Everyone knows the Lotus Esprit that the invincible Roger Moore playing the secret agent 007 drove underwater, which later emerged onto the Sardinian beach of Romazzino in Capriccioli, much to the amazement of the bathers. While the Aston Martin has become the quintessential James Bond car, Lotus is no less important as the Esprit played a central role in no less than three films. And yet communication and industrial reality are two profoundly different things.
Making a single-seater is complex and expensive, but production is limited to just a few examples which are carefully followed by a team of dedicated technicians. Producing cars for customers is far more complex: quality, reliability and service costs a lot of money. Chapman, financially supported by Imperial Tobacco in Formula 1 through the John Player Special brand, continued to innovate and win. With the Lotus 79, he introduced the ground-effect concept that Chaparral had already developed in the Can Am series, and the seventh World Title arrived thanks to Mario Andretti and Ronnie Peterson, his team mate and runner up. The idea of sealing off the underside of the car and using downforce to increase performance made the 79 an almost unbeatable single-seater.
However, his adventures in Formula 1 were accompanied by the need for large investments for his production cars. Chapman came face to face with the same dilemmas that had plagued Enzo Ferrari until 1969 when Fiat’s much needed capital arrived. From 1974 to 1982, the production cars included the Elite II, the Eclat and the Esprit, which were joined by the Excel in that same year. Just as Ferrari had beaten every path to find a solid partner, not only Fiat, but also Alfa Romeo and above all Ford, Chapman found an opportunity in the development difficulties that were tormenting the ambitious DeLorean and his project to build the DMC-12, a road-going sports car destined to be famous only for its role in the film Back to the Future.
GM’s ambitious former senior executive had already signed off a really important financial deal with the most brilliant of manufacturers: £10 million personally guaranteed to Chapman. The FBI picked up the scent of foul play. We have already dedicated four episodes to telling the story of Chapman and Lotus as objectively as possible. A story that became a mystery when Chapman died suddenly at just 54 in 1982.
No definitive conclusions. Certain facts, however, failed to calm the suspicions: The books at Lotus had been recording serious losses for the previous years; the DMC-12, masterfully designed by Giugiaro (like Esprit, although that’s likely a coincidence) had no quality or performance figures worthy of note; the UK Government, which had funded the £100million project to support the Northern Irish economy where it was produced, soon realised the new company was doomed to bankruptcy; even the FBI had started investigating and illegal facts quickly emerged including the large amount of money paid to Chapman – with slush funds – in a tax haven. On 19th October 1982, DeLorean was arrested and Chapman’s name began circulating as a possible suspect, meaning he faced a serious risk of going to jail. 57 days later Chapman died of a cardiac arrest, it was 16th December.
The circumstances and the fact that no one saw him dead and that the funeral was hastily carried out without anyone outside his immediate family in attendance, only added to the suspicions: what if it was just a ruse to escape jail? The ten-million pounds were never found. There are many ways our imagination can make this story end. But no conclusion could possibly cast a shadow over the brilliance of Colin Chapman, an innovative genius both in racing and in the conception of exciting road cars.
If we were to name three men from the last century who symbolized motoring as a sport and as a passion, we would have no hesitation in putting Colin Chapman alongside Enzo Ferrari and another legendary figure, Ferdinand Porsche.
Fun fact: in addition to genius, vision and pure talent, all three added a touch of ruthlessness to their professional lives…