The first car that we now call a Lotus was built by Colin Chapman in a lock-up garage behind his girl friend’s house in 1946 or 1947. At the time he called it an Austin Seven Special, and it competed in mud plugging trials in 1948. The first car he actually called a Lotus, at the time, was built in 1949 whilst he was in the Royal Air Force, and was built in the same lock-up garage. It was also intended for competition in trials, and was fitted with a more powerful Ford engine instead of the Austin Seven unit used in the previous car. Chapman made sure that it could also be used as a practical road car, and in 1950 entered it in his first race at Silverstone, where he took on a Type 37 Bugatti and won! This changed his whole interest in motor sport, and he decided to build a road racing sports car to compete in the new 750 Formula in 1951.
This car was called the Lotus Mk III, and his previous car became the Lotus Mk II, and the original Austin Seven Special became the Lotus Mk I – long after it had been sold! The new racer was started in the same lock-up garage, but then Chapman met the Allen brothers, Michael and Nigel, who had a very well equipped workshop beside their house, and were persuaded to join him in building a team of three racers for the new Formula. They only had time to finish one, and it was an enormous success in 1951, winning every race it finished in the 750 Formula, and often beating cars of double the engine size in other races.
The Lotus Engineering Company was formed on 1st January 1952 with Michael and Colin as the two directors, and they started to build the car which was to be the first production Lotus, the Mark VI. In 1952, fitted with the new 1.5 litre Ford Consul engine, it raced twice before being written off in a road accident. Several orders had ben received from customers, and an order for six chassis frames was placed by Lotus with two friends who formed the Progress Chassis Company to build them. Lotus Engineering Company became a limited liability company on 25th September 1952., on 1st January 1953 Chapman was joined by Mike Costin, both working in their spare time from their day jobs.
Racing success with the Mark VI in 1953 encouraged Chapman to build a streamlined version for 1954, and fitted with a 1.5 litre MG engine, this car, and the earlier Mk VI, beat the works Porsche in the sports car race before the British Grand Prix at Silverstone. Lotus had arrived, and new cars were being ordered in sufficient numbers for Chapman and Mike Costin to give up their day jobs and work for Lotus full time on 1st January 1955.
Lotus first raced at Le Mans in 1955 with the Mk IX. Chapman and Flockhart lost some time due to a slipping clutch but were running well when the car was disqualified when Chapman reversed it out of a sand bank after an off-road excursion.
The Eleven sports cars followed, and with the new Coventry Climax engine they were the cars to have if you wanted to win races. In 1957 an updated version of the Mark VI appeared called the Seven. This was so successful that it is still in production now (called the Caterham Seven).
A single seat Lotus appeared in 1957 and Lotus won the Index of Performance at Le Mans . Lotus had outgrown the tiny premises at Hornsey, and in 1959 moved to a purpose built factory at Cheshunt.
The new factory was needed to assemble the revolutionary new Lotus Elite, a two seater coupe with integral glassfibre body/chassis. Lotus entered Formula 1 in 1958 and by 1960 with their first rear-engined car, the Eighteen, a Lotus won its first Grand Prix, driven by Stirling Moss.
The 1960s showed steady growth of Lotus both on the race track, where Jim Clark won two World Championships, and in the market place with the new Lotus Elan, still thought by many to be the best ever sports car, and in collaboration with Ford, the Lotus-Cortina. The new DFV engine from Cosworth brought further F1 success, and Lotus won at Indianapolis.
The rear engined Europa followed, and Chapman, keen to be rid of his kit-car image, sold off the Seven to Caterham Cars and prepared to start building cars for a higher income bracket. Cheshunt was too small, and the final move was made to Hethel, near Norwich in Norfolk in 1966 where a new four seater car, also named the Elite, entered production with their own 2 litre Lotus engine.
On the track the 70s were a continuing success story in all the single seat formulae, but sports car racing had virtually ceased with the unsuccessful Lotus 30 and 40.
The Elite was followed by the lower priced Eclat, the Esprit two seat Coupe, and the Sunbeam Lotus which won the Rally Championship in 1981. Then in 1982 came the shattering news that Colin Chapman had died at the age of only 54. To many of those interested in historic Lotus cars that was the end of the era, and Team Lotus withdrew from Formula 1 in 1995. Group Lotus continues to be a leading figure in the world of automotive engineering, and recent success with the Elise has done much to restore their deserved prestige.
With thanks to the Historic Lotus Register