Colin Chapman and Lotus Cars
Created | Updated Nov 24, 2009
Anthony Colin Bruce Chapman was born on 9 May, 1928, in London. His father was a hotel manager. He qualified as a pilot while still a student, then graduated as a civil engineer from University College London in 1948, before enrolling on a three-year short service commission course, resigning after two years.
In 1952 he founded the Lotus Engineering Co Ltd (the story that he used a small loan from Hazel Williams, his future wife, was made up by Chapman but had no basis in fact) to buy and sell used cars. Initially he modified and raced these cars himself in trials and hillclimbs1, selling each to finance building or converting the next, while working full-time for the British Aluminium Company. In 1955 Chapman was able to take up running Lotus Engineering as a full-time job, and to set up Team Lotus to oversee the racing. By this stage he was already working as a consultant for the BRM and Vanwall Formula 1 teams. Among his first paid employees were Graham Hill, and Keith Duckworth and Frank Costin (the pair who founded Cosworth2 - the latter became Lotus's chief aerodynamicist, having previously worked for de Havilland3).
Lotus's Formula 1 debut came in 1958. Over the next 24 years, Chapman's moustache and cloth cap (which he threw into the air whenever Team Lotus won a race) would become familiar at tracksides around the world. He was a constant source of technical innovation, and it is probably fair to say that he did more than anyone else to change motor racing worldwide. He died of a heart attack on 16 December, 1982. By this time, he was embroiled in the murky financial waters of the Delorean scandal, that would eventually also claim the life of his team.
Chapman had a legendary ability to throw himself into a new field of study. He is said to have learnt accounting in a single weekend when it became necessary for the running of his company. He showed the same ability in several other fields, such as aerodynamics, where he read every book he could find on the subject. If he had a weakness, it was that he was never satisfied with simply patiently developing something. In classic alpha-personality4 style, he would quickly become bored and start looking for the next breakthrough. The other classic personality trait that he displayed was introversion. Although often regarded as not being a 'people person' and as hard to approach, Chapman had several close friends in whose company he obviously delighted. This second weakness would nearly lead him to disband the Lotus team after Jim Clark was killed - but it was the former that would, years after Chapman's own death, eventually have effects that helped to bring the team down.
Chapman as a Driver
Chapman started out building cars to drive himself. He developed quite a reputation around the British club-racing scene, especially in 1951 as he dominated in the Lotus III so completely that the formula was changed to outlaw his car. He entered the 1956 French Grand Prix, qualifying 5th5 in a Vanwall, though he did not start the race. His race career was curtailed by his growing responsibilities to the team - he was no longer an asset that could be risked in the increasingly lethal world of top-level motor racing of the early 1960s. His only other major race was the 1960 British Grand Prix touring car support race, which he won in a Jaguar.
In other circumstances, Chapman's short career as a driver might have been seen as a loss to the sport. He was regarded by many as talented, and was quite capable of holding his own among the top drivers of the day.
Team Lotus - Lotus on the Track
Lotus are best remembered for their successes in Formula 1. They won 79 championship Grands Prix and seven Constructors' Championships. The Drivers' title was won in a Lotus six times, and at one point they had won more championship Grands Prix than any other constructor. The team were also able to count victories in the Indy 500 (the biggest cash prize in motor racing at the time), sports cars, Formula 2 and some of the minor categories at Le Mans. All this was achieved by a combination of specific design achievements and bringing a new philosophy to motor racing.
Chapman realised that the only way to make a car reliable was to strengthen the parts, which in turn meant increasing its weight. Heavy cars go slower, so there should be an advantage in keeping weight to a minimum, even if that meant that the car would be on the point of collapse by the end of a race. All too often, of course, the cars collapsed a few miles too early, but when they didn't, they were unsurpassed. All racing cars are now built according to the distance over which they have to race. This fundamental change in the way the cars are built was the philosophy Lotus brought to racing.
Chapman's first car was a 1948 modification of a 1930 Austin Seven. He rebuilt the chassis so that every panel took a share of the forces applied to the car (they were 'stressed members' in engineering terms). This maximised the strength-to-weight ratio, and was to become a staple of all future Lotus design principles. He chose the name 'Lotus' because after all the work he had put into the car, he felt in need of the legendary restorative powers of the Egyptian flower.
By 1951, with only his third design of car (wait for it, the Lotus III) and driving himself, he was winning races. This created a demand for the car, and he was able to sell customer models for the next couple of years.
The Lotus XI was a Le Mans sports car. Designed to win the Index of Performance - a category at Le Mans based on efficiency as well as speed - in 1956, it used an off-the-shelf 1100cc Coventry Climax engine and not only won the IoP but also the 1100cc class and, with a larger engine, the 1500cc class. It set a speed record for its engine size (143mph) and became the basis for the Lotus 7 road car. This was the first Lotus designed and built for customers, and was a huge success in the club-racing scene.
First F1 Race to First F1 Championship
The next stage on Lotus' inexorable road to success was to enter Formula 1. At this point, the big European constructors like Ferrari, Mercedes, Alfa Romeo and Maserati, dominated the sport. The inaugural Constructors' Championship in 1958 (The Drivers' Championship had been running since 1950) had been won by the independent British team Vanwall, but their car was extensively based on a Ferrari design. An old colleague and friend of Chapman's, John Cooper, had just set up an F1 team using underpowered but light, efficient and rear-engined cars, and would win both titles for the next two years. The age of the grandee teams was coming to an end, as for the first time they were comprehensively outpaced by independent constructors. As the Coopers were revealed to be one-trick wonders, and fell by the wayside as other teams imitated their layout, Lotus would lead the garagistes6, as Enzo Ferrari disparagingly dubbed them.
The Lotus 12 was the first F1 Lotus. It debuted in 1958, but proved unreliable. Chapman insisted on modelling it on the outdated Vanwall design, to avoid being accused of copying John Cooper's rear-engined cars. By now, all Lotuses were using 'wobbly web' wheels, a sort of radially corrugated disc that gave a much greater strength-to-weight ratio than spokes. They would continue to be used until materials technology advanced enough to allow lighter, stronger alloys to give better performance. The follow-up, the Lotus 18, was underpowered, but had superior handling, and an independent entry by Rob Walker, driven by Stirling Moss, gave Lotus its first F1 win at the 1960 Monaco Grand Prix. During this period, Lotus continued to build successful sports racers and dominated Formula 2.
The real breakthrough came in 1962 with the Lotus 25. It looked good, with a distinctive low, slim body dangling from its suspension arms. More importantly, it used a monocoque - the chassis was a single tube, like an aircraft body, not a 'spaceframe', a series of panels joined by internal skeleton of tubular rods. By reclining the driving position, Chapman was able to reduce its cross-section, and hence aerodynamic drag. The reclined (almost lying) driving position is now used by all single-seater racecars. This was further aided by moulding the car precisely to its drivers, especially the small frame of Jim Clark - again, this is now standard practice. The car failed on the last lap of the last race, at Kyalami in South Africa, while Clark was leading both the race and the championship, and so Lotus had to wait another year to fulfil their promise. Lotus won the Constructors' Championship and Clark the Driver's in the same car in 1963.
The Indy 500
The Indianapolis 500 had officially been part of the F1 World Championship throughout the 50s, in an attempt to justify the 'World' title by including a non-European race. However, the difficulties in shipping an entire team across the Atlantic ensured that, aside from a miserably off-pace entry from Ferrari one year, no F1 team competed, and eventually the race was dropped from the F1 calendar in the early 1960s. It remained America's most prestigious race, and had the largest prize-fund in the sport on either side of the Atlantic. Despite this, it was devoid of the technical innovations that had revolutionised F1 in the previous few years, and Chapman felt that the prize was there for the taking.
The Lotus 29 was a slightly modified version of the Lotus 25. Its suspension was slightly asymmetric to aid with the left-turn-only Indianapolis Speedway track. Jim Clark missed the 1963 Monaco Grand Prix to lead the Lotus assault. As with the Coopers years previously, the Lotuses were much smaller and less powerful than their front-engined competition. Like the Coopers, the Lotuses outclassed their rivals. In a controversial finish, they were denied victory when their lead was wiped out by a late-race yellow flag7 and by the Lotus team (whose members were unfamiliar with this American practice) not taking advantage of this to make one of the pit-stops. They lost out to Parnelli Jones in the very car that had caused the yellow flag by dropping oil on the track - many felt that it should have been disqualified. The next year, 1964, the team were back with the Lotus 34, again establishing a commanding lead (this time against a mixture of front and rear-engined competition), but the car broke down a few laps from the flag. Success in the US, meanwhile, had been underlined by wins at Trenton and Milwaukee in both 1963 and 1964.
It was third time lucky in 1965 with the Lotus 38. Jim Clark crossed the line to claim motor-racing's richest prize. By this time all Indy-cars were rear-engined, but the Lotus/Clark combination clearly still had the edge.
The wedge-shaped, turbine-powered Lotus 56 led until breaking down in 1968. Slow corners on street circuits meant that a jet engine would stall as its air-flow dropped below a critical level, but on the Indy oval that was not a problem. The next year, rules were introduced restricting the size of air intakes, effectively outlawing turbine engines. For the first time since his club-racing days, Chapman had found that racing regulators were becoming more interested in having 'proper' cars than in innovation or having the fastest machinery. He would not return to Indianapolis.
Meanwhile, Back in Europe - The Glory Years in F1
In 1965 the team won both F1 championships, the Indy 500, the Australian Tasman series and the British and French F2 titles. In fact, Jim Clark led every lap of every race that he finished that year and scored maximum points8. Just five years after their first F1 victory, Lotus were indisputably the best team in the world. They would win the Tasman series again in 1967 and 1968.
Their 1966 season was hampered by uncompetitive BRM engines, having switched from Coventry Climax that year. But the following year bought a return to form with a new chassis design and a new engine supplier. The Lotus 49 was another seminal car. It won first time out in 1967, though reliability issues prevented it from taking the title that year. It took the idea of stressed panels a step further, using the engine as stressed member (in other words, the wheels and rear wing were connected directly to the engine. There was no rear bodywork). Doing away with the rear bodywork saved on weight, and the air was so turbulent by the time it had passed over the whole car that the diffuser - rear aerodynamics - was having little effect anyway. As a side-effect, this also gave the best possible view of the Ford DFV engine9, which would go on to win more races than any other power-plant. The Ford was the first engine to be custom-built by the manufacturer for the team. Again, all top-level motorsport engines are now built this way. Wings and slick tyres appeared around this time but were not developed by any F1 team. They were virtually the only significant technical advances of this period not made by Lotus.
Like the 25, the 49 was known as much for its sleek good looks as for its performance on the track (though those looks were marred in later seasons by the addition of unsightly wings). To cap a superlative car, the Jim Clark/Graham Hill driver line-up was one of the strongest ever.
The Ford-Cosworth engine proved so powerful that the F1 authorities asked Chapman to make it available to other teams from 1968 onwards, as otherwise there would be no serious competition. For nearly 20 years afterwards, aside from Ferrari and BRM, all race-winning teams used off-the-shelf Ford Cosworth engines. Only the arrival of the turbo era eventually displaced it.
Jim Clark and Driver Deaths
Scottish ex-farmer Jim Clark was an indispensable part of the Lotus team during this period. He was possibly the most naturally talented racing driver ever. He won two F1 titles before dying in an F2 race in 1968. Lotus was the only team he ever drove for, and he was one of Chapman's closest friends; the two quiet personalities seemed to match. Despite his prowess, Clark never won at Monaco, regarded by many as the circuit that tests a driver's skill the most. In part this is because, as mentioned above, he missed the Monaco Grand Prix several times to compete in the Indy 500. Chapman was devastated by Clark's death, and considered closing the team. Only Graham Hill's strong leadership and championship-winning form held the team together.
Jochen Rindt also died at the wheel of a Lotus (uniquely, he became champion posthumously in 1970), as did Alan Stacey. These events - and Sterling Moss' near-fatal crash in one of Chapman's cars - affected Chapman profoundly, though probably never to the same extent as Clark's death. Long after Moss was able to laugh off his injuries, Chapman could be moved to anger by any light-hearted reference to the incident.
Team Colours and Sponsorship
When Lotus first entered Formula 1, every car ran in its national colours. For British cars like Lotus, that meant British Racing Green. The teams differentiated themselves by using different shades, or by using coloured stripes. The Lotus team colours were therefore green with a yellow stripe down the centre of the car.
Sponsorship at this time was limited to a few oil and tyre companies paying the teams to be able to say that their products were used. When the rules were relaxed, Chapman was the first to repaint his entire car in his sponsor's colours - the Gold Leaf tobacco brand. This was to be the start of a long association between F1 and tobacco money, and all race teams now run in sponsors' colours.
In the late seventies, Lotus switched brands to John Player Special. Their black-and-gold livery became one of the most famous in sports sponsorship history. Chapman also became the first team-owner to name his cars after his sponsor, insisting that they be known as John Player Special Lotuses. Again, this practice has become standard throughout all formulae of motor-racing.
The Later Years
Innovation continued to be Lotus' watchword, but it became harder to find enough of an advantage to make up for continuing reliability failures. The Lotus 63 (1969) was to be a 4-wheel-drive F1 car, following on from Chapman's unfulfilled plans to run a 4WD car at Indianapolis. It was a rare Lotus failure, the complexities of the 4WD systems leading to unreliability, and the extra weight countering the advantages of the extra traction. It never raced.
The Lotus 72 (1970) had few specific innovative features, but standardised racecar layout. It used inboard brakes, and was the first car to use side radiators or a multi-element rear wing. Its wedge shape, with the engine at the back and no structure in front of front axle, has been the basis of every racecar since. 20 GP wins, three Constructors championships and two Drivers titles make this the most successful F1 car of all time.
The Lotus 78 pioneered 'ground effect' in 1978. While using a wind-tunnel (stop us if this is starting to sound familiar, but all teams now use wind-tunnels) at Imperial College in London, the Lotus engineers noticed that their results were varying dramatically as they varied the suspension ride-height by a few millimetres. To cut a long story short, they discovered that air-flow under the car could produce more downforce (pushing the car onto the track and thus increasing cornering speed) than airflow over the car. The 78 was let down by reliability, but the 79 won both championships the following year. This triggered a schism in F1 - harnessing ground effect required the whole car to be designed around wide side-pods, which did not leave room for a turbo engine. It remained unclear whether ground effect or turbo-power was preferable, and the British teams stuck with their trusty Ford engines while the continental 'grandee' teams went for horsepower. This division mirrored the political split, the so-called FISA/FOCA War, that was plaguing F1 at the time. Both turbos and ground effect were outlawed in the early 90s in a bid to cut speeds and increase safety.
Without a doubt Lotus' most controversial car was the Lotus 86 (1980). Immediately after the introduction of wings to F1 in the 60s, there was a spate of dramatic crashes as the struts used to attach the wing to the axle broke. Therefore the governing body decreed that all wings must be in integral part of the chassis and connected to the wheels only via the suspension. The Lotus 88 had two chassis, one inside the other, connected by a very weak suspension system. The outer one contained the aerodynamic bodywork, but at high speeds the downforce would flatten the inter-chassis suspension, effectively connecting the wings directly to the wheels. The driver, meanwhile, was in the inner chassis, which had its own 'proper' suspension to keep the wheels pressed to the track. The car was within the F1 regulations, was cleared to race by the FIA10 and would clearly have been safe and the fastest car on the track by some way. At the first race of the season, the race stewards11 refused the car permission to race without giving a reason. The car never raced. Chapman had finally reached the limits of what was permissible in F1, just as he had in Indycar 15 years earlier and in club racing before that.
The Lotus 92 (1983) was the last car that Chapman worked on. With active suspension12 and talented young drivers Elio de Angelis and Ayrton Senna in the drivers' seats, Lotus looked set to return to the top. It was not to be. Chapman's sudden death before the car's completion triggered a sharp downturn in Team Lotus' fortunes, from which it never recovered.
The team struggled on with a series of average cars until 1995, when it finally collapsed. Its assets became part of Pacific Racing. Its only wins in the meantime came at the hands of Ayrton Senna, often in wet weather where his talent could disguise the poor performance of the car.
It is still possible to see Lotus Formula One cars competing and winning in historic racing series such as Thoroughbred Grands Prix around the world. Even the dual-chassis Lotus 86 has now won races in this series.
The lasting influence of Lotus also remains. In fact, it is not too much of an exaggeration to say that modern F1 cars are based on a Lotus design, that of the Lotus 72. The truncated monocoque, multiple-element wings, driver position and radiator position are all directly due to Colin Chapman, and the engine position and general aerodynamics and electrics also owe him and his team a great debt.
Lotus Cars - Lotus on the Road
Despite not being the race team, Lotus Cars occasionally entered cars in sports events. Here too, Lotus ingenuity was in evidence. The road cars were the first to use pop-up headlamps for aerodynamic efficiency. The Chapman strut (essentially a McPherson strut used on the rear suspension) is now a standard suspension design, though it has disadvantages in terms of height and side-load. The famed 'backbone' layout (a central monocoque with the bodywork radiating from it) remains one of the most efficient chassis designs, giving superb handling.
Following is a list of some of the best-remembered Lotus road-cars.
The Lotus VI was the first production car from Lotus, though it predated the formation of Lotus Cars as a separate company. It used a standard small Ford engine and light bodywork to be fast and nimble.
The Lotus 7, not to be confused with the Lotus VII, was based on the Lotus XI. It was manufactured by Lotus between 1957 and 1973, when the rights to production were sold to Caterham, who still make it as the Caterham 7. This was the first kit car, and became the basis of most later kit cars. The 'kit car' was another Lotus first - rather than selling a car, Lotus sold all the parts for the car, plus instructions on how to assemble it. This reduced both labour costs and tax, and was possible because of the Lotus design philosophy - sports performance from a standard engine and simple design.
The Lotus Elite (1957), was another groundbreaking roadcar. It used a fibreglass monocoque, nearly thirty years before these were first used in motor-racing. It won the Index of Thermal Efficiency and 1300cc class at Le Mans in 1958, and came and 14th overall. The name was later recycled for an unrelated model.
The Lotus Cortina (Lotus 28, 1963) was technically a Ford, but assigned a Lotus number. An upgrade to the rather mundane Ford Cortina, this became a favourite getaway car for London gangsters, along with the Jaguar E-Type, because of its low cost, high performance and good handling.
The Lotus Europa (Lotus 46) is not now remembered as one of Lotus' best designs, but managed to use its 85hp Renault engine to get from 0-60 in under 10 seconds.
The Lotus Esprit (Lotus 79) became one of the company's backbones. It featured in two James Bond films, The Spy Who Loved Me (the white car that turns into a sub) and For Your Eyes Only (the red car that explodes). Modified turbo versions continue to compete in sports-car races, and this was the fastest production car Lotus ever produced.
The Lotus 84, or Eclat, and its upgrade, the Lotus 89, or Excel, are the 'forgotten' Lotuses, lacking the success or quality of their brethren.
The Lotus Elan (Lotus 26) used backbone suspension, and became another top-seller for the company. Its basic design has been imitated by many other motor-car manufacturers, notably Mazda's MX5 (the 'Hairdressers' Car'). Production ran from 1962 to 1974. It was also innovative in its use of glass-fibre bodywork and all-independent suspension.
In 1986, Lotus was taken over by General Motors following the Lotus group's disastrous collapse. In 1990 they won the US SECA sports-cars championship, with victories in half the races. They also produced an upgraded version of the Vauxhall Carlton (known as the Omega in the USA). In 1992, Chris Boardman won Olympic gold on a carbon-fibre, asymmetric Lotus bicycle, demonstrating that not only was the company still capable of innovative design, it was not restricted to motor-vehicles. 1992 also saw another US sportscar championship title. Yet the company continued to lose money, and in 1993 it was sold to Bugatti. Three years later, it was sold again, to Proton. This is now the only surviving arm of the company, and appears to be running smoothly. It has recently moved back into the consultancy arena, tweaking the suspension of a few Protons and designing the Vauxhall VX220.
The reason behind the return to financial form is the Lotus Elise. Returning to the basic principles of a light, fast, agile two-seater roadster, Lotus have once again created a classic design, which continues to sell well even in its 'improved' redesigned form.
Lotus' latest release is the Lotus 119, which ran (the wrong way, downhill) at the 2002 Goodwood Festival of Speed. Not only is this one of the fastest cars Lotus have built, it has no engine! It is believed to be the fastest box-car ever built, capable of 200mph on a 45 degree slope.
Lotus Engineering - Pure Lotus
The consultancy business was always the backbone of the Lotus group. When times were hard for the road car division, the engineering division could be relied upon to provide a steady income. It is therefore perhaps ironic that it was this division that was eventually to lead to the group's collapse through its involvement with the Delorean scandal. Much of the 54 million pounds paid out to the Delorean Motor Company to build a plant in Belfast disappeared. Lotus were involved because they were approached by Delorean to put the finishing touches to the troublesome chassis design (they scrapped it and used an Esprit chassis, a fact which was kept quiet at the time). It seems that Chapman's need to be constantly finding a new way around the rules rather than patiently improving an existing design extended to his financial dealings also, and it is probable that his demise saved him from a lengthy and ignominious prison term. When the scandal broke and Lotus' involvement became clear, including a criminal investigation into its Managing Director and other senior personnel, sponsors for the company dried up. With no recent racing successes to fall back on, the race team foundered, taking the other branches of the business with it.
As detailed above, the road-car business survives, and the rights to the F1 team name occasionally pass hands for small sums of money. But the Lotus name is already carved deeply into the fabric of automotive design, and will remain there.