Colin Chapman: Lotus's genius eccentric

With Lotus arriving in the UAE next month, Philip Charles examines the legacy of its founder – the debonair, enigmatic and creative Colin Chapman, who masterminded production and racing cars.

The founder of Lotus, Colin Chapman, centre, pictured in a typically flamboyant pose in 1981, at the head of a grid of his Team Lotus Formula One team, including, on the No 12 car, the future world champion Nigel Mansell. Courtesy of Lotus Cars
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If you so much as shared a drink at some point with American engineer and car executive John DeLorean between 1980 and 1982, you were subjected to an investigation by the United States and the British governments, such was his notoriety for unscrupulous business practices. Unfortunately for one Englishman, Colin Chapman, and his Lotus Cars company, the DeLorean DMC-12 sports car was conceived to feature chassis and suspension designs with Chapman’s signature on them.

Chapman, along with sidekick and accountant Fred Bushell, was a bit too close for comfort with DeLorean, and, after all, the British taxpayers put up £10 million (Dh59.6m) for the new DeLorean factory in Northern Ireland. Now the people wanted their money back, and Chapman was caught in the crossfire, undeniably involved in illegality.

When DeLorean was busted for drug dealing to help fund his beleaguered car company, he got off the hook, citing entrapment. Bushell served five years and never squeaked a word, while Chapman was looking at 10 years behind bars, according to a Belfast judge. Instead of the can, he got the coffin – Chapman died on December 16, 1982. Conspiracy theorists still claim he was poisoned with a dose of digitalis, all orchestrated by DeLorean to stop the Englishman from spilling everything to the British government.

The night before he died, Chapman dined and tapped to a jazz band with his wife, Hazel, and the Lotus Formula 1 team manager Peter Warr. There was no talk of DeLorean or the British government’s inquiries. In the morning, Chapman and his right-hand man Bushell flew to Paris for an FIA meeting at the famous Place de la Concorde. The following day, they were back home in England, and as soon as Chapman got home, around the corner from the company estate, he retired to bed and simply never woke up. The principal, most pioneering individual in British motorsport had died after a heart attack at the age of 54.

The call to the Lotus team came immediately. As Warr made the rounds giving everyone the devastating news, faces dropped; the “Guvnor” was gone, and just about no one said so much as a word for the rest of the day. But everyone wanted to say it; they all knew that it had to be said. How was Lotus to carry on?

Chapman was everything at Lotus, his involvement seeping into each nut and bolt of every race and road car bearing the famous green-and-gold badge. Yet the marque didn’t die with him. The following day, everyone in the team turned up at the factory as usual and just got on with the simple job of getting on. Lotus had cars to build and races to win.

Next month, they’re going on sale in the UAE, initially in Dubai, where Al Futtaim has set up a dealership that will sell the Evora and Evora S models, before a planned expansion of the range

It all began 30 years before, with £25 (Dh149) that Chapman borrowed from his fiancée to found Lotus Cars (he got the name from a bathroom fitting) in 1952, and by 1968 he’d swelled the pot into a million-pound empire. During his youth, Chapman had studied for a civil engineering degree, spent a year in the Royal Air Force and worked in the aluminium industry.

“There will always be a case for a relatively small, adaptable business to fill in the gap of big car manufacturers,” he once noted. “There’s always going to be a scope for a man who can offer something better.

“I don’t think you have to be ruthless [in business],” he continued, “But I think you have to be prepared to make some unpalatable decisions at times, because frequently your decision is between two evils, and it’s going to hurt somebody. This is a tragedy of trying to run a business, but there’s no way out.”

And there were plenty of unpalatable decisions. Motor racing historian Mike Lawrence wrote that Chapman habitually abused drugs like barbiturates and amphetamines to keep his restless mind going, while his trademark moustache, piercing blue eyes, and Queen’s English pronunciation added to the oodles of charm radiating from his mere presence.

The first global Lotus headquarters was a London lock-up garage belonging to Chapman’s soon-to-be in-laws, churning out modified Austins. Four years after dabbling with road cars, he went into racing, and quickly set about occupying the front rows of most grids, his early success achieved by extracting more power from an engine that everyone used, and lightening everything that he could.

“To Colin, rules were something to be challenged, circumvented,” said Lotus engineer Tony Rudd. “He spent hours reading [the rule books] just to find loopholes.”

“Adding power makes you faster on the straights, subtracting weight makes you faster everywhere,” Chapman famously noted. “We actually go racing because I like it. I’ve always been involved in racing, and I also like the technical fallout from it. We learn tremendous amounts from racing. Our engineers from the car company take direct readouts from the racing team, in terms of suspension, handling, safety … We stretch everything to the limit in our racing cars, and we then know what sort of limit we can incorporate in our production cars.”

Hence, the business grew, purely to finance a passion. At the Earls Court Motor Show in 1957, Lotus presented three cars to the public: the Lotus 7 and Lotus Elite road cars, and the Lotus 12, which clearly displayed Chapman’s ambitions of Grand Prix racing.

The greatest British driver at the time would go down in history for giving Lotus its debut Formula One victory at Monaco in 1960, racing for the Rob Walker team. “Frankly, the Lotuses were beautiful to drive,” said the winner, Stirling Moss. “Not easy to drive, but very quick, very light and delicate, and very delicate as far as the strength was concerned.”

Moss had first-hand experience of this fragility, with quite a few wheels coming off his Lotus 18, most alarmingly at the fearsome 15km Spa Francorchamps circuit in Belgium in 1960. At 225kph. Moss spun, hit a bank and broke his back and legs. It was one of the first of many such trackside excursions for a Colin Chapman-designed car and its unlucky driver (at the same race at Spa, the British driver Mike Taylor was paralysed and had his racing career ended when his Lotus 18’s steering failed – he later successfully sued Lotus).

“Any car which holds together for more than a race is too heavy,” was another chilling definition of Grand Prix racing by Chapman. As was the infamous: “To add speed, add lightness.” You can’t get much lighter than a car with no wheels.

Besides painstakingly counting chassis rivets and getting rid of any surplus, as well as utilising the thinnest possible gauge aluminium, Chapman brought novelty designs to seemingly every Grand Prix. One year at Rouen in France – after he’d already stunned the Formula One oligarchy with his enormous aerodynamic wings hung off the back of the cars, which the whole field soon copied in a typical follow-the-leader move – his Lotus driver Jackie Oliver had a monumental crash that tore the car to pieces. The cause of the accident was the frail gearbox bell housing that supported the wing, and broke, ridding the car of most of its aerodynamics-induced cornering grip. The first thing that Chapman did was call his other driver, Graham Hill, back in and then walk over to rival Bruce McLaren to warn him of the danger – McLaren’s own car had a similar, copied design, and hence a similar risk. Despite how much Formula One was about winning at all costs, Chapman’s human side showed that it sometimes wasn’t the be all and end all.

In 1966, Lotus Cars found its staying home at Hethel in Norfolk, with typical Chapman creativity. To locate a suitable spot not too far from London and his suppliers’ bases, he simply drew a circle with a 160km radius from London, and flew around in his plane until he found the perfect location. By this stage in his life, as well as a private plane, he enjoyed a personal fortune of more than £12 million (Dh71.6million) at today’s rates.

As the 1970s loomed, it became apparent that the giants of the automotive industry would suffer in the face of the imminent oil crisis, while low-volume maker Lotus exploited its expertise of lightweight construction and smaller engines in its sports cars. It was a glorious era to be in Hethel, as supercar marques clutched onto straws while Lotus won 35 grands prix and launched successful road-going models such as the second generation Elite, and the groundbreaking Esprit – a sports car that survived five generations into 2004. In 1977, James Bond immortalised the Esprit S1, not only outrunning and outhandling the villains, but also memorably shocking Sardinian beachgoers with its submarine abilities in The Spy Who Loved Me.

Bond was behind the wheel of a new turbocharged Lotus Esprit in 1981’s For Your Eyes Only, living large at an Italian ski resort. But the good life was nearing its end, as Chapman departed us only a year later, and his legacy hit upon the hardest of times.

After Chapman’s death, there was a changing of the guard, and Lotus slumped for four years, achieving only a single Formula One race victory in 1982. For the rest of the decade, the team managed just seven more wins, six of them thanks to Ayrton Senna. In 1994, Team Lotus lined up on a Formula One grid one last time, leaving behind a wondrous heritage of revolutionary innovations, like Chapman struts, monocoque chassis, wedge designs, ground effect and even cars with dual chassis. Today, the name Lotus once again grabs top spots at Formula One races, but only in a somewhat shambolic spiritual return, as the outfit is owned by a Luxembourg-based venture capital group and has nothing to do with Hethel. Instead, it’s merely the former Renault team under a different name.

That’s a saga in itself, not unlike the horror-survival story of post-Chapman Lotus. After the 1982 tragedy, Toyota bought into the company, and before there could be any fruits of that labour, General Motors took over the outfit outright. Less than a decade later, troubled marque Bugatti sat into the Hethel throne, and then discarded Lotus to a Malaysian company to focus on its own financial problems. But against the odds, Lotus has survived and is building undoubtedly its finest-ever cars.

Anthony Colin Bruce Chapman’s initials were bigger than his company’s name on the logo for a reason – Lotus couldn’t survive without its enigmatic founder. If his overwhelmed heart hadn’t given up from Chapman’s frenetic pace of life, who’s to say that he wouldn’t have turned up at that trial, stood up in the court’s dock, waxed his moustache, and charmed his way out of doubt and into a knighthood?

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