Icons Part 1: Colin Chapman

Three Icons series – Part One: Colin Chapman


Anthony Colin Bruce Chapman [Lotus] 1928-1982

Sir Jackie Stewart on Colin Chapman:
“The greatest, most creative designer of racing cars in the history of motor racing “
Lawrence in “Colin Chapman”
“Colin Chapman was the most charismatic and brilliant engineer in the history of motor racing. He and his team innovated the majority of the most important design parameters of the modern GP car; and more than anyone else was responsible for the establishment of the British Motor Racing industry”
Tony Rudd on the definition of the Colin Chapman design philosophy
“The most elegant and effective and traditional Lotus solution is the one with the least parts effectively deployed”
Innes Ireland on the death of Colin Chapman recorded that he would be remembered for:
“His inspiration, the articulate formation of argument. His ebullient personality and above all the flair and genius of his ideas”


Colin Chapman more than any other engineer designer possessed a unique range of skills likely to render him success.

He did not come from either an engineering or motor racing family tradition. His blend of skills was in one sense very specific and unique; they were almost perfect blend or meld of theory and practice. Engineer, and driver; both logical and intuitive. He had brilliance and to many people he was truly inspirational.

Colin had the gifts of an inventor and he was able to exploit the ideas of others or to develop ideas into successful outcomes. This he combined with being enormously charismatic and dismissive.

Colin Chapman displayed his extraordinary sharp intellect in atomising or redefine a problem .He would often display the talent for lateral thinking. He seemed to believe that the answers always resided within the problem. Thus a problem was not an obstacle but rather an opportunity. A sort of intellectual maze – and he could rise above it, levitate and look down and see the way out. His methodology was to bridge from defining and revealing the crux to conceptual engineering solutions.

It would seem that Colin had little regard for or sentiment for people or their products- it was their effectiveness or productivity measured as a tool or weapon that mattered most.

It is possible that that Lotus would have succeeded without Chapman’s outstanding driving skills. He was able to drive to FI standard and the author suspects that this enabled him to both interpret and then translate theoretical ideas of handling into his cars. Colin was a crack marksman, experienced yachtsman and pilot [plane and helicopter].

Throughout his career [indeed from the very start] Colin was an astute and ruthless business man and Team Manager. He was a tycoon. Colin Chapman was also a significant “salesman”, communicator and motivator. He used these attributes to develop and extract from colleagues reserves of energy and ability.

It has been said that he was difficult. Exploitive of people and ideas; even devious. His critics might label him “chancer”. This is probably true to some extent but they were amongst the range of skills needed to remain competitive and successful in the unforgiving arena of motor sport. In one sense it might be seen as delegation or as short cuts. It improved his effectiveness to get things done urgently. It is possible that these were not so much personal traits but acquired and adopted to achieve success for his team, his company, employees and country.

Colin Chapman will also probably be remembered for his involvement on sponsorship in Motor Racing. Companies supporting Lotus included John Player, Martini and Essex Petroleum etc. Colin thus devised a method of achieving additional investment and hence competitiveness against larger manufacturers.

Innes Ireland in his tribute to Colin Chapman remarked, “is not the manipulation of people and circumstances the hall mark of success?”

The DeLorean affair discredited Colin Chapman but we know relatively little about the events. Although it is claimed that large amounts of state aid were misappropriated there is a question why there were not greater safeguards in place, stricter legal contracts applied and enforced and why the money was not requested to be returned. There is a suggestion that both governments of the day were in such desperation that probity was not a major consideration and that their negligence may have been contributory.

Colin Chapman diversified into related products and extrapolated his experience into other aspects of industrial design. He also provided extensive consultancy. [See appendix 2 for details]


Colin Chapman was awarded the CBE and also held membership of these prestigious design institutions: R.D.I., he was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. His early academic qualification was Bsc [Engineering]; he was alter to be awarded a Hon. Doctorate and RCA.

Personal Tragedy

Colin Chapman died prematurely at the age of 54.During his carer many of his drivers were killed whilst competing in F1 for Lotus. Colin enjoyed the best and most rewarding relationship with Jim Clark; and this gifted drivers early death that had the most traumatic impact on Colin. However he was able to recover, continue and succeed.

Motor Racing

It is primarily in Motor Racing that Colin Chapman will be remembered. In particular the dominance of Lotus in two decades 1960-1980.

Colin Chapman’s approach was similar to Enzo Ferrari; in which production cars were a means to support racing. Colin Chapman further extended and supplemented this with sponsorship. In 1967 following the withdrawal of Esso the C.S.I. permitted advertisements on FI cars. Chapman took the opportunity and enlisted Imperial Tobacco as Team Lotus sponsors for 1968 [the first race being Monaco]

Lotus achieved six world F1 Drivers Championships and seven Constructors titles. In addition there were countless successes in most branches of motor sport from trials in the early 1950’s to National and International Sports and sports racing. Furthermore Lotus displayed its versatility by success at diverse events such as Le Mans and Indianapolis.

Peer Influence and contributions

Colin Chapman was voracious in adapting, improving, extrapolating and exploiting the skills of others from the start of his career. This embraced the contributions of the Allen brothers [Michael and Nigel; also see our articles on contemporaries] and the deployment of other manufacturer’s components. [Mainly Ford in the early years.]. Colin had a formidable memory and recall of engineering theory and practice. Colin devoured information, publications and researched extensively.

Much of the success of the Mk.VI can be attributed to the space frame chassis. Mercedes Benz had already incorporated this concept in a sports car [as had Cistialia to a lesser extent] but Colin deployed the idea for relatively inexpensive racing in the 21172” formula. Les Ballamy had modified the Ford beam axle but it was Colin that simplified and reduced the concept to be complementary and consistent with the space frame chassis.

The backbone chassis had been used in the Tatra and later modified in the V.W. Colin made the concept contemporary and in combination with fibre glass produced the Elan.It was right for the time.

The monocoque chassis had appeared much earlier but it was Chapman that developed it successfully for a specific function and purpose. In one sense he perfected or perhaps more accurately he saw the inherent advantage within. He was able to exploit this to its fullest. The real skill is to simultaneously grasp the theoretical and its application and then integrating these together. Some call it lateral thinking.

It is probable that Colin would not have enjoyed the phenomenal success without the support of his wife and family. As mentioned the Allen brothers made considerable financial and technical support [to the extent that a separate article will be devoted to them].They did not seek the publicity or perhaps receive the credit that they were due. Other significant contributions came from the Costin brothers, Keith Duckwoth, Len Terry and Maurice Philippe. Colin was equally astute with his recruitment of drivers that enhanced the reputation of Lotus. The formation of Team Lotus in 1954 was of considerable benefit. Peter Gammon was exceptional for the era competing in sports car events in his Mk.VI. The great FI drivers of course were Jim Clarke and Graham Hill amongst others.

Fred Bushel on the financial side along with Colin Gethin and Albert Adams helped make many of Colin’s conceptual ideas reality.

Industrial Design

Colin Chapman was an inventor who saw opportunities in diversification and extrapolation. It was natural and practical to transfer technologies into new commercial opportunities and markets benefiting from Lotus name or association. It may have also employed retain men in employment when seasonal variations might otherwise have seen them layed off.

Colin fairly early in his career had seen the potential of fibre glass [through its combination of strength, relative ease of production and plastic forms].Born of his experience with this material he patented vacuum assisted resin injection [V.A.R.I] and explored other moulding processes. He applied these techniques to his cars, and other projects and products. For a brief period Colin has a brief interest in Marauder Marine boats and developed a range of power boats with Fibre Glass hulls.

Line lotus attempted a range of utility furniture based around metal frames and fibre glass mouldings. These were intended for public spaces .From the prototype it is evident that they were intended to be bright, contemporary, and easy clean and maintenance free. Colin also received an award for the design of a reclining chair. [Please see images of model recreations of these items in the web archive].Neither was commercially successful additional items in the range included utility front doors for houses, and even coffins!!

Just proper to his death Colin had been working on micro lights aircraft; and in particular a small output engine. It is doubtful whether these would have been initially commercially successful but they reflect the fertile mind that possibly anticipated green issues and energy crises. As in other projects like the Elite Colin was theoretically correct but this does not always turn out profitable products and perhaps like the Elite underestimates development costs etc.

Throughout his career Colin provided consultancy. The earliest examples to Vanwall and B.R.M. who would enjoy success in FI as a result. Over the years this was a significant source of income to Lotus .The practice has continued and possibly is now the strength behind the current generation of cars and products.

Less than Expected

Colin Chapman had his fair share of success and failure- both competitively and commercially. In general his cars were considered too fragile. It’s possible that in some respects that they were over ambitious in specification and sometimes under developed prior to launch. Perhaps the Elite is the best example. An advanced car that was expensive but did not quite live up to expectation as a road car. Of course there is the aspect of Chapman trying to resolve extreme competing objectives within one package- performance, reliability, and cost whilst remaining profitable.

The designs and models that least lived up to expectation are considered to be the strut suspension; the Lotus 17, 30/40 and the Turbine and 4wheel drive 56b GP cars.

As mentioned some of Chapman’s attempts at diversification were not entirely successful. These might be attributed to economic forces rather than poor design. In 1975 Lotus made a loss of nearly £500,000.

The Iconic Cars

Lotus is a byword for innovation and Colin Chapman always attempted to steal a march on his rivals. This he mainly achieved through performance and handling derived from light, stiff chassis. [But as more evidence emerges engine performance might be more significant than reputed].Later he would incorporate the benefits of aerodynamics first seen in the Mk.VIII-X and almost ever model thereafter whether in road, sports racing or F1.

Probably the most iconic and those most included in surveys of the most significant 25 cars in the world are the Elite, Élan Mk.25, 49, 72, 79 and 88 GP cars not forgetting the Seven. It is possible that the current Elise will also reach this status with the passage of time.

Article by John Scott-Davies

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