This brief biography was written for Auto Gallery, a lavish magazine produced in the USA for the wealthy buyers of high-end contemporary and classic cars.
A genius who achieved more than Enzo Ferrari in half the time
IF YOU CARE the slightest about sports cars, or world-class auto racing, or flying, or boats, or commercial bravery, or technical genius, you would almost certainly have cared for Anthony Colin Bruce Chapman. Promising young racing driver, accomplished pilot, founder of Lotus Cars, innovative engineer, self-made millionaire, seven-times World Champion Car Constructor, Colin Chapman has often been acclaimed as “ legend second only to Enzo Ferrari.” In truth, that accolade is probably inadequate. More than any other man in history, Chapman hurried along progress in road-going sports car design and shaped the single-seater racing car as we still know it.
Chapman’s surprising death at age 54 from a heart attack, in the early hours of December 16th 1982, was truly a loss to the modern, mechanically-minded world. Engineers, industry titans, and racing fans alike lamented the passing of a startling, brilliant, inventive, fertile mind. Twenty years too soon, the world was robbed of a colourful individual, an iconoclast, a determined pioneer, a tireless human dynamo.
Like many other great men blessed with indefatigable genius and burdened with an insatiable appetite for progress and adventure, Chapman could seem short of friends, abrupt in manner, incapable of small-talk, perhaps fundamentally ruthless. Certainly he was impetuous and impatient, sometimes even at the controls of the light aircraft he handled with such flair. (Once, unwilling to wait for the fog clear at Silverstone circuit, Chapman, mistook a patch of asphalt for the airstrip and came perilously close to putting down in the paddock amongst all the Formula One teams’ motorhomes.)
Chapman logged several thousand hours in many different light aircraft and helicopters, and in his last few years was increasingly drawn toward the embryonic microlight industry, not least because it was without the restrictions and regulations he so detested. As an impecunious youth, he learned to fly with the University Air Squadron and, after qualifying in 1948 as a civil/structural engineer, he spent a brief spell in the Royal Air Force. Aircraft industry techniques – and a daring flirtation with structural limits – featured prominently in Lotus racing cars of the next three decades. Early Lotus road cars – and indeed the few Moonraker boats Chapman built – attained much of their speed through lightness of construction, too often at the expense of fragility.
It was Chapman’s first real failure, in October 1947, that sparked his long string of successes. Petrol became almost totally unavailable to motorists that month, during Britain’s postwar economic crisis, and 19-year old Chapman’s second-hand car business instantly collapsed. He was left with a derelict 1930 Austin Seven sedan . . .which was extensively modified to become an off-road trials car . . . which led to a successful racing circuit debut . . .which, by 1952, had spawned the Austin Seven-based Lotus Mk3 . . . which in kit form sold over 100 copies, the first real customer Lotus. Built by slow and primitive means in a tiny, borrowed garage in north London, the Mk3 was notably constructed of a tubular spaceframe chassis. The only other manufacturer in the world using such advanced technology at the time was the mighty Mercedes-Benz corporation.
The Mk3 won several hundred races and Chapman was well on his way to other landmarks in auto racing history: fully adjustable suspension systems, monocoque chassis, aerodynamic wings, the location of the car’s weight over the rear wheels, the successful persuasion that Ford Motor Company should invest $200,00-odd in the development of the Cosworth DFV engine, which subsequently dominated Formula One racing for 15 years; the pioneering, in road-going sports cars, of composites technology, multi-valve engine development, and active suspension systems.
Perhaps Chapman’s most brilliant inspiration, though, was to reverse the principle of the aeroplane wing, designed to generate aerodynamic lift. Instead, Chapman introduced to the underside of his cars a floor tray profile designed to generate ‘negative lift’ – that is, terrific suction.
Chapman will be remembered for starting Lotus with a $50 loan from his wife Hazel and becoming an overnight millionaire, at age 40. He will be remembered for the Lotus 25/29, the fleet little car which made America’s monstrous Offenhauser-powered roadsters obsolete at the Indianapolis 500. He will be remembered for taking the Car Constructors World Championship seven times; for providing the machinery to make World Champions out of Jim Clark (twice), Graham Hill, Jochen Rindt, Emerson Fittipaldi, and Mario Andretti.
Sadly, it may also be recalled that the life of a legend had its price; that 35 years of unrelenting pressure appeared to take their toll on Colin Chapman. Before his fatal heart attack, his hair had turned a shocking white, his face bore the etchings of sustained effort and strain. His tremendous successes were rudely punctuated by disappointments and devastating disasters. His champion drivers Clark and Rindt were killed at the wheel of his cars. His bold Formula One experiments with turbine-power and four-wheel-drive were costly flops.
Several times, Lotus Cars teetered on the edge of bankruptcy. Chapman’s personally-owned boat business did, indeed, sink. In his last months, Chapman had been hunting again for funds to save his famous car company at Hethel, Norfolk. It would soon be owned by General Motors, but he was not to know that. Doubtless, it was financial desperation that lead to Lotus’ inextricable links with the DeLorean DMC-12 gullwing sports car and much of the scandal that followed; a scandal that outlasted Colin Chapman, a man deeply troubled at the time of his early death.