After the STP turbine car had lost the Indy 500 to a piston engine car in 1967, Andy Granatelli knew he needed to take a further step with the turbine car project. He teamed up with Colin Chapman and the Brit had his designer Maurice Philippe develop a revolutionary wedge shaped car around Andy’s proven combination of a Pratt and Whitney industrial turbine engine with a Ferguson four wheel drive system.
The Lotus 56 looked to be a major contender for the 1968 Indy 500. When the Speedway opened in May, the Lotusses were fast right from the start, but several piston engine cars kept pace with quick speeds as well. Joe Leonard, Graham Hill and Mike Spence were challenging A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, Al and Bobby Unser, Dan Gurney, Lloyd Ruby, Denis Hulme, Mel Kenyon, Roger McCluskey and other top drivers with their conventional piston engined cars from the outset.
Colin Chapman was still downbeat after Jim Clark’s death in April, he had originally intended to enter the two Lotus Formula 1 drivers, Jim Clark and Graham Hill. Not only would they aim for victory, but the Indy 500 would also be a significant test drive for a similar concept of a four wheel drive Formula 1 car Chapman had in mind. So he had Mike Spence replacing Clark, while Granatelli himself would enter another two cars for American drivers, including Parnelli Jones. Unfortunately Spence would hit the outer wall and would be struck by the front wheel off his Lotus 56 in one of the Indy 500 test sessions.
A grief stricken Chapman returned to Europe with Spence’s body and left the turbine Indy cars in Granatelli’s hands. Eventually Graham Hill, Joe Leonard and Art Pollard entered the race with Leonard on pole. 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. Granatelli campaigned the cars with little success and 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.
Chapman developed the 56 as a potential F1 machine after the failure of the four wheel drive Lotus 63, but while the car was promising, it was too heavy and too overcomplicated for F1. Emerson Fittipaldi tried the car in the 1971 Race of Champions and International Trophy non-Championship meetings. At Brands Hatch, during wet practice, the 56 was far and away the fastest car on the track, but the race was held in dry weather and the car was lost in midfield.
At the Silverstone-based International Trophy, the car only lasted three laps of the first heat before suspension failure forced Fittipaldi’s retirement. Fittipaldi then competed in a round of the Formula 5000 championship in Hockenheim, Germany, as a test race for the upcoming Italian Grand Prix. That was the opportunity when I met Emerson personally fro the first time. He came home second in both heats behind a dominant Frank Gardner. At the high speed Monza track he managed to bring the car home in 8th.
By then Chapman decided to cut his losses and abandoned the 56, the four wheel drive concept and the gas turbine engine to concentrate on the Lotus 72, which had been inspired in the 56’s wedge design, and would secure another drivers’ and constructors’ championships for Lotus in 1972.