Colin Chapman and Lotus
1 – The beginning. Performance through light weight
Four stories that only a few know
If Colin Chapman started building cars out of passion, that passion must have been truly epic. Not so much because he built his first car when he was just twenty years old while studying Engineering at University College London, in order to compete in those curious but very popular races in England called Trials. Many others had done something similar before him. But because once het set himself to work, he immediately realized with his innate instinct as a “creator of all things new”, that if everyone did things in one way, he could do them in another.
He was an excellent engineering student so it was clear to him that weight was the enemy of performance. The year was 1948 and post-war motoring tended to fall on those old habits of the pursuit of power in order to win. The bigger and more powerful the engine, the more successful the cars would be. The best example of the time was Enzo Ferrari who dictated this law with his glorious 12-cylinder V-engines.
Reversing the order of priorities therefore became his mantra: if I want to exploit this power at my disposal – the little Austin Seven he used to start this adventure that would soon transform into Lotus – it’s far easier to reduce weight than to look for extra horses that simply aren’t there. Chapman was able to verify this theory for himself because in addition to his passion for building, he was also an avid driver.
A quick search of the Web today reveals a photo that will bring a smile to the faces of anyone old enough to remember Chapman and Graham Hill alive. The future World Champion, the moustached and ironic Hill with the emblem of the London Rowing Club where he was a patron on his helmet, and the future manufacturer of the most innovative single-seater cars of the 1960s and 1970s, on board a tiny lightweight car competing in a Trial race – a mix between a rally and autocross – with the same commitment and concentration they would later pour into their extraordinary careers. It’s a revival, they are now established personalities, but the origin of their passion is as strong as ever.
The Austin Seven, designed in the 1920s, was successful because of its simplicity and affordability. In many respects in 1948, despite its relatively outdated design, a used Seven therefore became the very first Lotus. In many respects, it goes without saying, because the name and the brand didn’t arrive until 1951. The young Chapman replaced the bodywork with thin aluminium panels joined together with sheets of plywood, and modified the suspension to eliminate the car’s tendency to oversteer.
The fact that he had no intention of stopping after this first experience was confirmed by the name of his creation: Mark 1. Competitive from the start, Chapman continued to experiment, thanks in no small part to the cash prizes won at the races where he himself was a driver, by building the Mark 2. The recipe was exactly the same and the donor chassis was once again an Austin 7, only this time he focused on tuning the Ford engine and lightening the vehicle still further.
As soon as he finished his studies he found the right job at the British Aluminium Company that allowed him to fine tune his knowledge and led to the creation of the Mark 3 in 1951, this time with aluminium bodywork. Built in his free hours, often at night, it was the first car to wear the yellow and green Lotus badge with the four initials, ACBC : Anthony Colin Bruce Chapman. From that moment Lotus focused on track races or, specifically, the formula 750 Motor Club. With Colin himself behind the wheel, the Mark 3 won races repeatedly, bringing notoriety to the brand and allowing the talent of this young engineer to be noted.
Chapman was just 25 years old when he introduced the Lotus Mark 6 in 1953, more than one hundred examples of which were to be built between 1953 to 1955. Lotus Engineering Company, created in 1952 with Michael Allen, had built the Mark 4 for his first real customer, the racing driver Mike Lawson who had shown the potential of the lightweight sportscar with numerous victories while Chapman had begun to “invent” by creating the chassis of the future Mark 6 with its tubular frame that was so thin and light that it left the world in awe. Let’s not forget that Chapman was also an excellent driver and the creation of Team Lotus in 1954 together with the arrival of the aerodynamics specialist Frank Costin, who went on to become famous, allowed him to create cars such as the Mark 8, two-seater sports car which claimed several victories and, the following year, the Mark 9 that raced at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1955 with Chapman at the wheel alongside Ron Flockhart.
Chapman’s reputation led him to Formula 1 when Tony Vandervell asked him to help him create his new team, Vanwall. Chapman was also a test driver and was immediately intoxicated with the delicious scent of the highest Formula category without neglecting his beloved Lotus: in 1956, together with Frank Costin, he presented the Eleven. Powered by a Coventry Climax engine that reached its peak performance with the 1,100cc version, winning its class at the 24 Hours of Le Mans both in 1956 and also the following year. Even Steve McQueen abandoned his Porsche Speedster to race with this car. And that was just the beginning. The story continues. In number 2, we’ll discuss ‘the risks of innovation’. See you for our next instalment.