If you look closely at the badges on the noses of Lotus Cars, you’ll see the letters A-C-B-C. In more than a few ways, those initials are Lotus. The philosophies of Anthony Colin Bruce Chapman, the Englishman who started Lotus Cars in 1952, are what make the cars great. Noted for producing lightweight cars with exceptional handling abilities, Chapman is quoted as having said, "Adding power makes you faster on the straights. Subtracting weight makes you faster everywhere".
And thus Lotus Cars have routinely pioneered automotive weight-saving efforts.
Chapman, born in May of 1928, studied structural engineering in college, did a short stint in the Royal Air Force, and worked for British Aluminum—before founding Lotus Cars. His aeronautical background solidly informed his work in the automotive field, as did his experience with aluminum. Between 1962 and 1978, the racing side of his company was exceptionally successful—winning Formula One titles seven times, six of his drivers won world championships, and one of his cars won the Indianapolis 500.
It is rumored Chapman called the company Lotus out of deference to his wife Hazel, whom he referred to as “Lotus Blossom”. His first automotive accomplishment of note was modifying his Austin Seven in 1948 to compete in local racing events. It was the first car of Chapman’s to be named Lotus, and eventually became referred to as the Lotus Mk1. A rather competitive driver, with his winnings, he developed the Lotus Mk2.
The true birth of the Lotus brand came in 1951, with the Lotus Mk3 circuit-racing car. The aluminum-bodied racer was said to be capable of a 6.6 second zero to fifty and a top speed of 90 miles per hour. But what really set it apart was the tremendous grip it afforded the driver. The car would blow through corners at exceptional rates of speed. The Lotus Mk3 was the first ground-up build for Chapman. His trials cars had all been modified versions of existing cars. With his mounting successes, people started asking Chapman to sell them kits so they could duplicate his mods. By 1956, he had sold some 100 such kits.
Chapman started the Lotus Engineering Company in 1952, with a £50 loan from “Lotus Blossom”, his then girlfriend—later to be his wife—Hazel Williams. The first series production Lotus racer bowed that year, the 1952 Lotus Mk6. In 1954, Team Lotus racing was established. The Lotus Mark 8, also introduced that year, took the racing world by storm. In addition to his engineering expertise, Chapman was very adept at finding gray areas in the rules he could exploit to the benefit of his team. These factors contributed mightily to his successes, as well as to the allure of his brand.
Offered fully built, or as a kit, Chapman’s racing cars were both very competitive and highly sought after. Chapman continued developing and driving until an accident in 1956 convinced him to leave the cockpit and focus on engineering. It is important to recall motor racing was exceedingly dangerous in those days; drivers were routinely killed engaging in the sport. Ultimately though, when Chapman got into producing road cars he did so for much the same reason Enzo Ferrari had before him—to finance his racing aspirations.
The 1957 Lotus Seven was a major sales success. Offered as a no-frills sports car, either as a kit or fully built, the Lotus Seven could be used in competition or driven on the street for fun. One of the longest running Lotus models, Chapman produced the Lotus Seven until 1973. However, versions of it are still in production to this day under license—the most notable being the Caterham 7, produced by Caterham Cars.
The success of Lotus racing cars quite naturally enhanced the appeal of the road cars—particularly because of the extraordinary feats of engineering they represented. The 1957 Lotus Elite was the first road car to use a fiberglass monocoque. In other words, all of the moving parts were fitted directly to the body of the car, which, in turn was constructed of fiberglass. Lotus' first pure road car was in production until 1963.
Lotus followed the Elite with the Elan. Offered in coupe and convertible forms, the original Elan ran from 1962 to 1975. The Elan is noted for being the first Lotus road car to use a steel backbone chassis with a fiberglass body (the same configuration was later applied to the mid-engine Esprit). This improved the rigidity of the platform, while still garnering weight savings over traditionally configured cars. For 1967, Lotus added a pair of rear seats to the Elan to create the Elan +2, the first four-seater Lotus sports car. Elan ran until 1973, Elan +2 ran until 1975. So influential a sports car was the original Elan, it is credited with being the inspiration for Mazda’s MX-5 Miata.
The Lotus Europa, one of the most iconic of the early Lotus road cars was introduced in 1966. The Lotus Europa was actually developed from prototype drawings of the car that eventually became the Ford GT40. Lotus had bid on the GT40 project, but Henry Ford II went with Lola over Lotus when Chapman insisted the GT40 should be called a Lotus rather than a Ford.
(Hey, you can’t blame the guy for trying…)
The Europa ran until 1975.
Perhaps the Lotus automobile that most captured mainstream attention was the mid-engine exotic 1976 Lotus Esprit. Indelibly inscribed in the annals of popular culture as the “submarine car” from the James Bond movies “The Spy Who Loved Me” and “For Your Eyes Only”, the Esprit was also the first Lotus to be marketed head to head with Ferrari, Porsche, and Lamborghini road cars.
Unfortunately though, the 1970s were not very kind to sports car makers in general.
Tiny manufacturers like Lotus were particularly hard hit.
By the time the 1980s rolled in, Lotus was in financial trouble and had to take on a bigger partner with deeper pockets. General Motors bought Lotus in 1986, held on to it until 1993, and flipped it to the investment group then in control of Bugatti. That group held on to the company until 1996, before selling out to Malaysian interests. However, Lotus had been using the money from its investors very well during that period—introducing the Lotus Elise in 1996. Getting solidly back to the lighter is better philosophy of Chapman; the Elise proved to be a good seller for the company and paved the way to its current lineup of exotic sporting automobiles.