As you know, every week I write an article about two topics, but this week I’ve decided to talk about one topic widely because, after seeing a couple of documentaries and reading some internet articles I wanted to get people known about the true face of a man that everyone thought was a hero and a true legend who was not knighted.
I Want It All: Who actually was Mr. Colin Chapman?
Anthony Colin Bruce Chapman, founder and owner of “Lotus” (his initials are in the logo, if you can spot them) was quite a mysterious man. Everyone knew him as a God of engineering and car design who followed “simplify, then add lightness” philosophy blindly. This philosophy earned his company 7 constructors championships and 6 drivers’ championships for his drivers in Formula 1, and unbeatable handling characteristics for his road cars still going strong today. His Esprit featured in two James Bond films, the “John Player Special” F1 colors became somewhat a legend themselves and things like front and rear wings, carbon monocoque chassis and ground effect that are inalienable features of F1 cars of today were first introduced by him. That’s how Colin Chapman is remembered by most of the people. What he isn’t remembered for is somewhat a mystery (and not quite a nice one) that got him to these achievements in design, speed and victories. Everyone remembers him as a good guy…but was he really that nice?
Chapman with the Lotus Esprit (known for being featured in “The Spy Who Loved Me” Bond film) and one of his airplanes. Chapman had a flyer’s license, so a couple of times he flew to Gran Prix events.
Chapman, being a structural engineering graduate of UCL, had an engineer’s mind – he looked for the best and most efficient possible solution to everything. That reflected in his work. That also reflected in his attitude. He was a man who didn’t listen to rulebooks. He was the one who took a rulebook, read it for hours trying to find loopholes that he could use to his advantage. The biggest loophole of all was “safety”. Colin cared too much for his team’s victory he used every single possible way how to make his car more competitive. One way was to use a monocoque chassis in Lotus 25 from 1962. The car was indeed ingenious…but it was at a cost. Jim Clark, the driver who won two championship titles with this very car, was lucky because all of fluid pipes (oil, petrol and coolant) went right by his head on the inside of the car. So if he would’ve landed in a crash he would’ve literally baked himself in an oily inferno. Chapman wasn’t bothered.
Another example of his ruthless attitude was apparent in 1978. In Monza Grand Prix the Swedish driver Ronnie Peterson lost control of his Lotus 78 after James Hunt collided with him. Peterson’s car landed in the barriers and got caught ablaze straight after. Because the car was so simplistic and had no safety gear, the chassis bent, trapping the Swede inside, leaving him inside to die. Straight after the race Colin Chapman was charged with manslaughter. Chapman, furiously, objected, saying that the blame was not his, but team’s, for giving the wrong car. During Monza practices Peterson damaged his Lotus 79 beyond repair. The only car that was available at the time was a Lotus 78 that wasn’t maintained since its usage in 1977 season. Colin said that if Ronnie would’ve used the 79, this accident wouldn’t have happened and, as the decision to use the 78 was team’s decision, all of the blame should lie with the team. After this incident, Chapman rarely got involved with Team Lotus unlike him before the accident, when he spent hours looking after team’s work.
In his personal life Chapman was a player. Because of his team’s success he used the Hethel airbase (where Lotus is still based) as his private airfield, flying airplanes everywhere. That was apparent from his well-tanned skin (and it wasn’t fake tan). It’s been rumored within Lotus that he had two “mistresses” (and those weren’t the ones who just clean up an office and wash laundry) during the high time of Lotus. Probably some more money going away that could’ve gone into his dear company. Seems like he was Jordan Belfort of his day.
The cherry on the cake came in 1978-1981 period, when a silver-haired, tall, charismatic American by the name of John Zachary DeLorean was looking for a company who could engineer his dream car, the DMC-12, for mass production. And he wanted for a company to do put the car into production in less than 2 years after the deal is signed. He approached Porsche. They said they could do it in 4 years. And BMW said they could do it in 7 years, but they couldn’t be bothered anyway. Chapman saw an opportunity here. His Lotus Company was on the brink of being extinct with debts rising through the roof.
John DeLorean (third from the right) with Colin Chapman (first from the right) in a boardroom meeting at Lotus
He got in touch with DeLorean and said that he can do it for a sum of £10m and in 2 years. The charismatic American man got Chapman and Lotus’s accountant of the time, Fred Bushell in a hotel room and they negotiated for 4 days in a row on their proposed venture. Rumors say that DeLorean offered a Lotus buyout, but the sum that Chapman went for was out of DeLorean’s budget, which came from British Government. In the end they agreed on it and engineering began.
However, the engineering ended in 3 years instead of promised 2 and it went way over £10m and the “engineering” involved getting a Lotus Esprit chassis, putting DeLorean’s body design on it and call it a “new car” (don’t get me wrong, both cars were great, but the way that this money was handled was a bit…wrong) . Mysteriously, Lotus had two installments coming from the government (signed by Chapman, DeLorean and Bushell) for two prototypes of the same car. Suspicious? Also, this money went through a company in Switzerland, called GPD (“Gran Prix Drivers”) to avoid excessive tax charges. (When one of Lotus employees mentioned to Chapman that he was involved in tax evasion, he got up and shouted “Tax evasion is a crime! Tax avoidance is a science, and I am involved with science!”) Then, when all the hell broke loose with DeLorean Motor Company, investigators found that more than £10m were mysteriously missing. Investigators later concluded that all of this money was illegally spent on everything but cars. Fred Bushell was sentenced to 3 years in jail. Chapman could’ve faced 10 years, but he didn’t live long enough to face the trial as he died of a serious heart attack in December 1982.
Chapman was known for celebrating his team’s victories in style and on the driveway of the track
A genius? A hero? Or just another adventurist who cared for his own wealth? These questions keep the true petrolheads wondering through the years. But whatever they think, they cannot deny the fact that Chapman changed the face of motor racing forever. He would’ve been a knight if he wouldn’t have been involved in a fight with a Dutch policeman in 1965. But that’s another “what if” story.
Colin Chapman (1928 – 1982)