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A3. What is the history of Lotus?




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This article is from the Lotus Cars FAQ, by esprit@netcom.com (Alan F. Perry) with numerous contributions by others.

A3. What is the history of Lotus?

A complete history of Lotus will not fit in the short space allowed
here, so several highlights are presented:

The Lotus Engineering Company Ltd was formed in January, 1952 as a
partnership between Colin Chapman and Michael Allen, but it really
all started a few years earlier when Chapman commandeered the garage
at his girlfriend's house to convert a 1930 Austin 7 fabric saloon
into a Trials Special. His cars were successful enough that other
people asked him to build cars for them, which eventually led to a
company being formed.

Lotus started producing the Mark Six, which is very similar to the car
that followed it, the Seven (still in production today as the Caterham
Seven). Lotus also built some successful race cars, for example, the
Lotus Eleven. Team Lotus split off in 1954 and entered Formula One at
the end of the 1950s.

In the late 1950s, Lotus introduced the Elite (Type 14), which featured
an all-fiberglass, monocoque chassis. They were beautiful cars but
they were also expensive to produce and Lotus lost money on each car.
The Elite was a closed top car powered by the Coventry Climax FWE engine.

The Elite was replaced in 1962 by the Elan, which was featured a
fiberglass body on a steel backbone chassis. This would become the
standard arrangement at Lotus Cars. The engine was a 4 cylinder Ford
block with a Lotus-designed twin cam cylinder head. The Elan started
as a convertible and a closed top version was introduced in 1965.
Because of an oddity in British tax law, many Elans were sold as kits
instead of assembled cars.

During the same time, Team Lotus was racing with success in Formula One
with the Type 25 and Type 33 and in the Indianapolis 500 and drivers
Jim Clark and Innes Ireland (and Stirling Moss, in a customer car).

The Europa was a closed top, mid-engined car introduced in 1966. It
featured a Renault engine and was also available in kit form. By the
time that the Europa was in production, Lotus moved from the London
area to Norfolk, where they have remained since. In 1967, the 2+2
version of the Elan, called the Elan +2, was introduced. Lotus Cars
closed out the 1960s with a record sales year.

Meanwhile, Team Lotus was experiencing ups and downs. The Type 49 was
successful out of the box, but the next year Jim Clark was killed.
The team experimented with high-mounted wings, four-wheel drive and
turbine engines. Team Lotus introduced a current feature of Formula One
when its cars ran with tobacco advertising in 1968.

Towards the end of the 1960s, Lotus Cars made the decision to move
upmarket, including designing and building its own complete engine. As
part of this decision (and tax law changes), Lotus stopped selling its
cars as kits. The engine, known as the 907, was initially used in the
Jensen-Healey. The new cars, introduced in the 1970s, were two 2+2
models, the Elite (Type 74) and the Eclat, and a mid-engined car, the
Esprit.

At Team Lotus, the roller coaster ride continued. There were two
constructor championships and the (eventually) successful Type 72, but
there was also Jochen Rindt's death and the Type 76.

In light of the increasing complexities and annoyances of running a
car company, Chapman let others take over running the company, Mike
Kimberley, in particular. In addition to selling the Esprit, Elite
and Eclat, Lotus started working with other including John DeLorean on
his stainless steel sports car project and Chrysler on the Talbot
Sunbeam.

And at Team Lotus, it was still up and down. The Type 77 "adjust-a-car"
did not work very well, but the Type 78 and Type 79 "ground effects"
cars got Lotus the championship in 1978. Sadly, Ronnie Peterson was
killed during this time.

The start of the 1980s was not a very good time for Lotus, despite the
introduction of the Turbo Esprit. Because of a distribution problem, no
cars were being sold in the U.S. In other parts of the world, a recession
caused poor sales. The creditors were getting antsy. Lotus was getting
dragged into the scandal that resulted from the DeLorean project. Team
Lotus was also doing poorly and its most recent innovation, a twin-chassis
car, was banned by the FIA. Then, in 1982, Colin Chapman died.

In a way, this gave Lotus a chance to clean things up. A new distributor
was set up in the U.S. Some new financing was arranged. David Wickins
became the new chairman of Group Lotus. Lotus also became more closely
tied with Toyota Cars. Many thought Toyota would take over Lotus.
Wickins probably saved Lotus during this period, but he is better known
for changing the Lotus nosebadge to remove Colin Chapman's initials.
This was later corrected.

Team Lotus was not doing so well during this period, though by 1985 and
the arrival of Brazilian driver Ayrton Senna, things were looking up.

In 1986, Lotus was purchased by GM. In the hands of GM, Lotus also
buys its U.S. distributor and the Millbrook Proving Grounds. Starting
in the early 1980s, Lotus was working on a new open top car, similar
to the Elan in the 1960s, and that car, the M100 Elan, is introduced in
1989. Also, Lotus Cars USA, the new U.S. distributor, starts racing the
Esprit Turbo in the U.S. It is so successful that it is quickly
penalized to the point that it is hard for it to win races.

After several wins, including Team Lotus' last to date, Ayrton Senna left
for greater fame with McLaren and Team Lotus slid downhill. No Lotuses
qualified for the 1989 Belgian GP, Martin Donnelly was very seriously
injured in a crash in practice for the 1990 Spanish GP and the team's
name sponsor left with no replacement lined up. Rumors of Team Lotus'
demise became common, but in December 1990, Team Lotus was "rescued" by
Peter Collins, team manager around 1980, and Peter Wright, the man behind
the ground effects cars and active suspension. They took over operation
of the team, while the Chapman family maintained ownership of the team.

In 1992, for a variety of reasons too numerous to mention here, production
of the Elan was shut down for 5 weeks, production was finally officially
stopped on the Excel (a variant of the Eclat) and production was also
stopped on the Elan (M100). Soon afterward, though, a LotusSport bicycle
was used to win a Gold Medal in the Olympics. In 1993, Group Lotus was
sold to the Bugatti Group, the company that revived the Bugatti name with
the EB110 in 1991.

At the end of the 1994 season, the Team Lotus revival started by Collins
and Wright folded. The Team went into administration (similar to
bankruptcy in the U.S.) and was eventually purchased by David Hunt,
brother of Formula One driver James Hunt. In January 1995, Hunt announced
that Team Lotus had shut down and in February 1995 a merger with Pacific
Grand Prix was announced. A couple months later, it was announced that
Bugatti would be selling Group Lotus to the 21 Invest group.

Some good books on the history of Lotus are:

"Story of Lotus: 1947 - 1960 Birth of a Legend" by Ian Smith
"Story of Lotus: 1961 - 1971 Growth of a Legend" by Doug Nye
"Colin Chapman's Lotus" by Robin Read
"Colin Chapman: Lotus Engineering" by Hugh Haskell
"Theme Lotus" by Doug Nye


 

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