History Behind Lotus Cars

Background

Known for making some of  the most lightweight cars in the world, Lotus Cars takes its strength and the honor of its name from achieving “performance through lightweight”. Anthony Colin Bruce Chapman, who founded the automotive company in 1952, was a vigorous young engineer who built cars out of his passion for these vehicles and of racing. His reputation for producing lightweight quality cars was based on his experience and guiding principle in which he believed that “adding power makes you faster on the straights” while “subtracting weight makes you faster everywhere”. [1]

Aside from the popular fact that they named all of their models starting with the letter “E”, this  insight and rule became substantial in the legacy and commitment of Lotus Cars that resulted in the creation of their most famous and successful models over the years such as the Lotus Elite, Elan, Exige, Esprit, Evora, among many others.

How did they do it? What did they do with the challenges they faced so as to continue producing high-performance cars up to this day? Let us take a look back at the journey and evolution of the world’s lightest-car company over the years.

Chapman Races to Build Cars 

While studying as a structural engineering student in the University College in London back in 1948, Colin Chapman was already building his first racing car in his garage. He did this not from scratch, but by re-engineering an Austin Seven that would later be known as the Mark I and was registered as OX 9292. [2] Although it was just a modified model, he earned enough money from it to build his second trials car in 1950 –  the Mark 2, which later on won the Wrotham cup and also became the first Lotus car usable on the road. Just like the Mark I, this also earned him enough money to build the Mark 3 in 1951 which became the first Lotus circuit racer and had a top speed of 90 mph. It was also said to be the first of Chapman’s cars to be officially called a Lotus. [2]

Finally after graduating college, he decided to finally take his passion in building cars to another level after forming the Lotus Engineering Company in 1952 by loaning £25 as a starting investment. With humble beginnings, they built their first factory in old stables behind the Railway Hotel in Hornsey, North London. By 1954, the company established their own racing team called “Team Lotus” that greatly helped in the evolution of Lotus. After racing with the Mark 8, the car became an overnight success and helped them secure a ticket to the international motor racing arena. With the help of aerodynamicist Frank Costin, the Mark 8 was Lotus’ first fully enclosed aerodynamic car which was extremely light as the frame alone was estimated to be only 35 pounds. With this, it was able to generate a top speed of 125 mph. [3]

The Birth of the Lotus Elite

 

After the launch of Lotus Eleven, the company finally produced its first roadcar  – the Lotus Elite, which officially got on the road by 1957. The lightweight two-seater coupe was a hit and was even considered to be ahead of its time because of its glass fiber monocoque chassis and drag coefficient of 0.29. [2] Weighing a total of just 1,700 pounds, which was very lightweight for any normal car, the Lotus Elite used no metal frame to attach the car’s body unlike many British cars in the 1950s. Instead, it used a fiberglass unibody with a steel subframe only for the engine and the front suspension. Basically, the rest of the load bearing structure of the Elite was supported by glass-reinforced plastic or fiberglass.[4] This meant that the body was lighter, stiffer, and had better road safety or protection for the driver in case of a car crash or accident. Although the Elite was a road car, it was still pretty fast thanks to its lightweight body. The Motor Magazine in 1960 was able to record Elite’s top speed of about 111.8 mph, which was equivalent to around 179.9 kph. [5] 

But while the lightweight body added to the speed and good drifting experience, it also made it fragile. With a heavy load, the Elite’s suspension attachment points could be ripped away from its body and make it disabled. Because of this, it was further improved as the company produced several more versions of the Elite like the Elite Type 75 and 83. Even with some flaws in its early creation, Lotus proved that it could make a better car out of it as it is still considered as a British classic until this day. In fact, it also became known and successful on the race track after winning 6 times at the prestigious 24 hour Le Mans race and garnering two Index of Thermal Efficiency awards. [5]

More Cars and More Races in the 1960s and 1970s 

After the successful launch of the Lotus Elite, the production of lightweight and more improved cars began. By 1959, Lotus expanded and moved their purpose-built factory at Cheshunt then started the unique and iconic tradition of naming all of their succeeding cars with names that start with the letter ‘E’. Some of the key achievements and highlights from this period include the following:

The Launch of the Lotus Elan

a red Lotus Elan parked on the sidewalk

Referred to by many as an “all-time-great pure driver’s car”,[6] the first Lotus Elan was launched in 1962 at the Earls Court Motor Show and became the company’s first road car to use a steel backbone chassis. Like the Elite, the Lotus Elan opted to use glass-reinforced plastic (GRP) to build an advanced monocoque chassis instead of going for the conventional separate body and chassis. This made the two-seater drophead coupe lightweight with a weight of 585 kg, which  made it fast enough for the race track that even the famous Team Lotus racer, Jim Clark, drove one. Along with the use of a four-cylinder Ford engine, the Elan generated a top speed of 115 mph.[6] In addition, the car had retractable headlights and was spacious enough to accommodate tall drivers. 

Lotus wins in Formula 1 and Other Racing Championships

a 1964 Lotus 25 racing in the speedway

Lotus started getting even more popular in the race track after bagging several awards in different racing championships which also competed with the biggest names in the industry. In 1963, Team Lotus driver, Jim Clark, clinched its first win in the prestigious Formula 1 Driver’s World Championship with the Lotus 25. [2] Driving the company’s first racing car with an aluminum monocoque chassis, it proceeded to bag another 13 wins in the same competition later on. [7] Aside from the Formula 1 races, Jim Clark also won in other competitions like the British Saloon Car Championship with the Lotus Cortina Type 28, and the Indy 500 where he placed 2nd with the Lotus Type 29 in 1963, and the champion in the Lotus Type 38 by 1965. [2]

The Launch of the Lotus Europa

 

Launched in 1966, the Lotus Europa also became one of the most successful and significant sports cars of the 1960s where it even became the world’s second mass-produced mid-engine car. Originally, the design of the car was supposed to be used for Ford’s GT40 campaign against the Ferrari. However, another car won the bid so Lotus decided to improve the design which created the Europa. Similar to the Elan, it made use of a lightweight fiberglass body and a steel backbone chassis. It had an independent front and rear suspension, plus good handling which is why it was also one of the favorites during that era. Using a Renault twin cam engine, it had a top speed of 121 mph. But did you know that before it was named Europa, it was supposed to be called a Lotus Elfin? However, since Chapman found out that it meant “the end” in Spanish, he decided to change it to Europa with the intention of selling the car in Europe. [8]

The Launch of the Lotus Esprit

 

Around nine years after the launch of Europa, the Lotus Esprit was revealed in 1975 and also became one of the most memorable ‘movie cars’ of all time after starring in the James Bond film, “The Spy Who Loved Me”. [9] The mid-engined sportscar’s design which is characterized by sharp angles and a wedge shape, was conceptualized by Italian designer Giorgetto Giugiaro who became known for his polygonal folded paper, or origami designs. [10] The first version of the Esprit had a 2-liter 4-cylinder mid engine with a top speed of 130 mph. An interesting fact about the Esprit is that it was completely built by hand. With only 21 people on the production line, it would take about 584 man-hours or roughly 24 days to complete just one model.[10]

Challenges and Changes in the 1980s and 1990s

After the untimely passing of the founder, Colin Chapman, due to a heart attack in 1982 at the age of 54, Lotus faced numerous challenges especially with regards to the ownership of the company as it went into the hands of several influential people and companies. But even before the passing of Chapman, the company was already experiencing financial difficulties so it entered into an agreement with Toyota to exchange some “intellectual property and applied expertise” just in that same year. Because of this, Lotus was able to produce the Mk 2 Toyota Supra, Lotus Excel, and the Lotus Eclat. However, the Excel was sold at a lesser price because it only used the parts and drivetrain from Toyota. After Chapman’s passing, David Wickins, the head of the British Car Auctions, agreed to become the new chairman, which hailed him as “the savior of Lotus”. 

Although Wickins saved the company, there was eventually not enough capital to invest in creating new models so Group Lotus companies were sold to a major buyer – General Motors in 1986. Seven years later in 1993 Lotus was sold again to A.C.B.N Holdings for £30 million which was headed by Romano Artioli, who at the time owned Bugatti, another famous car brand. After another 3 years, the company was bought by the Malaysian car company, Proton. Unlike the previous owners, Proton was able to manage Lotus longer for around two decades. Then by 2017, Geely Motors bought a major stake in Lotus, owning about 51% of the company while Malaysian Group Etika, bought the other 49%. The company is also the owner of  Volvo, another famous car brand.

The Revival and Growth of Lotus in the 21st Century

 

After all the financial and ownership  challenges that Lotus faced, the company was eventually able to overcome them and continue to produce high-performance cars until the present. One of the significant developments that played a role in the company’s revival was the launch of Lotus Elise in 1996. The car was named after Elisa Artioli, the granddaughter of Romano Artioli who was one of the former owners of Lotus. The Elise was a two-seater mid-engined road car that had a fiberglass bloody and an aluminum chassis as well as a remarkable top speed of up to 240 kph. [11] Additionally, this model has also bagged awards for its amazing performance and driving experience including Best Driver’s Car 2001, Best Sports Car 2004 (BBC Top Gear Magazine), Car of the Year 2003 (UK Horizons TV), and Icon of Icons at the Autocar Awards last 2019. [11] 

In the 2000s, Lotus continued to introduce and improve car models focused on performance and driving experience that specifically cater to the enthusiasts and motorsports fans. This included the Lotus Exige, the Lotus Evora, and newer and more advanced models like the Lotus Emira, Lotus Eletre, and the Lotus Evija. Newer models like the Eletre and the Evija are one of the first electric car models produced by Lotus.

References

[1] Cars, A. W. S. (n.d.). History. History of Lotus Cars | Allon White Sports Cars. Retrieved February 6, 2023, from https://allonwhite.co.uk/history-of-lotus-sports-cars

[2] Company timeline. Company Timeline New – Lotus Cars Media Site. (2023). Retrieved February 6, 2023, from https://media.lotuscars.com/en/about/company-timeline-new.html

[3] Wikimedia Foundation. (2019, October 29). Lotus mark VIII. Wikipedia. Retrieved February 5, 2023, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lotus_Mark_VIII 

[4] Lotus Elite Type 14: The unbearable lightness of being fast. Old Motors. (2021, December 30). Retrieved February 5, 2023, from https://oldmotors.net/lotus-elite-type-14/

[5] Wikimedia Foundation. (2022, December 8). Lotus Elite. Wikipedia. Retrieved February 5, 2023, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lotus_Elite#Elite_concept

[6] Tyer, B. (2022, November 10). Guide: Lotus type 26 Elan S1 & S2. Supercar Nostalgia. Retrieved February 5, 2023, from https://supercarnostalgia.com/blog/lotus-type-26-elan-s1-and-s2#:~:text=The%20Type%2026%20Elan%20was,Elan%20transformed%20Lotus’%20balance%20sheet.

[7]  Wikimedia Foundation. (2022, November 7). Lotus 25. Wikipedia. Retrieved February 5, 2023, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lotus_25

[8] Ben BranchArticles that Ben has written have been covered on CNN. (2023, January 2). Lotus Europa Twin Cam Special: The car that could have been the Ford GT40. Silodrome. Retrieved February 5, 2023, from https://silodrome.com/lotus-europa-twin-cam-special-car/

[9] Lotus esprit. Lotus Esprit – Lotus Cars Media Site. (n.d.). Retrieved February 5, 2023, from https://media.lotuscars.com/en/heritage-road-cars/lotus-esprit.html

[10] D, N. (2020, December 9). Lotus Esprit – The Ultimate Guide. Supercars.net. Retrieved February 5, 2023, from https://www.supercars.net/blog/all-brands/lotus/lotus-esprit/

[11]  Wikimedia Foundation. (2023, January 29). Lotus Elise. Wikipedia. Retrieved February 5, 2023, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lotus_Elise