Lotus has a rich and varied history spanning 62 years and in that time has had many stories of derring-do and mishaps to entertain us. Some of those stories, some of which you may never had heard before are below.
Mike Kimberley (MJK) had just started at Lotus when, as part of his engineering duties, he “borrowed” Colin Chapman’s Bond Bug (I’m sure you all remember the orange monstrosities). It was really a project but Colin considered it his. There was a straight road with an S-bend at the end alongside the test track and it was here that MJK decided that just driving the bug wasn’t enough and that he had to test “roll” it, test “roll” it again and again and again until there was just a fine mist of orange fibreglass, a mangled piece of metal and a mangled person attached to the seat, upside down.
For those that know the bug it’s door was the roof, so being upside down was not a good thing. Add to that the seized seat belt (too much pressure on the clasp so it wouldn’t release) and the broken fuel tank and it’s enough to require a change of pants…….if one wasn’t already needed!
MJK was woken by the dripping of petrol into his mouth and nose and the noise of shorting out electrics and you can imagine the panic. To cut a long story short he eventually got out with some serious injuries and was in hospital when Colin drove past the crash site. “Who the hell did that” Colin is reported to have said to his driver, and the reply was that “It was Kimberley sir”. “Sack Him!” and that was that.
MJK supposedly spoke to Fred and several Engineers who passed on the message that “Kimberley” was unhappy as the vehicle was unstable and Colin said that if he could prove it then he could get his job back. He begged and borrowed another bond bug and took it to Colin’s house where he asked Colin to get in it and drive round and round the fountain at increasing speeds. Now, the bug’s chassis is a “T” shape with the T part at the front (yes I know it’s stupid on a 3 wheeler but it’s true) and at 20mph the vehicle with Colin in it tilted, the front of the T dug into the ground and over she went…..
The rest is history, but MJK and Colin used it as an “incentive” to new engineers (Imagine the scene “Spotty little teenager who thinks he knows everything – Chairman and Engineering Director talking in front of him…..Colin says “Mike remember that time I sacked you whilst you were at deaths door in hospital for crashing a test vehicle…..” Mike nods knowingly, new Engineer goes white………)
All Early 70’s Lotus’s were tested by senior engineers driving over Europe and back. 11pm one night in the early 70’s and 2 senior engineers were driving through the alps in Northern Italy…lets call them Mike Kimberley and Tony Rudd for the sake of anonymity!
Now, the Europa Twincam was virtually all new against the old Renault engined Europa and this included better brakes and suspension and new steering. Not having experienced the great new steering MJK takes over and Tony Rudd gets some sleep. Imagine the peace and tranquillity of a nice dark summers night, a gently winding Alp road, 5000 feet drop, lack of barriers (this was the early 70’s) and unbeknownst to both Engineers the wrong steering ratio’s. Eager to get to his destination the driver (now MJK) put his foot down on the gently twisting road until at 70mph he came to a hairpin………
Now those that know the frustration of a car that doesn’t turn in to a corner as they want can only imagine what was going through MJK’s mind as he turned the wheel…and turned and turned and screamed and screamed! Said car decided that, though great at gentle curves when you wound the steering on there was less and less turning ratio. A minor but soon to be major mistake.
Tony Rudd woke up and looking directly at 5000 feet of empty space and joined MJK screaming until the car stopped one wheel precariously in thin air. MJK now rarely talks about this incident, maybe because as Chief Engineer, he really should have gently tested the steering, however, after plying him with a few beers or a bottle of Cava, he may regale you with his story and he does a great impression of Tony Rudd’s scream and may even mention the dry cleaning bill once they got to the guest house!
From the early 1970’s until the early 1980’s Simon Freeby’s father worked with Colin Chapman as his architect, designing many of the buildings at Hethel but mainly at Ketteringham Hall (HQ). Anyone who knows Lotus will understand that there always has and still is a kind of tidal movement associated with the factory ie too much staff, lay people off, not enough staff, hire everybody back! However his father was on a watertight contract of employment so sacking was not an option. Therefore when there were buildings to design and oversee Mr Freeby was kept very busy indeed, (regularly Colin would change his mind at the eleventh hour) but when there were no buildings to design Colin made sure that he was kept busy in other areas. Here is an anecdote about one of them.
The scene is set apart from to tell you that this takes place in the mid 70’s.
“Andrew, I am fed up of having to get out of my car in the rain to open my garage doors, get back in my car drive into the garage and then get out again and close the garage doors. I want you to design an electrically operated garage door” says Chapman. Now please bear in mind that technology in the mid seventies did not stretch to infra-red, lasers, beams or fields, Mr Freeby set to work pleased with something to do. He devised a system where two cables were stretched across the drive in front of the garage. The principle simple, when the vehicle passed over the first cable it would trigger the electric motor to open the door, when the car passed over the second cable this would reverse the polarity of the motor and the doors would close again. Simple efficiency that was always the best solution to any problem.
Testing the doors they worked like a charm. Pleased with his creation he informed my Chapman that the project was complete and that he could use the garage.
A week later Colin summoned him to his office, concerned that the project had somehow failed he knocked and entered. “Andrew, those garage doors, they are too slow” (Colin was an inpatient man), “I have to wait for them to open before I can drive in and then wait for them to close once in the garage. I want them to be fully open by the time I get to them and fully closed by the time I have parked”
Simple thought Mr Freeby, I will move the opening cable further up the drive and move the closing cable closer to the opening cable that way the doors will open earlier and the closed by the time he has parked. The adjustments were made and tested and found to be significantly improved.
Another week and Andrew is summoned again “Still not fast enough Andrew!”. I probably should point out that by all accounts Colin wasn’t afraid of the loud pedal. Again the adjustments were made. Just days later “I am still having to wait Andrew, I want the operation to be faster, I don’t even want to have to brake until I park.” said Colin ” so, against his better judgement I hasten to add, Andrew set the system to open and then immediately close so that Colin could drive in without even having to slow down until within the garage.
The system was tweaked to perfection and worked well for some time too, until rats had chewed through the opening cable and the doors didn’t open without Mr Chapman braking or even having time to brake. I believe the car was recycled for parts back onto the production line although I couldn’t possible prove it. My father was thankful of that watertight contract!
Simon’s next story about his father:
Colin bought himself a light aircraft, a Cessna something or other and he asked my father to build him a hanger – an easy job for someone of my fathers calibre and the job was carried out with speed and precision.
The problem occurs some years later, when Colin sets his sights on a LearJet! Now when Colin buys his LearJet it soon becomes apparent that it will not fit in the hanger designed for the Cessna. Now most people would have pulled the hanger down and rebuilt another one, a larger LearJet sized hanger after all if you can pay 2 or 3 million on a jet what’s another £30k for a proper hanger. Well Colin wasn’t most people!
The problem was that the Lear jets fitted lengthways, it fitted widthways it was just the tail which was considerably higher than the Cessna’s that proved to be the problem. “I don’t care how you do it, but you are going to get that jet to fit in that hanger!” said Colin to my father and before he had a chance to mutter “but….” he had walked off.
My dad appraised the job before him – on closer inspection it proved that the once clear of the hanger doors the jet would fit. So all he had to do was modify the front of the hanger, but no that would have compromised the structural integrity of the roof and although that could be remedied it would cost more that pulling down the hanger…Colin would not write the cheque for that he was sure.
My father devised a plan and set to work……
He obtained all of the technical data (the stuff the manufacturer would allow anyhow) like fuel payload capacity, weight, wingspan etc, I remember that he pored over these files for weeks and weeks at home, what he was doing was working out the centre point of the jet as it was crucial to his idea that the plane remained nose heavy despite the fuel load. With all of the technical information calculated it transpired that it didn’t matter how much fuel was in the plane it would remain nose heave although there was only a small margin of about 200KG or so. Consequently his design started to get off the ground (excuse the pun)!
What my father had created was a ramp! Not any ordinary ramp, this was a special ramp that would guide the nose wheel of the Lear jet onto it and then lift the nose of the plane sufficiently to dip the tail plane under the restricted height of the hanger as the plane drove over it, and hey presto the square peg really does fit in the round hole! I mean it was genius! My father had accounted for everything to make sure the plan remained nose heavy as this was so crucial to the successful operation, he had even taken into account the pilot, he might as well have asked for what the pilot eaten for breakfast he was being that fastidious! He was confident that he had missed nothing and that what he had done would surely impress Mr Chapman. WRONG!
Unfortunately for my father he was not able to test his design with the jet as Colin was entertaining some clients in Ibiza and so the maiden test was unfortunately with Mr Chapman present. The guests disembarked from the plane, Colin and the pilot stayed on the plane, this was ok because Colin couldn’t possibly weigh more than 200KG could he?? No impossible thought my dad as the plane entered the hanger….the nose wheel connected with the bottle neck of the ramp perfectly…..the nose of the plane started to rise….The tail started to dip……CRASH!!!! the tail of the plane hit the deck! It was TAIL HEAVY!
When Colin disembarked from the plane he just stared at my father red in the face (this was probably worse than the ranting that my father was becoming accustomed to) and said through gritted teeth although remarkably calm “We better discuss this in my office”
My father just stood there wondering what calculation was wrong, where was the error and as he was watching the men trying to right the fallen LearJet he saw two men hand bailing from the hold the guest’s luggage which was held at the BACK of the plane! He had been so focused on the technical calculations that he hadn’t even considered that the passengers might have taken some clothes with them!
With thanks to Anthony Kimberley and Simon Freeby (and their dads!) – If you have a story you’d like to share with 25,000+ Lotus enthusiasts, please email us.