Anthony Colin Bruce Chapman (9 May 1928 - 16 December 1982) was a British influential designer, inventor, and builder in the automotive industry. In 1952 he founded the sports car company Lotus Cars. He studied structural engineering at University College, London where he joined the University Air Squadron and learned to fly. After graduating in 1948, he briefly joined the Royal Air Force. His knowledge of the latest aeronautical engineering techniques would prove vital towards achieving the major automotive technical advances he is remembered for. His Formula One Team Lotus won seven World Championships and the Indianapolis 500 between 1962 and 1978. The production side of Lotus Cars has built tens of thousands of relatively affordable, cutting edge sports cars. Lotus is one of but a handful of British performance car builders still in business after the industrial decline of the 1970s. Chapman died of a heart attack.
In 1948 Chapman started with the Mk1, a modified Austin 7, which he entered privately into local racing events. He named the car "Lotus"; he never confirmed the reason but one (of several) theories is that it was after his then girlfriend (later wife) Hazel, who he nicknamed "Lotus blossom". With prize money won he developed the Lotus Mk2. With continuing success on through the Lotus 6, he began to sell kits of these cars. Over 100 of the Lotus 6 kits were sold through 1956. It was with the Lotus 7 in 1957 that things really took off, and indeed Caterham Cars still manufacture a version of that car today - the Caterham 7; while over the years over 90 different Lotus 7 clones, replicas, and derivatives have been offered to the public by a variety of makers.
In the 1950s Chapman progressed through the motor racing formulae, designing and building a series of racing cars, sometimes to the point of being in limited production they were so successful and highly sought after, until he arrived in Formula 1. Along with John Cooper, he revolutionised the premier motor sport. Their small, lightweight mid-engined vehicles gave away much in terms of power, but superior handling meant their competing cars often beat the all-conquering front engined Ferraris and Maseratis. Eventually, with legendary driver Jim Clark at the wheel of his race cars, Team Lotus came to appear as though they could win whenever they pleased. With Clark driving the legendary Lotus 25 Team Lotus won its first F1 World Championship in 1963. It was Clark, driving a Lotus 38 at the Indianapolis 500 in 1965, who drove the first ever mid-engined car to victory at the fabled "Brickyard." Certainly, Jim Clark would have won many more races were it not for his untimely death in 1968 while racing a Formula 2 car at Hockenheimring. (The accident was most likely caused by a rear tire failure, though the exact cause has never been known.) Clark and Chapman had become particularly close and Clark's death devasted Chapman, who publicly stated that he had lost his best friend.
Chapman, who came from relatively humble roots, was also a businessman who introduced major advertising sponsorship into auto racing; beginning the process which changed Formula One from rich gentlemen's pastime, to multi-million pound high technology enterprise. It was Chapman who in 1966 persuaded the Ford Motor Company to sponsor Cosworth's development of what would become the legendary DFV race engine. Shortly before his death he became involved in John De Lorean's De Lorean Motor Company troubled venture to manufacture sports cars in Northern Ireland. The full extent of his involvement has never been proved, but it is believed he would have been investigated for possible complicity in the manipulation of government loans during the development of the De Lorean car. Fred Bushell, Chapman's colleague and close confidante, pleaded guilty in 1992 to "Conspiring with the late Colin Chapman and others to defraud the De Lorean Motor Company" and was sentenced to four years in prison. De Lorean himself was tried on drug-trafficking charges and acquitted.
Many of Chapman's ideas can still be seen in Formula 1 and other top levels of motor sport (such as Indycars) today.
He pioneered the use of struts as a rear suspension device. Even today, struts used in the rear of a vehicle are known as Chapman struts, while virtually identical suspension struts for the front are known as MacPherson struts.
His next major innovation was to adopt the use of monocoque (one-shell) unibodies (i.e. it replaced both the body and frame, which until then had been separate components) for car chassis. This was the first major advance in which he introduced aeroplane technology to cars. The resultant body was both lighter, stronger (i.e. stiffer), and also provided better driver protection in the event of a crash. The first vehicle to feature this was the Citroën Traction Avant in 1934; Lotus was an early adopter of this technology with the Lotus Elite, in 1958. The modified monocoque body of the car was made out of fibreglass, making it also one of the first production cars made out of composites.
In 1962 he extended this innovation to racing cars, with the revolutionary Lotus 25 mid-engined Formula 1 car. This fairly quickly replaced what had been for many decades the standard design formula in racing-cars, the front engined, later mid-engined, tube-frame chassis. Although the material has changed from sheet aluminium to carbon fibre, this remains today the standard technique for building top-level racing cars. It was a Chapman monocoque chassis that first introduced the engine and transmission as stressed members of the overall chassis, again, an innovation that continues in universal application in today's Formula cars.
Inspired by Jim Hall, Chapman introduced aerodynamics into the first-rank of Formula One car design. He popularized the concept of positive aerodynamic downforce, through the addition of front and rear wings. Early efforts were mounted 3 feet or so above the car, in order to operate in 'clean air' (i.e. air that would not otherwise be disturbed by the passage of the car). However the thin supporting struts failed regularly, obliging the FIA to require the wings to be attached directly to the bodywork. He also originated the movement of radiators away from the front of the car, to decrease frontal area and, thus, air resistance at speed. These concepts also remain features of high performance racing cars today.
Chapman was also an innovator in the business end of racing. He was among the first entrants in Formula One to turn their cars into rolling billboards for non-automotive products, initially with the cigarette brands Gold Leaf and, most famously, John Player.
Chapman, working with Tony Rudd and Peter Wright, pioneered the use of "ground effect" (where a partial vacuum was created under the car by use of venturis, generating suction (downforce) which held it securely to the road whilst cornering) in Formula One. (Modern Formula One cars generate enough downforce (now generated by wings instead of ground effects) that they could theoretically be driven on a ceiling once they reach about 100 mph.) Initially this technique utilized sliding "skirts" which made contact with the ground to keep the area of low pressure isolated. Chapman's next development was a car that generated all of its downforce through ground effects, eliminating wings and the drag that they introduce at high speed. However, skirts were eventually banned, because the skirt could be damaged, for example, from driving over a curb, and downforce would be lost and the car could then become unstable. The FIA made moves to eliminate ground effects in Formula One, by requiring flat bottom cars (eliminating venturis) and raising the minimum ride height of the cars. (Of course, the car designers have managed to get back all of that downforce through other means, aided by extensive wind tunnel testing).
One of his last major technical innovations was the dual-chassis Formula One car. For ground effects of that era to function most efficiently, the aerodynamic surfaces needed to be precisely located and this lead to the chassis being very stiffly sprung. However, this was very punishing to the driver, resulting in driver fatigue. To get around this, Chapman introduced a car with two chassis. One chassis (where the driver would sit) was softly sprung. The other chassis (where the skirts and such were located) was stiffly sprung. Unfortunately, although the car passed scrutineering at a couple of races, it was protested by other teams and was never allowed to run. Under these circumstances, the car was never developed, so it will never be known if the idea would have worked.
The whole affair dampened his interest in Formula One, but eventually Chapman moved on. The day that Chapman died, Team Lotus was testing the first Formula One car with active suspension.
- He was awarded "Mike's Mug" by the Royal Aero Club in 1961.
- He was voted The Guardian 'Young Businessman of the Year' in 1970.
- He was named a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1970.
- He was inducted in the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1994.
- He was inducted in the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 1997.
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- Gerard ('Jabby') Crombac, Colin Chapman: The Man and His Cars (Patrick Stephens, Wellingborough, 1986) ISBN 1-85960-844-2
- Hugh Haskell, Colin Chapman Lotus Engineering (Osprey Publishing, 1993) ISBN 1-85532-872-0
- Mike Lawrence, Colin Chapman Wayward Genius (Breedon Books Publishing, 2003) ISBN 1-85983-278-4