Looking at Lotus

A visit to the new Lotus factory at Cheshunt

Just over a year ago the Lotus factory moved, lock, stock and barrel from its terribly cramped quarters in Hornsey to a more spacious factory on a trading estate in Cheshunt, Hertfordshire, and it was with the idea of assessing the growth of this small manufacturer that we visited Cheshunt recently.

At present the factory is divided into two separate buildings, one housing the main offices and the Elite production line and the other taking care of the Seven, Formula Junior and F2 cars, the racing and experimental shops, Elite service shop, and the drawing office. Further space is available if required to expand the factory to just about double its present floor area.

The main offices are on the second storey of the Elite production block and house the buyers, the accounts department, the Production Manager, who has a window overlooking the production line, Mr. Stanley Chapman who looks after the fortunes of Team Lotus, and Colin Chapman himself. The Sales Department and showroom is on the ground floor beside the main entrance. After inspecting these offices we were then shown round the Elite production line by Ian McLeod.

The Elite chassis/body unit is made entirely of glass-fibre reinforced plastics except for one steel plate on which the doors hang and which stiffens the sreen pillar, and a small tubular steel framework in the nose for strengthening which also holds an electric fan. This body/chassis is made entirely by Bristol Aircraft Ltd and arrives at the Cheshunt factory on a special transporter which carries six cars at a time. The interior trimming is carried out by Bristols, except for the large leather door pockets and seats. Originally six colours were offered but the dark blue and lime green colours were not well received and only red, white and blue are offered now, although a customer can obtain another colour for an extra £35. The bodies are not impregnated with the colour but are sprayed the appropriate colour by Bristols. Demand seems to be almost equal for each of the three standard colours. Interior trimming can he of black, red or tan, as desired.

The bodies are stored in a field behind the factory with a polythene covering, and when required are loaded on trolleys and pushed into the assembly bays. The inspection department is attached to the production line and the inspectors are at present able to check virtually every bought-out item, as the numbers are still relatively small. The necessary components are then passed to the appropriate point on the assembly line in small batches. Assembly is split up into eight sections, with a group of mechanics to each section responsible for certain tasks, although many of them are skilled ex-aircraft fitters and quite able to undertake most assembly jobs on the Elite, which is useful in case of sickness and holidays, etc.

The smaller electrical items are fitted first, followed by the rack and pinion, front suspension, anti-roll bar, bumpers, heater and steering column. The car is then passed to the next section, where handbrakes, exhaust pipes, mirrors, pedals are fitted, with each mechanic having to sign on a job sheet which the inspection staff countersign when the work has been checked. The engine is then installed at the next stage, together with the MG gearbox, which is slightly modified at Cheshunt before installation. Lotus collect the 1,216-cc Coventry-Climax engines from Coventry as and when required, usually at the rate of 15 per week. The rear suspension is fitted next, this differing slightly from that used on earlier models, having no trailing radius arms but relying on trailing wishbones with a single inboard mounting point. The wheels are then fitted and the car is lowered to the floor. Customers have a choice of Firestone, Pirelli Cinturato or Michelin “X” tyres, although Firestones are fitted if no preference is given.

The smaller items are then completed, the final trimming is done, the seats fitted, steering wheel attached, oil and water are added in the right places, the engine is started, and the Elite is then given a five-mile road test on the road over a well-known course so that the tester knows exactly how the car should behave. Any snags are then rectified and any accessories required by the customer are fitted, and the car is then given a second road test by the Works Manager, Mr. Street, a job formerly done by Colin Chapman himself. Any paint defects or scratches are then rectified, although these are few as the bodies are covered with a “felt coat” which is in the shape of the Elite.

Left-hand-drive cars for the United States, which in fact absorbs some 80 per cent, of total Elite production, require a reversed facia panel, reversed rack and pinion and, of course, the steering column on the left of the car. As the car was designed with the American market very much in mind there are no difficulties on this point. The target Elite production is 20 per week but the nearest the factory has got so far is 17, with the average being 15. Over 500 Elites go to the US each year, although orders usually amount to double this number. Of the remainder about 60 per cent stay in this country, with the rest going mainly to Germany, France, Switzerland and the Benelux Countries.

Naturally a number of extras are available but customers usually have these fitted at the 500-mile -service as purchase tax is avoided. This is also a help to the factory as no disruption is caused to the production line. The Coventry-Climax engine can be tuned to Stages II or III, the latter offering 100 bhp, a state of tune only recommended for racing although several people have specified this stage for road use. The full racing modifications can be included at the 500-mile service for £512 16s, which includes the 100-bhp Cosworth-tuned engine, close-ratio gears, competition clutch, SU fuel pump, cooling holes under bonnet, long-range fuel tank, seat belts, light alloy front brake calipers, five racing-wire wheels, large capacity screen washers, heat shield over starter motor, racing exhaust system and chrome Monza fuel filler cap. Other extras include Dunlop racing tyres and alternative axle ratios, while the ZF all-synchromesh gearbox is also available. This is highly recommended for racing but is at present a little too noisy for road work. No body modifications are offered, although Colin Chapman did experiment with a lighter model and, in fact, raced it at Silverstone,

Passing from that small but impressive Elite shop we next visited the Seven assembly line. A new model, the Series Two, has recently been introduced which features glass-fibre wings and nosepiece, together with other modifications such as revised spring settings, re-designed rear suspension, 13-in. wheels, while the hood, spare wheel and windscreen wipers which were previously only available is extras are now included in the basic specification with no price increase. A complete kit for the 100E engined model is £587 and for the BMC model £611. The body/chassis unit is received from an outside supplier and the components are then added at Cheshunt. Practically all the purchaser has to do is to fit the engine, suspension and rear axle, which Lotus estimate should take the average handyman about 12 hours. In Britain 400 Seven kits have been sold and the car is catching on in the US, so that Sales Manager Robin Read estimates that he will be sending 500 over in 1961. These are fitted with attractive flared wings as standard, although they are available in Britain as extras.

The Formula Junior assembly shop is already overspilling its allotted space, and it is estimated that five are being completed every week and orders are on hand for at least another 175 which will be delivered during 1961. Also in this shop were one or two F2 chassis, of which only about six will be made for private owners. There were no signs of any sports cars, and in fact the Fifteen has been officially superseded by the new Nineteen rear-engined car, which was originally jokingly called the Monte Carlo because of its resemblance to the Cooper Monaco. About twelve of these are scheduled for private owners during 1961. However, if anyone wanted a Seventeen or Fifteen front-engined car there are enough pieces in the factory to make one or two.

Also in the building is the Development Department, which is semi-secret with most of the cars being covered with sheets so that the curious visitor does not see too much. The drawing office is above this workshop and is off limits (on pain of instant dismissal) to everyone except the staff who work there. We were at least able to discover that no new models are planned at the moment. The Elite repair and service workshop is of interest as a number of badly damaged cars are brought back for repair, and we heard over and over again of the amazing escapes of drivers who had crashed their Elites at high speed, the cockpit area very often being virtually undamaged in severe accidents. The plastic surgery operations being carried out on the bodies were interesting to watch. Finally we paid a quick visit to the racing shop, which held only one brand new F1 car as all the others were still on their way back from the Portuguese GP.

We left Cheshunt full of admiration for this compact and well organised concern which employs some 155 skilled people who work under ideal conditions. The Lotus factory must surely be quite unique in the history of motoring, where else could you see everything from a race-winning GT car to a race-winning F1 car with sports, Formula Juniors and Club racers thrown in for good measure? And surely Lotus must have beaten that vaunted Bugatti record of having won the most races -MIT.