There were several giants of the post-war British motor industry but few were as talented as Colin Chapman. He was an inspired designer, design engineer, inventor, racing driver and founder of Lotus Cars. Born in Richmond, Surrey and christened Anthony Colin Bruce Chapman, his initials (ACBC) explain, quite simply, the hieroglyphics on the Lotus badge.
Chapman studied Civil Engineering at University College London. In 1948, fascinated by aeronautics, he joined the Royal Air Force. He so impressed the RAF hierarchy that he was quickly offered a commission. The quick mind that he later became famous for took him away from the RAF into industry. Chapman had seen enough in the air-force to convince him that the future lay in aluminium and determined to learn all about it. He joined British Aluminium to market aluminium in the building industry.
In 1952 he founded Lotus Cars with a few, soon to be famous friends. Initially the company operated part-time, the accent was on building sports-cars for racing. The early cars were mostly `one-offs` but eventually Chapman produced the Lotus 6 which gave him so much racing success that he built and sold 100 of them.
Chapman’s philosophy was that a big engine was fast on the straight but a lighter car was fast everywhere. Liberal use of aluminium kept the weight down and the tuning ability of `Team Lotus` did the rest. The Lotus 6 was replaced by the Lotus 7 and the rest is history. The 7 was marketed as a road-car, usually supplied in `kit-form` and was horribly quick. So quick that it was banned from production sports-car racing because nothing could catch it! In those days everybody bought the famous `T`shirt` proclaiming: “Lotus Seven… too fast to race!” These days the Lotus 7 has it`s own formula.
Chapman continued to race and in 1956 he was offered a drive by Vanwall in the French GP at Reims. Unfortunately he had a `coming-together` with his team-mate, one Mike Hawthorn, and failed to finish the race. Chapman returned to F1 as a constructor in the 1960s. `Team Lotus` won 7 constructor`s titles, 6 driver titles and the Indianapolis 500.
The Lotus cars were then powered by Coventry-Climax V8 engines, fast but complicated and expensive. Two of Chapman`s friends, Mike Costin and Keith Duckworth ran the engine R&D but wanted to try an American V8. Chapman then did the impossible. At the height of Mustang and Cobra production he went to Detroit and secured a deal with Ford to supply `Cosworth` with Ford motors.
After much inspired engineering Cosworth turned the Ford alloy V8 into the DFV. The DFV (dual camshaft, four valve) was a revelation. Soon almost all F1 cars, with the obvious exception of Ferrari and BRM (British Racing Motors), were using it.
Colin Chapman`s contribution to automotive design cannot be over-rated or exaggerated. Lotus was the first constructor to use rear suspension struts and most importantly, to use a monocoque with the engine as a `stressed member`. He pioneered aerodynamic design and `positive aero downforce`. These innovations are common now but Lotus blazed the trail.
Back to road-car production! In 1958 Chapman`s genius hit the streets with a revolutionary new car. The Lotus Elite was a small fixed-head sports-car built with an entirely glass-fibre monocoque body. Super light and very pretty, it was powered by a Coventry Climax 1200 twin-cam engine. The only problem with the Lotus Elite was the price. Climax engines did not come cheap. However, once you got one underneath you the road belonged to you. It was REALLY quick and handled better than anything else around. Like the Lotus 7, it was also often supplied in `kit-form`.
The Elite was replaced in 1962 with the Lotus Elan. Colin Chapman had obtained a supply of Ford 4-cylinder engines from Dagenham UK and Cosworth worked their magic on them. Converting the push-rod OHV into a twin-cam OHV was a master-stroke. The Elan was an instant success. Ford UK were so impressed that they engaged Lotus to do the necessary serious modifications to their Cortina that resulted in the Ford Cortina Lotus of 1963. A truly brilliant machine!
Colin Chapman CBE died of a heart-attack in 1982 but the ethos lives on. He was a remarkable man and we miss him.
Watch out for Lotus articles… they’re on their way!
Pictures: © Lotus
- Marcos Cars 1959-2002: Uncertain Future Classic - 13. April 2016
- Healey-Alvis G Type 1951-1953: Only 25 Classic Cars Made - 2. November 2015
- Ettore Bugatti 1881-1947: Pioneering Genius of Design & Engineering - 5. October 2015
- Mulhouse City of the Automobile: Or What I did On My Holiday - 2. September 2015
- Aston-Martin DB4 1958-1963: The First Aston Superleggera - 18. August 2015
- Berkeley T60 & T60/4 1959-1960: Another 3-Wheeler Sports Car - 29. June 2015
- Bristol 403 1953-1955: Bristol With Reduced Brake Efficiency - 22. June 2015
- Triumph TR4A 1965-1967: The Car With a Choice of Rear Axles - 1. June 2015
- Aston-Martin DB2/4 1953-1957: The First Hatchback - 18. May 2015
- AC Aceca 1954-1963: Car That Should Have Been The AC Cobra - 28. April 2015
I was born in Hereford UK in 1948 and brought up in Gloucester UK. I played Rugby football internationally as a schoolboy. At the age of 17, a new and wet driving license in my paw, I entered motor racing. I was supported and financed by my parents and so my journey began.
In 1965 I bought a 1293cc Mini-Cooper `S` and campaigned it for a season. Having quickly made some good friends in the racing fraternity, several interesting opportunities came my way. I joined a sports-car team and raced in the Le Mans 24 hours in 1968 and 1969 in a Lola T70. Mechanical failure defeated both efforts. During that period I owned and raced a `D type` Jaguar and an AC Cobra. In those days cars like that were available and not too expensive, now they reside in museums and private collections. I had a chain of interesting cars through my youth including Jaguars, Minis, Mustangs and Lotus-Cortinas.
As a young driver I had my share of accidents too. Often the car would only be worth scrap-metal value by the time I got it home! I worked for an Aston-Martin/Jaguar dealership for a while, which enhanced my experience and gave me the opportunity to sample some very exotic machines, Ferrari, Facel-Vega, Iso and Maserati to recall a few of them.
At the end of 1969 I moved to South Africa to work on my uncle`s farm but the S.A. government had other ideas and drafted me into the army. After five years had passed I was thanked and released from the service. While I was there I bought a beige Cadillac Eldorado, previously the property of Marilyn Monroe. While I was away on a patrol my girlfriend had it re-sprayed pink! I was unimpressed by both the joke and the bill for the work!
When I returned to UK in 1974 I left it behind. On my return I found that the once-mighty British motor industry was in decline and was headed for oblivion. Motor racing was now very expensive so I turned to commercial transport. Driving large trucks gave me freedom and a chance to see some of the world. I don`t remember ever making a career choice but for the next thirty years a truck was my home. For about ten years in that period I owned two trucks of my own.
I also owned a famous MGB-GT, known as `Lucky`. If you`d like to read `The Story of Lucky` there is an article in Inopian`s archive. I finally retired, due to ill-health, in 2008. Since I had varied knowledge and many experiences on our subject I decided to share the stories of the cars I enjoyed (and hated) with the new generation.
Enjoy Inopian… it is constructed and written for you.