Book Review: Colin Chapman: Inside The Innovator

Ronnie Schreiber
by Ronnie Schreiber
book review colin chapman inside the innovator

At the start of the 21st century, Motor Sport, the UK racing magazine, looked back and asked an expert panel to rank the most important people in Formula One history. Behind F1 majordomo Bernie Ecclestone and Enzo Ferrari, third on the list of 99 was Anthony Colin Bruce Chapman, aka Chunky, founder of Lotus (that’s where the ACBC on the Lotus logo comes from – where the name Lotus comes from is somewhat shrouded in legend and myth).

Of the remaining 96 people, at least 7 were employees or close associates of Chapman. Graham Hill started out building transmissions at Lotus. Mike Costin and Keith Duckworth (i.e. Cosworth) were also early employees. Along with Hill, the drivers who raced for Chapman make up a veritable Hall of Fame: The aforementioned Hill, Jimmy Clark, Mario Andretti, Jochen Rindt, Ronnie Petersen, and Nigel Mansell are just a few. Sir Jackie Stewart drove for him in Formula 2.

Chapman’s racing influence extended well beyond international formula racing. Ideas he either originated or championed have become standard techniques in auto racing. Though he was not the first to race a midengine car at Indy, he was the first to win the 500 with one. Jim Hall’s landmark Chaparrals used suspensions pretty much copied from Lotus F1 cars (Hall had raced F1 in Lotus cars as a privateer).

The Lotus 25 was the first successful modern monocoque racecar design and Chapman was one of the first constructors to use the engine as a structural component of the race car. Well experienced with composites from their road cars, Lotus was arguably the first to build a race car around a carbon fiber tub. Ironically, because the technology wasn’t proven, the safety of the early carbon tubs was suspect, though of course we now know how much safer those tubs have made open wheel racing. With the possible exception of Jim Hall, nobody did as much to make the racing world understand the need for aerodynamic advantage.

It was Chapman, however, who took it a step further and introduced the concept of ground effects generated downforce, created with side pods containing airfoils, underbody contouring and side skirts. Besides the win at Indy, under Chapman Lotus won seven Formula One constructors’ championships and six drivers’ championships. Lotus was successful in Formula Two, giving Chapman a heads up on new talent, and the Lotus Components division sold many Formula Fords, Formula Juniors and Lotus 7s to amateur racers.

Lotus also did well in sports car racing. Lotus won class and index of performance titles at LeMans with the beautiful and aerodynamic Lotus 11, and later won class titles with race prepared Elites (actually they were a bit more than “race prepared” since they had thinner and lighter fiberglass monocoques). In production based racing Lotus also successfully campaigned the Lotus 26R (Elan), and the Lotus Cortina in both the UK and the US. If you search around the net it’s easy to find photos of Graham Hill or Jim Clark at the wheel of a Lotus Cortina, usually going around a corner, often with the inside front wheel a bit off the ground.

Chapman changed the business of auto racing. The deal he arranged with with Ford for the development of the Cosworth DFV was an early version of branding race car engines with big company names, like Ilmor engines carrying first the Chevy and then the Mercedes brands. It can be said that Colin Chapman brought modern corporate sponsorship to Formula One, entering the first car to wear a sponsor’s livery. Not only did the Red Leaf sponsored cars wear the cigarette brand’s colors, Lotus also offered a Red Leaf edition of the Elan. Europas would later wear the colors of John Player Specials. His deals with John Player tobacco and the iconic black & gold JPS Lotus racers that sponsorship funded, may have been a factor in convincing Winston to sponsor NASCAR.

Before the Firebird TransAm wore black and gold, Lotus race and road cars were painted in that distinctive color scheme.

Chapman’s influence on road cars went far beyond paint schemes and race prepping some English Fords. The Lotus Cortina deal didn’t just involve prepping and racing cars. Lotus did considerable modifications and final assembly in-house, establishing a pattern for later boutique shops like Shelby, Roush and Saleen, producing high performance versions sold at factory dealers with factory warrantees.

Though there have been more powerful and faster cars, since the early 1960s Lotus has been the standard by which performance cars’ handling and cornering abilities are measured. Ask anyone who has ever driven a Lotus and they will tell you that nothing, not Porsches, Ferraris, Lamborghinis or anything else, handles like a Lotus. A Lotus simply goes where you put it, giving you precise tactile feedback all the while. They are cars that you drive with your fingers and toes, not brute force. With their light weight, sensitive handling and small displacement engines, there’s an almost feminine character to Lotus road cars, but maybe not too feminine. Like the pretty girl next door who’s got a tat and a piercing that you can’t see with her clothes on.

Chapman was a superb suspension tuner. His earliest racing cars were Austin Seven “specials” used for trials racing, a peculiarly English motorsport akin to hill climbing or mountain biking. Chapman learned early on about the importance of suspension design in traction and maneuverability. When he switched to track racing, Chapman couldn’t afford exotic engines so he knew that he had to make up time in the corners. The skills he learned helped give Lotus production cars superior cornering and handling and a surprisingly supple ride for cars with that amount of grip. Using tires only 4.5″ wide, the Elan was capable of generating over .9g on the skid pad in 1964, a figure that wouldn’t be embarrassed among today’s sports cars.

One could argue that the Europa was the car that brought mid-engine layout from the race track to the street. Sure, there were Ferraris and Lamborghinis with engines in the middle, but Chapman sold almost 10,000 Europas, and while the Europa wasn’t cheap, it also wasn’t exotic expensive so it was accessible to other than the wealthy. It was also pretty quick for its day. At only 1400-1500 lbs even the original S1 and S2 versions with the Renault Gordini engine are fun to drive with 0-60 times under 10 seconds. The Twin Cam Europas were significantly quicker. From the factory, Euro spec Twin Cam equipped Europas had a top speed of 123 mph with 0–60 mph in 7.0 seconds, and a 1/4 mile time of 14.9. Now 14 second cars are nothing to brag about at the drag strip, but remember, that’s from just 96 cubic inches, naturally aspirated.

By comparison, when Road & Track tested the 1967 Shelby GT-500 Mustang, they recorded a 0-60 time of 7.2 seconds. Small wonder that Lotus won the index of performance at LeMans. Chapman’s dedication to efficiency and adding lightness only becomes more influential as time goes on. Though federalized smogified versions with the Stromberg carbs didn’t make all the power that engine could, with the big valve head and Webers, you can build a streetable Twin Cam with 160-180 hp. That’s plenty for a car that weighs less only 3/4 of a ton. Even without those modifications, I’ve been in a very slightly modified federalized Stromberg equipped Europa at an indicated 125, with plenty of RPM left below the red line, and that engine breathes and revs so well that they came standard with a centrifugal rev limiter in the distribolator. Despite their small engine displacements, Loti have always been credible and creditable performance cars.

Toyota copied the Elan’s backbone frame and suspension for their 2000GT, and Mazda did the same with the Elan’s styling for the Miata. The Lotus 7, a car first sold in the 1950s, is still in production by Caterham. Every Lotus road car built has had a composite body and the company is an acknowledged expert with composite materials (and now also the place to go for aluminum chassis tech). The original Elite had a fiberglass monocoque (with some metal stiffeners) in the 1950s! Lotus developed the process for applying paint to molds before laying up the composite, and under Chapman Lotus developed and patented the VARI (vacuum assisted resin injection) process for molding large body panels with uniform distribution of resin. Today every maker of high performance road cars uses splitters, spoilers, winglets, underbody diffusers and other aerodynamic tools developed and popularized by Lotus first on their race cars and then on their road cars.

Lotus built fewer than 40,000 cars during Chapman’s lifetime but his influence transcends those relatively small numbers. Chapman’s obsessions about small, light, efficient cars, advanced composites and lightweight alloys, and lightweight engines with high specific output will only make his influence grow as the world moves towards more fuel efficient vehicles. That the company he founded currently does contract engineering work for just about every car company on the planet (okay, an exaggeration, but their list of clients is long and filled with impressive names) is also a data point for charting Chapman’s influence. Lotus just announced that in cooperation with a Spanish automotive supplier they will be manufacturing a small displacement 3 cylinder engine purpose built for range extended serial hybrid cars, for sale to OEMs.

So Colin Chapman’s role in automotive history is undisputed. What is a bit more disputed is the quality of his character. He’s been accused of taking undue credit for others’ innovations, was described as ruthless and lacking scruples, called a “cheat” by Fleet Street, and questioned for caring more about speed than driver safety. Sterling Moss raced Lotus cars for privateers and respected Chapman but he would not do business with him unless it was in writing. His financial machinations to keep a poorly funded company afloat are legendary. Some of those machinations may have gone over the legal limit. Chapman set up multiple corporate structures for various aspects of Lotus’ business, sometimes obscuring his own involvement.

Former Lotus sales manager and Lotus historian Graham Arnold has been compiling a dossier of Chapman’s patents, but he says that task has been stymied by Chapman’s penchant for filing in a manner designed to reduce his tax liabilities, so many of “Chapman’s” patents don’t carry his name. Fred Bushell, Lotus accountant and Chapman’s right hand man, served 3 years in prison over the Delorean affair. That case involved the diversion of millions in government funding for the Delorean project for which Lotus did most of the engineering and design, not to be confused with Johnny Z D’s cocaine deal. Chapman died just before the scandal broke and Bushell’s trial judge said that if Chapman was alive he’d get ten years. Bushell kept his mouth shut and until his death was close to Hazel and her family, serving as a director of Historic Team Lotus, which maintains, displays and vintage races historic Lotus competition cars, as well as supplies spares and technical support for owners of vintage Lotus racers.

Though Chapman could and did inspire tremendous loyalty from members of his team, he was not beloved by all of his employees. He was not the world’s most sensitive boss. He was driven and demanding and always convinced that he was right, until he changed his own mind. Keith Duckworth fled Lotus to start up Cosworth (though Mike Costin stayed on for a few more years). Duckworth would continue to work with Chapman, but on his own terms as a supplier and Costin’s partner and not as an employee on Chapman’s terms. The development of the Ford Cosworth DFV V8 was pretty much Chapman’s idea but it was soon made available to other constructors, eventually becoming the powerplant of choice for F1 (and other racing series in different form). Chapman didn’t really mind as he was convinced of the technical superiority of the Lotus chassis, just as he had been when he shared Coventry Climax engines with other Formula constructors. Frank Costin, Mike’s brother, was an aerodynamicist for deHavilland and Chapman’s first aero guru (Peter Wright would later fill that role with the ground effects cars), but Frank Costin never was a Lotus employee, preferring to work either for consultant fees or gratis just to see his ideas tested.

Ron Hickman, an important early Lotus employee credited with styling the Elan, also left the company, said to be burned out from dealing with Chapman. He started playing around with some Elan suspension pieces to make a utility clamp for his woodshop, licensed the design to Black & Decker and made something like $47 million in royalties from the Workmate, much more than he ever would have made at Lotus. Chapman was much too frugal for that. When he offered Harry Mundy his choice of either £1,000 or a royalty of one pound per engine for his Twin Cam design, Mundy took the money up front, much to his later chagrin since over 30,000 Twin Cam heads were eventually built. Of course with Lotus’ precarious financials, and Chapman’s business reputation, the up front money was most definitely the safe bet “He could be quite devious – he could think round ahead of you” was Sterling Moss’ assessment of Chapman’s business ethics.

Though he paid the race team bonuses when they won, he could be less than generous with his employees. When Graham Arnold, wrote a speech for a shareholders’ meeting that included thanks to Lotus employees, Chapman refused to deliver the line. When Arnold complained, Chapman replied, “They get paid, don’t they?” After noticing how full the employee parking lot was at the Hethel factory when Chapman arrived there for a Christmas party (at the time he was based at Ketteringham Hall, with Team Lotus) he decided that the payroll was too large. On Christmas Eve that year some workers got a pink slip along with their free holiday turkey. He was a millionaire at age 40 when he took Lotus public, and in time became used to the good life, particularly after the race team landed big sponsorship contracts, though Lotus Cars never really made a lot of money during his lifetime. After his death, many Lotus related assets like Ketteringham Hall, a large manor, stayed in family hands, separate from Lotus Cars.

Still, Chapman was so charismatic, talented and successful, that in the early years people would literally work for him for free, voluntarily like Frank Costin. Others felt that their gratis contributions were not so voluntary. For most concerned, even those who eventually fell out with Chapman, it seems to have been a worthwhile apprenticeship, based on their later successes. He was articulate and persuasive, almost to a fault. One year when the F1 constructors wanted a new 2.0 liter formula, they decided to ask for 3.0 liters, figuring that having just used a 2.5 liter limit, the organizers would counter-offer with 2.0l. They chose Chapman to argue the case and he was successful, too successful. The organizers said 3.0 it was.

It turned out to Chapman’s advantage after he convinced Ford to pony up £100,000 to pay Cosworth to develop the DFV. Duckworth said that Chapman was so persuasive that he could give you 10 reasons why he was right and convince you even though he was wrong. It was also said that he built Lotus road cars with “contempt” for the ultimate customer who had to deal with Chapman’s zeal for low cost and fragile parts. “A man not to be trusted with your wallet or your wife” was how one friend of his characterized the man. In the case of his own wife, Hazel, he got her to put up the original 25 quid to start Lotus Cars in her father’s garage, and later, when some early associates grew tired of being volunteers, her family helped him buy out their interest in the company. Despite allegations of her husband’s impropriety, Hazel has been an indefatigable defender of Colin’s legacy and their son Clive runs Historic Team Lotus. Chapman was a charming rogue who made incredible, but flawed, cars. Charming cars made by an incredible, but flawed, man.

Chapman’s influence can be seen from the large number of books written about Lotus and about him personally. A search at for “Lotus cars” turns up 244 results. Though some are not specific to the man or the marque, being more generally about Formula One, racing, or cars in general, many are dedicated to Lotus cars, and the fact that they appear in so many more general automotive books, says something about Chapman’s role in automotive history. There are at least two extensive personal biographies of Chapman, Colin Chapman, the Man and His Cars: The Authorized Biography by Gerard Crombac, a longtime Chapman associate, and Colin Chapman Wayward Genius by Mike Lawrence. Crombac had the cooperation of Hazel Chapman and other family members. As would be expected from an “authorized” biography, it avoids the less savory aspects of Chapman’s life and career. Lawrence’s book doesn’t avoid the warts, including the amphetamines and barbiturates that Chapman used to maintain an insanely hectic schedule. In the mid 1960s, Chapman was simultaneously running the Formula One team, the Lotus-Ford Indianapolis 500 program, and the car company, all while the company was moving its factory from Cheshunt to the aerodrome at Hethel, and while he was swinging the deal for the Lotus Cortina. Though Ford was pleased with the results at Indy and with the Lotus Cortina project, they decided to not give Lotus the GT40 project because of fears that the small company and Chapman were already overextended.

Now comes the dean of automotive writers, Karl Ludvigsen, to give us an accurate measure of the man’s impact on the automotive world, Colin Chapman Inside the Innovator, from Haynes Publishing. Ludvigsen could have written a standard biography, having first met Chapman in 1958 at the Italian Grand Prix. However, not wanting to tread on ground already covered by Crombac, Lawrence, and others, Ludvigsen’s 49th book, is more of a technical biography than a chronological one. In his introduction (the book has a foreword by Emerson Fittipaldi) the author says that the thematic approach “allowed me to follow Colin Chapman through specific disciplines to see how he coped with them through the years, how his thinking evolved – or didn’t – with time and experience. I found this adventure enlightening and hope you will too.”

One aim of Ludvigsen was to look at Chapman’s innovations and fairly assess whether or not credit was due. As a ruthless self-promoter, Chapman was not adverse to offering a revisionist autobiography, so one can’t exactly trust his accounts, and some of his critics or those who felt used by him may have shaded their own accounts in the other direction for their own reasons. Ludvigsen gets to the heart of the matter. He’s unsparing when Chapman took credit for others’ work and he’s full of praise when Chapman was truly an innovator. He also makes the point that though Chapman may not have actually turned the first shovel of dirt for some of his groundbreaking innovations, it was Chapman who championed them and brought them to wide acceptance.

An amateur shrink might say that Chapman was a narcissist who used people to achieve his ends. He was close to some of his drivers and could be dismissive of others – though if they had a Lotus ride it clearly meant that they were talented. His talent as a manager and ability to field competitive rides can be seen from the number of successful two-driver teams like Andretti/Petersen that he fielded. Even though he always told one driver that he was #1 I don’t believe that Chapman ever gave his drivers “team orders” to determine outcomes in favor of the #1. Running teams with two top drivers could be detrimental to winning drivers championships as his own drivers split points. Lotus won 7 constructors’ titles but only 6 drivers championships, losing that title in a season when Petersen and Andretti won more races between them than the eventual winner. After Jim Clark’s death in an F2 race at Hockenheim, he swore to never get so close to his drivers, yet both Fittipaldi and Andretti considered him a close friend. Nigel Mansell saw him as a second father and stayed with the team out of loyalty after Chapman’s death. Andretti clearly admired Chapman, “A very special man. One of a kind”, he told this writer, but his admiration had its limits.

As Ludvigsen relates, “When we first got together, Colin said, ‘Mario, I always want to make a car as light as possible.’ I said, ‘Well, Colin, I want to live as long as possible. I guess we need to talk.”

Though he could be an original thinker, one of his greatest talents was assessing others’ talent. He had two modes of innovation. One was a structured approach from first principles to final design. Chapman was fond of lists, dossiers, specs and design briefs. In the other mode he’d “water ski” over an idea, giving his subordinates the basic idea and then checking and correcting their work. When one looks at who he worked with, it’s easy to see why that approach also had its successes. Many of the people Chapman employed, did business with, or used as suppliers are a who’s who of the production and racing automotive worlds. Others never recreated their success at Lotus after they left the company – Chapman could be a strong motivator. Like some others of great accomplishment, Bob Dylan comes to mind, Chapman is frequently described as a “magpie”, seeing potential in ideas whose own originators did not realize. When his in-house “queerbox” transaxle designs proved unreliable, he convinced ZF to build him one, asking them to modify one of their designs. The ZF transaxle became one of two widely used for racing in the 1960s and 1970s – the other being the Hewland. Perhaps not just coincidentally Mike Hewland was one of the few people not taken in by Chapman’s charms, and Lotus rarely used a Hewland gearbox. When Renault introduced the 16,with its inline FWD layout, he immediately recognized the drivetrain’s potential for a midengine sports car – which became the Europa.

Designers and engineers who worked for him said that he could look at a drawing and then suggest a number of improvements – some they’d already considered and others very novel. Chapman’s respect within the racing world (along with his ability to seemingly talk people into just about anything) was such that individuals and companies routinely supplied Lotus with prototype, modified or custom parts. This had its origins in Lotus’ early days when Chapman would get vendors to send him raw castings he couldn’t afford to produce for Lotus to then custom machine. Almost all Lotus production cars used parts scavenged from other automakers, from switchgear and lamps to complete engines and transmissions, a tradition the modern Lotus company keeps alive by using Toyota engines in the Elise, Exige and Evora. Much of the front suspension and steering for the Elan and +2 uses components sourced from Triumph, virtually identical to parts used on the Spitfire. With Lotus, the sum was always greater than the parts. After being sprinkled with some Chapman suspension magic (the Lotus formula was soft springs and stiff shock absorbers), though, the Elan could literally run rings around the Spit.

A musician once told me, “Hacks copy, artists steal.” Colin Chapman was no hack. While he may have taken credit for ideas not his own, the automotive world is the better for his popularizing those ideas. It’s up to the historians like Ludvigsen to give credit where it’s due.

Ludvigsen’s fairness extends to an unvarnished look at Chapman’s failures, his undeveloped or aborted ideas, abandoned ideas that may yet show promise like active suspension, as well as his fruitful ideas that could have been even more successful. Since Chapman’s obsession with weight extended to halving the number of rivets holding a chassis together, and calculating out precisely how much fuel to carry, Lotus racing cars didn’t always finish races and were justifiably characterized as fragile and sometimes lacking reliability – a characterization also applied to Lotus production cars. Winning, though, wasn’t Chapman’s goal, speed was. He would rather lead a race, proving a new idea, than win with something conventional. Mario Andretti said that as revolutionary and fast as the championship winning 72 and 79 cars were, they would have been even faster had they been stiffer and sturdier. The sound of welds breaking, rivets popping and chassises groaning was not exactly music to Lotus racers ears but a common refrain, nonetheless. One reason why F1 banned high wings after Chaparral and then Lotus proved their effectiveness was the many structural failures Lotus experienced with their wing struts. Jim Hall has often said that he and other CanAm constructors using high wings were unfairly tarred due to flimsy construction used in F1.

At 400 large format pages, the book is encyclopaediac, lavishly illustrated with historical photos from Ludvigsen’s own library as well as the historic Team Lotus archives at Ketteringham Hall. Included are facsimiles of Chapman’s own work lists, design briefs and component sketches, as well as a timeline of his life, plus an extensive bibliography and a fairly comprehensive index.

Ludvigsen even goes into the origins of an aphorism attributed to Chapman, “simplicate and add lightness”, finding that the phrase was originally coined by engineering and aviation pioneer William Stout. Chapman, who started flying while in engineering school and later served with the RAF, and briefly worked for British Aluminium, had a lifelong interest in aviation and may have picked up the phrase through that interest. While Chapman is famous for his dedication to lightness, he also simplicated, often using a single component to serve two functions (engine as structural component, airfoil radiator pods).

It’s not a surprise that a person with Chapman’s ego had issues with authority, though in his own domain he was fairly despotic. He ran his racing teams and companies like a dictator, shareholders and directors be damned (though directors were more often than not associates of his). After moveable aero devices were banned in F1, he had the rear wing of the Lotus 72 shock mounted with rubber, effectively allowing the wing to passively trim at high speed for lower drag, at least until the scrutineers discovered why Chapman was using the flexible mount. When French scrutineers would not let the Lotus 23 compete in the 1963 LeMans race (supposedly protecting French entrants with other small displacement racers), Chapman, who by then had won a number of class titles at LeMans, vowed to never race there again, and he didn’t, despite how publicity from his wins there helped sales of the road cars. Towards the end of his career, the radical twin-chassis 88 was designed to the letter of F1 regulations specifically to get around restrictions on aero devices. When F1 disqualified the car, Chapman noticeably lost interest in racing.

The book, as mentioned, is divided into chapters that individually address different technical areas, though the first and the last are a bit more general as they try to give a broader perspective on Chapman’s career. The alliterative chapter titles give a good idea of the topics covered: Conceiving Concepts, Engine Enterprise, Transmission Topics, Suspension Sagas, Structure Stories, Whittling Weight, Aerodynamic Adventures, Discovering Downforce, Man Managing, Driver Dealings, Racing Realities, Coda to Chapman.

I’m a confirmed Lotus fan, having owned an Elan since the mid 1970s, this is hardly the first Lotus book that I’ve read, and on almost every page, nearly every paragraph, I learned something new about the company and the man.

The book isn’t perfect. I spotted a couple of editing mistakes, and one is often idiomatically reminded that the writer is based in England. I’ve owned British cars, I know the difference between a hood and a bonnet, and I find the Britishisms to be charming but some might find them offputting. Of course, those that do wouldn’t likely be reading a book about a quintessentially British car guy. The format Ludvigsen decided to use sometimes gets chronologically confusing, with the author both jumping forward and back within the chapters and covering different aspects of the same chronological events in different chapters. Also, while Lotus road cars are not ignored, it seems to me that Ludvigsen’s main emphasis is Chapman’s racing innovations. Of course that partly reflects Chapman’s own interests, as he was much more intimately involved in the design and development of the race cars, tending to delegate more matters to others for the road cars.

If there’s a single Lotus production model that most accurately reflects Chapman, Ludvigsen says that it’s the Esprit. One of the few Lotus models equipped with an engine designed and built by Lotus, it “exemplified its creator’s dedication to lightness, functionality and agility”.

Ludvigsen’s assessment is that regardless of how many of “his” ideas were truly the product of Colin Chapman, and regardless of his lack of scruples in getting his ideas made concrete, Chapman was a true innovator. He was eager to embrace new ideas and eager to discard old ones (sometimes too quickly), even some of his own. In addition to his own creativity, he had a great eye for talent and technology.

He may not have been a saint, but the automotive world is the better for there having been a Colin Chapman. Colin Chapman Inside The Innovator is a masterful accounting of Chapman’s influence on that world. In his introduction Ludvigsen expressed the hope that readers would find the book enlightening and in that task I’d say that he succeeded. As with his biographies of Ferdinand Porsche and Enzo Ferrari, this will become a standard reference on Chapman and his career.

Disclaimer: Haynes Publishing sent me a review copy of the book. The book is comprehensive but not all the Lotus factoids in this review are in the book. Yeah, the review is long, but so’s the book. Besides, you’re not paying anything to read it.

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