We found a trove of pics of great Lotus cars from years gone by while raiding the company’s photo archive for shots of Hethel’s new hybrid. The photos are more than a look back at several reasons Colin Chapman should be canonized.
Scroll through the auto porn and you can trace the lineage of the Evora 414E Hybrid from the Elite through the Evora with some DNA from Lotus’ legendary Formula 1 cars. You can’t look at these pics and think Lotus didn’t make damn sure its hybrid concept car lives up to the company’s reputation for fine sports cars.
The Lotus story starts in 1952 when Chapman founded the company, but it built only race cars until the Type 14, known as the Elite (pictured above), appeared at the London auto show in 1957 and in showrooms the following year. The Elite was developed in just one year with input from some of the company’s racing customers.
Aside from its attractive styling, what really set the car off was that it was fiberglass. Not just the body, as you’d find on the all-American Corvette. The Elite featured a highly innovative fiberglass monocoque construction for the entire load-bearing structure of the car. That made the car lighter, stiffer and more crashworthy, and despite having just 75 horsepower, the Elite was a formidable racer.
This is the Elan, or Lotus 26, built between 1962 and 1973. It was intended as a less expensive alternative to the Elite, which bowed out in 1963. The Lotus Elan reminds you a bit of the Mazda Miata, doesn’t it? That’s because the Lotus 36, a later version of the Elan, was the inspiration for it. And the Elan is just like the Miata, only with better handling and less weight (just 1,300 pounds). Sadly, it also had less reliability, but that’s beside the point. Five minutes in an Elan with the top down on a country road and you’ll know Chapman was one of the best chassis engineers in history.
The Lotus Europa was the first mass-produced mid-engine road car and a lightweight flier of a ride. The car, built between 1965 and 1975, typified Chapman’s ethos: “Simplify, then add lightness.” It featured a central spine chassis and a high revving four-banger. It went through several iterations that used Renault and Ford Cosworth engines, and every one of them handled like it was on the proverbial rails. Only a fool would have challenged one to a street race back in the mid-’60s, and even now the cars can be absolute terrors on an autocross course.
When Roger Moore was James Bond, he drove an Esprit Turbo. The Esprit appeared in 1975 as a replacement to the Elan and Europa, and by the time it was turbocharged in 1980, the car could run with Ferraris and Porsches and the like. And it did it using a 2.2-liter four-cylinder engine that was boosted to within an inch of its life. That made it about as enduring as a hand grenade, but wow — what a performer.
Don’t forget that Lotus did a lot of racing and was quite an innovator, especially in Formula 1. The gorgeous Type 25 introduced the monocoque chassis to the sport. But you could argue the Lotus 49 pictured above was the first modern grand prix car. It won its debut at the Dutch GP at the hands of the immortal Jim Clark. The car featured a monocoque chassis, and it marked the first time the engine was used as a stressed member. The engine in question was the formidable Cosworth DFV engine. Give a machine like that to racers like Clark and Graham Hill and Jochen Rindt and you gave Enzo Ferrari headaches for years. Hill won the championship in 1968 and Rindt won it in 1970.
The Lotus Type 72 used an improved version of the Cosworth DFV in a chassis packed with innovations like inboard brakes, sidepod-mounted radiators and an aerodynamic “door stop” design. The John Player black and gold livery pretty much defined class and sponsor involvement for the era. The car was way ahead of its time, and it brought Lotus the constructors’ championship in 1970, ‘72 and ‘73. Guys like Jochen Rindt, Emerson Fittipaldi — who won the drivers’ championships in 1970 and ‘72, respectively — Ronnie Peterson and Jacky Ickx drove the Type 72. Guys driving anything else got used to seeing the 72’s rear wing.
Speaking of getting beat like a drum, say hello to the Lotus Type 79. If your name wasn’t Mario Andretti and you weren’t driving a Type 79 in the 1978 Grand Prix season, you didn’t win very often. This was the first car to fully exploit a then-little-understood phenomena/aerodynamic trick know as ground effect. The underside of the car was sculpted like an inverted airplane wing and sealed the sides with innovative sliding skirts. The result was a car that stuck to the road like gum on hot asphalt. After crushing the field like a bunch of grapes at Zandvoort, Andretti said, “You could have put a chimp in that car and won with it!” And if you think that detracts from Mario’s skill, you don’t know much about racing.
Yes, we know Lotus build many, many more amazing cars, and if it had included photos of any of them in its archive, we would have kept going.
Any product designer would owe it to themself to read up on Colin Chapman. These look like road and racing cars, but what the man best designed was “lightness.”