The early years
“A great place to work.” That’s how long-time Lotus mechanic Bob Dance recalls his time. “You were working with Colin Chapman, Jim Clark, Len Terry, Maurice Phillippe all top of their profession. In the mid-’60s, you knew that if the car stayed in one piece, Jimmy was going to win.”
Dance has great memories of the Cheshunt factory from which Clark’s two world titles were masterminded. “We worked hard for not a lot of money, but we also had a lot of fun,” he says. “It was a small operation, carrying out a great deal of work. As well as F1 we were involved in Indycars, sportscars and the Cortinas.”
All the Lotus programmes were under one roof, and that continued after the team moved into new premises at Hethel at Christmas 1966. “We were tight for room in Cheshunt, but were able to spread out when we came to Norfolk,” says Dance. “We were still under the same roof as the road car side, though we were two different animals.”
When Team Lotus moved into a separate building in 1969, the team was downsizing, says Eddie Dennis, another Lotus stalwart. “The staff was reduced because we were concentrating on F1.” The race operation was still on the Hethel estate, but its crew operated too different set of rules from Lotus Cars, as Dennis recalls. “We were a law unto ourselves, because we always had the backing of the Old Man.” GW
* * *
The JPS years
No-one in the paddock worked harder than a Lotus mechanic. At least while Colin Chapman was still alive. Not only did he expect it, but his inventive mind created extra stresses and strains.
“It was a standing joke that we did 10 times more work than anyone else,” says Ian Dawson, Mario Andretti’s lead mechanic in 1976. “Chapman would have an idea, scrap it and move onto the next one all in a week. You’d go to a race with four entirely different cars, but still be able to put them into each of the specifications.”
Dance, who returned to Lotus in 1977 as chief mechanic after spells with March and Brabham, recalls Chapman’s ability to motivate his staff. “Colin was demanding, but we were happy to go beyond the call of duty,” he says. “His enthusiasm rubbed off. He worked hard and expected the some from others.”
If a mechanic’s enthusiasm began to flag, Chapman would pick up on it. “He would become disenchanted with anyone who wasn’t pulling their weight,” Dance explains. “Life could become unpleasant for that person.”
Some of the pressure was taken off the Lotus mechanics with the move to Ketteringham Hall in the mid-1970s. A research and development department was set up to design and build the cars before they were handed to the race team.
The designers were first to be installed at ‘Kett Hall’, in a conservatory-type structure known as the Orangery. Martin Ogilvie, who joined shortly before the move, remembers Chapman’s office having one-way glass so he could keep tabs on his design staff.
“He would suddenly appear and say, ‘No, no, no, no, no’, his favourite expression,” says Ogilvie. “He’d then spend a few minutes rearranging what I’d spent all day doing. The annoying thing was that he was nearly always right.” GW
* * *
Strong sprint finish adds weight to legacy
“It’s good to know someone is winning in a Lotus.” Those were Mario Andretti’s words to David Render when they were introduced at the 1976 British Grand Prix. As Andretti struggled to make the 77 a winner, at least there was a black-and-gold car regularly taking the laurels that season
A successful sprinter and old friend of Colin Chapman, Render was surprised at just what he got when he requested the loan of a car for the 1976 British Sprint Championship. “I went to the factory and there was this gleaming 76,” he says. “I asked where my car was, to be told that was it.”
Render enjoyed a successful season, claiming four wins. He only narrowly missed out on the title after coming up with a novel solution to the 76’s quirky handling. ‘We couldn’t get it to turn in,” he recalls, “so we put lead in the front. Colin would have gone mad if he’d known I was adding weight to one of his cars.”
Render continued to compete in sprints with the 76 into the following season and briefly tried a 77 until a “brush with the surgeon’s knife” caused a brief hiatus in his sprinting career. GW
* * *
The Final Days
The men at the top may have changed, but the spirit of Team Lotus lived on well into the 1990s. Right up until its sad demise during 1994, its staff maintains that it was still that same “great place to work.”
John Piper was retained during what turned out to be the team’s final season to design a new gearbox. He still talks in hushed tones about his brief stay with Lotus.
“I got such a thrill about walking down those oak-panelled corridors with picture of Jimmy Clark on the walls,” he remembers. “But the most amazing thing was the commitment of the people there. They pulled rabbits out of hats to achieve quite a lot with sod all money.
“The thing that struck me as a designer was that everything was done on sound engineering principles, much like in the days of Colin Chapman, I suspect.”
According to Lotus stalwart Bob Dance, Chapman’s spirit lived on after his death in 1982 when team manager Peter Warr stepped up to take over the reins. “Peter had been trained by Chapman and knew the job inside out,” he says, “and [technical director] Gerard Ducarouge was a guy with lots of enthusiasm.”
But the outlook looked bleak for Lotus at the beginning of the 1990s, remembers Dance. “It was our good fortune that Peter Wright and Peter Collins were able to pick up the team [for 1991],” he says. “It was also good that we had Tony Rudd back on board technically, because he was very much a Lotus man and knew how to get the best out of the lads.
“There was always a feeling that things were slipping away,” concludes Dance. “We had a bit of a flourish with the 107, but unfortunately we weren’t able to sustain it.” GW