A carefully curated collection of videos about the history of Lotus and the 111 chassis, for your edification:
The history of Lotus is inseparable from the history of Grand Prix, which became Formula One. The Lotus logo still bears the initials of its creator, Anthony Colin Bruce Chapman. When British racing car builders typically gave their designs their own name e.g. Cooper, Brabham, McLaren, etc., Chapman named his company Lotus Engineering Co. Why Lotus? No one knows for certain. Not even his wife, Hazel. Though one source says “Lotus blossom” was his nickname for her. Another story is that it comes from “Lot U/S”, U/S signifying unsold, as stamped on boxes of surplus parts he bought. As we’re left to indulge speculations, I like to think it was a combination of such things, for realizing new combinations of ideas seems to be essence of Colin Chapman’s sort of renegade genius.
The early years of Grand Prix racing were for the hobbyist. You raced because craved speed and could afford to campaign across the Europe. Through the 1920’s, Italian cars led. With the 1930’s came the manufacturer-backed, professionally organized racing team of Mercedes, entering the W154. The race management of Alfred Neubauer, the first of his kind, sent the Italian teams to the back of the pack until WWII halted Grand Prix.
After the war, Britain greatly aspired to Grand Prix championship. First, by attempting to imitate the pre-war Germans. Raymond Mays organized BRM (British Racing Motor Co.) to engineer the Type 15, a down-sized Mercedes W154-look-alike. But its V16 engine and fragile transmission proved an embarrassment. By 1955, Mercedes regained its dominant ranking, taking the first four places in the British Grand Prix that year. As if for consolation, the second place driver was Sterling Moss, a prototype of the world class British racing driver.
’55 was also the year of the terrible accident at Le Mans, which saw 80-plus (reports vary) spectators killed by a Mercedes hurled in to the grand stands. Mercedes soon after withdrew from competitive motor sports, if temporarily, leaving Ferrari, Maserati and Alpha Romeo to regain their earlier Grand Prix status.
The 50’s was an age of engines, and Italian engine design was superior, delivering wins throughout the decade. On the continent, as in the U.S., racing car development centered on “muscle”, rather than agility. Chassis and suspension innovations lagged behind power plant development.
The Turning Point
Post-war Britain had something that no other European country had in such abundance; advanced aircraft design and technical expertise. As that industry declined in the late 1950’s, experience in lightweight construction and aerodynamics found its way in to English motorsport. The English racing car designers, e.g. BRM, Cooper, Lotus, Lola, and later McLaren, emphasized lightness of the chassis and reduced air resistance in the overall form factor. On Formula One/F1 road courses, agility was the new power.
1959 was the year rear/mid-engined cars took over F1, with Jack Brabham winning at Monaco in a Cooper T51 (which he helped build). Credit for the mid-engine configuration F1 cars from ’59 on belongs primarily to Cooper. Although Germany’s Auto Union (now Audi/Volkswagen) raced rear-engine cars in pre-war Gran Prix. Britain’s Dick Seaman won the 1938 Grand Prix in a rear-engined Auto Union. In Britain, at least, the rear-engined cars began with the JA Prestwich (J.A.P.) Motors powered, chain-driven, Cooper 500 prototype. In other words, British racers were on a budget, British motorcycle engines were prolific, and chain-drive suited rear-engine placement. Cooper’s success in F3 and F2 launched them in to F1.
Though not the first or only racing car designer to employ the mid/rear engine configuration in F1, Lotus certainly proved quick to fully exploit it. The Lotus Type 18, the first mid-engined Lotus, won at Monaco in 1960, driven by Stirling Moss.
After losing to the new breed of English underdogs, Enzo Farrari himself dubbed the English upstarts “garagistas”—garage workers. Not without reason. In the early 1960’s they were mainly single car entrants. In the early years they supported racing with day jobs. A used car and parts salesmen respectively, in the cases of Frank Williams and Bernie Ecclestone, and aluminum salesman in the case of Colin Chapman. Before these and other Englishmen changed the shape of Formula One racing forever, they engineered racing cars and raced them for personal rewards. There were no sponsors, and little if any direct financial incentive. Their chassis were often home-built, or second hand, using engines from Bristol, Ford, and Coventry-Climax.
In 1963 Lotus finally achieved the F1 World Championship for both constructor and driver, with Jim Clark at the wheel of of the Lotus 25. It was this car, the first to utilize a monocoque chassis design in F1 (still used today), and this driver, still hailed as singularly gifted among the pantheon of F1 hall of famers, which cemented the reputation of Lotus, and Clark, their careers then inseparable, as world class competitors.
A fiercely independent and sometimes rebellious teenager without formal mechanical training, but an abundance of talent, curiosity, and drive, left his village under Mount Fuji to find work in the big city as a mechanic. The year was 1921.
He found an apprenticeship at an auto shop, and by age 22, he opened his own shop, establishing a reputation for ingenuity. He also loved to drive, fast. He built racing cars from spare parts in his “spare” time, and raced them. His name: Soichiro (“so-ee-chee-ro”) Honda.
When he was thirty a racing accident and his wife’s urgings diverted Soichiro’s dream of a professional racing career.
In 1948, Soichiro invested all of his savings to start Honda Motor Company, and set up shop in a wooden shack. The first Honda motorcycle he designed and built from the ground up was The Dream. The Dream E was a 98cc 4-stroke delivering 3hp, 220 mpg, and about 45 mph.
“Engineering without personality doesn’t have much value.”
Five years in business, Honda Motor Company’s revenues were just sufficient to support Soichiro’s passion for racing. In 1954 he announced to the stunned employees of his fledgling company that they’re not only going to race motorcycles, “We’re going to win the world championship.”
Honda declared in writing, “My childhood dream was to be a motorsport World Champion with a machine built by myself. However, before this dream could be achieved, it was obvious that a stable enterprise with the finest precision equipment, and an excellent level of in-house design was needed.”
For Soichiro, “utility machines” facilitated his passion for racing. “I hereby avow my definite intention to participate in the TT [Isle of Man] races, and I proclaim with my fellow employees that I will pour in all of my energy and creative powers to win,” declared Honda.
One “Hondaism” expresses how he would force progress, by creating a condition without an alternative exit to progress, and eventual success.
“Send them upstairs. Take away the ladder. And set fire to it.”
By 1966, Honda motorcycles held the World Championship title in all World GP racing classes, from 50 to 500cc. Only excepting the side-car class.
While European and American engine designers generally increased horsepower by increasing cylinder displacement, Honda increased it by increasing RPM. Substituting displacement volume for RPM—essentially increasing displacement by time instead of volume—to gain power is just one example of Honda’s many engineering insights that have changed what and how we drive, or ride, forever. The 14k RPM redline of the 1959 Honda RC160 came to be known as “Honda music” by motorcycle racers and enthusiasts alike.
Mr. Honda’s story is that of the classical underdog. This man of little education, starting with no formal mechanical or business education, created a design and manufacturing company to fulfill his dream of winning the World GP championship at a time when a Japanese motorcycle winning it was virtually unimaginable. Honda’s successes in racing led the growth of his company, such that no one in the modern world doesn’t know something of the results of Soichiro Honda’s dreams.
All of us who drive vehicles with small, efficient, extremely reliable, low displacement/high RPM engines directly benefit from Mr. Honda’s own personal passion for performance, and his uncompromising commitment to continuous research and development.
It may even be said that Honda did for the inline cylinder engine configuration what German engine designers did for the horizontally opposed “boxer” configuration. Regardless, like Honda the man, Honda the company is uniquely committed to performance engine development to support racing of all kinds.
Honda Performance Development (HPD) is directly engaging in nearly every form of racing, including IndyCar, Formula Atlantic, Formula F, Karting, Quarter Midget, Le Mans, Touring Cars, Rally Racing, Drag Racing, and of course Motorcycle racing. All while maintaining their traditional lead in small utility engines. Honda is also re-entering Formula One, partnering again with McLaren for the 2015 season.
Think about it, is there any other engine company aside from Honda to develop lawn mowers, racing cars, and jets? Honda is nothing if not an innovation-leading company.
“Success represents the 1% of your work which results from the 99% that is called ‘failure’.” —Soichiro Honda
Honda and Lotus both began by using cast-off surplus engines and components to build vehicles. And Honda, like Lotus/Colin Chapman, was a world-changing innovator motivated by a single-minded passion for speed and the relentless pursuit of motorsports victory by bending the rules of racing and engineering to beat the established manufacturers at their own game.
Photo: Ayrton Senna, who rose to Formula One fame with Lotus in 1985-87, and Soichiro Honda together ca. 1988, having won both the constructor’s and driver’s championship that year with the famous (and simply gorgeous) McLaren-Honda MP4/4.
Team Lotus used the same RA168-E Honda engine as McLaren that year, which was the last to allow turbochargers in Formula One. Though both Honda and turbo’s are coming back to Formula One next year, 2014.
I can’t help but wonder if Soichiro Honda and Colin Chapman had ever met. Though from different cultures, and though the focus of their engineering efforts was different—complementary, in fact—they share very similar motivations. And both advanced their reputations and enterprises through motor sports victories.