to Cosworth who immediately made copies for use under their name.
In 1960 Chamberlain returned to Sebring with a three Elite team. Pictured here going to tech were the cars driven by Chamberlain/Evans (55) and Weiss/Hughes (57). The latter rolled heavily during the race and killed Hughes and a track side photographer.
Depending on number availability at a particular circuit Chamberlain almost always used the numbers 52, 152 or 252 on his personal Elite racer. A rare exception occurred at Del Mar Fairgrounds in San Diego, California.
Chamberlain eventually retired the red and silver Elite in favor of a 2-liter Lotus Fifteen. He had loved the Eleven and placed at the Le Mans 24 Hours in one. When the new Fifteen came along he reckoned the car would be absolutely unbeatable in California club racing.
In 1959 Chamberlain reorganized his company into Jay Chamberlain Automotive to sell Lotus race cars and the his other lines which by then included Alfa Romeo, Fiat, Borward, Triumph and Lancia!
A separate company called Lotus Cars of America was set up to sell the Elite, Seven and any other road cars that he expected would be coming from Colin Chapman. All of this activity was located under the one roof at 4110 Lankershim Boulevard.
Coincidental with the formation of Lotus Cars of America Chamberlain hired the public relations firm of Bud Lewis and Associates in Hollywood, California to handle the Elite ad campaign. Their series of magazine advertisements were tasteful and attractive. Sadly, the firm had a catastrophic fire in the 1970s that destroyed an absolute treasure trove of Chamberlain photographs and documents.
After racing a Formula Junior Lotus back in the States, Jay entered the 1962 Formula 1 season in Europe under the Ecurie Excelsior banner, driving a Lotus 18. His only result of any note was 5th in the relatively minor Lavant Cup at Goodwood. He qualified 20th and next to last in the Brotish GP, finishing 15th, 11 laps down. He then failed to qualify for the German and Italian GP's. He also ventured to Chimay and took a fourth place in the GP des Frontieres for four cylinder cars, in a Formula Junior Cooper.
A rift developed between Colin Chapman and Jay Chamberlain over several important issues that exposed shortcomings in the dealings of both men. The end for Chamberlain came when Fred Bushell, Chapman’s financial wizard, orchestrated a lawsuit that barred Chamberlain from his own company.
For years Chamberlain felt the guilt of losing his business and disappointing his many customers to the extent he turned his back on Lotus and could only be coaxed to reminisce many years later. He finally came to realize that the facts exonerated him from the collapse of his company and the subsequent months of Lotus’ decline at the hands of another Chapman appointed distributor. He finally came to enjoy the attention of current Elite owners and could be counted on to entertain and enlighten over dinner, in the paddock of a historic race or as the featured speaker at a Lotus club function.