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



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.

Twittering 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.

Despite 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.

Natural 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.!

There is 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.

Considering 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:

MARK I—Chapman's original special—Austin-7 chassis and engine. Only one made.

MARK 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.

MARK 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]

MARK 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.

MARK 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 body.

MARK 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.

MARK VII-Mark VII? Mark VII's a Jaguar.[ii]

MARK VIII-By 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.

MARK 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, single spaced.

MARK X-1500 cc version of the Mark IX. About 10 built.

MARK XI-This 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 minute.

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!"

This utter 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.

No matter 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 home.

When he 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]

"Nonsense," 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."

This is 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"

Chapman the 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.

His friends explain this very simply: there's no money in shooting yourself!

Merwin Dembling


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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