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The First Racing Simulator Ever Built

Featured image: Lotus Racing Simulators Manual

When we think about early sim racing, we think about the history of manufacturers like Granite Devices or Fanatec, and possibly earlier software titles that were around long before iRacing appeared. If you were to guess when simulators first appeared, I might have been tempted to say “sometime around 1995”. But, it might surprise you that racing simulation goes far further back than that.

Lotus Simulators brochure circa 1966
Lotus Simulators brochure circa 1966

Everyone has heard of Lotus, the British manufacturer that dominated Formula One and for a time, Indy. Lotus were at the forefront of developing racing cars and came up with numerous innovations that led them to victory. Some of those innovations had to be stifled to level the playing field! An innovation that we didn’t know about was their Racing Simulator. That Lotus were building and selling its racing simulator in the mid-1960s was a big surprise:

Lotus Cars Simulator in 1966 credit: BBC Archive

The Lotus simulator design was a complex kit based on aircraft simulators of the time. It used a Lotus 31 chassis, without the engine and gearbox, attached to various sensors that measured steering throttle and brake inputs. At some point in the development of the product, Lotus stopped using a real racing car frame and began manufacturing with a lighter gauge. Possibly to make transporting the package a little easier.

How did it work?

The Historic Lotus Register (some very fine people indeed who I will list at the end of the article) helped me reconstruct enough information to put this information together.

Simulator layout
Simulator layout

There was a 3-dimensional disc that laid out the circuit to be used (Brands Hatch mostly) and a camera that tracked the disc to show where the driver was on a screen mounted in front of the car. The racing school at Brands Hatch used one. 31 were sold.

The example of the simulator they used for the Blue Peter TV broadcast was based on a Formula 3 chassis. It had sensors to measure the wheel, throttle and brake movement. This was interpreted “by a computer”, which moved the disc system behind the screen.

A scale model of Brands Hatch on a rotating disc platform
A scale model of Brands Hatch on a rotating disc platform (sorry about the image quality!)

The disc was actually a scale model of the track, and several different tracks were available. As the driver turned the wheel, the disc would move laterally to create the impression of left/right motion. Braking would slow the rotation of the disc and throttle would speed it up.

How did the projector work?

The fixed-position light arm illuminates the model of the track on the upper disc. The upper and lower discs rotate together, and the lower disc is rotated by a wheel attached to a shaft from the motor. The drive position is under the end of the light arm, consequently, the speed of the upper disc at the end of the light arm is directly proportional to the motor speed (in turn this is controlled by the car accelerator pedal).

The rotating disc assembly moved laterally under the control of the car’s steering wheel, so the ‘view’ from the end of the light arm represents the driver’s view of the model track. I initially thought that the projector part of the equipment would act like an episcope, but it’s possible that the view projected onto the screen was a shadow or a combination of these effects.

As you can see in the video, it’s easy to enter a corner too quickly and understeer off the circuit! In the period, at events in the UK, a works driver might attend and set a lap time for other people to try to match.

Credits and thanks

Information and photos provided by: Alan Nobbs, Åke Axelsson, Kyle Kaulback, Martyn Heesom, Anders Lofthammar, Wolfgang Reichert, Golden Gate Lotus Club and World of Speed History Museum (now closed)

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The First Racing Simulator Ever Built