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Colin Chapman: One Man Band of the Racing Circus

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Colin Chapman: One Man Band of the Racing Circus
Magazine Title: Road & Track
Published: February 1961
Author: David Phipps
Rough going. Chapman and the Mark II on a trials hill.
Chapman and the fiberglass unit-bodied Elite coupe.
Chapman again, in the Consul-engined Mark VI prototype.
Trials cars should, of necessity, be somewhat on the durable side. This is the Mark IV Lotus.
A very pleased looking Colin Chapman at the wheel of the Climax-powered Formula II Lotus.
Start of a 750 Formula race at Silverstone in 1951. Chapman's Lotus is second from the right.
Getting to the bottom of things! Chapman, left, and Stirling Moss examine Rob Walker's F-1 Lotus.
"The Guvner" and John Surtees, World Motorcycle Champion and new recruit to the Lotus Works team.
One of a few: the Bristol-engined Mark X.
Moss giving the Mark XIX its first victory - in Sweden.

One Evening 1948, a young British engineering student was stooped by the police and informed that he had exceeded 60 mph in a small, Austin Seven based sports car. "Really?" beamed a delighted Colin Chapman, "I didn't think it would go that fast."

Today, only 12 years later, the same young man is the leading influence in European racing car design and Managing Director of a group of companies making some of the world's most advanced high performance cars. The number of Lotus models produced in this period has crept up to 19, some of them running to several series, all designed by Colin Chapman. "The Guvnor" also supervises the construction of all the various Lotus models, does most of the testing of new cars himself, and would undoubtedly race on the firm's Grand Prix team but for the heavy responsibilities he bears at the tender age of 32.

Like all successful men, Colin has his detractors, notably the vociferous "anti lightweight cars" brigade. There are even a few who claim that he steals all his ideas from outside firms or junior members of his staff, and then takes the credit for them. Yet almost anyone who has worked with Chapman will agree that his approach to chassis design, his understanding of suspension and all its problems and his ability to build a thoroughbred car around a collection of proprietary components is unequalled in the automotive world. His capacity for learning is also illustrated by the fact that, some years ago, dissatisfied with the firm's financial arrangements, he devoted a weekend to an intensive study of accounting. By Monday morning he even had his chief accountant baffled.

The first Lotus-a trials car was built while Colin was studying for his engineering degree at London University. It had a 1930 Austin Seven chassis and mechanical parts, but incorporated numerous Chapman modifications-such as turning the rear axle upside down and flattening the springs to eliminate oversteer. Colin also built a very neat body, of aluminum and plywood, and anticipated damage to the cycle type fenders by securing them with woodscrews and dowels. For everyday use this arrangement worked perfectly, and if the fenders happened to be struck by a tree on a tight trials section they came off without damage.

Soon after taking his B.Sc. degree Colin had to go into the Royal Air Force, but by this time he had plans for a more ambitious car chassis. Already the idea of a higher power to weight ratio was firmly established in the Chapman scheme of things.

The Mark II Lotus was built in a lock-up garage during vacations from the RAF. The Austin main chassis rails were boxed and the cross members replaced by tubes. A Ford front axle was installed, but the Austin rear axle was retained.

No suitable gears were available to provide the desired 4.55:1 final drive ratio, so a non-matching ring and pinion gear were installed and the car was run for 50 miles with metal polish as a back axle lubricant, after which the gears meshed perfectly. Although designed as a trials special, the Mark II was also used regularly on the road, and in June 1950 took part in its first circuit race, which it won after a long duel with a Type 37 Bugatti. At the end of the year the car was sold to trials specialist Mike Lawson, who won no less than 17 events in it during the following 12 months. For 1951 Colin decided to concentrate on a car to race in the popular 750 Formula.

By this time he was working for a firm of construction engineers, and thus was able to devote most of his free evenings to his cars. The basis of the Mark Ill was once again a 1930 Austin Seven, with a divided Ford axle providing independent front suspension. This time, however, Chapman did not confine his work to chassis and suspension, for he thought up a means of de-siamesing the inlet ports of the side-valve Austin engine which eventually led to the 750 Formula being changed-just to give the others a chance. Following the Success of the Mark III in racing and the Mark II in trials, Colin was approached to build replicas of his cars for sale; the result was the formation, early in 1952, of Lotus Engineering Co., whose workshops consisted of a stable in North London. In addition to designing and building complete cars, Colin also undertook the manufacture of components for other special builders. As he was still employed full time in the building trade, he was now rather a busy young man.

The first production Lotus was the Mark VI (the Mark IV was an improved trials car and the Mark V which was to have been a 100mph 750 Formula car, was never made). It was Chapman's first space-frame car and was an immediate success. In the next three years over 100 of these cars were made, with a variety of power units, ranging from 750 cc to 2 liters. Chapman himself raced an 1172-cc version, and really helped put the firm on the map by his spirited driving.

Despite the success of the Mark VI, Chapman did not allow himself to become complacent. His plans were now for racing on an international scale, and for 1954 he decided to make a 1500-cc sports car with de Dion rear suspension and aerodynamic bodywork-the Mark VIII. Frank Costin, who worked for de Havilland Aircraft, was called in on the airflow side, and the result was the first of the long, low projectiles which have since become a feature of sports car racing. The Mark VIII also had one of the most perfect chassis ever made, from a structural viewpoint, but suffered more than a little in terms of accessibility.

Throughout 1954 Colin raced the prototype regularly, taking in three meetings one weekend-at Nurburg Ring, Brands Hatch and Crystal Palace-the latter two on the same day. During the season there had been a big demand for the Mark VIII, and several people wanted to install larger engines; the result was the Bristol-powered Mark X. In order to work on this, and the Mark IX which followed ("Quite logically, if you think about it"), Colin decided that he must regard Lotus as something more than a spare time concern. Thus, in January 1955, just over six years ago, he went into business as a motor car manufacturer.

As designer, constructor, expediter, driver and Managing Director, Colin soon found that he was no less busy than in the past. The company was now producing the Mark VI, the Mark IX and the Mark X for sale and, although fortunate in having "Nobby" Clarke in charge of production and Mike Costin, younger brother of Frank, as development engineer, the firm was still small enough for Chapman to be involved in everything that went on. In the autumn Lotus had a stand at the London Motor Show, and by this means the firm was brought to the attention of a much wider public than that which concerned itself merely with racing.

The Lotus story-the Chapman story-from this time on is well known to the majority of enthusiasts. With the XI-that phenomenally successful 1100-cc car-Lotus really began turning out sports/racing machinery on a quantity basis. In 1956 Chapman produced his first single seater, a Formula II car which, although not in itself a great success, has had a very considerable influence on racing car design.

Then came the Elite. For some time Colin had wanted to design a lightweight coupe of the Gran Turismo type-a comparatively rare species in Great Britain. Because of prohibitively high tooling costs it could not be designed in pressed metal. A tubular space frame with aluminum panels could not be made adequately stiff, by Chapman's standards, without becoming too heavy. The solution was found in fiberglass, a material which combines stillness, lightness and durability with low tooling costs. Careful design, based on innumerable stress calculations, permitted the production of a chassis/body unit incorporating some panels only 0.032 in. thick and using metal reinforcement solely for the front suspension and engine mountings, and for a hoop above the windscreen. Chapman's chief assistants in the design stages were Peter Kirwan-Taylor-an accountant by profession-who was largely responsible for body styling, and Frank Costin, who dealt with aerodynamics.

More recent projects have been the Seven (an improved version of the Mark VI, the Fifteen, the Sixteen (Formula One), the Seventeen and, in 1960, the first rear-engined Lotus, in Formula I and Formula Junior form. The latest development is the Nineteen, a rear-engined sports /racing car. Each model has incorporated a host of novel ideas, many of which have since been adopted by other manufacturers. Chapman has also worked as a design consultant to several racing teams, the most notable being Vanwall and BRM.

Colin's ideas on chassis design are basically very simple, but extremely interesting, nevertheless. "First of all you select tyre sizes, bearing in mind the potential speed and weight of the car. Then you decide on wheelbase and track and draw in the wheels. In the case of a rear-engined car, you draw in the power unit and gearbox, the driver, the radiator and all the other bits and pieces, and then put in the chassis to connect them all up. Alternatively, it's a matter of locating all the mounting brackets and joining them together with tubes.

"As far as the chassis itself is concerned, the first thing is to decide on the minimum diameter of tube usually an inch for main frame members-and the minimum gauge which it is practicable to use from the point of view of welding (20 or 18 gauge). It is almost impossible to calculate all the stresses in a frame, but I normally work out the stresses at various points and check them on a test model.

"Suspension design is a little more complex. The first thing is to decide on the required roll center, bearing in mind the conflicting interests of roadholding and ride, and then design a linkage to give it. Then, after deciding on the virtual swing arm length (the factor which governs camber change), the suspension can be drawn in.

"The type of suspension used is not important as long as it fulfills a number of basic requirements. These are minimum unsprung weight, minimum change of roll center height, correct camber change, minimum angularity of the driveshafts, and elimination of sliding splines. Another essential is to select the correct spring rate, which in effect means deciding on the softest possible spring, one which will give maximum bump absorption with reasonable wheel travel-that is, without increasing ground clearance from a minimum of 4 in. for the sprung mass of the car. On current (1960) racing cars anti-roll bars are needed to obtain the required handling characteristics, but are not necessarily an essential feature of suspension design."

Rather short (5 ft, 8 in.), a little on the sturdy side ("Never, I'm down to 12 stone again now") , Colin is known to the Team Lotus mechanics as "Chunky." Attired usually in a city suit-except at race meetings, where he still dons mechanic's overalls-he has the air of a prosperous businessman and the ability to switch from a workshop discussion to a board meeting in a matter of seconds. He has recently bought a small plane to counteract the overcrowding of British roads, but still enjoys driving-as is apparent from even the shortest journey with him. With a family including a wife and two small daughters, he has to look beyond the Lotus range for family transport, and currently uses a 3.8-liter Mk 2 Jaguar. Even though he won the touring car race at the 1960 British GP meeting with a similar car, he finds it has its limitations, and regards his Elite as ideal transportation for two.

Unlike some racing teams, Lotus has very limited financial resources -and thus Colin has always had look among the ranks of "up-and-coming" youngsters for his team drivers. So far he has picked out Cliff Allison, Graham Hill, Innes Ireland, Jim Clark and John Surtees.

Colin Chapman remains first and foremost a designer. It might be argued that once he has created a new car and made it work he loses interest in it. But he can never be accused of design stagnation and, but for business considerations, the number of Lotus models would now be nearer 50 than 20. He does most of his drawing at home, either early in the morning or late at night, and moves from the germ of an idea to a finished, working drawing in remarkably short time.

The same quick thinking characterizes everything he does. Learning to fly again after a lapse of 10 years, he soloed in 50 min. Wherever he is, and whatever he is doing, he tends to dominate proceedings. He also has a habit of getting the best of any argument. As on the first (but by no means the last) occasion when he was stopped for speeding, Colin Chapman always has an answer.