Colin Chapman: Wheeler-Dealer of Warren Street?


The A&R conducts and disseminates research relating to Colin Chapman and Lotus.

The primary focus are:-

  • The technical and design methodology adopted for his road , race cars and Industrial Design
  • The cultural dimension and impact of Chapman’s designs and racing achievements
  • The exercise of benchmarking to provide comparison and assessment
  • An interpretation of the interactive dynamic cultural, historic and technological dimensions in which Chapman lived designed and influenced as an Industrial Designer, Car Manufacturer/Consultant and F1 Grand PrixTeam owner and strategist. Assembling interactive materials to form exhibitions to further a graphic /educational interpretation

In the pursuit of such research the editors take a special interest in British society and the events that impinged on Chapman and to which he might have reacted. We consider it a disservice to ignore or a failure if the circumstances and context of his achievements and failings are not placed in the fullest societal context.

Recently the editors were reading “Smoke in the Valley” by Knayston in order to achieve a deeper, fuller and more thorough understanding of Britain in the immediate post war period and thereby structure historical events; and offer better explanations and indeed evaluations of Chapman in period.

A photograph is published in this work entitled “The car  dealers of Warren Street ,autumn 1949” It’s well known that Chapman cut his teeth in his later teens in selling second hand cars. What is less known are the circumstances surrounding the events.

In this article we shall explore the role that Chapman provided in greater detail.

The editors take the opportunity of providing detail references as these are particularly useful, detailed and objective. They will be of considerable relevance to drama, film and documentary film makers wishing to assemble an authentic representation of the era. The titles recorded correspond with Chapman’s adult life and design career. They also contain primary reference to London where Chapman was based, studied, worked and married.

Of the text books mentioned the editors particularly commend “20th Century Britain” for its thoroughness and its detailed explanation, analysis and economic data that are the backbone of other events described.

In order to have a fuller grasp of this article subscribers might like to see A&R articles:-

  • Festival of Britain
  • Price Relativities
  • Lotus Design Decades [Starting with 1950’s
  • Mary Quant, boutiques and Carnaby Street.

Brief Social Assessment of Britain during the Second World War

The British people experienced much in common and particularly those in the industrial town’s cities and ports that were of strategic importance and suffered bombing. The Second World War necessary as it might have been to preserve liberty and decency damaged the economy and improvised people’s lives in many respects. A summary of some of the most important consequences includes:-

  • Generation of men entering the armed forces many losing their lives and impact and disruption of family life
  • A planned economy with switch to military production/loss of consumer products
  • Rationing and shortages adopted for several reasons including switch to military but also broader economic and social objectives which lasted almost ten years into peacetime. Extensive rationing applied to many basics including food ,clothes and general consumer goods
  • Dislocation of population associated with relocation of industry and armaments manufacture
  • Gender role swop as consequence men in armed forces
  • Growth of the state, planning, involvement, direction and increase in civil service and public service employment. Some measures considered intrusive, heavily regulated  state control
  • Destruction and loss of capital plant and homes requiring rebuilding and relocation
  • Curtailment of freedom of expression relating to spying and its consequence
  • Acceleration of technological developments, industrial processes , logistics and new materials
  • Early deployment of computers
  • Men in armed forces acquiring discipline, education , technological awareness and taste for adventure
  • Degrees of innovation and improvisation along with experimentation in many fields of endeavor
  • Emergence of new societal values and expectations matched by uncertainties and fears
  • For many a pervading sense of drabness, reduced freedom of expression and humour

Post War Britain

Johnson in “20th.Century Britain” identifies distinct phases following the war and the editors support the broad categorization as:-

  • Austerity 1945-47
  • Prosperity at Last 1952-55
  • The Golden Age  1955-73

Murphy observes that:-

“By the end of the 1940’s the British people were becoming restive, they had endured nearly a decade of rationing”

And the Readers Digest assessment was that:-

“Once the euphoria of victory faded away, it became clear how much that the war had cost . Britain was utterly exhausted, but the people struggled on. The country needed to be rebuilt for the peace .For several years , the regime of rationing was even tighter than it had been in war, but there were bright glimmers ahead………..”

The post war period threw up many obstacles and was not easy for Britain to the extent that in 1947 Atlee announced a crisis austerity plan for the economy. Pertaining to Chapman he was caught up in the consequence of the basic petrol ration that was abolished in August 1947 to halt pleasure motoring. In addition there were emergency budgets. From April 1948 motorists were restricted to 90 miles a month effective from June that year.

Post War Britain experienced many of the fallowing:-

  • Continued rationing of  essentials including food ,clothes and petrol for a period after the war extending into the early 1950’s but relaxed in stages
  • Dislocation of people and employment and extended period of readjustment
  • Sociological action/reaction to war and particular demand for liberty, freedoms, choice , colour and gaiety
  • In reality many especially ex-servicemen experienced ambivalence, regrets and fears and some conflicts as traditional family relations were reestablished. For many there was feeling of peril and anxiety.
  • Britain as we have noted above past through very difficult times to reestablish its peacetime economy. The nation was in a state of flux and the economy frequently on a knife edge. The slogan was “Export or Die” and this impacted on consumer goods for the internal market. Extensive rebuilding was required of industry , the social fabric , welfare and culture when there was so little capital available
  • Strikes , wages freezes and labour disputes e.g. Dockers
  • Threats of energy crisis and power cuts even risk of famine
  • Britain’s traditional relationship with her colonies was changing
  • Gradually as the economy improved wages increased and the baby boom matured there emerged a youth economy
  • Out of the ashes and rebuilding programme a new generation of entrepreneurs would emerge recognizing the pent up demand and creating opportunities [ a theme developed as we discuss Chapman to follow]

Consumption of selected consumer durables [monthly averages] 1947-57

Year                New car reg’ [1000’s]           TV sets [1000’s]        Refrigerators [1000’s]

1949               12.8                                        17.4                            384

1950               11.1                                        42.4                            445

1951               11.4                                        57.6                            455

1954               32.7                                        104.2                          515

1957               35.5                                        151.3                          779

Source: M.Hall “The consumer sector “in Worswick and Ady, The British Economy.

Income statistics                                                                               1956/57

Average weekly wage [women]                                                     £6.16

Average weekly wage [men]                                                          £11.89

Annual rate of inflation                                                                   3.7%

Percentage of income spent on food                                           35%

Price of pint of beer                                                                         9p

Percentage of households owning TV                                        27%

1956 Taylor Woodrow new built house,

Crawley New Town                                                                         £2,195

Average annual wage

1955-                                                                                                  £469

1960                                                                                                   £581

1970                                                                                                   £1,289

1978                                                                                                   £3,827

Source Britain 1914-200 [Social and Economic History 1945-2000]

However the Festival of Britain nick named the “tonic to the nation” marked a significant turning point. It possibly marked the watershed from austerity towards affluence and ushered in an era of growth, increasing disposable income, freedoms, consumption and in particular the motorcar. It featured innovative design and it fell on the likes of Chapman to be in the vanguard of innovation.

It would be significant opportunity for Chapman and Lotus and one the A&R will analyses from various perspectives in some considerable detail.

The Post War Demand for Transport and Private Cars

Mass production amongst other factors had democratized motoring in the 1920’s and 30’s. In the early 1920’s a family size Austin would have cost approximately £495 [about the annual salary of a professional man in Britain at that time]. In 1923 an Austin Seven would retail c £225 and this would have fallen to c £125 in 1930. The Ford “Y” competition of 1932 cost approximately £100.

Of course the Second World War 1939-1945 intervened.

In 1949 some sources suggest that only 7% of adults owned a car.

Some of the factors determining the demand were:-

  • During the 6 years of war there had been very little new car production
  • Prewar cars had possibly been “laid up” or little used and possibly become unusable
  • Raw materials were rationed and steel for example went to the companies that could export
  • New cars were virtually unobtainable until exports had been meet and the home market could be targeted. There was a considerable waiting time for those available
  • Imports including those of cars were banned to assist the recovery of the economy
  • Large sections of the population had been dislocated, many were forced to relocate due to the bombing and rehousing. Those that lived in the suburbs needed additional transport for work , shopping and emergencies
  • There was greater leisure and perhaps a nostalgia even escapism for the countryside and lifestyle which the car facilitated and made possible. Private transport encouraged families to go further in search of leisure .Manufacturers sold their cars on the back of slogans like “Every weekend a holiday”
  • People required freedom of expression and travel following privation and the motor car was the ideal medium to satisfy this. The car was the second greatest private space beyond the house and offered mobile independence and privacy
  • The war had enforced a more egalitarian society and possibly post war people naturally sought status and the private car was a means to establish and express this and possibly represented class aspiration
  • Possibly many of the women who had worked during the war returned to being housewives but having experienced degrees of emancipation sought and perhaps in many circumstances required a motor car
  • Demographic changes and baby boom with emphasis on young families
  • For many the return to normality included hobbies and a minority would wish to include motorsport in various forms not least trials
  • For some the car was an essential ingredient of a caravan holiday [see reference leisure]

For the reasons set out above cars were at a premium and fetching high prices.

A further indication of the interest and demand for transport can be expressed in the first post war Motor Show of October 1948 held at Earls Court. Over 550,000 people attended in ten days.Incidently the Jaguar XK120 and Morris Minor [£569 but restricted] were displayed at polarized ends of the market. 32 British firms exhibited.

In 1948 it’s understood there was approximately 2 million vehicles on British but this increased to 3 million by 1952.

The decade of the 1950’s witnessed many contradictions. Peace accompanied a slow recovery and improving real wages and increased employment opportunities. A Ford Popular cost approximately £390 in 1953.However the Suez Crisis was a major if short term set back and witnessed the reintroduction of petrol rationing. It was not until 1958 that hire purchase and easy payments would fully open up a consumer society especially for private motor cars.

The popular sports cars associated with the immediate post war period include the Morgan, MG.TC, Triumph TR2 and Austin Healey 100/4.

Foundation Years

This is the title of the second chapter of Lawrence’s biography of Chapman. In many respects this is a valid assessment. It witnesses Colin attend University College in central London. Although Chapman was not perhaps as academic or motivated he was certainly enterprising. Colin and his friend Colin Dare the young men started buying and selling second hand cars. Lawrence observes:-

“Wednesday and Saturday afternoons would see the two Colin’s ,Chapman and Dare , in Warren Street , a few hundred yards from University College and London’s notorious meeting place for used car dealers…………dealers would arrive in Warren Street , park their cars and trade. Used cars were all that there were in Britain in 1946”

Lawrence confirms our extended research that cars were in considerable demand for the explanations given. It’s possible that Colin Chapman inherited an entrepeneural streak from his father and it might be that these enterprising young men recognized and opportunity and took the moment. They certainly had the mechanical and driving skills, were confident and articulate. Based in London they had close proximity to both the greatest source of raw material and a ready market of buyers as we have established. During this era many famous men and women were developing along similar lines for example Bernie Ecclestone, Eddie Jordan [later generation but similar business skills] , and later in the decade Sir Terrence Conran and Mary Quant along with Sir Freddie Laker

The role that Chapman performed was natural and necessary considering the demand that existed; it might also have provided:-

  • A youthful learning and testing and rites of passage experience
  • An opportunity for a career platform , sideline or safety net
  • An embryonic means to finance bigger plans requiring investment or to form early collateral
  • A development of skills and what is now known as adding value
  • A source of independent income of parents possibly to finance study and expenditure or to acquire finance to marry, buy house etc.
  • Although not over altruistic Chapman was performing a service

There was a probability that the cars he acquired were elderly and neglected. The owners possibly no longer needed the cars or were unable to maintain them, many may have lost the garages and storage space as result of the blitz. Therefore Colin provided the useful service of bringing these to the market. Many of the new owners might have been of a younger generation and willing to undertake repairs or have them recommssioned as stop gap before British car manufacturing could resume.

The evidence is that Colin was successful in his venture until the bottom fell out of the market with the sudden petrol rationing announcement. How many cars Chapman bought and sold are not known neither is it clear where they were stored. It might be assumed that he only paid approximately £5-10 for each and invested minimally to make them run.

The editors believe that Colin Chapman was extremely resourceful .He learnt skills the hard way and from modest baseline as had many industrialist entrepreneurs before him. Although not expressed in the words of the time, extending the life of cars had a green dimension .Those built in the 1930’s especially the Austin Seven was probably capable of an extended life. The new owners possibly felt that ownership of a car could be economically justified .It might have allowed a husband to commute on the tube and for the wife to take a part-time job or otherwise support the family. It would have certainly created a leisure opportunity for travel and relaxation. Possibly some of the cars were deliberately bought in damaged condition before entering the growing off road trials competitions.

The negotiating skills that Chapman acquired along with attuning himself to the market would last a lifetime. In future articles we will update this and explain how it developed along with British society and increasing affluence

The Proposed CCM&EC

The proposed museum believes that commercial considerations are both necessary and complementary with its educational objectives.

For these reasons our Business Plan includes provision for promoting products and services which share Chapman’s ideals of mechanical efficiency and sustainability. In addition we propose merchandising that explain and interprets the social and cultural context of Chapman’s designs in period. It’s suggested there will be catalogue for on line purchasing.

In particular it is recommended that the proposed CCM&EC holds a series of exhibitions in which the achievements of Chapman can be placed in their historic context. As we have noted these are not merely technical but also contain a social and economic history.

As society changes so does its needs, expectations and fashion. Designers and manufacturers need to be attuned to these. The best like Chapman in fact often anticipate, lead and influence. In fact Chapman was doing this as early as the late 1950’s and early 1960’s with his Elite and Elan.


The A&R considers that the fullest appreciation and indeed the fairest evaluation of Colin Chapman requires deep investigation of context and circumstance in order to assess his response to opportunity and for the consequences to be measured.

Through social and economic investigation we hope to reveal many complex and interactive forces and the nuances that surround them. These we hope can form the basis of detailed exhibitions that will permit fully entertaining and educational interpretation to be achieved.

In this article we hope to have shown how adaptive responsive, mature for years and entrepreneurial Chapman was. In future articles we will weld this to his design skills and bring out the extent to which he moulded events and markets. This he attempted on many occasions not least with motorboats, micro lights and public space utility furniture.


Leisure in Post War Britain .Hylton.Amberley.2012

ISBN: 9781445603438

A World to Build. [1945-48] Kynaston.Bloomsbury.2008

ISBN: 9780747585404

Smoke in the Valley. [1948-51] Kynaston.


Family Britain. [1951-57] Kynaston.Bloomsbury.2009

ISBN: 9781408800836

Demobed.Allport.Yale University.2010


Never Again [Britain 1945-51].Hennessy

ISBN: 9780300168860

An English Affair.Davenport-Hines.Haper.2013.

ISBN: 9780007435845

Seasons in the Sun. [The Battle for Britain 1974-79].Sandbrook.Penguin.

ISBN: 9780141032160

20th Century Britain. [Ed.] Johnson.Longman.1998.

ISBN: 0582228174

Britain 1914-2000. [Ed] D.Murphy.Collins.2000.

ISBN: 0003271315

Yesterday’s Britain. Readers Digest.2000.

ISBN: 0276423917

Colin Chapman.Lawrence.Breedon.2002.

ISBN: 1859832784

Lotus-The Early Years.P.Ross.Coterie.

Please note the editors of the A&R attempt to give the broadest spectrum of references but not all are available for consultation in an article. However by noting their existence it may assist students in their research.

*Items in italics non A&R library books.