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Colin Chapman


Anthony Colin Bruce Chapman (born 19 May 1928 in London - died 16 December 1982) was an influential designer, inventor, and builder in the automotive industry. In 1952 he founded the sports car company Lotus Cars. He studied structural engineering at University College, London where he joined the University Air Squadron and learned to fly. After graduating in 1948, he briefly joined the Royal Air Force. His knowledge of the latest aeronautical engineering techniques would prove vital towards achieving the major automotive technical advances he is remembered for. His Formula One Team Lotus won seven World Championships and the Indianapolis 500 between 1962 and 1978. The production side of Lotus Cars has built tens of thousands of relatively affordable, cutting edge sports cars. Lotus is one of but a handful of British performance car builders still in business after the industrial decline of the 1970s. Chapman died of a heart attack.


Career

In 1948 Chapman started with the Mk1, a modified Austin 7, which he entered privately into local racing events. For reasons he never divulged he called it a Lotus. With prize money won he developed the Lotus Mk2. With continuing success on through the Mk6, he began to sell kits of these cars. Over 100 Mk6 kits were sold through 1956. It was with the Mk7 in 1957 that things really took off, and indeed Caterham Cars still manufacture a version of that car today - the Caterham 7; while over the years over 90 different Lotus 7 clones, replicas, and derivatives have been offered to the public by a variety of makers. Among a number of legendary automotive figures who have been Lotus employees over the years were Mike Costin and Keith Duckworth, founders of Cosworth.

In the 1950s Chapman progressed through the motor racing formulae, designing and building a series of racing cars, sometimes to the point of being in limited production they were so successful and highly sought after, until he arrived in Formula 1. Along with John Cooper, he revolutionised the premier motor sport. Their small, lightweight mid-engined vehicles gave away much in terms of power, but superior handling meant their competing cars often beat the all-conquering front engined Ferraris and Maseratis. Eventually, with legendary driver Jim Clark at the wheel of his race cars, Team Lotus came to appear as though they could win whenever they pleased. With Clark driving the legendary Lotus 25 Team Lotus won its first F1 World Championship in 1963. It was Clark, driving a Lotus 38 at the Indianapolis 500 in 1965, who drove the first ever mid-engined car to victory at the fabled "Brickyard." Certainly, Jim Clark would have won many more races were it not for his untimely death in 1968 when a rear tire failed whilst racing a Formula 2 car at Hockenheimring.

Chapman, who came from relatively humble roots, was also a businessman who introduced major advertising sponsorship into auto racing; beginning the process which changed Formula One from rich gentlemen's pastime, to multi-million pound high technology enterprise. It was Chapman who in 1966 persuaded the Ford Motor Company Motor Company to sponsor Cosworth's development of what would become the legendary DFV race engine. Shortly before his death he became involved in John De Lorean's De Lorean Motor Company venture to manufacture sports cars in troubled Northern Ireland. The full extent of his involvement has never been proved, but it is believed he would have been investigated for possible complicity in the manipulation of government loans during the development of the De Lorean car. De Lorean himself was tried and acquitted.


Innovations

Many of his ideas can still be seen in Formula 1 and other top levels of motor sport (such as Indycars) today.

He pioneered the use of struts as a rear suspension device. Even today, struts used in the rear of a vehicle are known as Chapman struts, while virtually identical suspension struts for the front are known as MacPherson struts.

His next major innovation was to adopt the use of monocoque (stressed-skin) unibodies (i.e. it replaced both the body and frame, which until then had been separate components) for car chassis. This was the first major advance in which he introduced aeroplane technology to cars. The resultant body was both lighter, stronger (i.e. stiffer), and also provided better driver protection in the event of a crash. The first Lotus to feature this technology was the Lotus Elite, in 1958. The modified monocoque body of the car was made out of fibreglass, making it also one of the first production cars made out of composites.

In 1962 he extended this innovation to racing cars, with the revolutionary Lotus 25 mid-engined Formula 1 car. This fairly quickly replaced what had been for many decades the standard design formula in racing-cars, the front engined, later mid-engined, tube-frame chassis. Although the material has changed from sheet aluminium to carbon fibre, this remains today the standard technique for building top-level racing cars. It was a Chapman monocoque chassis that first introduced the engine and transmission as stressed members of the overall chassis, again, an innovation that continues in universal application in today's Formula cars.

It was also Chapman who truly brought aerodynamics into the first-rank of race car design. He popularized the concept of positive aerodynamic downforce, through the addition of front and rear wings. Early efforts were mounted 3 feet or so above the car, in order to operate in 'clean air' (i.e. air that would not otherwise be disturbed by the passage of the car). However the thin supporting struts failed regularly, obliging the FIA to require the wings to be attached directly to the bodywork. He also originated the movement of radiators away from the front of the car, to decrease air resistance at speed. These concepts also remain features of high performance racing cars today.

Another concept of Chapman's was "ground effect", whereby a partial vacuum was created under the car by use of venturis, generating "downforce" which held it securely to the road whilst cornering, etc. (Modern racing cars generate enough downforce that they could theoretically be driven on a ceiling once they reach about 100 mph.) Initially this technique utilized sliding "skirts" which made contact with the ground to keep the area of low pressure isolated. The skirts were eventually banned, for if during cornering the car went over a curb, and the skirt were damaged, downforce was lost, and the car could become extremely unstable. However, downforce remains a critical part of racing car technology, and designers, aided by extensive wind tunnel testing, have regained most of what was lost through the banning of skirts.

His last major technical innovation was the creation of the dual-chassis car design, in which different parts of the vehicle were given differing suspension roles. The banning of this innovative technology by the FIA F1 governing body deeply upset him, and may have precipitated ill health, which was to dog him for the final few years of his life. However, it inspired active suspension, also pioneered by Lotus.


Awards

  • He was inducted in the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1994.
  • He was inducted in the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 1997.

Further reading

  • Gerard ('Jabby') Crombac, Colin Chapman: The Man and His Cars (Patrick Stephens, Wellingborough, 1986)
Colin Chapman


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