Colin Chapman

Editing before re-publication to celebrate 50 years since Jim Clark won the world championship, our book has views on Chapman by Ford’s great director of public affairs, the late Walter Hayes: “Jim Clark had two centres in his life. There was Chapman. Not Lotus, - Chapman. And there was home in Scotland. He felt secure at home in Scotland, but he never quite felt secure with Colin, because when you would say to him ‘Well Jimmy if there’s something worrying you why don’t you sit down and ask Colin’. He’d say, ‘Well you know, it’s very difficult’. He admired Chapman. He had huge respect for him. In a way he loved him, but there was often a sort of nervous tension between them.”

By 1961 Chapman’s influence was overwhelming. The relationship was more than just that between the Lotus team manager and a world champion driver. He was essentially Chapman’s world champion driver. It became a close personal relationship in which they enjoyed each other’s company and, while drivers of other teams went out on their own of an evening after a race or a practice session, Jim would almost always have dinner with Chapman.

It was a symptom of the intense loyalty Chapman commanded. His leadership qualities transcended the creation of great racing cars, his enthusiasm was infectious, he brimmed with initiatives, but more than that he had a gift for persuasion. He put over his ideas convincingly. He was able to sell his philosophy his sense of style and his self-confidence on both sides of the racing world and when it came to it, on both sides of the Atlantic. It was a messianic quality.

Reflecting on his achievements, Chapman could say quite un-self-consciously: “A few of us have to achieve great things in life so that it gives hope to others who are striving to achieve.” He really believed that some people, like him, had to succeed extravagantly in order to light up the lives of others. If anyone else had said something of that sort it would have sounded arrogant. Chapman could say it so reassuringly that it seemed almost modest and quite self-evident. He had the natural vanity of a man who knew his ideas were better.

Walter Hayes was one of Chapman’s most loyal supporters: “He never was arrogant. He merely knew better than anybody else. He also knew more.”

Hayes as an editor, had taken Chapman on as a newspaper motoring correspondent: “I’d been told to reform the Sunday Despatch and cars were beginning to be the big thing. There was no popular ownership of cars in this country until 1955. Nobody owned a car unless they were a doctor or a lawyer or rich. There were governments after the war telling us that we shouldn’t have cars at all. Sir Stafford Cripps wanted to tax them pretty well out of existence.”

“I was looking for somebody who could encapsulate what I felt was going to be the age of the car, so I got hold of Colin Chapman who was beginning to be talked about. Chapman was willing to come along, because £5,000 a year was quite important to him. He was difficult because he loved road testing cars, but it was not easy to get copy from him on time.”

Hayes (above) was sensible to Chapman’s design flair. “He was not a particularly good engine engineer, he would sit in a restaurant with a paper napkin and he would draw a car, and when he got to the engine he would just draw a box and write ‘engine’ on it. I don’t think he knew much about engines. His mind was a ferment of ideas yet instead of saying we’ve got it now, let’s perfect it, he always assumed that there had to be something added for next year. If you look at all the things he initiated in motor racing, more than any other man of our day, you often find he never stayed with anything quite long enough.”

He compared Chapman with a later entrepreneur in a similar mould, Tom Walkinshaw, who also created a successful business building and racing cars. “Walkinshaw did everything he said he would do for me on the day and at the price better than I could have expected. The same went for Chapman, and I hear stories about him in which he is not recognisable. I know people are sometimes different with me. People are particularly nice when you hold the purse strings, but I went and got Chapman because I knew him and I trusted him.”

Chapman’s early trials cars were home-built, improvised and primitive masterpieces. His Austin was followed by a Ford-powered version, then a 750cc special for racing. He applied the same bent for engineering to them that he later applied to grand prix racing cars, a talent for innovation that blossomed into something approaching genius.

He was single-minded and obsessional at whatever he turned his hand to. He was an accomplished racing driver; he designed boats and flew aeroplanes, showing aptitude at all of them. His competitive spirit was acute. Chapman never accepted the old aphorism about what mattered was taking part not winning. He could never understand how anyone could want to do anything without winning, and his winning was done with style. He had a flair for appearance, a neat turn of phrase, and a gift for branding the Lotus identity firmly on all he did. His achievements were immense, and he made exciting, innovative - although sometimes exasperating - road cars.
A millionaire by his 40th birthday, he won five drivers’ and six constructors’ world championships, and was at the head of a £10,000,000 business and the controls of his own Piper Seneca two years before his 50th. He had charm; he could show patience, but anybody doing business with him needed to be important to merit much of either. He put in long hours at the factory, ran the racing team at weekends, and seldom stopped to wonder why others did not do much the same. Energy, drive, talent and success were his hallmarks.

So was his short fuse, which sometimes went off in public such as with an overzealous policeman at Zandvoort who arrested him in a trackside fracas. Despite Chapman’s valid pass, the heavy-handed officer refused to allow him to go where he wanted, provoking a well documented punch-up.

His credentials as a driver included a close race in 1956 with Mike Hawthorn at the Whit Monday meeting at Goodwood. Both were in Lotus 11s and Chapman won. Other gifts included an ability to read a rule book, decide what its compilers meant and then find a way to defeat them. He also had a powerful commercial instinct. Where other enthusiasts might have been content to dismantle or cannibalise their first car in order to work on their second, Chapman sold it.

Lotus Engineering grew on the premise that people would build their cars from kits, and went into business on January 1, 1952, in north London. Chapman made the firm his full time job in 1955, married Hazel Williams who had provided the initial capital of £25, and employed Mike Costin as his chief assistant. He developed aerodynamic sports-racing cars and hired out his talent as a designer to Vanwall and BRM. His self-confidence seemed justified when Lotus survived its first financial crisis, and a Lotus Formula 2 car with a Coventry-Climax engine was shown at the London Motor Show. The Elite road car appeared in 1957, a ground-breaking design in glass reinforced plastic of which nearly a thousand were made.

Chapman’s delight at outwitting the racing authorities over badly-framed regulations was only matched by the cavalier attitude he adopted towards customers. He was always careful never to become personally involved, but the sharp-practice manners of Lotus in its kit-car and early Elite period enraged buyers. Their dilemma was that no other car had the same appeal. No other car had the Elite’s combination of speed and roadholding together with purity of line and sheer raciness. Chapman held the technological aces.