For the Caterham Seven, Miata, and Tesla Roadster, we have Colin Chapman to thank
If imitation is the most sincere form of flattery, then Englishman Colin Chapman, CBE, founder of Lotus Cars, would certainly feel flattered and proud, were he still around. The engineering principle this son of a North London innkeeper enunciated so clearly and so cleverly in his race and road cars—“simplify, then add lightness”—continues to burn brightly, long after he is gone. Chapman’s automotive spirit lives on today not just at Lotus Cars, which he willed to life in 1952, but also in cars made by others that are inspired by his genius.
To highlight the enduring contribution Anthony Colin Bruce Chapman made to the world beyond Lotus, we gathered a time-traveling trio of characterful cars that Chapman didn’t build but that surely would not have existed if it weren’t for him—Chapman’s children, if you will: the Caterham Seven, the first-generation Mazda MX-5 Miata, and the Tesla Roadster. Although each is a kind of postmortem salute—the oldest, the Miata, was built nearly a decade after Chapman’s death in 1982—all were touched by him, directly or indirectly. In fact, each one amounts to its own rolling tribute to the man behind Lotus and the philosophy that defined his company. During the course of two days spent driving and shooting along the Hudson River following an initial rendezvous at New York’s Harriman State Park, we reacquainted ourselves with these cars, each of which we’d driven before, but never together. Each told us something about the evolution of what might be called the Chapman Revolution.
From the beginning, the unique selling proposition of Lotuses was their superior handling and agility. This was an end in itself but also one of the knock-on bonuses of the company’s other most celebrated brand characteristic, its products’ minimal weight, courtesy of Chapman’s lifelong obsession with excising mass. Assisted by some of the day’s most talented engineers—men who had been corralled into their new boss’s gruff and often crotchety employ by the certain promise of the chance to do it differently—this mustachioed, outside-the-box ringmaster in a fisherman’s cap embarked on one of the automotive century’s wildest and often most admirable rides.
His team made legendary strides in the quest for lightness, with innovative construction methods and use of materials—all while developing a second-to-none understanding of chassis dynamics and a growing specialization in aerodynamics. The F1 and Indianapolis victories earned in Chapman’s lifetime proved Lotus’s mettle, and dedicated followings in vintage racing and classic-car circles today underscore the enduring fascination with a marque that took the path less chosen.
As Lotus consistently proved in reverse, more weight breeds more weight. Smaller cars do more with less, needing smaller engines, suspensions, transmissions, brakes, and tires, not to mention less weighty structures, to go just as fast. Far from adding responsiveness, making cars larger and more powerful can have the opposite effect—they come saddled with their own self-defeating weight penalties.
The perennial sports car
Our first machine, the lightest of the light brigade, is the Caterham Seven. Although he’d personally move past it, the Lotus 7 was Chapman’s first really successful production model. Launched in 1957 and built by the company until 1973, it began a second lease on life in mid-1973, when Chapman—he grew famously bored with his old work—sold the rights to the 7 (then in Series Three form) to Caterham Cars, England’s first official Lotus dealer, based in Surrey.
Then something funny happened: This early expression of the Chapman ideal never went away. Now in its 62nd year, the Seven continues to issue forth from Caterham’s humble production line fundamentally unchanged, with a rotating parade of unlicensed copycat efforts fading in and out of the picture, each new attempt at imitation proving the perennial appeal of the confection Caterham acquired and then nurtured.
No surprise, the new Seven looks the same as an old 7, more or less. It has the same minimalist bodywork, with a short, flat windscreen. A crummy top and side curtains are optional equipment, like the heater that costs extra. In truth, the Caterham Seven’s lineage dates back even farther than the year of Sputnik’s launch, to Chapman’s first production car, the Lotus 6 of 1952. With a latticework of metal tubes providing an exceptionally rigid space frame, the 6 was state of the art. The slightly larger 7 shared not just the 6’s hypermodern (for 1952) chassis but many of its antique design cues. Freestanding bug-eye headlamps, for instance, and a distinctly cab-rearward layout, wherein driver and passenger sit shoulder to shoulder nary a cricket bat’s width ahead of the rear axle. Unless you’re the sort who prefers riding with a hard case in your lap, luggage will be soft and minimal.
Both Lotuses were sold in kit form to avoid taxes, and many Caterhams still are. At fewer than 1000 pounds, the 6 was lighter, but compared to anything else, early 7s, at 1110 pounds, and even new ones (at 1300 pounds) were hardly porkers. Power has grown from the humble 49-hp Ford side-valves of the original 7, with an evolving menu of engine displacements and power outputs rising steadily through the years. Outlandish racing mills with 300-plus horsepower have become a distinct fetish among speed-loving Sevenists. Either way, no one has ever seriously suggested any Caterham was anything less than very quick. As its looks and front/mid-engine configuration might suggest, Caterham Sevens are most of the way to being race cars, so their frequent use as dedicated track cars or full-fledged racers even today is not uncommon.
Tweaked, reinforced, and subtly improved throughout the years, Sevens are still unmistakably themselves, which is to say, raw, ridiculous fun to drive.
Owner and Hagerty member Aaron Shatzman’s Seven, built for its first owner in 1996 and finished in bare aluminum with British Racing Green fenders and nose cone, is a road car, lest its substantial roll bar lead you to think otherwise. For go, it sports one of the classic Seven engine choices, Ford’s 1.6-liter Kent inline-four, with a crossflow head and dual, twin-choke sidedraft Webers
In a moderately civilized state of tune, roughly 110 horses gallop through its amiable five-speed manual gearbox, sourced from an English Ford Sierra. Shatzman’s car sounds throaty as you gingerly stab the accelerator with the side of your foot (verily, it has the narrowest of pedal boxes), readying self and Seven for action. Even two up, this diminutive blast from the past steps off the line sharply, with a force you might be tempted to describe as brutal if the word didn’t seem somehow inappropriate when speaking of a machine so delicate and responsive.
For someone who has not driven a Seven, the only thing more startling than its acceleration and wicked turn-in ability is its incredible proximity to the elements. As speed rises, the wind rushes over and around the windscreen, mussing your hair while lifting your hat and sometimes your shirt. A short 87-inch wheelbase means tight quarters, and the car’s athletic reflexes magnify everything there is to know about the road. The sounds of old-school carburetors loudly scarfing a high-test mixture of air and gasoline complete one’s transport to a different era, with a fruity exhaust to round out the auditory and olfactory experience.
Shatzman, a wiry professor and college administrator, drives a Honda Fit daily but says the Seven and another car he always dreamed of—a mid-engined Lotus Europa, now in his garage—satisfy his need for speed when he’s not racing bicycles. We can see why.
Heir to the Lotus Elan
If the Lotus 7 was the pinnacle of Chapman’s early road-car period, the Lotus Elan, introduced in 1962 and built until 1973, would be the apogee of the company’s brand-building middle era. Such was the follow-on of its excellence, however flawed, that 15 years later the diminutive two-seater went on to inspire a Japanese automaker, Mazda, to create what would become one of the best-loved sports cars of all time.
Ditching the space frame, the Elan featured instead a strong but light (and cheaper to make) central-backbone chassis of folded steel on which was laid a pert fiberglass body from the pen of Lotus designer Ron Hicks, who went on to cement his personal wealth by designing Black & Decker’s Workmate collapsible shop bench. Undergirding what was Lotus’s best-selling car to date, the Elan’s central backbone eliminated the need for an all-fiberglass monocoque, such as had been attempted on its predecessor, the svelte and innovative, but money-losing, Elite.
If this new chassis left the fiberglass body with less work to do, it also left the flanks of the car more vulnerable to assault, with no frame member and only a thin fiberglass panel or two to protect occupants. It was seen as genius at the time, and a good way to work around the limitations of the costly-to-assemble Elite, but the simple backbone chassis could not survive the advent of modern safety standards.
In its day, the Elan was known for its prodigious grip and crisp, predictable, and almost acrobatic handling. With steering as sharp as the 7’s, it was blessed with an improbably luxurious ride for a potent sports car. As a bonus, it came with a measure of the practicality and upscale appeal that Lotus fans had not yet grown accustomed to. The Elan was a more comfortable car than any previous Lotus, with roll-up windows, a wooden dashboard, a trunk of useful size, and a top that made valiant if not always winning attempts at keeping out the rain.
Elans were not maintenance averse. The sole engine offering, Lotus’s famous 1.6-liter twin-cam based on the block of Ford’s Cortina with Lotus’s own head, was free-breathing and pleasingly powerful for its size, but it could be troublesome to service and was guaranteed to leak oil. In no area were Elans particularly long-lived or hard-wearing cars. Their fiberglass bodies cracked and crazed; their veneer dashboards delaminated with alarming rapidity. Naturally, being British, the electric windows found on later Elan models were prone to failure, and the rest of their electrical systems were not much better.
Foibles aside, the legend of the Elan was quickly established. Although it might have felt like a Coupe de Ville to someone who’d stepped out of a Lotus 7, the Elan was still a tiny slip of a thing, weighing about 1500 pounds, with 105 (later as much as 125) horsepower to move itself around, enough to make it muscle-car fast off the line. It could corner like nothing else, looked cute, and over the decades became a talisman of erudition and good taste among old-car fans, especially in Japan, where automotive Anglophilia traces to the opening chapters of that country’s automobile industry, when it overwhelmingly licensed British technology.
Around the world, Lotus’s less-is-more philosophy and focus on handling, balance, and driving excitement played well with a certain kind of automotive fan. If we are to be fair, we must credit the role of the quirky Sixties British television series The Avengers for spreading word of the new car in the land of its creation, as well as in America. Actor Diana Riggs’s sensitive, able portrayal of secret agent Emma Peel quickly attracted fans, many of them male and few who would fail to notice the new sports car—a Lotus Elan, you say?—her character drove.
It was this legend that U.S. automotive journalist and industry consultant Bob Hall conjured as part of his pitch to Mazda brass in the late 1980s that the company ought to put in a claim for the custom of people who’d once bought the two-seat, open-topped products of the British automobile industry, a market that had largely been abandoned. The result, the Mazda MX-5 Miata, was an instant hit when it debuted in 1989.
Meant to be an all-purpose replacement for the moderately priced British sports cars that had disappeared, the Miata drew heavily on the more upscale and sophisticated Elan for inspiration. Styling, with Elan-like popup headlights and a small oval grille, was one giveaway. But so were the size and architecture of the 1.6-liter twin-cam four, plucked from Mazda’s 323 econobox, and an all-independent suspension. Sure, the steel unibody it sported, the driver’s-side airbag, the catalyst, and the modern fuel injection weren’t part of the original recipe, but they made for a more practical, cleaner, safer car. The goal—something that drove, sounded, and felt like a machine single-mindedly optimized for driving pleasure; in short, like an Elan, only reliable—was achieved admirably.
As I slip down into the black, high-back cloth bucket driver’s seat of the red 1991 Miata belonging to Mark and Joan Schneiderman of Flemington, New Jersey, to head down a twisty county road north of the West Point military academy at Highland Falls, memories of Miatas past are vividly conjured. The Schneidermans’ early, first-series example is a low-mileage car, garaged winters, maintained by the book, with 52,000 miles from new. As in most Miatas, everything works, and it’s simply a sweetheart of a simple car, so easy to drop in and enjoy driving the old-fashioned way. Its revvy engine is well mannered but demands to be used, and its finite power band is easily accessed through one of the best manual transmissions ever bolted into a car, with an impossibly smooth snick-snick shifter.
Body roll in the ’91 is more than you’d find in an Elan, and the steering, although more communicative than that of most 1990s cars, is still not as chatty as an old Lotus’s. That’s partly due to the Mazda’s 500 pounds of extra weight but also a reflection of the decision to make the car fun—and safe—to drive for anyone.
With its steel body, the MX-5 has panel gaps that put the Lotus to shame. Its soft top set standards for simplicity and single-handed operation, plus effective weatherproofing, helping it to achieve a durability and resistance to the elements like the Elan never knew. One reason among many it sold better.
The modern era
When Colin Chapman died suddenly amid a serious criminal investigation of his finances as they pertained to a business association with one John Z. De Lorean, his company understandably took a big hit. Before long, the racing team faltered and fell out of F1. But the road-car-building side of Lotus somehow carried on, selling variants of the increasingly expensive backboned cars it sold when the founder was alive—notably, the upmarket Esprit, which coasted all the way into the late 1990s in low-volume production. A cheaper but not cheap front-wheel-drive Elan under GM’s brief ownership failed to set the world on fire in 1989, but then in 1996 along came the Elise roadster, exactly the sort of elegant, lightweight rear-wheel-drive solution that Chapman might have created were he still alive.
A chassis tub formed of bonded, extruded aluminum provided a supremely rigid base unit for the new model’s suspension while creating for the first time in any roadgoing Lotus a substantial safety cell. This Elise chassis, developed by Lotus engineer Richard Rackham, was newsworthy because it was not just light and strong but could be easily modified to create models of different sizes (such as the Evora coupe). As a method of construction, it has since been widely copied by small-volume manufacturers like Aston Martin. The Elise’s body was, once again, constructed of Lotus’s trademark fiberglass.
Enter the Tesla roadster. Launched in 2009 and built for three years, Elon Musk’s first car was the fruit of a 2005 deal between his now famous electric-car startup and Lotus. In concept, it was a battery-electric Elise with its wheelbase stretched two inches to accommodate batteries and an electric motor. At Lotus’s factory in Hethel, England, a new body—reminiscent of an Elise but entirely restyled—was fashioned from carbon fiber. From Hethel, assembled “gliders” were sent to Tesla’s California facility for installation of motors and battery packs. Roughly 2450 would be sold around the world before the plug was pulled by Tesla in 2012 to make room for its best-selling Model S sedan.
Although it lost the weight of the Elise’s gas engine and transmission, the Tesla’s proliferation of 6831 dense, lithium-ion battery cells caused the roadster to roll down the road some 700 pounds portlier than the Elise. The Tesla is not quite as quick, but it is still fast, with a top speed of 125 mph and a range of 221 miles. With every benefit and detriment a modern electric car might display for the world to see a decade ago, it’s a lot to ponder.
I am, however, prepared for David and Nancy Brogno’s dark blue 2010 Tesla roadster, having driven one once and having since driven many other electric cars. I also owned an Elise for 12 years. There is no doubt that Chapman, a futurist with a demonstrated willingness to take money from whomever and wherever, would have gotten in on the politically correct and scientifically sound ground floor of the 21st-century movement to electrify cars, if for no other reason than that’s where the money is. In this way, it seems particularly fitting that Lotus’s Chinese owner, Geely, is staking a big position in electric cars, a position it will use Lotus to forward. Fine-handling electric vehicles from the company Chapman built are not hard to imagine.
This earliest Tesla, then, is not only an intriguing collaboration but also a sizable footnote to automotive history and another chapter in the never-ending Lotus story. It is a compelling car to drive. Its extra weight is noticeable, as most of the batteries’ heft falls on the rear wheels. Turn-in is a bit slower, and the car is slightly less chuckable than an Elise, whose weight is also heavily rear-biased. But once you grow accustomed to the Tesla and accept that the roadster corners like a rear-engined car, the fun begins.
Cruising to Hudson, New York, I find myself unthinkingly blasting the Tesla up to 90 mph. Well, not blasting, because the silence of the drivetrain and the roadster’s aerodynamic shape, with its enveloping, modern windshield, help bring the promise of the electric sports car with open roof into dazzling focus. Speeding along in nearly complete silence save the prominent wind noise, free from a whole class of internal-combustion ruckus, is less tiring and more inspiring. With a ride slightly less brutalizing than that of the Elise I owned, this still-sharp-edged sports car starts to seem almost luxurious.
Besides the fun-to-use gearbox it lacks, the only problem with the roadster, as with all electric cars, is range. This almost 10-year-old Tesla will go farther on a charge than many electric cars today, but range is still a factor to consider when contemplating long road trips. Fortunately, our hotel in Hudson has a Tesla high-speed charger. The roadster and its owners could have headed home to Nyack, New York, 80 percent charged within 40 minutes, but we’re spending the night. As with many of the cars for which we hold Colin Chapman responsible, planning ahead is a virtue. Whether you’re getting ready to make a roadside repair or waiting for your Tesla to charge, an unexpected night away from home in a Chapman-inspired car is always a possibility.