A whirlwind day at hectic Hethel

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In which we take the chance to drive the mid-engined Esprit, are inspired through a vigorous Colin Chapman discussion, and meet most of the senior executives who play a major part in bringing the current three Es—Esprit, Eclat, Elite—to defend the Lotus name. The cars have been a long time in pre-production gestation, but now the signs are that Lotus will settle manufacturing and selling the existing cars before ultimately adding V8 derivatives to the range.

A day of mixed fortunes. I am fortunate in having D.S.J.’s companionship on the long slog to Hethel and back in a day out from Henley, but I am unfortunate in being adjudged as rotten a driver as (most of) the rest of you: sitting beside Moss does give a man standards, you know. I am fortunate in meeting so many people worth talking to, apart from the inimitable boat-building, car-constructing, Grand Prix contesting boss, but I am unfortunate in that there’s only enough time to glimpse the problems they have (largely) overcome. I am fortunate in having the chance to drive the noisy but persuasively packaged charms of the Esprit, but unfortunate that the fuel pump packs up in a car destined for Mr. Chapman’s use! One thing has to be lucky though, and in this case it’s the interview which quite literally left me dazzled by a virtuoso performance. Colin Chapman is a man who actually seems to fulfil the kind of dreams that remain just that for most people. I have been privileged to meet and write about some of the most powerful people in both the motor industry and the sport, but I cannot recall anyone with the sheer personality and breadth of creative talent that Chapman can command. Obviously his companies, his own relationships with others and his products are far from perfect, but it is still a salutary lesson that Britain is very far from a dead duck when men like this are undimmed by the prospect of more Government controls and plummeting pounds. He simply says “I’ll tell you why I carry on. . . ” a grin from ear to ear as he leans back in the chair in self-mocking reply, “because I enjoy it. It’s in the blood now. The boats make a nice relaxation, but building cars and racing that is the real thing for me. . .”

Currently Lotus cars span the range from £7,544 for the Eclat 2+2, through £7,979 for the mid-engine Esprit up to £10,100 for the most expensive version of the four-seater Elite. All models share the 16-valve, four-cylinder Lotus engine, now developing 160 b.h.p. after a painful birth ahead of the Lotus schedule for Jensen.

We, and I mean that literally in this article for D.S.J. ranks with Royalty at Lotus, so the interviews seemed to come naturally as Jenks spotted a new face, began by talking to Tony Rudd. Tony can now regard his BRM engineering experience with equanimity, having been with Lotus since 1969. He has been an important factor in making aspects as different as engines, complete cars, labour relations and glassfibre bodywork. Which often meant setting the factory and its equipment up as well.

Rudd’s Reflections

When you consider the trail of crisis that Lotus have followed in this Rudd period, which covers the slow death of Elan, Europa, Seven, Elan 2+2 and the racing car manufacturing business, then the introduction of a completely new model range, made by new processes and powered by new engines (though it must be said that Jensen suffered badly as the first operators of that 16-valve engine and paid a bitter price in reputation before the unit emerged in its present clean breath, high power form), it’s amazing that through it all Rudd has retained his humour and persistence. Chapman tests any employee fully, but you have to enjoy outstanding technical knowledge (“I wouldn’t argue with the old man about glassfibre, but anything else is fair game,” Rudd chuckles) and adaptability to stay the pace when the boss wants it all to happen now. What’s more Chapman is used to things happening now in racing so the difficulties are further increased.

Our main intention was to hear how the present family of cars were born, and what the biggest headaches had been from a Lotus viewpoint. Tony replied, “Ah yes, well I can see you have a comfortable seat to listen for a month while I tell you!

“In Autumn 1970 our planning called for a four-seater quality car, a 2+2 derivative of that car (both front-engined) and a wedge-shaped successor to the Europa, which would have the mid-engine. It was thought that 2-litres, the biggest size we could practically envisage for our four-cylinder engine, was too small an engine for such cars. Logic dictated that the four-cylinder be designed, so that we could add a second bank to the basic slant of the four and turn it into a 4-litre V8.” Tony stopped at this point, but it seems worth pointing out that the official Lotus line is that the V8 only exists in drawn form; however there are V8 prototypes at Hethel today.

Rudd continued, “America got going with all this emission and safety thing and we started to alter our thinking. Sir (Colin Chapman) did not want us to get too dependent on the States as a car market—at that time it was the largest market for us—as we all felt that it would result in us building cars suitable only for American use. He wanted to keep building cars that would appeal in Europe.

“We were able to adapt and engineer the Europa and Elan models past most of the new regulations, but it was only stop-gap manoeuvring and there is no doubt that those cars died earlier than expected because of legislation. We also dropped them earlier than we should have done, because we thought we would have the new Elite in full stream.

“We made about 35,000 of those old Cam engines. Ford kept on saying that they would stop making the blocks and so on— in fact Chapman, who is really good at this crystal ball gazing bit, was commissioning new engine designs and looking into sources of supply back in 1965. So the pressure was on for a new engine, especially in view of the Jensen agreement. The thing turned into a nightmare. The wonder machines we bought to make the engines—in the Twin Cam’s case we had really been assembling other people’s work, now we machine castings and make more of the cars than ever—were set up in our new engine shop after dramas that included finding an underground lake on the site which we had selected. When we did get the delayed programme under way, the power cuts of that winter were just really beginning to bite. There was the obvious problem of stopping and starting production, but worse was to come. Somewhat later we discovered that the machine tools we were using were voltage sensitive, so they were not operating correctly half the time they were working on reduced current—but much more important to the quality of the engines was the fact that these tools work beautifully when fully warmed up, holding tolerances precisely and so on, but while they are warming up all sorts of cock-ups on dimensions and machining occur!”

Not suprisingly with two separate companies working on a project one side would get ahead of the other. This plagued that engine too, for Jensen needed the engine before Lotus could supply. Then when Lotus could supply 150 engines a week Jensen were reeling from the effects of the introduction and didn’t want as many as had been anticipated. The whole hadly co-ordinated effort was a shambles that contributed to Jensen’s untimely demise and is dbubly sad when you think of the benefit both companies could have realised from a basically good idea.

Talking of the engine itself Rudd said frankly, “The first 400 had terrible problems, especially with oil staying up with the camshafts when using over 6,000 r.p.m., and cold starting. When the Elite was finally put into production (during the ’74-75 winter) we did a great deal of detail work on the engine, covering about 30 different aspects in all. Primarily we tightened up valve-gear tolerances for quieter top end running, and enhanced the torque characteristics out of recognition by profiling camshafts along the lines we had explored for the Jensen-Healey (power was increased by roughly 20 b.h.p. over the Jensen unit nonetheless) to make the car easier to drive.

“Initially with the Elite we were disappointed with the car’s acceleration, and this was down to both the engine and bodies that were much thicker and heavier than we were able to produce in later models. Of course the glassfibre process was new too— the panels actually emerge with a hard gloss paintwork, where required, and consistency is now to the level where I reckon our body repair costs under warranty are at least as good, if not better than, metal-bodied cars.”

Paying credit to the man who succeeded him as head of engineering, and is now the day to day manager of the car company operations, ex-Jaguar man Mike Kimberley, Rudd says of another Elite problem, “We had complaints of noise based along those big fat Dunlops too. That we got rid of them was just because Mike has so much experience with using rubber bushes in suspension systems without leaving them mushy and upsetting the car’s handling.”

Talking to Kimberley later in the day revealed that his last major project at Jaguar had concerned the XJ13 aborted racing project. He showed us quickly and informatively around the company’s products, covering subjects as diverse as the moquette trim for the Elite to the 4.1 final drive and 300 lb. weight-saving appeal of the Eclat in four-speed, steel wheel form, when it reminds him of Lotuses of yore. “It really accelerates like anything, and on those narrow (6 in.) rims you can do anything.” A positive wealth of hard driving memories overcame this amiable young man’s potted tour.

The Eclat Seemed to rouse few dramas compared with the Elite and Esprit, but as Rudd said, “The Elite was its parent. The bottom half of the two-part body is Elite, it’s just the top reshuffled to give a fast back, better boot and more upright seating. Mind you, it didn’t completely stop the dramas. The body was lighter and when I was travelling at a very illegal speed the rear window blew out! You do not put weight onto a car in this company, So I had to trace to the heart of the problem, rather than just try and strengthen the rear window surround, or something like that. We discovered it was an exhaust resonance effect on that lighter body.”

The Esprit’s Giugiaro origins are pretty well known, and today’s production Esprits carry a motif of the Italian designer’s imprint to remind one where this clean, and surprisingly wick body style came from. Kimberley took the time to show us around the second car that Giugiaro did for Lotus, the first being a pure show model cobbled around Europa chassis (widened) and a 2-litre engine. That first car was impractical for reasons such as production of glasslibre—”We had to impress upon him that we must be able to withdraw complete panels from the mould,” commented Rudd—and the windscreen angle of that has been eased toward vertical by just over 2 degrees in the production model to provide safe vision. The red second show car was very close indeed to what has become the most exciting shape in British car production today. However one important point that was attended to was the removal of the petrol filler from the interior, where it would have been accessible through the o/s quarter panel glass to a more normal exterior position. The car was described fully in Motor Sport for November 1975 by C.R. I will just explore the reasons for its belated appearance with Mr. Rudd and how it felt to me.

Tony said, “Well it was part of that master plan and there was a show car built first in 1972: if you ask Chapman he’ll say it was 1969 because he thinks it all took too long! While Giugiaro worked with that show car we worked on the real thing and the question in my mind was, dare we throw away the traditional Lotus backbone chassis? I thought we could, but the boss said no, and we did have a job making it accommodate the engine.

“Then there was the Giugiaro body as shown. We couldn’t make that body, and we had to persuade Giugiaro to do it so that we could make the car in two halves on our equipment (this involved tidying up the roof panels where the rear window lifts, apart from the obvious top and bottom division) and all this used up most of 1973 and ’74. With the Elite put into production, myself and a small team of engineers withdrew to make a running prototype into a working road car at the end of 1975.

“I reckon we solved 90 per cent of the problems, but others”—a wry smile once more featured from Mr. Rudd, “yes others, reckon I solved 10 per cent and they did the rest in production!”

Production in Lotus terms involves about 30 cars a week currently, sold through a small 35-40 strong band of British dealers. Naturally the Esprit only forms part of that total, which is why it will not become a familiar shape for some time.

As we climbed into the Esprit Rudd quipped, “You pay £7,000 odd for the gearchange, the rest is free!” What startled me, and even won a measure of approbation from Jenks, was the interior. The fascia panel is surrounded by a restful brown suede, the forward vision is outstanding and the Veglia instruments rest smartly within light green faces, though Jenks did not like the ‘wings’ that extend out from either side of the flat instrument panel to carry the controls, and I think the man who did the black plastic steering wheel had no idea what they were going to do with the rest of the interior.

Driving the Esprit

I reflect as I select reverse without any difficulty that it is also nice to drive a Lotus where the handbrake is not designed as an integral part of one’s shin. Reversing reveals the usual appalling rear vision, but as we set off in earnest on the track there can be no complaint about seeing where we should go.

Although we do hut four or five laps in my hands, there are some revelant things to be said straight away. The plus points are that this British reply (or was it the instigator?) for the Ferrari glassfibre 308 GTB, which was tested in last month’s Motor Sport, contains the normal outstanding handling and ride combination. In other words I am able to push faster and faster into corners on short acquaintance, though I am disconcerted at the way the car will run wide into slower corners. Although the ride quality is good, there is a lot of bumping and thumping as we patter across a change in surface at 6,500 r.p.m. in second. The brakes are all that one could hope for in a car that you’ve known five minutes and that is being watched by its guardians as you apply the centre pedal vigorously from 100 rn.p.h to 45.

The five-speed gearbox is good—it’s a Citroen ID23 casing with Citroen Maserati ratios—but both Jenks and I miss gears on this first, hurried acquaintance. The ratios themselves are obviously good at Hethel, and the maximum engine r.p.m. of 7,000 allows useful things like 60 m.p.h. in second and a ready 100 m.p.h. in fourth. Top speed is said to be 138 m.ph. with 40, 60, 90 and 125 m.p.h. available in the first four gears.

The biggest snag we find with the car— apart from it prematurely passing away of fuel starvation caused by a sulking fuel pump—is noise. Now a bit of noise in a sporting car is usually very acceptable, but not when it’s of the harsh “four-banger” variety by your car, and this aspect could stand improvement, especially for those who intend to drive far and fast: and you’ll be able to travel far and fast when they change to Bendix fuel pumps! More seriously the car does reflect how Lotus have succeeded in creating a credible up-market two-seater. Now there really could be a day when Chapman’s race-winning challenge to Ferrari is seriously repeated in exotic road cars, especially if Fiat continue with their policy of “productionising” Ferrari.

Talking to Sir

Rather than formally interview Mr. Chapman we were lucky to loin in after D.S.J. and Tony Rudd had already secured his attention and a lively debate was ensuing over when, and if, Chapman had decided his present position as an international car manager years ago.

Chapman twinkled as he told D.S.J., “It must have been at least 15 years ago when I talked with you in the Paddock at Monza and told you I was going to be a ‘legit’ road car manufacturer. You said I should make the Ii, but I wanted to make a car specially for the road, not convert one: so you told me to go out and sell the 11 and buy a Porsche!

“I still work toward the Porsche ideal, but you have to do things in stages. We started in the business by making racing cars for at least the first three or four years, and nothing else. I carried on in the racing car business until the early 1970s—I mean the selling of racing cars as a business alongside our other activities—but when I started making racing cars it was a profitable business. Now, and especially when we made the decision to close the Lotus Components side of things, there are so many people competing for a share, and we simply could not make competitive tars profitably enough. No way I want to go back into that end of the business.”

I asked if he had gone as far as he wanted in the road car production side, or was there a lot more to come? Chapman smiled at the thought of doing a great deal more (those around him say he berates them for delaying his retirement by their slowness to act on his ideas!) and said, “I think we’re making almost too much of the car now, I mean, hell, we’re even making the bloody airconditioning because the suppliers didn’t want to know!

”Over the years it has been our policy to make as much as possible ourselves—bodies, chassis, engines and so on, but air-conditioning, that’s ridiculous. ‘Actually it’s not the whole unit of course, but we have been able to get over our particular problems of fitting a good package into a small size, and I think we can feel good about that.

“The thought of expanding my car business by, say 25 per cent, is not on. What I want to do for the next three years is make the models we are doing now, and concentrate on making them more efficiently with a longer list of options—in fact I have just laid down such a list that will include items like the Speedline wheels for Esprit, and so on.

“If you study our model numbers you will find that there are three more obvious numbers to insert. Those will be the V8 versions of the existing cars—which will probably go through minor production facelifts, but they will substantially be the same cars.

“We designed the V8 as a 4-litre for a market before i the fuel crisis. It’ll be all right though in a couple of years’ time, we will be able to do it then. In the meantime we can just concentrate on making what we’ve got in big ger numbers and of increasing quality. Right at the moment we do not have the resources to put the bigger engine into production, but a better market. . . ” the eyes light up in anticipation, “and the chance to earn some money and we’ll be able to make the bigger engine.”

In a rare pause for thought Chapman added, “By the way, a couple of minutes ago I heard from our men in California that the Esprit has passed its emission testing with flying flags for ’77, which is terrific news.

“Discussing the V8 in a little more detail Chapman felt that it was going to cost about £1 million to put into production, wryly jibbing at Tony, “and I don’t suppose this fella will be able to find a way of getting the fuel in without injection . . . it’s just impossible on that engine because a carburetter layout will not give us the sort of fuel distribution we need.”

We impolitely enquired how close Lotus had been to closing up shop and Chapman roared with laughter, replying in high humour, “It’s always the same, we totter from crisis to crisis. The fuel crisis hit us right after a six million pound investment programme, and we could have foundered for revenue as the volume dropped. About every six years we hit the brink and it’s all a bit touch and go over the edge of a precipice: we had a strike in 1969 and other had years I can recall were 1963 [Putting Elan into production? I can’t remember. J.W.] and 1975, when we had nothing to sell but the Elite.” The confident grin returns, “Yes, that means I’ve got five years ’til the next crisis.”

We discussed money as a natural adjunct to that and Chapman felt that the best years the company had ever enjoyed were the last three years of the ’60s (he went public in 1968), while 1971/72 were described as, “Not bad. I can’t tell you what this year’s results will be, but the half-year showed a modest £50,000 or so profit, and I must say the bank have been very good to us over the years.” If there is such an animal as a Chapman bank manager he must spend his life padlocked in a filing cabinet. To come out would invite the loan of large sums under skilled persuasion very swiftly.

A general headache in the 1970s has been safety expenditure and Chapman reported a conversation with Kimberley in which the two of them decided that the past five years had seen 80 per cent of engineering’s effort devoted to safety and federal emission requirements. “Now they can get on with production engineering,” said Colin with no small amount of satisfaction evident.

I asked about Chapman’s mastery with glassfibre, what had led him into such close involvement with the production techniques of this useful material? He mused a moment before replying, “Well it was such a messy unscientific business . . . all buckets and brushes. I decided I wanted to turn it into a normal industrial process and part of that scheme was CO go ahead with a low-pressure injection moulding process. Another factor that helped a lot was the availability of polyurethane paints which can withstand the heat and stress of being in the mould and provide a good finish. For a quality car we needed a new process that was capable of giving good finish, both in itself and in paintwork, and that was repairable. I think we’ve achieved most of that, though it had its heartaches, like everything else,” he added a little ruefully.

I wondered if Chapman had been sad to see the convertibles go? He looked a little surprised and replied, “No, not really, I never really reckoned convertibles.” Jenks interjected, saying that there was nothing like a proper open car. Chapman smoothly countered with the rejoinder that D.S.J. cannot have ever driven an air-conditioned Mercedes, adding, “I always leap into that when I want to remind myself how good our air-conditioning has got to be!” Chapman also inclined to the view that Kjell Qvale’s fascination for open cars led to some of Jensen’s trouble, prosaically adding, “Look at the cars on the street, the MG-Bs and things like that. They never have their hoods open anyway, even on sunny days,” mischievously grinning at D.S.J.’s protestations of the good open air life.

Discussing staff, Chapman made it clear that he does not want to grow much in employment—”I’d like to add about 100 more to the present 500, but I would also like to increase from 30 cars to 40-45 cars a week when that has taken place. Increasing productivity can be achieved (perhaps 10-20 per cent) by buying new machinery like that profiler we have for reproducing shapes accurately.” He reflected earnestly, “Do you know, we’re lucky at the moment—there are plenty of semi-automated machines around that help people producing 2-4,000 cars a year.”

After telling us that the Research and Development department now had 27 people in, Chapman did put some general racing thoughts on the record (“There’s an awful lot of ink going to be spilled over the new GP car, so we’ll leave that out for the present,” he said). There are 43 staff on the racing side, which is located over the road from the factory.

In general terms Chapman feels that racing, “must benefit Lotus Cars as well as the separate John Player team. Let’s face it, Lotus would not exist if it was not for the sport. It gives people that little extra incentive to buy.

“I gave up sports car racing when they started fiddling about with the regulations. It’s just about a full-time job keeping up with present day F1, and I have no desire to be involved in any other area of racing.

“I think there is a feed-back from Fl into the main factory, no doubt about it. When we win, like Japan, the men are all smiling and cheery in the plant, though I think before that recently the men were a bit grim, so it can cut both ways. The most important thing is a racing man’s attitude to get on and do things quickly; that really has helped us actually get on and do things at Lotus. We did that certification programme on the new Esprit in three months flat, and that comes from a racing attitude to getting things done quickly, and so that they actually work when tested.” Chapman concluded.

It is time for us to close. Conversation on the return drag down to Oxfordshire is dominated by fascinating tales of the Lotus of yore. It hasn’t changed that much in hectic, competitive spirit, but the products certainly have. We can see little chance of Chapman retiring before his 50th birthday, which at least means we can look forward to his original thinking for a year or two yet.J.W.

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