Colin Chapman’s Conceptual Contribution to Automobile and Industrial Design

The Line to Take: Colin Chapman’s Conceptual Contribution to Automobile and Industrial Design

“While other manufacturers advance step by step; Chapman alone dares to go forward in leaps and bounds”*

Jose Rosinski

“The Lotus is a complete scientific study. Colin Chapman is a fine designer”*

Enzo Ferrari

*Quoted from Posthumus


This is our second article on Colin Chapman and his contribution to Lotus automobile and Industrial design along with his diversification programme and related consultancy.

This article examines:-

  • What constitutes good design
  • Automobile aesthetics
  • How good design underpins Industrial/Product design
  • How we might evaluate Chapman’s contribution through benchmarking etc.

This piece is the result of:-

  • The editors reading Roden “The Flying Scotsman ” see below
  • Our attendance at the “Ferrari Under the Skin” Exhibition
  • Reinforcement and continuation of our piece “Colin Chapman –Someone has to draw the line. The editors consider that Chapman is not fully appreciated in some quarters and a need exists to properly outline his design achievements.


“Britain’s inordinately proud of its engineering marvels:-

  • Flying Scotsman
  • Spitfire
  • E Type Jaguar
  • Concorde

……….they all transcend the boundary between engineering and art in a way that little else can”

The editors felt this sentiment encapsulated Chapman /Lotus and colleagues design excellence ranging from the Elite to the Elan and Elise through the Types 25, 49, 72 and 79.

Chapman was a structural engineer and his design methodology was steeped in principles from structural, civil and aeronautical engineering .They were an idealist meld of economy, light weight ,expressive articulation , cost effectiveness with elegance.

Subscribers might like to see the directly relevant and integrated A&R pieces that complement and help structure this article:-

  • Form, Function and Ferrari: Ferrari and Lotus aesthetic compared and contrasted
  • Ferrari under the Skin: Exhibition report
  • Motoring Icons of the 20th Century
  • Lotus individual Type No’s
  • Best of British
  • Design Heroes series including Brunel and Dieter Rams
  • Chairman Chapman :Chapman and furniture design
  • Chapman Industrial Design including boats, consultancy and micro lights
  • Architects and Automobiles
  • The Italian Line

Concepts and Aesthetics of good Design

Figure 1 One of Chapman’s sketches from Ludvigsen

The headings below are considered amongst the criteria to judge design. They might be applied to architecture, automobiles and product design.

These elements are evident in Chapman /Lotus design. Chapman could draw .This was a vocabulary.:-

From the net:-

“The principles of design, sometimes referred to as the principles of organization are:

  • Balance – a feeling of equality of weight, attention, or attraction of the various elements within the composition as a means of accomplishing unity
  • Movement – the suggestion of action or direction, the path our eyes follow when we look at a work of art
  • Repetition and rhythm – the act of repeating an element either regularly or irregularly resulting in a rhythm of the repeating elements
  • Emphasis – the stress placed on a single area of a work or unifying visual theme
  • Simplicity (a.k.a. visual economy) – the elimination of all non-essential elements or details to reveal the essence of a form
  • Contrast – the difference between elements or the opposition to various elements
  • Proportion – the relation of two things in size, number, amount, or degree
  • Space – the interval or measurable distance between objects or forms (two dimensional or three dimensional)
  • Unity – the relationship between the individual parts and the whole of a composition

Many artists use these principles more intuitively than intellectually but are nevertheless subconsciously aware of them and their impact upon a composition.”

Most of Chapman’s and Lotus designs were a tour de force and well articulate these criteria.

Design Schools of thought

The editors would suggest the following are amongst the most influential, including theoretical thought:-

  • Classical
  • Rationalist /objective [see Le Corbusier, Bauhaus, “Ornament is Crime”, “New Architecture and the Bauhaus” etc.
  • Form and Function
  • Minimalism
  • Product Design as outlined by Dieter Rams
  • Aviation

Chapman’s design method expressed these objectives purposefully.

Design Goals of structural and civil engineering as studied by Chapman

From the net:-

“Engineering design goals focus on problems through the application of creative thinking using scientific and mathematical principles. Engineers start by clearly defining the problem – like how to support a walkway that will connect two buildings 50 feet above the ground – and formulating different ideas and approaches to a solution. They create designs based on these ideas, selecting the approaches that are most likely to succeed and easy to implement. Designs lead to the construction of prototypes, which are then tested to ensure effectiveness. The final goal of the design process is production, where the product faces approval.”

Product Design

Dieter Rams is famous for his declaration of the “Ten Principles of Good Design”.

The A&R has published a dedicated article on Rams with illustrations of his work. Rather than repetition we recommend subscribers examine this piece.


Roden mentions the Spitfire and therefore by definition Mitchell. Chapman was steeped in aviation technology and practice. He would have both approved and applied the following !!:-

“If anybody ever tells you anything about an aeroplane which is so bloody complicated you can’t understand it, take it from me: it’s all balls.

— R. J. Mitchell, advice given about his engineering staff to test pilot Jeffrey Quill during prototype trials[5]

Subscribers are directed to our dedicated pieces on Chapman, British aviation and numerous aircraft types.

Antoine de Saint-Exupery. [French aristocrat, writer, poet and pioneering aviator]

“A designer knows he has achieved perfection not only when there is nothing left to add but when there is nothing left to take away”

Figure 2. Editors sketch of one of Chapman’s /Lotus greatest aesthetic achievements: The Elite

Chapmans Expression of the best in automobile design: Lotus Elite

Setright was a formidable journalist with an engineering appreciation. We trust his assessments and quote him at length from his “The Designers”

“The Lotus Type 14 Elite, most beautiful of cars and most expressive of Colin Chapman’s fatal combination of philosophy and misanthropy, must have shattered as many illusions as icons, but all Chapman’s early work was a brilliant approach to an intelligent future that has been a long time coming. Had he not been as ruthless at the desk as he was at the drawing board, he and Lotus might have shared the most heartening of success stories in the history of the industry. If we can forget his business methods, we may remember him for the wholesale revision of chassis design which, in conjunction with a few other newly established embodiments of good old ideas – disc brakes, auto-transmissions, high-octane gasolines, radial-ply tyres, synthetic rubbers, the era had a thrill in every idea from atomic power to zirconium alloys – freed us from the shackles of conventional design and directed what was at last the modern car onto new and desirable paths.


“Right from the start ,when he built his original special bodied Austin Seven trials car ,Colin Chapman showed signs of engineering genius .Setting up Lotus he sold his first kit cars in the early 1950’s and soon progressed to building advanced racing sports cars .The first true Lotus road car however was the very advanced Lotus Elite.

First shown in 1957 ….. the new two seater Elite coupe was irresistibly attractive .Even though Lotus was still a small company ,Chapman laid out a car which pushed technology to the limit ……………… was achingly beautiful and was amazingly light in weight .No one it seems was ever likely to confuse the Elite with any other car , for its tiny ,smooth and always curving lines had no rivals ………….nothing can ever detract from the gracious style and inventive engineering which went into the car .A total of 988 Elites were built”

Caption to their photograph [1329 PL]…”it is easy to recognise the 1958 Lotus Elite; its streamlined design and smooth bodywork were unrivalled”

Setright on Chapman /Lotus: –

From his “The Designers”

“Chapman’s remarkable character. He was arduously industrious, prepared to work all hours that god sends …and he has an exceptionally strong sense of the rightness of … which he sought with a passionate logic , scorning compromises of other engineers and designers ………….he was prepared to almost ramosely exploit every opportunity available to him ……..he is really an artist , although there is remarkable mathematical beauty in many structures ………….history has proved him to be one of the most intelligent , purposeful and creative designers of high performance cars , one whose work has been emulated more than almost any other ………….

he is a worrier, a man whose creative process ………….-are marked by an obsessive and almost malignant objectivity .there are two stages evident in this, the first the logical assessment of the true nature of the problem ………….the second stage is not so much applied mathematics as stringent miserliness, every scrap of superfluous weight ………that is irrelevant or otiose …………is pruned away ………….

The package that results may not be to those conditioned to judge a car by the shut of the door or the upholstery ,or weight of the paint , but to the driver …sensual and cerebral appreciation of motoring offer more …………,the Lotus is much a machine for driving as a house by Corbusier is a machine for living ……….”

Subscribers might like to note Ludvigsen study of Chapman which brings out some of the argument we outline, especially as many of Chapman’s drawings are included.. Ludvigsen also quotes Setright.

Chapman design theory:-

” I think there are ten solutions to every problem and you should never be satisfied with the first one. You work them all out, then find one that has particular merit in terms of simplicity, elegance, cost and refinement.

When you have wrung it to death and can say “that the essence –then you built it”

For Chapman and most structural and aviation engineers “Lightness next to Godliness ”

The assessment of excellence in Architecture, Product Design, and automobile design has been undertaken by MoMA

MoMa:”Eight Automobiles” Onwards

From the net:-

“MoMA was the first art museum ever to collect and exhibit automobiles as examples of functional design. The Cisitalia “202” GT (1946) was the first vehicle to enter the collection, in 1972. AUTObodies is the ninth automotive exhibition shown at MoMA, the first being the landmark presentation Eight Automobiles (1951). More recently, the Museum presented Different Roads: Automobiles for the Next Century (1999), which featured nine contemporary automobiles. Automotive design reflects not only a car’s primary purpose but also the designer’s ingenuity and intuitive styling. Since the invention of the automobile, speed has been one of the most captivating aspects in car design, with Ferrari’s Formula 1 Racing Car 641/2 (1990)”

MoMA Automobile Inclusions

  • Cisitalia 202
  • Jeep
  • Volkswagen Type 1
  • E Type Jaguar
  • F1 Ferrari [ John Barnard]
  • Smart Car

The Cisitalia in concept has much in common with the Elite and both imbued the small sports car with a dignity, refinement and presence previously only associated with supercars.

Across the range of Product Design MoMA has included the following as examples of good design: –

Kazuo Kawasaki Carna Folding wheelchair 1989
Zaha Hadid The Peak, Kowloon, Hong Kong 1983
John Barnard Ferrari F1 car 641/2 1990
Frank O. Gehry Bubbles chaise longue 1987
Jacob Jensen Beogram 6000 Turntable 1974
Achille/P Castiglioni Arco Floor lamp 1962
Mario Bellini Divisumma 18 Electronic Calc’ 1972
Richard Sapper Tizio Table lamp 1972
Louis Kahn AN Richards Medical R’ Build 1957-61
Robert Venturi Vanna Venturi house 1959-64
Eero Saarinen Tulip armchair 1957
Ludwig M van der Rohe Farnsworth House 1946
Arthur Young Bell -47 D1 Helicopter 1945
C&R Eames LCM Low side chair 1946
Frank Lloyd Wright Fallingwater 1934-37
Le Corb’ P.Jeanneret Villa Savoy 1929-31
Alvar Aalto Paimio Chair 1931-32
Sven Wingquist Self-Aligning Ball bearing 1929
Marcel Breuer Wassily Chair 1927-28
Eileen Gray Screen 1922
Ludwig M van der Rohe Honeycomb, Berlin 1921
Ludwig M van der Rohe Barcelona Chair 1929
Wilhelm Wagenfeld
Carl J. Jucker Table lamp 1923-24
Gerrit Rietveld Red Blue chair 1923
Josef Hoffman Chair with adjustable back

Benchmarking of Chapman with famous Brands /Designers

We invite subscribers to self-assess designers using criteria which we hope being broad does not unduly favour Chapman/Lotus

Marque or Designer F1 F2 – Sports R Prod’Cars Indy’ Le Mans Div’/Consult Pop’Culture
Mercedes Benz
Aston Martin
Auto Union
Gordon Murray

NB Prod=Production Cars


Sports R=sports Racing Cars

Div./Consultancy=Diversification & Consultancy

Pop Culture=Impact in Popular culture e.g. TV and film

Car Designers, Entrepreneurs and Engineers of the Century

We invite subscribers to view our dedicated article quoting independent sources that have rated the best in automobile engineering and manufacturer.

Chapman scores well.

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: –

Figure 3. Editors sketch working drawing of Lotus Elite

  • Name six of the world’s greatest automobile engineers, designers? What do they have in common?
  • Which have diversified into other fields?
  • Use spreadsheet and benchmark Chapman *
  • Select what you consider the best vehicle in Chapman’s career –what makes it special? Benchmark
  • How has engine size, capacity influence automobile aesthetics? Give examples? How has this impacted on perception/reception?
  • Debate the term “Cost Effectiveness” in context of automobile design –how can this be interpreted in Chapman’s designs?
  • Which architects have designed cars or furniture or Industrial Design –give examples?
  • Benchmark Lotus Elite with other small capacity sports cars including Porsche, Alfa Romeo etc.

*Note marques named for whom various engineers might have worked.

Exhibitions, Education, Economics and Entertainment

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:-

Figure 4 . Editors photograph of Lotus Elite nb comparison with Europa [see A&R dedicated article]

  • Chapman Draws Out
  • Chapman Driven and Drawing Man
  • Chapman/Draughtsman: Motion and Traction
  • Chapman Conceptual Design: The Ideal and the Theoretical
  • Chapman /Lotus Design: Cost Effectiveness & Economies of Scale
  • Chapmans Conceptual Challenge: Brain power and horse power –racing ahead


We do not call Colin Chapman a genius but he was a polymath and extremely gifted design engineer with a highly developed conceptual driven thinking accompanied by an aesthetic appreciation. This was supported and integrated with skills as an entrepreneur –foremost amongst these activities was car manufacture. He was also the strategist owner of his own F1 team.

Chapman was human and had his failures in aspects of his life, business practice and racing car/road design. We note his conceptual leaps. These could be strength and weakness. They were a function of imagination and reason coming together. They were also a necessity considering the perilous nature of Lotus finances on occasions.

However, some objective comparisons of Chapman are possible. We invite subscribers to complete a checklist benchmark system using a series of criteria.

Chapman rates amongst the ten greatest automobile engineer /entrepreneurs of all time. He rates with Bugatti, Porsche and Ferrari especially if small engine, high performance cost effective design is given some weighting.

Chapmans designs are rated amongst some of the most beautiful creations in the automobile world. These span production to racing and include: –

  • Elite
  • Types 25,49,79

Chapman was draughtsman and driver. He could lead by example and as his drawings sketches illustrate he possessed natural engineering aesthetic. This he was able to share and demonstrate to colleagues. He passed down a brand enshrined with elegance, simplicity and functionality.

The MoMA criteria for excellence in product design includes: –

  • Simplicity
  • Economy
  • Meeting market need / mass production where appropriate
  • Using or mutating technology or materials
  • Experimentation
  • Beauty inseparable from efficiency

Whereas pieces of architecture and some product design is venerated often car design is overlooked. However, if we accept the best as illustrated by the MoMA we can see Chapman in a context where he demonstrates design awareness in multiple disciplines. He rates amongst the best architect’s and product designers etc.

Chapman is worthy of study. His ideas were invariably a tour de force. We consider this can be established using the criteria outlined and examples of his work including cars, boats, and experimental microlights. His designs more than other fits Setright’s definition. He can be learnt from not least being one of Britain’s greatest engineering designers but also amongst the best in the world.

Appendix 1:”Eight Automobiles” Exhibition 1951 Inclusions:-

  • 1947 Cistialia 202 [see dedicated article outlining aesthetic properties]
  • 1941 Lincoln Continental
  • 1937 Talbot Lago teardrop
  • 1939 Bentley
  • 1928 Mercedes Benz SS Tourer
  • 1948 M.G.TC
  • 1951 Military Jeep M38 [see A&R article “Minimalism and Motor Car”
  • 1937 Cord 812


The Flying Scotsman.Roden.Aurum.2007.

Wind, sand and stars and Flight to Arras. Antoine de Saint-Exupery.Piccador.1987.

The Designers: LJKSetright.Weidenfield&Nicholson.1976.

ISBN: 0297770500

There is interest in seeing how Setright rates each of the talented men he deals with, which adds interest to a book covering much great names as Abarth, Herbert Austin, Becchia, W.O. Bentley, Birkigt, Ettore Bugatti, Colin Chapman, the Duesenbergs, von Eberhorst, Dr. Giacosa, Alec Issigonis, Juno, Frederick Lanchester, L.H. Pomeroy, Tresilian, Voisin, Zagato and so many others.

Colin Chapman. Lotus Engineering. Haskell

Colin Chapman: Ludvigsen

Please also see extended bibliography in our dedicated article on Chapman Draws the Line

MoMA Highlights.Bee.MoMA.1999.

ISBN: 0810962012

Classic British Cars. Robson/Ware.Abbeydale.2004

ISBN: 1861471343

British Auto Legends.Zumbrunn/Heseltine.Merrell.


Looking at Design [Giugiaro Design] 1981-2001.Electa .2001.


Pininfarina 1930-2000.Prunet.Haynes.

Cars in Profile. Profile/Doubleday

Ferrari under the Skin.

Classic Racing Cars.Posthumus.Hamlyn.1977.


Lotus Elite.Ortenbruger.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.