In the sixty plus years since Colin Chapman, the founder of Lotus, wheeled out his first vehicle, Lotus’ success has been built on innovation for the road and track. Their guiding principle has always been performance and driving pleasure, as testified by their stream of iconic vehicles.
Chapman started by building a trials racing car, while on leave from the RAF. With only rudimentary panel beating ability, he re-engineered a 1930’s Austin Seven into what became the Mark 1 Lotus, registered as OX 9292.
With an engineering degree behind him, Chapman moved his business from the lock-up that witnessed the creation of the Mark 1 Lotus, through various premises before settling in 1966 in the Hethel factory in Norfolk. An old US air base, the 55 acres provided plenty of room to incorporate a 2.5 mile race track, which has experienced some of the world’s finest road and track cars, driven by some of the world’s most famous drivers.
Chapman’s philosophy was based on achieving “performance through lightweight”. As he put it:
“Adding power makes you faster on the straights, subtracting weight makes you faster everywhere.”
This maxim has always been fundamental to Lotus cars and it’s not just good for the performance. In these fuel conscious days, the lightweight spec has enabled Lotus to develop some of the fastest cars in their class per miles per gallon.
What's in a name?
Many myths surround Lotus’ name, but while no one knows its true origins, the badge is no mystery. Deservedly, it immortalises the initials of Anthony Colin Bruce Chapman.
The introduction of the Lotus Eleven in 1956 marked the start of another tradition. From then on all model names began with E. And from the Elan to the Esprit to the Elise, they are all in the motoring hall of fame and no one needs to add the Lotus to remember their pedigree.
Lotus engineering has always been in demand by major manufacturers. Their relationship with Ford spans back to the 1960s with such classic examples as the Lotus Cortina and Lotus Escort. These were driven to great success in motorsport – both on and off road.
And more recently, Lotus teamed up with Vauxhall, producing the Lotus Carlton in 1990. With speeds in excess of 170 mph, reputedly the police tried to ban it from the roads.
Developing performance for the track played a crucial role in Lotus’ evolution. In 1954, Lotus sped onto the international motor racing scene with the Mark 8, finding overnight success. It also stimulated Chapman’s innovation, as he sought to exploit regulation loopholes with engineering brilliance.
Jim Clark driving the Type 25 in 1963, was the first to secure both the Formula One Constructors’ and Drivers’ title for Lotus. He repeated this in 1965 and subsequently it’s also been achieved by Graham Hill in the Type 49 (1968), Jochen Rindt in the Type 72 (1970), Emerson Fittipaldi in the Type 72 (1972) and Mario Andretti in the Type 79 (1978).
In addition to these drivers, Lotus’ famous stable has ranged from Ayrton Senna and Nigel Mansell to today’s Kimi Raikkonen, each keen to demonstrate just how much Lotus cars can achieve.
However, the cars weren’t Chapman's only impact on Formula One. Ever aware to business opportunities, Chapman introduced commercial sponsorship to the Formula One Circuit in 1968. Initially Lotus cars were painted in the Gold Leaf colours of their tobacco sponsor. But from 1972 they became resplendent in their famous John Player Special livery of black and gold. This has remained their colour scheme and it is as synonymous with Team Lotus as it ever was for their sponsors.
Prohibitive costs forced Team Lotus off the track in 1995, but you can’t keep a good name down. The Lotus Racing team returned to Formula One in 2010. In 2011, Lotus Renault GP was back in Team Lotus’ black and gold livery. And in 2012, the transformation was complete, as the Lotus F1 Team were back on the podium.
Lotus cars branch out
Lotus’ eye for design attracted the attention of another industry famed for its good looks - Hollywood. In 1977, the Esprit became a mean, lean fighting (and swimming) machine, as James Bond took it underwater in The Spy Who Loved Me. Four years later, he was back for another, co-starring (!) with the Esprit Turbo in For Your Eyes Only.
But it’s not all glamour, Lotus Active suspension was coupled to a track-tensioning device on an Alvis Scorpion tank. James Bond would not have approved… It allowed the crew and gun to travel at high speeds - stirred but not shaken!
And if it’s good enough for MI5 and the military, it’s good enough for the police. In 1994, an Esprit S4 Police Car was enlisted to the side of law and order. Can’t comment on its effectiveness with crime statistics, but it must have done wonders for police recruitment!
Lotus’ awards over the years have been extensive. However, some of the most significant include:
• 1975 DON Safety Trophy by the UK Minister of Transport - for the Elite
• 1991 British Design Council award – for the Elan
• 2002 The Queen’s Award for Enterprise
But perhaps it’s most appropriate to end with the Elise. It has received widespread acclaim and numerous awards for its performance, handling and design. The Elise was also chosen by the Design Council as a prestigious “Millennium Product” and it has become the most successful model in Lotus Cars' history.