Colin Chapman, Lotus & British Aviation

Colin Chapman, Lotus and British Aviation Technology.


The history of Colin Chapman and Lotus is intertwined with British Aviation technology.

The importance cannot be overstated.

Motoring and aviation technology have permeated and integrated into society and has been one of the most dominant technologies of the 20c.

In this article we will analyise the depth and breath of these interwoven connections.
The aeroplane and motorcar came into existence at approximately the same time. Initially the aeroplane needed the internal combustion engine for motive force. There has been cross over of technologies from inception. Chapman was not the first to explore these. Jaray and Voisin had designed cars along aerodynamic lines. During the 1930’s particularly in Europe there was considerable application of theory into practice and we see this in the Record Speed attempts.
The Post War Period is particularly interesting in that technology, sociology and economics interacted. Between them they created the means, motives, accessibility, affordability and essential democracy of widening the transport and travel horizon. This occurred in both aviation and motor transport.

Colin Chapman was able to extrapolate technology and seize opportunities. This was because Chapman combined the skills or entrepreneur with that of non-aligned inventor / free/ lateral thinker. His success was also due to the fact that he could undertake radical ideas because he also had a structured and disciplined approach. We see these skills and attitudes repeated on several occasion notably the motorboats and micro light projects.
Chapman was a pilot and he metaphorically flew in “blue skies”
His was the ability to pilot and navigate simultaneously and this applied to management approach although on occasions it did not hold out.
The editors feel that Chapman had a very strong intellectual feedback loop that he cultivated. It linked technology with commercial opportunities. Although integrated it was rational but also contained some intuition. This might have resulted in some projects not being as successful as others or as finely and minutely developed.

In this article we will explore this complex man and study the interaction / interconnectedness of aviation in both Lotus road, racing cars and micro lights. It will be necessary to look at theoretical concepts of aviation including weight, power, speed, economy and elegance.
We know these were Colin Chapman’s mantra but it’s important to see their significance and relevance today in green thinking.

In subsequent issues we will take a deeper more forensic look at specific examples of aviation and how Chapman and Lotus mutated and extrapolated technologies.

Sociology of Aviation
What we essentially mean is the impact and perception of society of this medium.
It carries connotations of:

  • Speed
  • Travel
  • Escape
  • Variety
  • Glamour and visual drama
  • Exclusiveness
  • Cosmopolitan Culture
  • Visual impact
  • Identification, association,” projection” presence.
  • It was to become available to both genders and in time more democratic.

The First World War witnessed the expansion of aviation and gave it an overtone of romance and heroism. The era between the war saw the growth in air travel for an elite group and the construction of Brooklands cemented the affinity and connectedness / shared technologies of aviation and Motor Sport. The speed of transport and particularly aviation in the 1920’s lent it self to a motif

Post War Aviation impacted on the public psyche at many levels. The aeroplane had contributed to success during the war; new technology was “sexy” and brining National prestige. All those associated with the industry were in the vanguard and not least the pilots and test pilots. This was due to a combination of prestige, glamour elements of danger and salary. The engineers in the industry were considered the best. Shortly the commercial flight industry would also impact on leisure and holidays for the masses.

Aviation and War
In war time technology is a weapon. It’s needed to combat and defend against the enemy and also to achieve superiority. Therefore technology in design, materials, production techniques, logistics, communications, reconnaissance etc might determine outcomes.
British aviation was a significant contributory factor in winning the war. A brief shortlist includes:

  • Hawker Hurricane
  • Swordfish
  • Mosquito
  • Wellington bomber
  • Spitfire

Other examples –see spread sheet.

In each of these examples we see advanced design, engineering and materials based on the laws of mechanical efficiency and physics. The airplane is subject to enormous forces and these increase with speed, maneuverability, and payload. We are aware that car designers from the earliest days made crossover of technology but not all saw the fullest potential and mutation. Many manufacturers stayed with tried and tested methods either because of production costs or a belief the public would not buy into radical new concepts. [See A&R article on industrial Design and in particular Loewy]
Bristol and Lotus were some of the exceptions.

Britain had many aviation manufacturers but de Havilland had the greatest direct and indirect impact upon Lotus and subsequent British motor sport.

de Havilland.
de Havilland has been involved in British Aviation manufacturer since the 1920’s. They are known for the Gypsy and Tiger Moth. During the Second World War they contributed the Mosquito and immediate post war the Comet.

c 1941 was one of the fastest operational aircraft in the world. It was constructed of a wooden sandwich monococque shell .The weight it saved enabled the relatively low powered engines to deliver disproportionately high performance. [Weight estimated 13,356 lbs / 8,028kg]
The Mosquito was to inspire both Frank Costin and Chapman in chassis construction and aerodynamic practice.

The Comet.

The de Havilland 106 Comet was the world’s first commercial jet airliner. Its believed it was developed and manufactured at Hatfield, Herts and first flew in 1949. Its thought that initial design and planning may have started in 1946 under Ronald Bishop. The concept provided for an all-metal low wing cantilever monoplane with 4 jet engines and an estimated empty weight of 75,400 lbs [34,200kg]

Although Chapman did not borrow directly from the Comet to inspire his cars he was aware of the technological theories and many of the collaborators who surrounded him and gave practical assistance worked at de Havilland. Chapman cannot be divorced from that level of thinking and sense of aspiration prevalent in Britain at he time.

The Wellington
“The geodetic latticework construction invented by Dr.Barnes Wallace [there is some evidence that the construction method may have been used in other applications from the 1920’s] lent strength and lightness to the Wellington. The fuselage consisted of six main frames connected by longitudinal geodetic skin panels built up on longerons. The whole covered in fabric. The wing was constructed in three sections, the outer ones comprising geodetic panels built to a single main, and two auxiliary spars”

The Hurricane
Had a fuselage of rigid framework made up of beams, struts, and bars to resist deformation by applied loads built up “of steel tubing welded together in such a manner that all members of the truss can carry both tension and compression loads” it has a rectangular or triangular cross section. Typically the Hurricane might weigh empty approx 4,743 lbs [2151kg] with a max speed of approaching 308 mph [496 km/h]

Colin Chapman’s Direct Personal Experience [University Air Squadron, RAF, Private Pilot and Flying]
Colin possibly had an interest in flying since childhood which included making and flying model gliders. In the 1950’s this was encouraged and there were kits to make and assemble from balsa wood etc. He possibly first flew in his late teens. This was probably at the University Air Squadron. Briefly he joined the RAF and probably increased his hours flying experience. Chapman was granted his pilots licence in 1951. He was aged 23.This was significant achievement. It signifies:

  • Chapman was amongst an elite minority group of the time. The vast majority of pilots including civilian were ex RAF.It was something of a “passport”. To fly in the early’ fifties was to join a group like Frank Costin who had built and flown their own gliders. They would have common vocabulary and interests.
  • He had acquired the skill and coordination to fly at faster speeds than the fastest cars and coped with inherent danger.
  • He had probably learnt and applied the theory of flying and associated aerodynamic principles and forces [e.g. Lift, Thrust, Drag, Weight]
  • Colin may have begun to comprehend the possibility of mutating technologies from the aeroplane to the racing car.
  • Flying may have feed his theories of liberty and freedom stretching boundaries. It may have inspired conceptual ideas and potentialities as a transport medium [see later paragraph on Micro lights]
  • Although for recreation; he might even at an early age seen the potential for

Business use [with advantage, speed, convenience, privacy, flexibility, directness and avoidance of interruptions/ restrictions] He certainly would later when he piloted a Cessna 414A “Chancellor” [Registered G-Prix 1 RZ aircraft No 414A-0049 registered to Group Lotus, Hethel; c 1979. – Coincidently this plane would weigh 4365 lbs / 1980 kg approx and be capable of estimated 270 mph]

Colin Chapman, Lotus and the Extrapolation of Aviation Technology &Aerodynamics
Chapman’s knowledge was varied, extensive and applied. As he learnt to fly and then competed a period in the RAF he would have studied and absorbed the theory and probably the forces that act upon an aeroplane. He also probably read very widely in the subject of airframe design. [See references to The Areoplane and Flight below] Its possible that the contemporary war time airframe concepts entered his thinking [e.g. the Barnes Wallis geodetic form of lattice frame that comprised the Wellington and the Warren truss / girder welded tubular steel frame of the Hurricane The main considerations for an aero plane is that they should be lightweight, able to withstand flight loads landing loads, a wide range of vibration, The resultant structure are intended to direct loads into either tension or compression. Every part of the aircraft must be planned to carry the loads imposed upon it.

Within aeronautical engineering and commercial operation lightness is of considerable benefit. The resultant engineering produced a design philosophy and methodology directed towards maximum lightness with the use of the most suitable materials and construction techniques available. In the initial stages of Lotus development its probable that Chapman applied this thinking towards chassis and the Lotus Mk.VI seems to show some evidence of the cross over. [I.e. from the Wellington]

Its very probable that Chapman retained a life long interest in aviation technology and as it advanced into monocoque fuselage with aluminum and carbon fiber materials he saw within the potential for basing a car on similar principles.

As speed increased he had to look towards aerodynamics as well.

In the early days sophistication was a perquisite, as he had to compensate for inferior engine power. He turned to Frank Costin for expert advice. [See A&R article]
In the search for advantage no serious detail would be neglected.
Chapman included significant aerodynamic thinking in the following Lotus cars:
Mk.VIII,IX,X and Eleven
Type 25
Type 72
Type 78
Type 79
Type 88
Type 108 [pursuit bike]
Type 111 Elise

In the early days Chapman’s main concern was for aerodynamic efficiency and primarily the cars ability to move through the air with the minimum of resistance improving its speed and maximizing limited engine output. He turned to Frank Costin and success was achieved. Chapman’s chassis and handling advantage was accentuated by the complementary aerodynamics.
The Elite is a beautiful example that had a very low cd. With the resultant improvements mentioned and again work by Costin.

Its natural and progression that Chapman would wish to capitalize on his knowledge of performance and handling particularly in the F1 context. How this was to be achieved was the question. From the 60’s on wards there had been some investigation and Chaparral pointed the way. Later wings were used but these were “compensation” and only partially utilized the physical forces available.

It’s possible that Chapman grasped the conceptual theoretical potential or mixed this with intuition and instigated exploration to exploit the physical properties. A wing on a plane helps generate lift. In a racing car the desired effect is to reverse the direction so the air force exerts down on the car. This would deliver higher concerning hence to better braking and ultimately safety. It seems that Chapman may have commissioned research in the USA [Shaun Buckley] and engaged his other engineers/ designers Tony Rudd, Peter Wright and Martin Ogilvie .The product was the Lotus 78 “Ground Effect” cars. [Detailed A&R articles to follow] These would transform F1 and have in many respects determined F1 practice to the present day. The “Twin Chassis” Lotus 88 was possibly the ultimate expression of the principles sadly due to it being banned we are unable to know to what extent it might have achieved success in competition. It deserves analysis for its conceptual content and application of principles

After Chapman’s death Lotus had success with the 108 Pursuit bike and its refinement due to aerodynamic shaping and development. Later considerable commercial success came with the Elise in 1996. Although aerodynamics was not the exclusive feature of this car it was the totally integrated package that was so devastating and the application of modern aviation technology based on aluminum.

Colin Chapman and Micro- Lights
Chapman’s interest in the micro lights is very revealing and in many respects represents much about his methodology and business acumen.
He came to the micro lights after boat building that had not been totally commercially successful. Micro lights had grown out of hang gliders and were building following in the late seventies. The micro lights would occupy him until his death. We don’t know what might have happened if he had lived.
The editors would postulate that the micro light project represented the following advantages to Chapman:

  • A technology in which they excelled
  • A construction determined by light weight
  • Ease of storage/ transportability through easy fast assembly
  • The possibility of modular Lotus engine with additional applications and volumes
  • A personal transport medium for recreation
  • A potential for business use and transport
  • Access without bureaucracy and pilots license etc
  • An existing reputation as marketing base
  • An airfield for testing and development
  • A potential market for enthusiastic self builders and kit sales
  • Affordability [c£4000 + Vat 1984]
  • Economy in use [and although possibly not seen a green and sustainable then but containing all the ingredients]
  • Competition opportunities.
  • Skilled staff for design and development
  • Opportunity for complementary diversification.
  • International market.
  • The ability to possible enter and influence a market trend
  • Chapman might have seen the micro light performing the role of the early Seven

To progress the idea he assembled a team that comprised:

  • Ian Doble
  • Patrick Pearl
  • Brian Angus
  • Colin Gethin
  • Tony Rudd

Its thought that Colin was considering a “Lotus” micro light i.e. closed cockpit coupe that would have resembled a small light aircraft [this would be consistent with potential set out above] .As in the past machines were bought in for evaluation and its believed they included a Aerolite Eagle and Eipper Quicksilver MX2.
Chapman set the team to design and build an engine. An effective modular unit flat twin air cooled [cf Citroen 2CV and BMW motor cycle] was built that allowed:
25hp x2 cylinder or
50hpx4 cylinder.

They were possibly aiming at a specification that would have achieved:

  • Approx weight of 330 lbs /150 kg
  • Capacity for two people
  • Cruising speed of 70knts or 80mpg
  • Fuel consumption 60mpg
  • 2 galls. Fuel load.

In the UK, David Cook was marketing the CFM Shadow micro light and was based in East Anglia. However the light aircraft and micro light industry was strong in America. Here the culture of freedom had developed a market for self-construction based around cheap, simple and light components. Chapman looked here for assistance and made contact with Jim Bede and Bert Rutan [who had experience of resin bonded reinforced glass fibre]
Haskell in his books explains that one example was completed and demonstrated in 1983.
The project rather died with Chapman. Haskell considers that overall the project may not have been totally commercially successful in part because of development costs, performance and the need for operational approvals.
The exercise is rather in the Chapman stamp. If we compare the original Elite we see a theoretical concept that does not translate readily into commercial profit. We also know how Chapman responded so its very probable the micro light would have had a successor or that the theoretical knowledge gained and almost certainly the excellent engine] might have been used in FI or a new breed of light weight ultra economical road cars etc.

Lotus at Hethel
Colin Chapman’s selection of Hethel for the manufacturing base for Lotus is directly and immediately related to aviation.
Hethel was a former wartime air base with runways. What it offered:

  • Run way for private plane / jet [executive transport / business meetings etc] see above reference to private plane registered to Lotus]
  • Hangers for storage
  • Test track for development of road and race cars [i.e. many circuits in UK former airfields cf Silverstone]
  • Open space and level ground suitable for large factory buildings to follow mass production flow lines
  • Eastward facing towards Europe
  • Convenient access to ports for import/ export cars and components etc.
  • Relative quick access to London.
  • Relative isolation not to cause noise nuisance and industrial security /protection
  • See A&R article “The Works” for financial considerations.

Lotus Publicity Material and Aviation Connotations
When we examine the marketing material of the era many manufactures including Lotus made connections and identifications with technology and occupations.
Manufacturers posed their cars alongside ocean liners or warplanes etc.
Lotus used this method and we can recognize their placement with:

  • Gliders
  • Jets
  • Private Jets/planes
  • At aerodrome setting

The inference to be conveyed relates to occupation, status, and lifestyle and tapped into the “executive jet” owner of society. The Lotus was the complementary mode of land transport offering similar prerequisites

The Proposed CCM&EC.
The proposed museum believes that commercial and educational objectives are both a necessity and complementary.
For this reason our business plan includes provision for promoting products that are complementary with the Chapman methodology of mechanical efficiency and sustainability.
Written into our plan are extensive proposals that relate to aviation and in particular micro lights .Our proposals range from books to models to introduction to flying lessons with direct connections to flying schools and clubs. In addition we propose outreach and overlaps with aviation museums. In addition its intended to hold working demonstrations and display pieces to complement school and college curricular etc.
The proposed museum is subtitled the “Exploratory -Laboratory” and our visitors and students will be encouraged to conduct experiments. In particular race simulators will enable students to measure and experience theoretical principles in practice on a look and learn basis.

There are parallels between motoring and aviation. These go beyond engineering .Not least perception and association that influence marketing and owner identification.
Much of the Chapman genius was to recognize parallel technologies and extrapolate between to the two. Only second was his determination to use specialists to extract the best possible design and performance.
The A&R appreciates the importance of the scientific and engineering overlap and the British contribution in this development that of course continues to the present day in FI and also green technologies and search for fuel savings.
At the proposed CCM&EC the business plan allows for a considerable interpretation of aviation / aerodynamic technology with demonstrations and commercial income from activities related to flying.

Flight Path: The Autobiography of Sir Peter Masefield
2002 Airllife Publishing Ltd
ISBN: 1840372834

British Prototype Aircraft
Ray Sturtivant
1995 Promotional Reprint Co
ISBN: 1856482219

See Reference/Bibliography to A&R article on Lotus chassis design.

British Homebuilt Aircraft since 1920
Ken Ellis
1979 Merseyside Aviation Society Publication
ISBN: 0902420321
[Note reference to Davis- Costin Condor Glider [See A&R article on Frank Costin]

The Lotus Book and Lotus Collectables

ColinChapman Lotus Engineering
Hugh Haskell

Structure and Architecture
Angus J Macdonald
Butterworth Heinemann, 1994

Taking to the Skies: British Aviation 1903-1939
Countryside Books 2003
ISBN: 1853068152

Flying for Fun
Keith Carey
Patrick Stephens, 1984
ISBN 0850597056

Britain’s Greatest Aircraft by Robert Jackson. Pen & Sword Aviation.2007
ISBN: 9781844153831

“Flight” Magazine Jan 16,1936, “The Aeroplane” July 5,1939 & Nov 8,1940 [relating to the Wellington]

The Science Museum Library: The Barnes Wallace Collection.