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Lotus Seven

Lotus Seven

By Jack Nerad

Lotus Seven These days the word "notorious" is often used incorrectly to indicate a person "of note," instead of one who is, to use the dictionary's synonyms, "infamous, disreputable, dishonorable, tarnished." By the time of his death, Colin Chapman, the creator of the Lotus Seven, was all of these things -- certainly of note but also tainted by his involvement in the star-crossed DeLorean DMC-12 debacle. More is the pity that this stigma has clung to a man who provided so much automotive goodness over the years, both in the construction of road cars and, perhaps more pointedly, in his involvement in Formula One racing. But that is the price this legend has had to pay, at least in death.

In fact, Anthony Colin Bruce Chapman cut such a swath through life in the latter half of the 20th Century that when he died of a heart attack rumors immediately began to fly that his death had been faked as a last, desperate gambit to flee from scandal and financial despair. Many picture him alive today, basking on some out-of-the-way Caribbean beach, far from the chaos and turmoil of the performance car business.

How did the bright light that was the early Colin Chapman find its way to the shadows of potential scandal and ruin? The road was a long and winding one. Chapman was born in 1928 just outside London, the son of a hotel manager. Too young to serve his country in action in World War II, he learned to fly while at university, where he studied civil engineering, and served a short stint in the Royal Air Force soon after hostilities concluded. By 1948 he had earned his degree, but any desire he might have had to build dams or grade roads was quickly overshadowed by his love of automobiles. He acquired a fabric-bodied Austin 7, and he immediately began to tinker with it in an attempt to wrest some degree of performance from its anemic powertrain. Even though the Seven didn't provide much to work with, he made some progress, and several of his friends suggested that he enter a local race.

Oddly, he had never seen a motor race, but not only did he enter, he also won, and within weeks he was winning races regularly. His winning ways then persuaded others to ask him to tweak their cars. So by day he labored at civil engineering, and nights and weekends he was a one-man racing conglomerate. By 1951, his third racecar had become a dominant force in the 750cc class, relying largely on light weight and the stiffness of its spaceframe chassis to outdo the competition, lessons that would stay with Chapman throughout his life.

Boosted by a 1952 investment made by his girlfriend, Hazel Williams, Chapman founded Lotus Engineering Co., Ltd., but, like a struggling comic, he kept his day job with British Aluminium, a job that gave him additional expertise in his continual pursuit of lightness. In fact cutting weight became nearly a religion with him.

By 1954 he was finally able to quit his full-time job to devote all his efforts to Lotus Engineering, and it became obvious to Chapman that the next logical step was to move into sports car racing. With this in mind he produced the Lotus Mark VI, an obvious extension of the Austin Seven-based line of inexpensive racers he had been building up to that time. And because of Chapman's advanced techniques, mostly in chassis and suspension, the Mark VI was successful on the track, and by 1957 more than 100 had been built.

Though the Mark VI was "series-produced," Chapman was quite ready and willing to build one-off cars for customers willing to pay the freight, and one of those customers was a guy, as they say in England, called Edward Lewis. A manufacturer of racing boots, Lewis was a well-known Lotus racer, and by 1956 he was in the market for a small, light car suitable for driving in hillclimbs, a popular British diversion at the time. As a longtime driver of a Lotus Mark VI, Lewis thought he had some ideas that could convert the car into something that would fit his needs, and after talking with Chapman, the result was a lightweight Mark VI chassis fitted with more advanced mechanicals like the legendary Coventry Climax 1100 cubic centimeter four cylinder engine and a de Dion rear end. Lewis designed the rudimentary body himself and had it built by Williams and Pritchard.

The "Edward Lewis Special" first competed in September 1956, and by the following spring it had made such a name for itself that the cash register in Chapman's mind began to ring. He figured there would be a market for a car that could successfully compete on the track yet be legally driven on the road, and he further figured that Lewis's car was it. So he promised to build Lewis an all-new Lotus, to be named the VII (or, eventually, Seven,) if Lewis would give him the Special back to use as a development vehicle. Lewis agreed to the swap and had his pride and joy delivered to the Lotus works in early 1957, only to see it essentially go into cold storage while Chapman worked on other projects.

Finally, as summer was turning to fall in 1957, Lotus completed vehicle #400, the Lotus Seven prototype that it had promised Lewis nearly a year before. Like the Lewis Special, the car was fitted with a Coventry Climax engine and de Dion rear with a steep 4.5:1 final drive ratio. Lewis immediately sent the car into competition, and it competed in two different engine displacement classes at the September 1957 Brighton Speed Trials and came within a hair of winning in each.

When the car went into series production that same September, the most notable change was the substitution of the much less expensive 1172 cubic centimeter Ford 100E four cylinder engine. That side-valve powerplant developed between 28 and 40 horsepower at 4,500 rpm depending on state of tune, compression ratio, manifolding and carburetion. The engine was usually fitted with a single downdraft Solex carb, but a hop-up was the shift to twin SU H2 carburetors, sometimes with four-branch exhaust manifold. The engine was backed by a three-speed Ford-built manual transmission fitted with a Lotus-built remote gear change mechanism. The live rear axles were from Nash Metropolitans.

While the production engine was mundane, the chassis and body certainly were not. The chassis was a spaceframe formed with square and round-section tubular 18 gauge steel supplemented by aluminum floor and driveshaft tunnel that were "stressed members" in the design. (In a Colin Chapman car, virtually nothing was along for the ride. For example, the aluminum fuel tank was secured by bungy cords.)

The throwback-style body featured separate fenders ("wings" in British parlance), and it was completely fashioned of aluminum. Most of the early cars were delivered to their buyers sans paint. Their owners could then have them painted or, as was often the case, have their bodies polished.

The front suspension was independent using transverse wishbones with an incorporated anti-roll bar and MacPherson struts. The live rear axle was located by twin parallel trailing arms plus a diagonal link for lateral location. Springing and damping were provided by what have come to be called "Chapman struts," essentially MacPherson struts in the rear. Cast iron drum brakes were fitted all around. Worm-and-nut steering was fairly rapidly succeeded by a rack-and-pinion unit copped from Morris.

All this sounds fairly conventional until one gets to the dimensions of the vehicle. The Lotus Seven had a wheelbase of just 88 inches and an overall length of 123 inches. By way of comparison the current Mazda Miata has a wheelbase of 89.2 inches with an overall length of 155.3 inches. Even more to the point, the current Miata weighs 2500 pounds, while the original Lotus Seven weighed in at an amazing 725 pounds. (With a spare wheel and tire it did rocket up to 822 pounds.)

The incredible lightness of the Seven's being was its claim to fame. The lightness gave it many virtues including direct, nearly go-kart-like steering and effortless handling. As more horsepower was added over the years, it simply added to the fun. And while Colin Chapman is long gone (at least we think he is) the Lotus Seven lives on in the form of the Caterham Super Seven, which is still in production today.
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