Lotus History

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Lotus History



 1952 - present

Colin Chapman, Engineering Genius

Compared with the other motoring icons listed in the “Heritage” pages of the Unique Cars and Parts web site, the story of Lotus is a comparatively recent one, and owes its existence more than any other to one man.

The late Colin Chapman was one of the greatest innovators of motorcar design, beginning his career by designing and building specials based on the ubiquitous Austin Seven. His motoring prowess would see him eventually rise to control a Grand-Prix racing team, among many other accomplishments.

The first 'Lotus' car was in the English winter of 1947 - 1948, while Chapman was still studying for his engineering degree at London University. He continued to construct other “trial” specials for competition work, all built to comply with the regulations of the 750 Motor Club.

These cars were extremely successful, and Chapman was approached by other enthusiasts to construct similar vehicles for them. It seemed his hobby had the makings of becoming a successful business, and so, with the aid of £25 loaned to him by his girl friend Hazel (whom he later married), Chapman set about taking orders and constructing cars for his new clients.

Lotus Enter Production

The first 'production' Lotus was the Mark 6, the first of many similarly styled cars featuring a multi-tube space frame chassis enclosing both the engine and transmission, and incorporating soft independent front suspension – all adding up to an extremely light weight.

And it was in regards to weight that Chapman became a devotee, adopting the philosophy that “no item should be in any way superfluous, or over-strong, for this simply added unnecessary weight to the machine”. This philosophy is still very much at the core of production principles applied to modern day Lotuses.

This basic frame was clothed by stressed aluminium body panels, and the assembly weighed just 90lb! At first all Lotuses were 'kit' cars, necessitating that the customer complete assembly works on their own. And, like so many English cars, the Mk 6 used many parts sourced from other manufacturers, in this case Ford supplying the back axle and cable-operated Girling brakes, while the Consul derived 1.5 litre engine underwent modification at the factory to ensure a more sporting tune.

Lotus Switch From Ford To MG Engines

But soon the Consul engine was replaced by the MG TD and TF engines, these variants providing the extra power output required to ensure circuit success for the Lotus. By the time 1955 rolled around, some 100 Mk. 6’s had been build, many proving to be highly successful and competent race cars. It was somewhat fortuitist that Mike Costin was working for Chapman at the time. When Costin informed Chapman that his brother Frank was an aerodynamicist he was very quickly seconded into working for Lotus and helping Chapman develop and refine a series of aerodynamically-efficient two-seaters with all-enveloping bodywork – in an attempt to elicit even better top end performance.

After the 8 and the 9, the Lotus 11 was launched in 1956. There were three versions; the best of the three dubbed the “Le Mans” and was equipped with de Dion rear suspension, disc brakes and a Coventry-Climax overhead-cam engine of 1.1 or 1.5 litres. Next came the “Club”, fitted with the same engine but using a live rear axle and drum brakes; the third derivative was the utilitarian “Sports”, similar to the Club but fitted with a feeble side-valve 1172cc Ford engine.

Like previous Lotuses, the 11 had a multi-tube space frame chassis, now with the floor and transmission tunnel panels acting as structural members to add to overall chassis stiffness. The full-width style was distinguished by the use of a fairing placed behind the driver's head. And as could be expected from any car to emerge from the Lotus stable, the 11 proved a very successful race car. They would go on to dominate their class, and never more so than at the 1957 Le Mans where French built cars had traditionally dominated.

Lotus Mark 6
The first production Lotus was the Mark. 6, using a multi-tube space frame chassis...

Lotus 11
The Lotus 11 would take out the 1957 Le Mans "Index of Performance"...

Lotus Elite
The Elite's reputation was tarnished by build quality problems, although most would blame the "home-mechanics" responsible for final assembly...

Lotus 7
The Seven could be purchased with, or without, engine and driveline...

Lotus Elan
The Elan shared engines with the Lotus Cortina...

Lotus Europa
The Europa used the Renault 16's engine and transmission, although Lotus engineers had to modify it for mid engine installation...

Lotus Elite
The wedge shaped 1974 Elite was beautifully designed...

Lotus Esprit
The turbo Esprit could top 150mph...

The Coventry-Climax Help Lotus Take Out The Index Of Performance

Their category in that race was the “Index of Performance”, and with a specially built 750cc Coventry-Climax engine in one car, the Lotuses took first and second in the Index, won the 1100cc class, and finished ninth 13th, 14th and 16th overall. A total of 150 Mk. II’s were built, 64 being shipped to the US where some resourceful owners even adapted them for road use!

1957 was also important in that the Mark 6 was phased out, and the Seven launched. Different in many respects over its predecessor, the Seven used smaller diameter tubing in the chassis construction and featured a coil spring independent front suspension borrowed from the Formua 2 Lotus single-seater.

It also had a live rear axle, suspended by combined coil spring/damper units, and located to the chassis by twin trailing arms and a diagonal member. For the first time a Lotus had brakes on all four wheels, although they were still only drums, and was powered courtesy of a Ford 100E side-valve 1172cc engine mated to a three-speed gearbox.

The shape of the Seven was very much like that of the 6, with square rig lines, and separate front wings, but the nose tapered a little more, and there was improved storage space located behind the seats. And, naturally, the little Lotus weighed in at featherweight 725lb.

The Super Seven was soon to follow, fitted with the Coventry-Climax 1100cc engine and wire spoke wheels. This was again followed by the Series 2 version in 1960, the chassis frame layout being simplified and the existing 15in wheels being replaced by smaller 13in wheels.

As always weight was kept to a minimum, the nose cone and front wings being made of fibre-glass, and back axle location by an A-bracket. The basic car still had a Ford engine and sold for £587, but there was also the option of a BMC A-Series unit for £611. To help improve sales, prices were slashed by a full £100 in 1961 and you could even buy a Seven without the engine and transmission for a mere £399.

The First Practical Lotus, The Elite

But no doubt of more interest to those visiting the Unique Cars and Parts web site was the 1957 release of, arguably, their most important road car – certainly the vehicle that would pave the way for future production. Launched at the London Motor Show, the “Elite” featured stunning looks and, as a two-seater fixed-head coupe, was technically unique by using a monocoque construction made entirely from fibreglass.

The Elite's engine was another variation on the Coventry-Climax theme, being a 75bhp 1216cc unit with a single SU carburettor (though a twin-carb/85bhp version was also on offer). The Elite used 4 wheel disc-brakes and independent suspension, allied to rack and pinion steering, and center-lock wire wheels; the suspension, in both cases, was derived from that chosen for the 1957 Lotus F2 single-seater.

The Elite was an enigma. Although it was undeniably advanced, and a superbly fast car, it suffered from many detail faults, and unreliability problems. Many Elites were sold in partly-assembled 'kit form,' to be finished off by their new owners, and many believed that it was in the final assembly by “backyard mechanics” that was exacerbating the problem.

But regardless of the problems being encountered, when an Elite was assembled properly it was like no other car in its ability to hold the road and communicate with the driver. Many forgave the Elites seemingly slow performance (good for a top speed of 104mph, and 0-60mph acceleration of around 10 seconds) when considering the small engine capacity. Like the Lotuses before it, the Elite would enjoy race track success.

The Elite Beats 16 Alfa's At The Nurburgring

At the Nurburgring an Elite would beat sixteen Alfa Romeos to win the 1300cc GT class, while at Le Mans an Elite would win the 1500cc class, and finished eighth overall!

In 1962 the Elan would take over from the Elite. Once again an entirely different type of chassis would be used, but for the Elan the chassis would be designed specifically to enable ease of repair. Chapman believed in the advantages of a separate chassis, especially for convertibles, and so the brief was develop a rigid folded steel backbone frame – a design that would remain for many years in subsequent models. The Elan used a Ford twin-cam 1499cc engine, but under the direction of Harry Mundy that was soon increased to 1558cc – a sweet and powerful engine that would also be used on the Lotus Cortina.

Naturally the Elan retained the Elites 4 wheel disc brake setup, although a contentious point was in the rear discs configuration; fitted “outboard” and used in conjunction with rubber drive shaft “doughnuts” the Elan gained a reputation for transmission wind-up, and the “doughnuts” always had a limited lifespan. The body was again made of fibreglass, but instead of incorporating numerous mouldings as was done for the Elite the Elan instead used only 2 large mouldings.

The Lotuses were quickly gaining a large supporter base, due mainly to the spirited driving provided by such a sweet chassis set up, light weight and extremely responsive steering. In 1964 an improved Series S2 Elan was announced, and a year later the more civilized fixed-head coupe also joined the range. The S3 drop head soon followed, that was overtaken by the yet more civilized S4 model and in 1970 the Elan Sprint, with the “big valve” 126bhp engine was released.

The Introduction Of The Elan +2

British car manufacturers had long acknowledged the practicality of providing customers with a 2+2 seater configuration, and so the Elan + 2 was a natural evolution of the car. The +2 basically used the Elan-style chassis, but had its wheelbase extended by 12 inches, used a wider track and afforded a roomier interior. The car was only offered in fixed-head coupe form, though a few private-venture convertibles were made in later years. The Plus 2S which followed was more luxurious than the original, while the final manifestation was the Plus 2S 130 which had a 126bhp engine and optional 5-speed gearbox.

In 1966 the Europa was released, designed to bring a more simple low cost sports car to the European market. The Europa was fitted with a Renault 16 engine and transmission, although Lotus engineers re-designed many key areas to enable the otherwise front drive/front engine design to suit the mid-engine configuration. Using a similar backbone chassis as was on the Elan, the Europa featured supple independent suspension and superb road-holding – now a hallmark of anything carrying the Lotus badge.

Improvements came in 1969 with the release of the S2, and perhaps the best of the Europa’s appeared in 1971 when a 105bhp Lotus twin-cam engine was fitted, not surprisingly dubbed the “Europa TwinCam”. Just a year later the Twin-Cam gave way to the Europa Special, which had the big-valve 126bhp engine and a five-speed gearbox; now making the Europa good for a top speed in excess of 120mph and capable of the 0-60mph dash in under 7 seconds.this gave it a maximum speed of more than 120mph, and 0-60mph acceleration in 6.6 seconds. Production finally ceased in 1975, after 9230 cars had been manufactured.

The New Generation Elite And Mid-Engined Esprit

The new generation mid 1970’s Lotuses included a new generation Elite and mid-engined Esprit. These cars were much larger, heavier, and more sophisticated than their predecessors, and many believed they were somewhat compromised in an attempt to make them more appealing to a broader customer base. But at Unique Cars and Parts we consider the Lotus to be the least of the great marques to have compromised its core sports car principles, and such criticism is ill founded.

No longer was a Lotus available in kit form – the construction now far too technically advanced. Rather, the key to the new Lotuses success lay in the brand new 16-valve four-cylinder 2-litre twin-camshaft engine, which remained as the company's mainstay until the mid- 1980s. And the lack of kit-form enabled the new cars to make great strides in terms of safety, styling and fuel efficiency (and of course a little comfort).

Of the front-engined cars, the Elite was a close-coupled four-seater with a hatchback cabin, but a wedge-nose style, while the Eclat which followed it was a conventional 2+2 coupe on the same chassis. The Esprit, however, was a much more striking mid-engined two-seater coupe, based on a “Giugiaro” styling exercise that was first seen on the basis of a “Europa” chassis in 1972; the Esprit was arguably the prettiest of the entire range of wedge styled Lotuses.

The Esprit would go on sale in 1976, again using a steel backbone chassis with all-independent suspension and four-wheel disc brakes. The engine was placed behind the seats, and drove through a modified Citroen five-speed transaxle. The body, of course, was a fibreglass composite shell. The result was an extremely quick car both in a straight line and around corners, however unfortunately as was the case with so many previous Lotuses there it was lacking in detail development and reliability – and this time the “home-mechanic” could not be blamed.

The Esprit Turbo, The First Lotus Super Car

Fortunately the S2 and later S3 models went a long way to addressing the problems inherent in the original Esprit, although if considering the purchase of an original it would be safe to assume that any such problems with the car should have been well and truly sorted. The next addition to the range, the Lotus Esprit Turbo, took the company straight into the “Super-car” league; the Turbo’s 2.2 litre engine was obviously turbocharged, and was good for 210bhp. Lotus engineers also re-tuned the chassis frame, and there was comprehensive re-style to complement the cars amazing performance.

Lotus quoted a top speed of just more than 150mph for the Esprit Turbo, together with the ability to reach 60mph from rest in 5.5 seconds. This sort of performance, linked to the usual matchless road-holding standards and surprisingly frugal fuel consumption, enabled the Esprit Turbo to stand comparison with any other exotic machine.

Also see: Lotus Car Reviews | Colin Chapman | The History of Lotus (USA Edition)
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