Lotus at 70: the highs and lows

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But our homage to its very greatest road cars begins in 1957 with the Lotus Seven, because it remains the most enduring sports car design still in production. Look at a modern Caterham and a 60-year-old Lotus and the architectural similarities are impossible to miss. 

It was the car that put Lotus on the map so far as road cars were concerned, for while Lotus was already building racers for Formula 1, Formula 2 and sports car racing (Chapman himself raced in a Lotus at Le Mans as early as 1955), the Seven developed the thinking behind the Mk VI sufficiently for it to be of equal appeal to club racers and recreational road users. 

Built in a factory behind the Station Hotel in Hornsey (a Jewsons the last time I looked), the spaceframe Seven with its aluminium body espoused pure Chapman thinking, especially in its ultra-lightweight construction. Weighing as little as 420kg, Sevens were frequently banned from racing because nothing else could keep up, or they were forced to race in classes of their own. 

Oddly enough, given the purity of its design, Chapman got bored of his game-changing miracle and sold all rights to its design to Graham Nearn of Caterham Cars in 1973. I expect that if he’d realised the car would still be going strong 45 years later, he might have thought twice about that. 

When you see the two cars together, it hardly seems possible that the Seven and Lotus Elite came from the same mind at the same time. But they did. Like Enzo Ferrari, Chapman regarded road cars as a means of financing his racing, and although Elites raced with great success, it was primarily for road use that they were intended. 

Innovation was everywhere: Audi used to boast in the 1980s that its 100 saloon had a world-beating drag coefficient of 0.30 – but the Elite measured 0.29 a quarter of a century earlier. Its rear suspension was the so-called Chapman strut that used the driveshaft as its lower link. Most notable, however, was that it was the very first car to be constructed around a glassfibre monocoque, making it ridiculously light for a closed, surprisingly spacious road car. True, it’s just about the last car in which you’d choose to crash, but back then, people didn’t think that way. It wasn’t a lack of demand so much as escalating production costs that killed off the Elite in 1963, by which time its successor, the Elan, was already on the market. 

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