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.