Colin Chapman: A Man of Letters

Figure 1

Colin Chapman. The John Ross Photographic Archive

Haskell writing in 1993: –

“Engineering like any science must be learnt; but equally clearly, those with the right flair for it in their mental make- up can apply what they have learnt much better than others and can leap forward from it.

Add the magic of creativity and you have the potential for greatness……….

Colin Chapman was arguably the greatest contributor to the design of racing cars since the origins of the motor car it self

No other designer was as consistently successful in his pursuit of technical aims, nor has any other designer yet had such a profound effect on so many branches of the sport. These views are held by many motor racing enthusiasts and experts, not least his own rivals …..His influence can be seen in the transformations that have taken place in many fields, from modern F1 car to a generation of road sports cars………

Many of the ideas which earned him his reputation are in fact,” Just” new or different applications of well-known principles .this does not however lessen their value or relevance as examples of genius , since the same is true for a high proportion of all new patents granted ……..

Chapman’s originality showed itself in not being limited by any already defined rules …….”


Possibly this is one of the most important pieces of work on the analysis of the achievements of Colin Chapman.

It might also be inspirational.

Colin Chapman was implicated in the DeLorean scandal .This has severely damaged his reputation and legacy however there is a requirement for balance.

The A&R attempts to be objective. Our analysis tries to evaluate in a totality.

Colin had faults, made enemies and mistakes, commercial and otherwise.

He also contributed enormously to Britain and the British economy in ways that possibly cannot be totally or accurately calculated in absolute financial terms.

This article examines the little reported side of Colin Chapman.

A side that we consider in many respects to be his greatest gift and contribution.

Furthermore this view is reinforced by the awards made to him during his life.

We invite subscribers to both forensically examine his contribution but also the ongoing inspiration his design and problem solving philosophy provides.

In the round we examine Chapman up to the time of his award of the RDI

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

  • Chapman and Lotus chassis design
  • Individual Lotus types
  • Industrial design consultancy including furniture and microlights, boats etc.
  • Chapman and aviation – various emphasis
  • Contemporaries series

Colin Chapman’s Problem solving and Design Methodology in brief

  • Scientific and of first principles – pure and simple as far as possible
  • Engineering integrity
  • Application of Newton’s Laws
  • Application of aviation principles
  • Light simple , effective , minimum parts
  • Conduct research
  • Explore options
  • Apply a broad conceptuality to simultaneously define problem and extract solution; sometimes solution merely redefining the problem!
  • Determination “In adversity we thrive”
  • Learn and listen
  • Move on

His strength was possibly within the holistic totality of these qualities.

All the editors reading tends to confirm how Chapman engaged with scientists and engineers and how he motivated them with this brand of creative determination.

Chapman and Lotus were fundamentally about a freedom to innovate and this reflected government policy with regard to industry, exports and world competition.

It was also a necessity in the post war recovery.

See action verbs that describe Chapman below.

Brief British Post War Economic Context

In order to understand why Chapman was awarded such prestigious honours it’s necessary to comprehend the British post Second World War economic situation.

From the net: –

“Although Britain achieved ultimate victory in the war, the economic costs were enormous. Six years of prolonged warfare and heavy losses of merchant shipping meant that Britain had lost two-thirds of her pre-war export trade by 1945.[204] the loss of her export markets also caused a serious shortage of US dollars, which were crucial to servicing Britain’s war debt and maintaining imports from the United States. Most of Britain’s gold and currency reserves were depleted and the Government had been forced to sell off the bulk of British overseas assets to fund the war effort.[204] when Lend Lease was terminated by the United States in August 1945, Britain was unable to pay for the import of essential supplies from America. Although the US agreed to cancel $20 million in Lend Lease debt, the UK was forced to obtain a $3.75 billion loan from the United States at 2% interest in December 1945.[205] The US/UK trade imbalance was perilously high, forcing the extension of rationing to lessen the imbalance and preserve precious US dollars for the servicing of loan repayments.[206]……..”

  • “Britain became a world leader in many high-tech industries such as aerospace and computer software, and as a provider of financial services.
  • New economic theories gave the government the means to control the economy.
  • Britain benefited from the communications revolution – e.g. the motor car, air travel, TV, the internet, mobile phones and social networking. The world ‘shrank’.
  • Until the 1960s, Britain was part of a trading community based on the Empire. In 1973, Britain joined the European Economic Community, and became part of a trading community based on free trade between the countries of Europe.”

“The major economic priority of post-war Britain was to raise exports to fund he UK’s dollar deficit. This required the extension of rationing, as British goods and produce were prioritized for export markets. Unlike Continental European countries, where rationing was abandoned within a few years of the wars’ end, Britain actually tightened rationing restrictions and didn’t fully abandon them until 1954.[212] The U.S. began Marshall Plan grants (mostly grants with a few loans) that pumped $3.3 billion into the economy and encouraged businessmen to modernize their approach to management.[213] Marshall Aid, however, failed to have the desired effect of modernizing industry and stimulating the economy, because 97% of the funds were used to service British debt repayments. This left the UK at a comparative disadvantage to rivals like France and West Germany, who were able to invest the money directly into industry and infrastructure, creating more competitive, efficient economies in the long-term.[214]

Britain Can Make It, Exhibition

Even before the end of World War II, it was recognised that post-war reconstruction of manufacturing and international trade of exported goods would require the widespread acceptance of industrial design as part of future British manufacturing.[2] Accordingly, the Council of Industrial Design was founded in 1944 by the Board of Trade,

Government requirements and intentions for industry focused on: –

  • Increased productivity
  • Constant innovation
  • Wealth creation and distribution
  • Rewards for wealth creation
  • Better modern design-meet customer needs & preference

The Festival of Britain, 1951

The Festival followed Britain Can Make It had several purposes. Not least to showcase the best of British design and culture. It was celebration and morale booster. Furthermore it served to provide example to industry as to standards and a call to export.

Although Chapman was not directly involved by the festival he was setting up in London and within the decade would be in the vanguard of International motor sport and his cars would be exported particularly to the USA.

The Rural Industries Board

Chapman and Lotus were selected as an example of best practices and Corrie Bevington was commissioned to photograph the factory and its products.

Its easily understood what Lotus offered in terms of inspiration with relatively low capital investment yet enormous creativity and determination.


From Sports car & Lotus Owner, 1958

The lasting impression gained from a visit to the Lotus works is that no other British manufacturer— on any scale—plans such a comprehensive range of models for 1958. Nowhere outside Italy, in fact, is there currently a concern making vehicles for Formula One, Formula Two and various sports categories in addition to a most inexpensive road sports car. The Seven, in component form, represents remarkable value for money; at an opposite extreme the F1 car should have a higher power-to-weight ratio than any other 1958 contender. That so much can be accomplished in such cramped quarters verges on the miraculous.”

Lotus and the Earls Court Motor / London Racing Car Shows

This subject is worthy of an article in its own right.

Lotus attended at the Earls Court Motor show from the late 1950’s onwards.

Many of his exhibits would steal the show. Chapman on occasions included the brands racing cars alongside the production road cars.

At these events and at the factory Colin Chapman meet Royalty and provided test drives.


From the moment when Colin Chapman drove his first Lotus, a modified Austin 7, up the muddy slopes of a trials hill to appearance at the Earls Court motor show in 2956 of the Lotus as a production car occupied less than a decade, to be exact nine years.

The meteoric rise of Colin Chapman and his Lotus cars is a romantic chapter in the history of a romantic sport –that of motor racing.”

Chapman, PR, Publicity and communication

Chapman was adept at PR and obtained results from journalists.

He adopted various techniques.

Chapman gave interview, was intelligent and articulate.

Lotus had featured in BBC programmes from the 1950’s.

Lotus is often seen and recorded by Pathe at the Motor Show.

In addition Colin formed Club Lotus and contributed to Sports car and Lotus Owner.

Lotus success in F1 and other international events witnesses sponsor and specialist

Suppliers gaining exposure and publicity on the back of Lotus wins.

Chapman: Letters after his name

Chapman did not seek these awards, neither do we believe they were bought.

All the evidence confirms they were earnt, and his success embraced a wide spectrum of the British economy.

The main awards include: –

  • CBE i.e. Commander of the British Empire [ awarded for contributions to the Arts & Sciences]
  • Royal Design for Industry, 1979
  • FRSA
  • Hon Dr.RCA


  • BRDC Medal, 1978 [ i.e. British Racing Drivers club]
  • Freedom of the City of Norwich ,1978
  • Ferodo Trophy, 1956,[ Vanwall *& Lotus Eleven ,1965 [ First at Indianapolis ] 1978**,[F1 World Champions]
  • Young Businessman of the Year, 1970
  • Initiated into Motorsport Hall of Fame ,1994

The citation that accompanied the presentation to him of the Ferodo Trophy in 1956 sums up his work It reads:-

“Mr.A.C.B. Chapman is responsible for the design and construction of Lotus sports cars and made an important contribution to the advancement of the design of a British Grand Prix racing car “

And for

**1978 for his design contribution, construction and team direction of the cars which have dominated GP racing in 1978

Academic and examination based qualification

  • BSc –Engineering
  • Pilot

Royal Designers for Industry

“The title ‘Royal Designer for Industry’ (RDI) is awarded annually by the RSA to designers of all disciplines who have achieved ‘sustained design excellence, work of aesthetic value and significant benefit to society.’

The RDI is the highest accolade for designers in the UK; only 200 designers can hold the title and non-UK designers may receive the honorary title Hon RDI.

The ‘Royal Designers’ are responsible for designing the world around us, enriching our cultural heritage, driving innovation, inspiring creativity in others and improving our quality of life. The jet engine, Route master bus, iPhone, and Harry Potter film sets, among thousands of other things, have been created by them.  Since it was introduced, recipients of the honour have included designers as diverse as Eric Gill, Barnes Wallis, Lucienne Day, Jonathan Ive, Richard Rogers, and Vivienne Westwood.”


“a) An RSA Royal Designer for Industry is an individual who can demonstrate the highest quality of design and measurable impact.

b) Highest quality design is demonstrated by the following:

  • Sustained Excellence
  • Design quality
  • Ingenuity and creativity in solutions
  • Sensitivity and empathy to users and the context of use
  • Positive social change

c) Measurable impact is demonstrated by but not limited to:

  • Public awareness and acclaim
  • Significant impact on public culture and heritage
  • Improvement of quality of life
  • Advancement in understanding
  • Innovation
  • Commercial intelligence “

Chapmans Achievements

  • Entrepreneur and car manufacturer
  • F1 Team Owner, strategist and multiple F1 World Champion [Drivers & constructors]
  • Patent holder
  • Significant results in International events like Le Mans and Indianapolis over ten-year period
  • Consultant in general and specifically to BRM and Vanwall [resulting in F1 success]
  • Pilot
  • Inventor and patent holder

Chapman /Lotus Innovations

  • Serious performance car with glass fibre unitary chassis/body -The Elite type 14, 1957
  • Chapman strut suspension , type 12 F2 car , 1957
  • First serious and successful F1 car of modern era with monocoque chassis type 25, 1962
  • First road car to combine steel backbone chassis and glass fibre body shell , type 26, Elan , 1962
  • First serious , modern mid-engine F1 car using engine as load bearing chassis member- type 49, 1967
  • Modern F1 car with gas turbine engine , type 56B, 1970
  • F1 car with wedge profile, type 72, 1972
  • First ground effect F1 car type 78, 1977
  • Active suspension tests , c 1981
  • Flat twin air cooled 4 stroke engine suitable for aircraft and other utility functions , developed during Chapman’s life time displayed at 1983 London Motor fair

Chapman’s and Lotus Influential cars and design pieces

  • Mk.VI, Seven, Eleven, Elite, Elan,Types 25,38 INDIANAPOLIS , 49,72 &78
  • Power boats, micro lights, utility furniture, industrial consultancy

Figure 2.Editors sketch of Lotus Seven series 2

Figure 3.Editors sketch working drawing of Lotus Eleven

Figure 4.Editors sketch of Elan Sprint

Figure 5.Editors sketch of Lotus 25 with emphasis on engine/gearbox and rear suspension

Figure 6.Editors sketch of Lotus 38 Indianapolis car

Figure 7.Editors sketch of Chapmans last great innovation in ground effect

Figure 8.Editors sketch of Lotus utility light weight engine suitable for microlights and other industrial applications

Chapmans Facilitation, Collaboration and Development

  • Racing drivers – the world’s greatest among them Clark, Hill and Senna
  • Progress Chassis
  • Williams & Pritchard
  • Arch
  • Cosworth [ Costin & Duckworth]
  • Coventry Climax
  • British motor factor industry in general
  • Sponsors: JPS, Esso, BP, Duckhams etc.
  • Manufacturers :Ford engines ,Ford Lotus Cortina, the Lotus LV engine part inspired around Vauxhall and the Lotus Carlton Omega, DeLorean, Sunbeam Talbot Lotus, General Motors, Toyota,
  • Exports –Lotus cars & directly /indirectly British engineering
  • Sponsorship of talented engineers and designers including Ron Hickman

Popular Culture

Of great significance is Chapman’s impact on popular culture.

More people experienced this internationaly than owned his cars.

Additionally, Lotus possibly helped generate fashion and tourism sales which is a bigger market than his cars alone.

This was achieved through: –

  • The Avengers and indirectly British fashion
  • The Prisoner
  • James Bond
  • Direct/indirect impact on tourism to UK
  • Reputation abroad for Lotus and British commodities

It’s difficult to accurately quantity Chapman/Lotus financial/commercial benefits to the UK as they are dispersed directly and indirectly across the the economic entities listed.

We have no doubt that when Chapman was being considered for awards like the RDI these were taken into account by the selection panel, who might represent one of the industries positively gaining.

It has been generally accepted the praise given to Chapman reflected a wider glory he had brought Britain especially regarding motor sport and engineering.

Eye for Industry

This was an exhibition sponsored by the Royal Society of Arts and held at the V&A, in November 1986.

Car design by Chapman and Sir A.Issigonis were displayed together.

See specific reference in Read, Colin Chapman’s Lotus, and p77

Colin Chapman –The Action Verbs

Chapman was an engineer and designer fundamentally.

However to comprehend his design methodology applying the following assists in understanding his achievement and approach:-














Bold, firm, brave

Valiant, fearless



















































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: –

  • Visit RDI website and extract a list of RDI members past and present. Construct a spreadsheet and devise criteria to benchmark Chapman
  • How many car designers are RDI? Why so few? How does this reflect on Chapman?
  • What is the significance of the RDI award?
  • Explore the current generation of RDI what does it reflect?
  • Determine a brief for an exhibition simply entitled Colin Chapman RDI, what would you include & why? How would you present and interpret these items?
  • Although difficult attempt to evaluate the economic dimension of selected RDI
  • Enumerate the F1 car designers since Chapman’s death –evaluate how they compare in the round
  • Access our Design Heroes series and correlate with the RDI list
  • Access Lotus website and study their design philosophy – to what extent does Colin Chapman impact?
  • Consider 21st century supercar brands, which most compares with Lotus and its heritage?
  • Produce a theoretical specification for the Lotus Eleven solely to maximise fuel economy what mpg would you expect?
  • List recipients of the Ferodo Trophy and benchmark with Chapman, perform the same exercise for Young Businessmen of the Year

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 exhibition titles might be appropriate: –

  • Auto Royalty: The Greatest Car Designers
  • Britain can Make It: British cars of legend and iconic status
  • By Royal Warrant
  • Colin Chapman & The Best of British
  • Lotus: Marques of Excellence


We consider the design, manufacturing, cultural achievements of Colin Chapman and colleagues:-

  • Stark
  • Unequivocal

Colin Chapman was human .He had faults and weaknesses. These are not to be condoned or repeated.

He was a man of letters, cultivated and remarkably intelligent and articulate.

During his life time 1928-1982 and particularly after the Second World War he with a few exceptional young colleagues and British entrepreneurs helped Britain out of austerity into affluence.

He created wealth, employed people and exported.

He sponsored some of the greatest drivers of all time. He provided a patronage and facilitated others to succeed and many individual /organisations remain world leaders today.

He did this whilst and through multiple motor racing success at the highest level of F1 and car production .This in many respects provided higher levels of participation and contributed to democratising the sport.

He achieved this at: –

  • National level
  • International level – competition and sales, F1 lesser formulas, Indianapolis and Le Mans
  • Production cars , some of the most beautiful and iconic in history of the motor car
  • “………..the rise to fame of Lotus is the rise to fame also of motoring sport, whether Grand Prix or sports car racing “

These are the reasons he was made a CBE and particularly RDI.

The RDI perhaps being the greatest accolade. The rigour, creativity and cultural content required placing him in a vanguard of excellence.

These are amongst the most prestigious honours granted in Britain.

They were earn and deserved.


From Lotus cars: –

“Throughout the company’s eight decades, it is innovation on road and track that has been key in delivering success. At the root of our DNA is Colin Chapman’s obsession with light weight.
“Simplify, then add lightness”, he said.
It was his philosophy, way before ‘minimalism’ became fashionable……….

By tradition, Lotus uses the least number of parts in its products. Yet, they are impeccably engineered, retain their lightness and work dependably. Our expertise in lightweight architecture has made us a leader in environmentally friendly vehicle technology. It is crucial for all of us but we have never lost our performance advantage and sheer driving pleasure.

We employ a team of top talent, many of whom are driver-engineers.

Lotus enjoys world renown that represents intense passion, tremendous individuality, a sense of fun and gritty determination. Yet, we have never lost sight of our primary aim of achieving the ultimate lightness, embodied sturdily, with a well-defined performance edge.

Even today, our now famous “lightweight laboratory” is at the heart of our business, redefining “lightweight” every day – using fewer, stronger components, utilising the latest generation composite materials and constantly striving – not just in thought, but in practice, to deliver the Lotus lightweight philosophy.”

What Colin Chapman handed down has not been diluted.

The best, theoretical, scientific and aesthetic has been preserved.

This is summarised and expressed through the brand he created

  • Brand reputation
  • Continuity and relevance
  • Vitality, virility, innovation
  • Sustainable
  • World class
  • Exports
  • Celebrated

We can all learn from Chapman.

We can be aware that sometimes intelligence and creativity can be wrongly applied.

However we as individuals and the British economy can benefit from applying the best of Chapman.

Forensically when the equation is factored it would seem that in net he gave, inspired, and handed down a legacy of profound enduring re-inventing sustainable creativity.

In these challenging times it has a particular relevance.


Colin Chapman. Haskell. Osprey.1993.

ISBN: 1855323761

Colin Chapman.Crombac.Patrick Stevens.1986.

ISBN: 0850597331

Industrial Design.Heskett.Thames&Hudson.1984.

ISBN: 0500201811

Lotus: The Legend.Hodges.Paragon.1998.

ISBN: 075252074

Industrial Design.Loewy.Duckworth.

ISBN: 9781585679850

Industrial Design-Techniques & Materials.Guidot.Famarion.2006.

ISBN: 9782080305190

Eye for Industry. RDI 1936-1986. McCarthy & Nuttgens.Lund Humphries.

ISBN: 9780853315148

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.