Sports Cars Illustrated, June 1957
The brilliant and inventive Colin Chapman at his Lotus factory, Hornsey, London. Above him hangs Mark IX body (basically a Mark VIII with improvements) . Forty models were built in 1955
By MERWIN DEMBLING
COLIN Chapman, the man behind
the Lotus, is a plump,
peppery, prematurely grey London engineer whose face occasionally sports the kind of smile found on
cats who have eaten canaries.
songbirds may not be his favorite dish, but Chapman
has plenty to look smug about anyhow. In the nine
years since he was a frustrated fighter pilot banging around in trials with just another Austin-7 special, he has seen
his Lotus cars win a coveted place for themselves high on
the roster of hot sporting vehicles. From a guy who had to
do a lot of fast promoting to snag the engine out of a hundred-dollar
wreck, he has become one of the rare businessmen who can look their
accountants unflinchingly in the
eye. The final hallmark was stamped on his success a few
months ago, when Britain's starchy Society of Motor Manufacturers
and Traders opened the doors of their Piccadilly palace to him. Still on the cheerful side of thirty, he's
by far their youngest member.
enough feathers in his cap to make him the closest thing to an Indian
chief to be found in the North London
suburb of Tottenham, Chapman bridles when referred to as a boy genius, and
positively snarls when over-enthusiastic admirers rate him a potential
Henry Ford. Nevertheless he
and Ford do have a couple of very important traits in common. Chapman,
like old Henry, has the
uncanny kind of engineering talent that almost always turns
up a simple solution to a complicated problem. Troubled
with oversteer on his Austin-7 based Mark I Lotus, Chapman eliminated it neatly and brilliantly by turning
the back axle upside down. Wanting a rigid chassis for
fast roadwork and a supple one for trials. Chapman got
both on his Mark II by inventing the "Jelly Joint," in which
the front axle and spring were pivoted on a bracket. Loosen
two bolts and the entire assembly swung free to pick
its way over rough terrain. Tighten the bolts, and the Mark II had the stiff springing necessary to keep a high speed
car from ignoring the road. Needing four-port pep from
the two-port Austin-7 engine. Chapman designed for his
Mark III a canny inlet manifold, in which a center division nuzzled into
an asbestos strip between two valves, giving each a private port.
genius? Not altogether. Chapman is a product of the
University of London's College of Engineering. He prefaced his entry into
full-time motorcar design by reading every
technical automotive treatise in the library of the Institute of
Mechanical Engineers. His Jelly Joint was the result of a months-long
study of tractor front suspensions. But
the talent was there to begin with: at the age of seven he
mopped up neighborhood competition by sawing an ex-baby-carriage axle in
half and equipping his soapbox racer with crude but adequate I.F.S.!
another gift that Chapman shares with Ford, and
the world being the tough place it is, this may well prove
the more important one. Ford's ability to rake in gold
was so spectacular that his heirs are now saddled with the
dreary chore of giving the stuff away. Chapman hasn't gotten
that far yet—his heir is still going da-da-da in a playpen—but his
skill at harpooning the slithery buck is fast becoming
legendary. One friend, who prefers not to be named,
describes Chapman's business technique as a dazzling combination
of charm and calculation. "Colin will sell you the
right time," he says, "and probably get a commission from
the chap who owns the watch!"
This type of
money-making brain is normally found only in second-hand car dealers, so
it's not much of a surprise to find that Chapman made his business debut as a second-hand car dealer. He
didn't set out to become one, but his first car—a decrepit B.S.A. three-wheeler-handled so badly that
in a day he turned it over—at a $50 profit. This was such
easy money that he couldn't resist unloading semiconscious jalopies on a
few more wide-eyed' suckers. Dignity caught
up with him after a while, though, and he took a position
as a development engineer with the British Aluminum Corporation. His job
was to dope out new uses for aluminum,
but he is the kind of engineer who follows wherever
his slide-rule leads him: he never hesitated to recommend sheet steel when the figures turned out that way. The
corporation showed remarkable patience: they kept him
on the payroll until he turned in his uniform to head his
own business—making Lotus cars.
the amount of genuine fame the marque has won, and the size of the dent it has made in motor sport, it is a bit of
a surprise to discover how few Lotuses there really
are. The breakdown goes something like this:
I—Chapman's original special—Austin-7 chassis and engine.
Only one made.
II-Austin-7 frame. Ford 1172 cc engine, and Chapman's Jelly-Joint.
Trounced a Type 37 Bug at Silver-stone in 1950. One only.
III—Austin-7 frame and engine, with de-siamesed inlet
ports. No other 750 cc formula car could touch it during
the season Chapman raced it. Only one made. [i]
IV—The last Austin-based Lotus, and the first Lotus made
to sell. The orders poured in after Chapman's dazzling
performance with his Mark III during 1951. Nevertheless
there was only one of these made.
V—There never has been a Mark V Lotus, but there probably
will be one someday when Chapman gets the time
to design it. Piqued when the 750 Club declared his de-siamesing operation unconstitutional, he announced that he
believed a 100-mph road sports car could be developed using an un-supercharged Austin-7 engine,
and Lotus Mark V was the designation reserved for
it. He hasn't really tackled the problem yet, but gossip has it that his slide-rule is leading him toward a plywood
VI—This is the model that made the marque's name, but
surprisingly enough there were only about 100 kits sold.
Designed so that it could be assembled with a minimum of tools by any talented amateur, the kit consisted of a
Chapman-designed multi-tubular frame, and modified Ford moving parts. Chapman, still working at British
Aluminium, and his friend Michael Allen chipped
in to start Lotus Cars, Ltd. He hasn't divulged their capital, but it couldn't have been any spectacular amount,
because as soon as they had built the prototype of the Mark VI the firm
ran plumb out of money.
Fortunately the prototype was
demolished enroute to a race
in 1952, when it was only a month old, and the insurance
payment put the business back on its feet. Once in production, the Mark VI
kits went like hot cakes,
and eight of them were shipped
before Chapman got a chance to put
one together and try it out for himself.
VII-Mark VII? Mark VII's a Jaguar.[ii]
1952 Chapman knew that he
couldn't get top performance from conventional-bodied cars any longer, but the
big drawback with super-streamlining is
that it generally winds up weighing more
than a plain, un-aerodynamic body. It
took Chapman and Frank Costin, an aircraft engineer, two years to perfect the triangulated
space frame and aerodynamic body
for this one, but when they got through
they had a really fast, scientifically streamlined
vehicle. Powered by an engine made up of Morris 10 and TC MG bits and
pieces, the low-drag body swept along so
silently that Lotus mechs were involved in
three Technicolor crack-ups because they couldn't use wind-rush to judge their speed.
Ten Mark VIlIs were built.
IX-Basically a Mark VIII, with a few improvements. About forty were built
in 1955. This year was a banner year for
Lotus, for the marque's racing successes fill twelve legal-size pages,
cc version of the Mark IX.
About 10 built.
is the current Lotus, introduced in 1956, and with it Lotus goes real
fancy. With a Coventry-Climax engine, disc
brakes, and a deDion final drive it's called
the Le Mans model; a live axle and drum
brakes make it the Club model, and the same with a Ford 1172 cc engine is called
the Sports model. Club and Le Mans models
tack a number on after their name, depending
on which Coventry-Climax engine they use. They are 75's if they are
powered with the FWA 1098 cc engine
with standard camshaft
producing 74 bhp at 6250
rpm. The same engine with stage two camshaft
(83 bhp at 6800 revs) makes the 85. The 90 gets its number from the FWE 1290
cc engine, for this delivers 91 bhp at 6500.
An FWB 1460 cc mill delivers 100 bhp
at 6250, so it doesn't take a Van Doren or even an Einstein to figure out that this model
will be the 100. And if daddy's rich, sonny
gets a 140, equipped with the FPF twin
overhead cam job, holding 1475 cubical centimeters and disgorging 141 bhp
when you revolve it 7000 times in a
Close on the
heels of the Mark XI, of which somewhere over 140 have been built, comes
the F2 to mark Lotus's debut in formula
racing. None of these have actually been built yet, but a dozen were
ordered at the 1956 London Motor show. No matter
how one figures Lotus production, it
is hard to make the total of all models add up to much over 300 cars. Yet there are
practically no sports or racing enthusiasts who haven't heard of the
Lotus, and even fewer who
haven't wanted one. This
becomes all the more remarkable when
one considers that Chapman spends next
to nothing on advertising or publicity. The Lotus got its reputation when
owners of the marque began talking it up, and
held its reputation when competition laurels
proved that the design had something.
"If Colin were ever to build a mousetrap,"
said one driver, "I'd certainly hate to be a mouse!"
devotion that Chapman can inspire
is a vital part of his organization. Many of his most valued co-workers are people
whose main jobs are on somebody else's
payroll. The aerodynamic body for the
Mark VIII, for example, was subjected to
exhaustive tests, including wind-tunnel routines, and special rigs using the facilities of an internationally
famous aircraft firm.
Unfortunately the firm can't be named, for this information would come as
a surprise to them. Chapman just happened to have a friend on the staff.
When Chapman noticed that the Coventry Climax engine used in a fire pump would
make an ideal lightweight power
plant for a sports car, it
required a lot of fast talking to get the company to bother making the
necessary modifications on such a small
number of engines as he could order. In the course of his campaign he
completely won over Wally Hassan
and Harry Munday, designers
of the Fire Pump. Now Munday
is his principal consultant on engines.
how many volunteer helpers and
well-wishers Chapman has, practically nothing about his future plans ever leaks out—for
the simple reason that Chapman is
a fanatic about keeping technical information under his-hat. The Jelly
Joint on the Mark II was
hidden from view by a special
aluminum plate, and he never loosened
or tightened the bolts when there was
a chance anyone could see. It took the 750
Club an entire season—during which Chapman
cleaned up on trophies—before they wised up to the de-siamesed inlet ports
on his Mark III. Coming more up-to-date, the first anybody at Lotus Cars
Ltd. knew about the projected F2 was when
the welders delivered a new frame one
morning. Of course they had an idea that
there was something new cooking: Chapman
hadn't been putting in as much time
as usual at the plant. This means developments, for he does designing at
departs from his usual secrecy, he always has a good reason. Associates were
shocked, not long ago, when Chapman shipped two Mark VI kits to Maserati
—for cash. "Next year Maserati will be producing
Lotuses," they forecast.[iii]
said Chapman. "First of all, they'll put Maserati engines in the Mark VI
frames, and the frames will break. Our engines
weigh 200 pounds; the Maseratis close
to 400. So they'll stiffen frames in the conventional way, and they'll be useless."
pretty much what happened. Chapman
ended up with the profit on two
kits, and Maserati ended up not much wiser than they were before. Until, that is,
the following season, when Lotuses began appearing powered by engines of
essentially the same rating as the Maseratis, but
weighing only the same 200 pounds the
frame had been designed to take. Maserati
had just tackled the wrong end of the problem; instead of stiffening the frame,
they should have lightened the engine. Or, as they say in Kentucky:
"Don't raise the levee, just lower the river"
driver is a good deal like Toscanini
the singer: adequate but blood-curdling. Nobody is very surprised that
he's prematurely grey, for the
consensus is that if he had
any nerves at all he'd frighten
himself into general paralysis every
time he came up to the starting line. Described as a "press on regardless' driver, it
is a rare event for him to lift his foot during
a race. Only his highly developed mechanical
sympathy keeps him from blowing
up engines right and left, and only a benign providence keeps him safe and
sound to collect the winner's garland. As
an engineer he maintains that any driver
who spins off ought to be shot. As a
driver he is constantly spinning off. But he hasn't shot himself yet.
explain this very simply: there's
no money in shooting yourself!
Web editor’s notes:
[i] The Mk III was joined by the Mk IIIb. A third chassis was also built.
[ii] The Mk VII was a one-off, designed for Clive Clairemont but abandoned by Lotus before completion. The number was set aside and used for a different design late in 1957, the Seven.
[iii] The writer misunderstood, or there is a typographical error here. There is no evidence that any MK VI frames were bought by Maserati. But Maserati did buy an early MK XI, and Chapman’s statement and the remainder of the text holds true for it. Maserati eventually produced their own lightweight spaceframe in the type 61 “Birdcage,” its last great racecar.
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