Was one of the reasons Lotus produced fantastic racing cars the fact that Colin Chapman was such a talented driver? Gordon Cruickshank assesses the flipside of this design genius
Chapman the designer; Chapman the race team manager; Chapman the business entrepreneur; we are used to these pictures of the charismatic Lotus supremo. But way back at the beginning, he built the reputation of his cars and his company on a different skill — his prowess behind the wheel. Chapman was quick. Yes, his works Lotuses frequently had the technical jump on the rest of the grid, but that isn’t enough. While he was developing his cars, he was also developing his driving, to the point where he could challenge the big names — his Whitsun head-to-head with Mike Hawthorn in matching cars at Goodwood was a crowd-thriller. He raced in the TT, at Le Mans. He even made it onto a grand prix grid — almost.
His passion for the machinery came before the competition side. He had already begun to build his first road-going special before he thought of competing, and it was only when he came across a car trial by chance that he altered this machine into a trials car. With it he, and his future wife Hazel, began to make a mark in this oh-so-British byway of motorsport. Already his agile brain had sidestepped some of the constraints of the 750MC formula, and his MkII proved a major success, including on the track.
Chapman claimed he had never even seen a circuit race before he entered an Eight Clubs event at Silverstone in June 1950, but after beating Dudley Gahagan’s Bugatti T37, he was hooked. His recipe of weight-stripping and making each part do two jobs leapfrogged his cars ahead of others using the same components, and when two of his friends decided to build sister cars in parallel to his MkIII, the cash-strapped Chapman saw a way forward.
His trick would be to float Lotus Engineering, his new company, on a bow-wave of racing successes: as drivers saw his cars win, they would ask him to build one for them, which would fund his next project. Circuit racing had a higher profile than did trialling, and was more predictable too, so at this point the cars diverged into one trials and one circuit racer. But both were pushed aside by the pivotal MkVI. Efficient, light and rigid with its spaceframe instead of the usual ladder, the VI made an instant impact.
But ACBC’s masterstroke was that it was easy to assemble. Not only could he charge for building customer cars, but he could also offer kits for optimistic garagistes to bolt together — if he could persuade them they wanted a Lotus. Advertising was expensive and Chapman, sensibly enough, knew that while his tiny single-column adverts in MOTOR SPORT cost him money, winning races gave him free exposure. And after September 1953, every club racer seemed to want one: that was when Chapman defeated the best of the class around the twisting Crystal Palace circuit Jabby Crombac,Chapman’s long-time friend and collaborator, recalls it: ‘The first time I heard of him was at Crystal Palace when he was racing against Bob Said in the twin cam OSCA in the sidevalve cable-braked MkVI, and he held his own beautifully.”
Mike Costin, who brought crucial engineering skills to the fledgling firm, remembers those days: “When I joined in 1953 we were building MkVls and the deal was that No9 would be ours to race. I did the 1172 races, he did 1100,1500, Libre. He just liked racing and had some fantastic dices.
” With orders for Vls piling up, 1954 was the year Chapman and Team Lotus became a fixture in the race reports in the new, shark-like MkVIII sportscar. Even though the works car, SAR5, blew its MG gasket at its first meeting, the British Empire Trophy at Oulton Park, the flowing shape of Frank Costin’s body design made onlookers gape. Chapman went on to collect 1500cc wins at Silverstone (not too far behind Gonzalez’s 4.9 Ferrari), Goodwood and the Palace, before cockily defeating Hans Hermann’s works Porsche 550 in the British GP support event.
It was now clear he had the talent to race at international level. Costin again: “He drove our VIII, SAR5, with tremendous success, beating Archie Scott Brown and the other top guys often in far bigger, more powerful cars.” At Castle Combe he lost out only to Roy Salvadori’s Maserati and Archie’s Lister-Bristol, but in return had a blistering battle with the bigger Lister at Snetterton.
Chapman was blessed with huge energy. Clad in his lucky checked shirt, he was racing almost every weekend, and not only in Britain. On one weekend he and Costin drove to the Nürburgring with a toolkit in SAR5, raced on the Sunday, and drove home overnight, where Chapman raced at Brands Hatch, sprinted at Crystal Palace (the car blew up), and then back to Brands for another heat in a borrowed VIII four races, three events, two days. Yet he and Costin both still had full-time jobs outside Lotus.
As 1955 dawned and Lotus production rose, so did the race schedule. The team built two of the new MkIX, one for Chapman, one for Peter Jopp. Yet still Chapman piled up the races, frequently winning around the UK. He harassed big-engined sportscars on his way to another 1500cc win at the British GP meeting. He was mixing it with future GP stars and was not overshadowed, beating Tony Brooks’ Connaught at Aintree and, sharing with Cliff Allison, leading the class in the TT by a huge amount before an oil pipe broke. Brooks allows him credit beyond the machinery: “He would give a good run to any of the top national drivers; he had a quick car, but you can have a good car and still be nowhere.”
And at last he got the Lotus name in front of the press at Le Mans, then the most prestigious race of the lot. He also got himself in front of the authorities. Having stuck his IX in the sand at Arnage, he rejoined the track before a marshal gave the say-so and was disqualified from the lead of the 1100cc class. Still, no publicity is bad.
With the arrival of the more compact and handy Eleven, Lotuses blossomed in 1956 in the hands of some serious drivers; and still Chapman was up among them. His big number came at Goodwood, where he beat Mike Hawthorn in a similar Eleven. It was an electrifying sight, the lead swapping again and again. Mike Costin was there: “A fantastic dice. At Madgwick on the last lap they both half-spun and stopped side-by-side, then restarted. On the Lavant straight into Woodcote, I’m not sure that Colin didn’t take to the grass to pass. Sometimes the red mist would come down. A real press-on driver.”
Third in that race was future GP racer Cliff Allison: “He was a good driver. I remember doing the Sebring 12 Hours with him in an Eleven that year. Although the layshaft stripped, leaving us with just top gear, we went on and won the team prize. We also shared a MkIX at Dundrod in 1956, and did similar times. We were a well-matched pair because we were both engineers as well as drivers, and I could tell him what the car was doing.”
Though Eleven sales were booming, it didn’t keep Chapman at home. He again drove one of the three works cars at Le Mans and won the Rouen Sportscar GP, while overseeing car production and revising the Eleven. Even in early 1957 he managed to drive at Sebring, combining this with a US sales tour, but for Le Mans he left the job to others. He was not to race there again.
By now Lotus had a single-seater, the 12, entering F2 and later F1 races, but Chapman’s other responsibilities were now too time-consuming and he delegated this area to employed drivers. With his acute eye, though, his 1958 season managed to include Allison, Graham Hill, Innes Ireland and Alan Stacey — all bubbling with talent, and who, more importantly, did not have car companies to run. Not that he felt he was out of his depth, as Crombac points out: “Once at Le Mans, Graham was in the 1500 and was complaining about something, and Colin jumped in and lapped quicker than him.”
But the stress of putting the revolutionary Elite into the showrooms as well as the new Seven was just too much, and Colin stopped appearing on the grids. Crombac says there was no ceremonial hanging up of helmets: “He never announced he was retiring because he was always wishing he could come back the following year when he had sorted out the business. But he became addicted to running the team and was building road cars purely to finance Team Lotus. And once he had Jimmy Clark, he didn’t need to drive.”
There is no doubt that, as a driver himself, Chapman had a deeper insight into what his stars were telling him. Jabby again: “Jimmy wasn’t technically minded. He would just describe what the car was doing and trusted Colin entirely to sort it.”
Allison feels Chapman’s style moulded the character of the Lotus chassis: “He was probably a bit harder on the car than me – I was taught to coax the car – but he was a well-balanced driver, which may be why Lotuses responded to the delicate touch but would let go quickly when they did, as opposed to a Cooper which was more sortable, maybe because of Jack’s [Brabham] speedway background.”
Track experience also helped the famously persuasive Lotus boss to extract that little bit more from his drivers. “He’d push me sometimes,” says Allison. “At Silverstone once, I was third-fastest in practice and I said I thought I had another three-quarters of a second to come. He said, ‘I bet you don’t’, so I went out and knocked a second-and-a-half off.”
Trevor Taylor, works Lotus driver from 1961 to ’63, remembers Chapman bettering both himself and Clark in testing the new 18. “A brilliant driver who used to embarrass us when we tested at Goodwood. Mind you, so was Mike Costin. He took pole in an FJ race I was doing at Silverstone. I was supposed to be the man in FJ, but I couldn’t match him.”
How does a competitive person like that deal with giving it up? “I don’t think he missed it too much,” says Costin. “I think there was plenty of compensation. But he used to thrash round trying to beat Jim in a Lotus-Cortina. I heard they both went testing at Goodwood and rolled one each!”
Did he have what it took for F1? He wasn’t quite able to show us. When the Vanwall GP team were struggling with their chassis design in 1955, team principal Tony Vandervell approached racing’s new whizz-kid for advice. In short order Chapman outlined a space-frame chassis, and recommended Frank Costin to hone a sleek skin for it. Dramatic improvement followed. The following season, Vandervell found himself with a spare car for the French GP; he took Colin.
But in practice Chapman, suffering a locking brake at Thillois, rear-ended team-mate Hawthorn, damaging both cars. Crombac: “They had only enough parts to repair one, and so only Hawthorn raced.”
After 1958, the Lotus supremo raced only for fun, but remained just as determined, throwing his MkII Jaguar around in touring car events, and later in the 1970s making a regular highlight of himself by keeping an Escort on its door-handles in celebrity events. While there were sportscars to test he was in there, and would try F1 cars too, but, according to Jabby, “only to see what they were like. He knew he could probably only drive it at eight-tenths, and you can’t set a car up that way.”
Brooks, who piloted the Chapman-influenced Vanwall, has a telling memory. “I remember him saying that he decided to give up when Jim Clark said to him that the way he got out of trouble in a corner was to turn more into it rather than put corrective lock on. I’m still trying to work out what he meant myself, but it mystified Colin, and he alleged that that was what triggered him into thinking he was no longer in the same league.”
It’s important to know your limits.