Asking a favour of your girlfriend’s father when you are barely eighteen years old is always a daunting prospect, no matter how much he might say he likes you. So, with some of the bravado that his friend and partner in such adventures, Colin Dare, showed in his name, a not very tall and a little shy chap, with curly blonde and well-cut hair and emerging moustache, called Colin Chapman took the decision of talking with the father of his beloved Hazel Williams
It was 1947 and England was on the verge of recovery after the very tough times of the Second World War and the two Colins had started a small business buying and selling second-hand cars that was becoming lucrative. The trouble was that, as it continued to grow, they didn’t have a suitable place to store their wares. Additionally, the father of the young Chapman wasn’t very keen on his son dedicating less time to his civil engineering studies, at London University, than he did to wheeling and dealing in the car market held in the north of the city, in Warren Street. The solution was in using some lock-ups placed behind the family house of his girlfriend, a modest rural construction in the outskirts of the capital where the main business was chicken farming.
Indeed, Hazel was right, her father liked that boy with the determined gaze whom his daughter had been in love with since she had met him at a dance hall two years before. So, he not only agreed to rent Colin the room he needed, in exchange for a modest fee he never got, but in the next months he also lent him some money to help buying some of the cars that the clever Colin always managed to sell with a profit. Hazel was right when she told her father that this chap will go places, Colin Chapman was enterprising, had charisma, was a quick thinker and wasn’t frightened by anybody, no matter how tough the people in the used cars business were. In fact soon he had to dealt with them on his own, as his friend and partner failed his exams and decided to gave up to concentrate on his studies.
This setback was nothing compared with the next one, some months later. In the post-war years’ things weren’t easy in England, money was sparse and there was a shortage of raw materials. Ration cards were still in use and, in December, there was a reduction in the allowance for a product that was vital for the young businessman’s deals: the petrol for private use. Suddenly, nobody wanted to buy a car they couldn’t run, Colin was forced to sell all his stock at a loss and he kept the only car no one wanted, even at the cheaper price: an old and derelict 1930 Austin Rover with a rotten fabric body. As he had to keep it, while waiting for the improvement in the general situation, the young engineering student decided to use the Seven to put to a test some of the things he had learnt in the University and, especially, in the wheeling and dealing at Warren Street, the centre for people dedicated to the preparation and modification of old cars to make them attractive to their clients.
The agreement with his future father-in-law was still in force, the lock-up rented as a warehouse for the second-hand cars was the ideal place to get hands on experience. This was how, in a similar way as would happen some years later with the now famous Apple and Microsoft, the seed of what would end up being Lotus was being born in a little garage. There, the young couple expended a lot of hours modifying the old Austin, with Hazel being as enthusiastic as Colin with the project and helping with whatever was necessary.
Soon, what was initially planned as an every-day car, became something else. About this time trialling was becoming popular, sporting events for cars run against the clock, uphill and cross country. At the time, the trials were more important and common than circuit racing, reduced in England to very few events held over old airfields since the closing of the legendary Brooklands, which had become an aircraft factory in the war years. In the trial events, the wins used to be for the more powerful cars, more adept at climbing the muddy and steep climbs. But the big V8 engines started to be more and more hard to find and maintain given the lack of spares. Moreover, their bigger consumption of the always less easy to find petrol meant yet another drawback. It was then that the so called ‘specials’, started to flourish. With less power than the V8s but much lighter and with far less appetite for fuel, they were built employing the imagination of their creators in spite of the lack of funds. And Colin decided that the Austin Seven that nobody wanted would be his first special, a car not only to travel around with Hazel but also to compete in the trials with her as his co-driver.
With an old electric hand drill and his fertile brain as the only available tools, Colin started to work on several ideas to be applied to his project. First thing to do was to totally strip out and replace the old and totally useless fabric body with something more rigid but also light. To go fast to the top of the steep climbs of the trial events, weight was the main enemy and reducing it soon became a sort of obsession for Chapman that would continue during his long career designing and building race and street cars. Colin, who at the time was enlisted in the University Air Squadron of the RAF, went for something that will also become one of his trademarks, the use of a very aeronautical solution. The new structure, that each day grew less similar to the original Austin Seven, was built with plywood panels covered by thin aluminium sheets. This way he made it lighter and he also improved the legendary lack of rigidity of the Sevens, which tended to flex in quite an alarming way. The result was a bodywork with quite a primitive and angular shape, built by a local specialist, as Chapman’s ‘workshop’ didn’t have the panel beating facilities to do it on his own. A couple of small cut outs on the sides, instead of doors, and the only concession to the aesthetics, a Rolls Royce like front grill, contoured in brass, completed the external work.
The next task was to cure another endemic issue of the veteran car, its insane tendency to oversteer. The rear axle was on quarter-elliptical springs that made it float more than grip the ground. Colin flattened them to improve the road holding and also to put them above the axle, so he gained a bit of extra ground clearance, something always useful when running on irregular surfaces. A new manifold, a new Ford carburettor, more sophisticated than the very simple original from Austin, and a complete engine rebuild, increasing its compression ratio, helped to take the maximum when uphill from the small four cylinders.
Some improvements to the rudimentary brake system and an ingenious attachment system for the mudguards and headlights, so they were easy to reattach or replace after some of the normal hits against the branches or rocks so usual on the ascent in the trials, completed the transformation of the old road car that nobody wanted into the first creation of Colin Chapman which is how the young student saw it, he didn’t want it being yet another Austin Special. His new car was registered again and went from the original PK3493 of the donor Austin Seven to the OX9292 associated with a special named the Lotus Mark 1.
The reason for using that name, Lotus, is a mystery to this day. We only know for sure that it was chosen by Colin and Hazel, but nobody really knows if it was because the lotus flower had some special meaning for them or because of any of the other theories about it, from the fruit that Homer said cured homesickness in the Odyssey to a word play with the phrase ‘us lot’ that Colin used to say often. Whatever, at the wheel of the Lotus MK1, Colin and Hazel started to get some good results in the trial events they entered, although they also noticed several improvements that needed to be made in order to make the car more effective. Soon it started to show the first changes, like wider rear wheels to gain more traction, and a front independent suspension instead of the original rigid axle version.
The Mark 1 was just the beginning, the bug had bitten the young Chapman hard, Civil Engineering had lost a genius and in the next few years, instead of bridges, tunnels and buildings, the young man, now with a more luxuriant moustache had an even more certain vision, was focused entirely on the design of racing cars to become, in a very short time, one of the greats of an industry that was growing at the same fast rate as the ideas were emerging from his restless and future oriented mind. So much future oriented, indeed, so as not to care about keeping his first car, which he sold when starting new projects. The Mk1 was lost, no matter how much it was searched for several years later by some Lotus enthusiasts when the brand was already famous. There is only a modern recreation built by one of them, using another Austin Seven as a base and done with the help of the few images showing the original car, most of them with a smiling Hazel at its wheel. The then girlfriend and later wife of Colin looks proud in that first Lotus she was so instrumental in creating.
‘Colin Chapman, the man and his cars. The Authorized biography’, by Gerard ‘Jabby’ Crombac
‘Colin Chapman, wayward genius’, by Mike Lawrence
‘The Lotus Book, the complete history of Lotus Cars’, by William Taylor
‘Lotus 1948-1950’s heritage’, Lotus Cars official website
‘The Lotus Seven Story. Chapter one: The beginnings. The Lotus MKI, 750 Motor Club & the Lotus MKII’, Lotus Seven Register website