White Elan Man meets Chapman’s Workmate


The editors have enjoyed some very positive coincidences and it’s often these events that influence our articles.

The editors have long admired the design and production engineering of the late Ron Hickman [see obituaries on net]. The editor actually spoke to Ron shortly before he died.
This prompted a search for an early “Workmate”.
Within the last couple of weeks the “Workmate” was acquired.

Within the same space of time the editor was privileged to study and photograph the exceptionally beautiful Lotus Elan owned by Alan Morgan of Club Lotus.

These two events turned over in the editor’s mind and there was a reoccurrence of the thoughts about design, fitness for purpose and of course form and function.

The ability to explore and use the “Workmate” and a detailed study of Alan’s Elan enabled the editors to see parallels of what constitutes excellent design and examples of problem solving.

This article is not about originality or specification. Rather it’s about design principles, the nature of fitness for purpose and empathy with materials used. Here using, comparing and contrasting two industrial products designed with input from Ron Hickman. The editors consider it’s the greatest complement we can pay the late Ron Hickman.

Along the way we introduce the Mazda MX-5 and provide opportunities for subscribers to compare and contrast these two exceptional automobiles and the industrial design.

Subscribers might like to see related articles on the various Elan models, marketing the model and The Avengers. Of interest too is our piece of the Lotus 25 and the role of patents.

The Lotus Elan: Form and Function
Ron Hickman had an input into the Elan design greater than has been credited. We tease this out in greater detail in our related articles.
Much of the greatness of the Elan design can be attributed to Ron Hickman’s careful, thoughtful and homogenous design approach.

The editor has drawn and photographed the Elan on many occasions but somehow failed to register just how exceptional it is. The editors were aware of Gordon Murray’s endorsement but for some reason a blind spot existed.

On further analysis the editor believes this is because previous study of the Elan failed to see it as a holistic totality and not to appreciate how homogenous it really is, compact and sculptural.

What opened the editors eyes was the fact that Alan’s Elan possesses all the design mantra of Chapman undiluted, uncorrupted in its purest form. This design heavily influenced by Ron Hickman is a case study in packaging, practicality without sacrificing aesthetic.

In particular what Alan’s car radiates is minutiae of detail and an associated tactile quality. The editor was able to explore these quietly and this was rewarding.

What emerged was Hickman’s care and empathy with the subject and the dignity he conferred on this miracle of design and performance.

Many Elan’s were sold as component cars .this possibly allowed owner constructors to personalize and even customize their car. Other Elans have possibly suffered performance upgrades .Somewhere along the way the elegance and understated refinement gets compromised.

What Alan’s car offered was an authenticity of simplicity where there is no need to guild the lily.
The absolute perfection of simplicity in Alan’s car is so powerful, it’s a visual symphony of carefully resolved objectives. The more you look the more you’re rewarded.

Alan’s car has done the A&R a great service and it will be a benchmark for the future. We can only express our admiration and natural covertness of an example that deserves an exhibition in the Design Museum.

Credit is extended to Alan for the taste and design appreciation he exercised in the deliberate selection of this example.

The following set of photographs are self-evident. They confirm a design approach of concentrated discipline harnessed to production realities .The materials are understood and despite budget constraints utility is not allowed to compromise aesthetic.

The editors invite subscribers to study the Elan in elevation and note the three main compartments. There is nothing remarkable.
However when the 3D image is explored the Elan gains a beauty of forms that all relate and flow one to another. There is balance, grace and purpose.

For the first time when the editor was able to absorb the simplicity of Alan’s car it came home that the shape of the Elan is more sophisticated than perceived. There is far more articulation and this is extremely subtle.

In fact there is a hierarchy too. The genius of the Elan is the unspoken understatement and refinement.


Figure 1.Editors sketches exploring the elevation of the Elan in relation to 3D sculptural perspective 3/4 view front.


Figure 2.Study ergonomics of the Elan and relate to overall body packaging and aesthetics.


Figure 3.Front end is clean and has personality note contrasting materials, surface finishes and how they co-exist and complement each other


Figure 4.The rear end is also clean, functional and practical. See editors sketch to further appreciate minutiae of detailing.



Figure 5.Note engine bay packaging and use of powerful twin cam engine to endow light sports car with sparking performance.


Figure 6.An exercise in understatement and a lesson in how not to guild the lily.


Figure 7.Editors sketch; rejoicing in attractive minor design details.

This sketch made by the author was as a result of the powerful impact of Alan’s Elan.In a small area it’s possible to find a selection of gems. Each are small but the Elan is an example of the adage “The Whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

The Elan in fact is studded with these design details that risk being overlooked.

One car has made the editors totally review their assessment of the Elan. 

Ron Hickman: Lotus Elan and Industrial Product Design

Ron Hickman’s contribution to the Elan is recorded in most of the Lotus text books. We note the main factors in A&R articles.

The editors now feel that the greatest appreciation of Ron Hickman can be given by simply giving credit and illustrating the minutiae of his design detailing. Many designers want to make statements leave their signature all over the product. The editors have come to appreciate the greatness of Hickman is that through attention to detail and resolving problems with elegance he conferred on a relatively modest car a great dignity whose beauty is not deliberately obvious.

Ron Hickman also designed at patented the Workmate. In this he showed that similar design approach.

We think it important to suggest what some of the background might have been. Not much has been recorded on this subject other than the well-worn statements about Ron’s DIY activities that inspired it.

The editors believe that the light bulb moment would have triggered in Ron not just a one-off tool to aid DIY. We believe the consummate designer would have examined the market, costs and production issues just like the Elan. It’s very possibly that Ron appreciated there were few equivalents namely saw-horse, trestles etc. both of which had issues.

He might have thought about use, applications and hence size of the potential market. He might have identified the following:-

  • Home DIY. In the 1960’s home improvements and modernization was a growing market
  • Tradesmen whose work required mobility
  • Utility companies , i.e. those working in remote locations
  • Craftsmen –possibly seeing advantage and flexibility/maneuverability of 2nd bench/vice
  • People living in flats without shed for bench etc.
  • An international audience and appeal to third world as piece of intermediate technology
  • Model makers
  • Possibly farmers needing equipment they can take into field
  • Various building trades like plasters, plumbers etc.

Having perhaps estimated demand Ron is likely to have feed this into:-

  1. The investment needed
  2. The product design
  3. Marketing
  4. The potential market indicated a need for patent protection
  5. The alternatives
  6. Brand name an important factor to capture imagination but also to easily identify product [this is very significant and the Workmate does what is says on the tin
  7. The realistic cost of multi-tool that was potentially unique

Having established the extremely large potential audience Ron might have proceeded to consider how the product might best meet the identified requirements.

What emerged in the Workmate was a tool that was:-

  • Flexible
  • Compact
  • Robust
  • User friendly
  • Multi-functional
  • Easily stored, not much bigger than suitcase see below
  • Easily carried

The work mate 1970’s version folded measured:-

Depth             10”

Width              29”

Length           31”

When it came to pricing Ron possibly fed into the equation production costs, an acceptable cost to user [and this in turn might have touched the costs of equivalents, the return on investment i.e. reuse and life expectancy of this capital tool.


Figure 8.The editor has acquired a Workmate like this model

The design features that Ron built in along with Benefits include:-

  • Dual working heights for use as a workbench, bench tool stand, vice, or sawhorse
  • Durable steel frame construction
  • Designed for easy set-up and clean-up
  • Rubber feet are anti-slip
  • Folds flat for compact storage and easy transport
  • Adjustable swivel pegs and jaw retention grooves provide clamping versatility and reliable material hold
  • Heavyweight steel construction allows support of 250kg
  • Dual clamping cranks increase clamping force and versatility
  • General safety of safe holding
  • One operative can use equipment pushing up productivity in many situations

Ron was absolutely right to patent his idea.

When he sought manufacturing backing he was dismissed. It’s possibly that major tool makers attempted to dissuade him seeing the potential that existed.

The Workmate made Ron a multi-millionaire from the roylaties.These were richly deserved.

Ron also designed other products and owned a design consultancy. It’s worth briefly looking at one idea although excellent failed and the reasons.

Ron designed the child’s training toilet or “potty”. This again had a huge market worldwide. Its design consciously increased stability and hence hygiene saving cleaning etc.

The design was close to a standard moulded plastic container but Ron vested it with a small extension on which a child could rest their feet. This simple cost effective addition reduced the possibility of spilling and hence improved hygiene.

However despite the obvious market, the benefits to families this concept was not well marketed, possibly undersold and the cost benefits not really explained. It might also have suffered from relative pricing.

In these examples we see many of the issues that apply to much larger, complex and costly products like the Elan.

What is evident is that Ron Hickman carefully thought through his products and each bear his stamp as a considerate empathetic industrial designer.

Benchmark: Mazda MX-5

The Car Book states:-

“the original MX-5 of 1989, called the Miata in north America-was a smart mix of all that was best in the classic 1960’s sports car .the difference was that it used cutting edge technology, from its all –wishbone suspension to its fuel injected, 16 valve, twin cam engine .the MX-5 was the product of a rigorous design process carried out in both North America and Japan.

The result was a car that was delightful to drive and had no obvious failings, and it soon developed an enthusiastic worldwide fan base……………

The MX-5 was brought to production by a small team of car loving engineers and was aimed above all at the US market. Intended to achieve “the ultimate unity of car and driver” the MX-5 was designed around front mounted engine , to give 50/50 weight distribution .the chassis helped give the car crisp response .for an affordable, compact sports car ,out and out performance  was not required , which meant that the car could have a small 1,600cc engine –although an 1,800 unit was later available.it also meant the car could be light in weight ,despite sceptics  within Mazda , the MX-5 went on to become a huge success and in its original form lasted until 1997, by which time over 400,000 had been made. Two subsequent evolutions of the car have stayed true to the character of the original ………….

Although the external details make reference to the past era. the design of the MX-5 was intended to be timeless ……..evoking European sports car heritage without resorting to imitation ……….beyond the aesthetics though lies intelligent engineering that has resulted in a lightweight ,yet strong body…………

In the interior existing Mazda fittings were used wherever possible, and door trims were kept simple and flat ……………

The MX-5 uses the same engine as the contemporary  Mazda 323 but with retro –look cam covers ………the gearbox borrowed from the bigger 929 was tuned ,the flywheel and synchro rings lightened , the ratios changed and throws made shorter


Figure 11.Editors photograph of Mazda.

The MX-5 was built with precision, the ergonomics are excellent along with comfort for a range of body shapes. The overall performance inspires confidence and accentuates driving pleasure. The model has an established reputation of providing what you need and no more .It can be driven hard with safety, confidence, predictability, enjoyment and a lot of fun.

Brief Specification:-

Model             MX-5               1989-1997

Production    433,963

Construction steel monocoque, aluminum bonnet

Engine           1597/1839 cc dohc in-line four

Power output 114 bhp @6,500 rpm[1.6L]

Transmission five speed manual

Suspension  All round coil and wishbone

Brakes            Discs all round

Max.speed     121 mph [195 km/h]

Autocar 2016

Mazda MX-5 Icon

Price from: £20,995

Engine 1.5 litre petrol

Power 129 bhp @7000 rpm

Torque 111lb/ft. @4800 rpm

0-62 mph 8.3 sec

Top speed 127 mph

Fuel economy 47.1 mpg

C0-2 139 g/km

Learning Opportunities

Our learning /educational opportunities are intended to be challenging thought provoking and requiring additional research and/or analysis.

These opportunities are particularly designed for a museum/education centre location where visitors would be able to enjoy access to all the structured resources available in conjunction with any concurrent exhibition.

In this instance we suggest the following might be appropriate:-

  • Use our drawing proforma and examine each item for:-
  1. From what material is component formed
  2. Describe its surface quality
  3. How does it relate with its neighbor /adjacent surface
  4. Is the component holistic and homogenous with overall concept of the Elan
  5. Does it fulfill Chapman design code
  6. How does it achieve quality/make value statement
  • Draw other details of the Elan and analyses in similar fashion .Components worthy are :front end treatment, windscreen, side screens, seats, dashboard ,steering wheel, hood
  • What is the significance of colour and the automobile? What are the most popular and what are their associations
  • What distinctive colours ae associated with certain brands/marques?
  • Why does white work so well on the Elan?
  • Study Workmate patent drawings how has it been simplified ,improved
  • Study Ron Hickman’s prototype Workmate what do you think influenced its construction?
  • Study detail Workmate photograph below .What tactile qualities exist? How do these compare with Elan?
  • Evaluate the Elan and Mazda MX5


Figure 9.Editors sketch with numbered details to explore.


Figure 10.Details of WorkMate worthy of product design comparison with Elan.Both designs by Ron Hickman.

Exhibitions, Education and Economics

In the museum context the editors believe that commercial considerations are both necessary and complementary with its educational objectives.

For these reasons our suggested outline 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 this instance we suggest the following might be appropriate:-

  • Elan Backbone:Fibre in the Design
  • Elan Fibre:The strength and determination of the design team
  • Elan Chic: Emma Peel and the Avengers
  • Elan Style: Pop style in 1960’s
  • Elan In Vogue
  • Elan Spirit: Chapman and Lotus designs vital force and design attitude
  • Elan –A la mode
  • Hickman at the Bench: Judicial design of Workmate
  • Top Table Design:Hickmans Workmate bench
  • Elan v Mazda


The subject is important and we feel numbered list best express significance:-

  1. That design, invention and patents are important with strong commercial implications. A study of Colin Chapman and Lotus cars is therefore very much about industrial design, products aesthetics and the vagaries of the market. The subject is of interest to product designers as much as automobile engineers
  2. The editors feel that Alan Morgan’s Elan is worthy of a full forensic examination and publication for future reference. Possibly someone like Tony Weale as a qualified engineer with museum level of curatorship skills and proven authorship could assist
  3. The Elan is an exceptional enduring legend of packaging and style. Lauded by Gordon Murray it will remain a benchmark and case study for auto engineer /designers
  4. The Elan was triumph of conceptual thinking .it was a radical ,advanced and ambitious product for its era ;perhaps in advance of its time
  5. The editors believe that in part the Mazda MX-5 is a modern day Austin Healey Sprite /MGB .There is no denying its commercial success and wide democratic appeal. However it rather lacks soul and heritage. It did not move out of a comfort zone or redefine the genre. The original Elan with all is various shortcomings was enormously ambitious , idealistic pushing boundaries; although many might feel that Chapman aspired to a MX5 from a shoe string budget
  6. We have seen the late great Ron Hickman contributed significantly to the Elan.Its success ought be credited to his efforts
  7. Ron payed the same attention –possibly more to the Workmate. It’s a fine piece of industrial design that ought be evaluated like a piece of Bauhaus furniture
  8. Conceptual thinking entrepreneurial spirit and useful /functional products can still fail commercially .they still deserve examination they contain lessons good and bad and teach us timing and fashion play important roles often beyond rationality
  9. The A&R will continue to disseminate design based issues as its thought by using Chapman and Lotus as an example some excellent best practice learning opportunities can be presented. In some small way these might help designer/ inventors of the future


The Car Book-A Definite Visual History. Dorling Kindersley.2011.

ISBN: 9781405361750


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.