"He could charm the birds from the trees"

Colin Chapman was a brilliant engineer and a shrewd businessman. But as a new book tells us, the Lotus boss knew how to get what he wanted from people, and it was one key to his success
By Karl Ludvigsen

‘His persona is ebullient, buzzing, fast-moving, joke-cracking,’ wrote Robert Heller about Colin Chapman, ‘but for all that outwardness the personal armour is difficult to pierce and the man is dangerous to cross. One businessman claims that Chapman is the only person who has ever thrown him out of an office. He reacts vigorously to failure, real or imagined: his language in that event fits the image of the brisk, efficient commanding officer.’

Of medium height, with a physique that fluctuated between sleek and well-padded – the state that gave rise to his ‘Chunky’ nickname – Colin Chapman was the personification of the purposeful and successful businessman. Warm though he could be when required, he offered few apertures through which his inner feelings could be discerned. This was an asset, an armour behind which he shielded when necessary from people or events not to his liking. He also deployed social correctness, warding off the unwashed at Indianapolis by saying, “In my country you don’t talk to people until you’ve been introduced to them.”

An oft-quoted resemblance to film star David Niven was largely evinced by a neat moustache and features that were regular rather than remarkable. Errol Flynn might have been more apt as an archetype, albeit more flattering as well. In visage and carriage Chapman oozed the confidence and sincerity that were his stock in trade. These were important assets as he built the businesses that stood behind his ability to innovate in engineering.

‘His features are neat,’ wrote Ted Simon in 1970, ‘his hair carefully tended, his body compact. He is, as the old song has it, “dapper from his napper to his feet” and moves with brisk agility, sometimes swinging a key chain from his hip.’ Judging Chapman a ‘tight-lipped titan’, Simon called him ‘a millionaire at forty, controlling his Lotus empire with a strong, personal hand. Usually impassive, he released his pleasure at the success of his car in short bursts of enjoyment.’

Chapman gradually gained an aptitude for the skills of personal presentation. In earlier years he didn’t worry much about his turnout. Engineer Bill Milliken recalled lunching with him at London’s Steering Wheel Club in 1956 when Colin was “very poorly dressed, wearing a long, threadbare top coat”. Milliken was driven in an “undistinguished” Mini to Hornsey to see the Lotus facilities. “His office was a stand-up office,” Bill recalled, “it was so small.” In those days his lucky Clydella tartan shirt and chinos often sufficed at the track.

Later Chapman adopted neat single-breasted suits and sober ties that bespoke a businessman in whom it would be prudent to invest. He wore a tie at the track as well, sometimes with a vee-neck pullover that saw frequent use. Later he established a trademark image with the fisherman’s cap that he famously flung to the skies at a victory. He could wear a sponsor’s kit with the best of them, tailored trimly in the glory years of John Player and Essex sponsorship.

Never one to embrace the hoi polloi, Chapman grew even more remote in later years. He became “much harder and more cynical”, said close associate Tony Rudd. “He made a cult out of his impatience and intolerance of anything that appeared to him to be wasting time. This applied to everything. He had learned the meaning of the rosettes in the Michelin guides, stayed at the best hotels and used the best restaurants, when before a Kit-Kat and a bag of peanuts in the aircraft sufficed.” However, added Rudd, “there would be whole days when he was his old cheerful self. It was just as if he devised the character that he thought the world wanted him to be, and he was playing that part.”

John DeLorean and Essex Petroleum’s David Thieme introduced Chapman to the Good Life, to “staying in the Hotel de Paris”, said team manager Peter Warr. “The black and gold helicopter to ferry him from airport to circuit, the black and gold Lotus to get him from helipad to paddock. Instead of being in the garages until 11pm trying to work out solutions to problems and writing job lists, 15 minutes after practice he was gone, back to the five-star hotel.”

This modus operandi challenged the opportunities for his people to interact with Chapman. Designer Ralph Bellamy found a solution in hitching a ride with his chief. “Going to races was the time when we used to talk a lot about the new car, principally when we were flying in his aeroplane. Nobody could interrupt so we’d hammer it out right there. A tough engineering session at 5000 feet!” Private flying allowed confidentiality, which Colin dealt with in his own way on commercial flights, said Dan Gurney: “He used to write notes to himself. When on an aeroplane he’d write them so small that nobody could read them over his shoulder.”

From beginning to end of his three-decade career Chapman never lost his voracious appetite for information. His dives into the technologies of suspensions, structures and materials were always deep. During the gestation of the first Elite he was driving a Porsche 1600 because, said Denis Jenkinson, “he felt that Porsche standards would have to be the very minimum in the way of detail finish on his own Gran Turismo car, and with that we could not agree more.” A passion for lightness and low drag, however, kept the Elite from achieving the Porsche-like amenities that Chapman had come to comprehend.

“He was an absolute past master at soaking up knowledge,” said Tony Rudd. Looking to replace the costly aluminium bodies of the Eleven, Rudd added, Colin needed to learn about glass-fibre: “He read all the books that he could find on the subject and soaked up the knowledge. It was the same with boats and again with microlights.” This thirst for knowledge was evident from an early age, said his father: “Even before he could read it was remarkable. Colin collected cigarette cards concerning aircraft. I would read aloud the details on each card to him and, days later, he would recount them to me – technical information, performance, history… and it was always amazingly accurate.”

His ability to absorb and retain information made Chapman a formidable discussion partner. “He got up much earlier than most people!” said one-time employee Keith Duckworth. “He could marshal his arguments in a superhuman fashion. You’d be having a discussion about something and he would say ‘Well, this follows’ and I would look doubtful, without having been able to sift into my mind why I didn’t like what he said.

“At that stage,” Duckworth added, “realising that he might be out-argued, or that there was something fallacious about what he’d said, he would change the subject and throw in a red herring and I would lose the main argument while chasing this useless red herring. And I’d find I’d agreed to something which I shouldn’t have done! I gradually learnt that all I could do was to say, ‘Yes Colin, I’ve heard your arguments, I need time to think about them. I’ll let you know my view in the morning.’ And with that proviso, there wasn’t a problem.”

“Colin has an inquisitive, logical and demanding mind,” said his close associate Peter Kirwan-Taylor. “He has to understand ‘the moving parts’. He tests his ideas in discussion ‘at the limit’ and thus determines the critical factors which will result in the successful solution to a given problem. Then he develops and refines an elegant answer. I have seen him apply this scientific method to cars, factories, boats, houses, mortgages, aeroplanes, price/earnings ratios, labour relations, wage structures and racing formulae with equal success. It is a formidable ability admitting no compromise.”

Allied with this analytical ability was an awesome resourcefulness. Alvin Cohen heard from a friend about an adventure he had with Chapman after the war when the two of them were tasked with inspecting London’s bomb-damaged buildings. In the cellar of one “they discovered an Aladdin’s cave of hundreds of shelf supports, racking and shelving, all in precious steel. Knowing that this building had long been abandoned, Chapman concluded that this particular treasure hoard required liberating!”

The two of them, Alvin Cohen continued, “commandeered a flatbed lorry and loaded it with all the steel components and went off touring London, flogging off their windfall to all the engineering companies so desperate for steel.” Chapman’s gains from this enterprise, so the story went, produced the capital he needed to start dealing in used cars, another discipline in which his resourcefulness was well rewarded.

A friend of Colin described his business technique as “a dazzling combination of charm and calculation”, adding that “Colin will sell you the right time, and probably get a commission from the chap who owns the watch!” His resourcefulness was well expressed by Rudd: “I think it was part of his mystique that he imparted confidence to the people around him. You had the feeling, however bad things were, that somehow or other Chunky would get you out of it. You forgot that he probably got you into the mess in the first place.”

An indication of Chapman’s resourcefulness came from the early proliferation of his operating companies. “There were a lot of them,” said early colleague Mike Costin. “Lotus Engineering, Lotus Components and Racing Engines Limited. The reason why there were so many companies was that the buyer of a kit car could buy the chassis from one company and the engine and gearbox from others, so that he could legitimately avoid purchase tax by buying the components from different sources.”

The multiple companies posed puzzles on occasion. Driver Trevor Taylor recalled filling up his racing car transporter, signpainted ‘Team Lotus’, at a Cheshunt petrol station. “Just as we were filling up,” he said, “a voice came out, shouting ‘Stop, stop!’ We wondered what was going on. ‘You can’t fill up here, not as Team Lotus anyhow.’ I said, ‘What about Lotus Cars?’ ‘No, no,’ was the reply. ‘Lotus Components?’ I asked. ‘No, no,’ again. I was trying to think of another Lotus company. ‘What about Lotus Developments?’ I said. ‘I’ll just check – yes, that’s all right. Fill up with that account.’ Lotus had very little money then and what they had was made to go around the best it could.”

The multiple companies also facilitated jiggery-pokery with funds in later years. “Team Lotus’s financial year used to be about six months different from Lotus Engineering and Lotus Cars,” recalled designer Martin Ogilvie. “They used to swap the money around. [Finance director] Fred Bushell got the money in and looked after it and Chapman used to spend it. He would say, ‘Fred, your job is just to get the money so I can spend it.’ But the money was never there, so they had to do a sponsorship deal as early as possible. Sponsorship got more and more difficult to come by, as it was realised by sponsors like Camel that their money was paying off the previous year’s debts.”

The financial struggles of his companies’ early years contributed to Chapman’s passion for good hard cash. “I formed the view of a shrewd, tough businessman,” said Bill Milliken, who as chief steward at the rich US Grand Prix at Watkins Glen had many dealings with Chapman. “He was a smart guy, pretty shrewd, pretty tough. An hour or so after each race we paid out the prize money. Chapman always insisted on getting everything in cash. He got it in $50 bills. The other teams seemed much more relaxed about this.” Colin took the same line with other race organisers.

That Chapman was both Lotus’s design brains and its entrepreneurial spirit was seen by company insiders as an advantage. “One of the great things with Chapman,” said engineer Peter Wright, “was the fact that he was involved on the business side as well as the design side. As a result he was able to commit finance to high-risk projects which he believed passionately to be correct.” Among such projects were the Indianapolis ‘wedges’, the radical Type 72, the research leading up to the 78 and 79, the 88 – for good or for ill – and the active suspension that was under development at his death.

Hand in hand with this duality of disciplines went Chapman’s ability to persuade people and companies to fund his initiatives. His persuasiveness was legendary both inside and outside Lotus. Mike Warner – who ran Lotus Components – recalled that “the best tip I ever had” was given by Fred Bushell before he went in for a meeting with Chapman. “Colin’s a terrific chap,” said the finance man, “but he can charm the birds from the trees. I’m just giving you that tip.” It was fair warning for Warner as the company chief asked him to take on new responsibilities.

“He had charisma,” seconded Colin’s road-car chief Mike Kimberley, “when he cared to use it.” The Lotus engineer and manager recalled a winter when he and his family were snowed in at home. “I was on the phone to Colin about this and that. Then I heard one of my youngsters: ‘Daddy! There’s a helicopter outside!’ Sure enough, it was circling around the yard. In it was Colin, shouting, ‘I brought your work!’ He threw out a box, giving me a big grin and a thumbs up.”

Mike Warner had a ringside seat to observe the Chapman charm: “What I saw was this ability, not just on the racing side but also on the engineering side, of pulling people beyond what they even contemplated they were capable of. Chapman would come up with this concept and would often draw people beyond what they had taught themselves and their abilities. Len Terry is a classic example, a brilliant designer, the peak of whose career was the work he did under Chapman. There are several other people like that – Maurice Philippe, very, very similar, did nothing after Lotus.

“Chapman was like a chameleon,” Warner added. “He could tune his shade to the exact shade of the person that he wanted to work for him.”

“He had everybody analysed and catalogued,” added Rudd. “He used a different technique with different people. He always argued he did not understand high finance, but it was surprising how many finance people he managed to charm into providing him with millions to fund Team Lotus. Despite the criticisms, they certainly got value for money.”

Rudd was among those around Chapman who knew they were being manipulated yet succumbed to the Lotus chief’s charm. “His talent as an engineer was matched by his understanding of what motivated people,” said Rudd. “He knew that the way to get me to perform was to say, ‘When I am in trouble, I always know which of my old friends to turn to.’ I would confront him breathing fire and brimstone and flatly refusing to do something. A few minutes later I would be completely talked around and trying as hard as I could to make it work.”

“Chapman was first and foremost a very good engineer, far-thinking and innovative,” said one of his last designers, Geoff Aldridge, “and he was also a shrewd businessman. Thirdly – and more important than both those things – he could motivate people and he could charm the birds from the trees. He’d come in, put his arm round you, and you’d work all night. And with those three things going for him, he couldn’t fail.” He didn’t – not very often, anyway.