Colin Chapman – An Automative and Racing Pioneer

Colin Chapman was an automotive and racing pioneer who single-handedly changed the face of the automobile industry. He set up Lotus Engineering Corporation with 25 borrowed pounds, and turned it into a million pound enterprise over the course of just 15 years. An innovator par excellence, a maniacal manager, and an entrepreneur with a propensity for risk taking, Chapman is credited with some of the technologies that have made modern-day automobiles what they are, despite having minimal resources.

Chapman takes the plunge

In 1948, Chapman modified the car, Austin 7 and built the Mk2, and as an afterthought, entered it into a ‘trials racing’ competition. With the ferocious success of the Mk2, he started selling the kits, but never exact replicas. The car has more than 90 clones today, and is still in production as the Caterham 7.

Once the racing bug bit him, he was obsessed with the problem of making cars go faster. He tested himself, his employees and his cars, to the limit, none were spared. Chapman believed that lightness and elegance was the key to winning races. Though the Lotus cars were notorious for their frailty, they were also synonymous with inventions that consistently won them the first few positions on the grid.

His mind thrived on competition, innovation, and technology.

Sometimes his innovations were so advanced that the governing body of Formula 1, the FIA would ban them just to keep a level playing field. He is credited with inventing the rear suspension struts, monocoque chassis in racing, using composite materials to build cars, ground effect skirts and active suspension.

The virtues of elegance and lightness remain the first principles of nearly all high performance racing cars today.

Chapman was never afraid to take risks. He also employed this quality in his business decisions. Although not scrupulous to a fault, he took risky business decisions that often yielded results in his favour. He introduced big budget advertising sponsorship on race-cars and struck a deal with Ford for the development of the DFV engine. His DIY race car kit was also a business model innovation that netted him millions in royalties.

Chapman gains an advantage

Chapman’s attitude towards rules was that they were meant to be circumvented. He would spend hours poring over rulebooks just to find loopholes that he could exploit, to get that ‘unfair advantage’. He also adapted the rules to his own ends to maximize performance.

One such interesting story is that of the twin chassis. Downforce is an aerodynamic principle that greatly enhances performance. But there is always a trade-off between comfort and performance as comfort required a strong suspension while performance required it to be bare. He got the best of both worlds by building a twin chassis that had minimal suspension in the outer layer and strong suspension in the inner layer!

Chapman had managed to invent something so far ahead of its time, it was banned by the FISA, again. But bureaucracy aside, he truly was one of the greatest innovators who touched the pinnacle of success by taking risks, tenacious faith in his company, and constant innovation.

Action Points

  • Stay true to first principles.

  • Don’t be afraid to take risks whenever you can.

  • Get rid of the word ‘impossible’.

~ Amala Putrevu