Lo­tus at 70

Glo­ri­ous past, bright fu­ture (at last)

Autocar - - THIS WEEK -

It is as well that Lo­tus was not founded a year or so ear­lier. For had we come to write about its 70th birth­day in the early part of last year, we may not have found too much to cel­e­brate. A glo­ri­ous past, yes, but a stut­ter­ing present and highly un­cer­tain fu­ture.

But now – un­der new own­er­ship and man­age­ment, and with Phil Popham, who was in­stru­men­tal in turn­ing Jaguar Land Rover into such a suc­cess story in the early part of this decade, in a key role – it is fair to say its fu­ture has rarely, if ever, looked brighter. How bright? You need only look at what new pro­pri­etor Geely has done with an­other of its ac­qui­si­tions, Volvo, to see the po­ten­tial. Dur­ing its ten­ure, Volvo has been cat­a­pulted from peren­nial also-ran sta­tus to be­ing a truly as­pi­ra­tional brand with a world-class prod­uct line-up.

For now, though, let’s en­joy a few pages cel­e­brat­ing the great­est Lo­tuses (and a few of the not so great ones) and the great­est drives we have had in them. For when it comes to Lo­tus, the drive has al­ways been the thing and, what­ever hap­pens to the mar­que in the fu­ture, that’s how it must re­main.

Lo­tus greats

You can ar­gue the toss over when Lo­tus ac­tu­ally came into be­ing. The 1948 date refers to Colin Chap­man’s first car, which was a mod­i­fied Austin Seven. But Lo­tus En­gi­neer­ing it­self didn’t ap­pear un­til 1952, the same year in which the Lo­tus Mk VI be­came the first to be sold to the pub­lic.

But our homage to its very great­est road cars be­gins in 1957 with the Lo­tus Seven, be­cause it re­mains the most en­dur­ing sports car de­sign still in pro­duc­tion. Look at a modern Cater­ham and a 60-year-old Lo­tus and the ar­chi­tec­tural sim­i­lar­i­ties are im­pos­si­ble to miss.

It was the car that put Lo­tus on the map so far as road cars were con­cerned, for while Lo­tus was al­ready build­ing rac­ers for For­mula 1, For­mula 2 and sports car rac­ing (Chap­man him­self raced in a Lo­tus at Le Mans as early as 1955), the Seven de­vel­oped the think­ing be­hind the Mk VI suf­fi­ciently for it to be of equal ap­peal to club rac­ers and recre­ational road users.

Built in a fac­tory be­hind the Sta­tion Ho­tel in Hornsey (a Jew­sons the last time I looked), the space­frame Seven with its alu­minium body es­poused pure Chap­man think­ing, es­pe­cially in its ul­tra-light­weight con­struc­tion. Weigh­ing as lit­tle as 420kg, Sevens were fre­quently banned from rac­ing be­cause noth­ing else could keep up, or they were forced to race in classes of their own.

Oddly enough, given the pu­rity of its de­sign, Chap­man got bored of his game-chang­ing mir­a­cle and sold all rights to its de­sign to Gra­ham Nearn of Cater­ham Cars in 1973. I ex­pect that if he’d re­alised the car would still be go­ing strong 45 years later, he might have thought twice about that.

When you see the two cars to­gether, it hardly seems pos­si­ble that the Seven and Lo­tus Elite came from the same mind at the same time. But they did. Like Enzo Fer­rari, Chap­man re­garded road cars as a means of fi­nanc­ing his rac­ing, and although Elites raced with great suc­cess, it was pri­mar­ily for road use that they were in­tended.

In­no­va­tion was ev­ery­where: Audi used to boast in the 1980s that its 100 sa­loon had a world-beat­ing drag co­ef­fi­cient of 0.30 – but the Elite mea­sured 0.29 a quar­ter of a cen­tury ear­lier. Its rear sus­pen­sion was the so-called Chap­man strut that used the drive­shaft as its lower link. Most no­table, how­ever, was that it was the very first car to be con­structed around a glass­fi­bre mono­coque, mak­ing it ridicu­lously light for a closed, sur­pris­ingly spa­cious road

car. True, it’s just about the last car in which you’d choose to crash, but back then, peo­ple didn’t think that way. It wasn’t a lack of de­mand so much as es­ca­lat­ing pro­duc­tion costs that killed off the Elite in 1963, by which time its suc­ces­sor, the Elan, was al­ready on the mar­ket.

The Elan is rightly re­garded as Chap­man’s mas­ter­piece. It was in­tro­duced in 1962, 10 years af­ter the foun­da­tion of Lo­tus En­gi­neer­ing, and its en­gi­neer­ing con­tin­ued to in­flu­ence pro­duc­tion Lo­tuses into the 21st cen­tury. The key to pro­vid­ing low-cost, light­weight con­struc­tion was its back­bone struc­ture, a de­sign that went on to en­dure on the Es­prit

Sevens were fre­quently banned from rac­ing be­cause noth­ing else could keep up

The Elise was a car of which the late Colin Chap­man would have been truly proud

un­til 2004. Glass­fi­bre was used only for the body­work.

The re­sult was a still su­perlight car, but bet­ter fin­ished than the rather rudi­men­tary Elite, avail­able as con­vert­ible and with a hard-top and more prac­ti­cal and civilised, too. It was a for­mula that worked at once. By the time of its in­tro­duc­tion, Lo­tus had the fastest F1 car in the world (the Lo­tus 25), the world’s fastest driver (Jim Clark) and the most en­joy­able, af­ford­able sports car on the mar­ket (the Elan). The Elan stayed in pro­duc­tion in var­i­ous guises (in­clud­ing a re­bod­ied 2+2 ver­sion) un­til 1975, with more than 10,000 units made in to­tal, 10 times the num­ber of Elites that were built.

It’s hard to be­lieve the last Elans were sold in the same year that the Es­prit was shown, for the wedge­shaped, mid-en­gined, Gior­get­togiu­giaro-styled su­per­car looks like a car from an­other gen­er­a­tion and pos­si­bly a dif­fer­ent planet.

It came as part of Chap­man’s plan to drive Lo­tus re­lent­lessly up­mar­ket, and while the two other com­po­nents of the plan – the sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion Elite and Eclat – were less long lived, the Es­prit had stay­ing power.

Why? ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’ Bond con­nec­tion un­doubt­edly helped (as did get­ting Lo­tus chas­sis guru Roger Becker to do the driv­ing), but so did the fact that the car was gor­geous to look at and even bet­ter to drive. To this day, it re­mains one of the most ex­quis­ite-han­dling cars, never bet­ter than in ei­ther Sport 300 or GT3 guise. Yes, the fit and fin­ish of the ear­lier cars were lam­en­ta­ble, right down to their Mor­ris Ma­rina door han­dles, but once on board, you’d find your­self for­giv­ing its ev­ery foible. As Lo­tus con­tem­plates its fu­ture, it is a re­place­ment for the Es­prit that should lead the charge for­ward.

But it was a car far sim­pler and more af­ford­able that got Lo­tus to where it is to­day. By 1996 and fol­low­ing the fail­ure of the M100 Elan, Lo­tus was left with one car, the Es­prit, and that was al­ready 20 years old. Ev­ery­thing hung on the Elise and, boy, did it de­liver. Back then, what Lo­tus needed was a car to re­mind ev­ery­one what had made Lo­tus great in the first place.

A sim­ple, af­ford­able two-seat sports car that achieved light­ness through in­no­va­tion. And the Elise, with its bonded alu­minium tub, was a car of which the late Colin Chap­man would have been truly proud. Here was the real suc­ces­sor to the orig­i­nal Elan, a car that was more fun to drive than any­thing out there, with the purest steer­ing, yet not so crude and im­prac­ti­cal that it could only be used for short jour­neys on sunny days.

The for­mula was an in­stant hit, so much so that, 22 years later, it and its Ex­ige sib­ling re­main the core com­po­nents of the Lo­tus range. It, too, must be re­placed in time and by a car in­spired by ex­actly the same phi­los­o­phy that cre­ated the Elan in the 1960s and Elise in the 1990s.

Colin Chap­man, 1928-1982, was an in­spired in­no­va­tor

Elise: so good that it has en­dured for 22 years – so far

James Bond knew a novel way to tackle an over­heat­ing 2.0

Nar­row, nim­ble Elan was still on sale when the Es­prit made its de­but

Track-bi­ased mod­els sharp­ened the Elise for­mula even fur­ther

Lo­tus 25 in the hands of Jim Clark was un­catch­able

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