Lotus Elan

The Man Who Designed the Elan

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The Man Who Designed the Elan
Magazine Title: Automobile Magazine
Published: March 1989
Automobile magazine 89 3 9.jpg

Colin Chapman receives all the credit for all the Lotus cars, and given his undoubted design genius, that's not completely unfair. But in fact the Elan, apart from the backbone chassis and the suspension layout, was Ron Hickman's car. Hickman, a South African, was a moonlighting Ford of Britain stylist when the Lotus Elite was done. He participated in its design, although the supremely elegant and very beautiful shape is commonly attributed to Peter Kirwan-Taylor, a Lotus director. In fact, Kirwan-Taylor was perhaps more the product planner, the man who wanted a raceable GT Lotus for himself and persuaded Chapman to build it. The many fathers of the Elite were a veritable who's who of British design, including in their number John Frayling, Frank Costin, and of course Chapman himself. But it was Hickman who did a lot of the actual work., and it was he who undertook the Elan after joining Lotus full time as design and development engineer in 1958.

The Elan, is not as extraordinarily beautiful a form as the Elite, but it is a much more intelligent design. At first, the program was to build an open two plus-two Elite, still with an all-composite structure, but the project lagged because if is incredibly difficult to make an open plastic body stiff enough, and they simply didn't know how to go about it at Lotus. Chapman wanted to get on with his suspension, so the brilliant backbone chassis, base of all subsequent Lotus (and De Lorean) road cars was simply done to provide Chapman with a platform for suspension development. No one now can recall exactly when it was realized that' the "Chapman bracket" chassis could be used in production as well as for testing, but once it was decided to incorporate that design, everything flowed smoothly and quickly.

When I say that the Elan is Hickman's car, I think of the innumerable clever design details that it embodies, all from his fertile mind. The shape of the tail in plan view is a function of the shape of the top bows, which are stowed in the little lip that surrounds the Kamm-back tail. Hickman managed to accommodate the fuel tank, the spare wheel, the top, and the clever "cant rail" window surrounds within the back of the tiny car without compromising luggage space. You can put a couple of reasonably sized bags into the back of the Elan, and they fit within a sensible rectilinear shape. The folding top of the first and second series Elans is a typically British Erector-set affair, but most untypically, it looks good when it's up, and it doesn't leak. That's Hickman's work, too.

I remember visiting Lotus in the Sixties and talking with Hickman about the Elan Plus 2 he was doing then. He seemed like a man on the verge of burnout, so nervous and twitchy that I wondered how he could bring himself to go to work every day, and indeed he did not stay in the Lotus pressure cooker much longer. There's a happy ending to his story, though: He invented a folding workbench every bit as clever as his Elan body design, sold it to Black & Decker (it is marketed as the Workmate), became very rich indeed, and retired to the Channel Islands between Britain and France, where I fervently hope he is scheming up more devices to improve the lot of industrial humanity. But I wish he were still doing cars.