FLOWER POWER

By Sivan Goren

Lotus 7 65 (6)

It has been 65 years since the birth of the Lotus Seven, a car that is inexorably linked in most people’s minds to its designer. A luminary in his own right, Colin Chapman had a simple philosophy when it came to successful racing cars: "Simplify, then add lightness.”

Anthony Colin Bruce Chapman was born on 19 May 1928 in Surrey to Stanley and Mary who owned and ran The Orange Tree Public House. Later the family moved to The Railway Hotel in North London, which his father managed. The young Chapman attended the Stationers’ Company School but when German bombs began blitzing London during WWII, he was evacuated to Norfolk for most of the remainder of the war.

In 1945 Chapman met Hazel Williams (who ten years later would become his wife) at a dance held at the Railway Hotel. He didn’t know it at the time, but she was to become instrumental in helping him make a name for himself in racing and car building. Later that same year, at the age of just 17, Chapman began studying engineering at University College, London.

Chapman was an enthusiastic member of the University Air Squadron and learned to fly while still a student. After university, he decided to take a short service commission in the RAF and was stationed at RAF Tern Hill in Shropshire. After leaving the RAF, Chapman began buying and selling second-hand cars with university friend Colin Dare. With the war recently over, new cars were in short supply as British manufacturers were exporting all they could make. As there was not much difference between the new cars and those built before the war, the two Colins realised they only needed a little bit of clever zhoozshing to make a tidy profit out of selling used cars. But the honeymoon came to an abrupt end when the basic petrol ration was withdrawn and suddenly cars stopped selling, meaning that the pair lost all their previous profits.

chapman hazel

But there was one car left over that could not be sold: a rather sad-looking fabric-bodied 1930 Austin Seven. So what to do? Why, modify it of course! Chapman used some improvements that he had formulated when planning to build his own ‘special’, one of which was chassis stiffness, and for that he used alloy-bonded ply panels for the sides, along with very shallow ‘door’ openings. It was completed in early 1948 and re-registered ‘OX9292’ as the Lotus Mk1. There are a couple of theories as to why the car was named Lotus and there has been much speculation over the years, but the truth is that nobody – apart from a small number of people who are not telling – actually knows.

In the meantime Chapman had also discovered the 750 Motor Club. It was founded in 1939 by Bill Boddy and Holland Birkett for Austin Seven enthusiasts who wanted to compete in low-cost owner/driver-designed cars under their 750 Formula, with the ‘750’ referring to the capacity of Austin Seven engines. Interestingly, the 750 MC was also a breeding ground for future big names in motor racing.

With Hazel in the passenger seat, they tried their hand at trialling which they both enjoyed and were rather good at. As the car had not been specifically modified for racing, Chapman decided to build an improved second car. In order to do this he researched all kinds of technical papers both in the motoring press and mechanical engineering papers. The resultant Ford-powered MkII had independent front suspension using a Ford 8/10 front axle cut in half. The rear axle had to be Austin Seven in order to be eligible for the 750 Formula.

In September 1949, Chapman qualified for his ‘wings’ and was offered a permanent commission in the RAF. This did not suit him, though, and he joined The British Aluminium Company in a technical sales role instead. He relied on long hours, volunteer help and barter arrangements to keep his car-building operation afloat. In 1952 Chapman, with the help of Hazel who apparently lent him £25, founded Lotus Engineering Ltd, followed by Team Lotus two years later. (Team Lotus began competing in Formula One in 1958 and went on to become one of the most innovative and successful teams in history.) By the end of 1954, Chapman was able to resign from his job and focus solely on Lotus, producing racing cars and road-going machines in workshops which had been set up in old stables behind the Railway Hotel. He was also able to take on paid employees such as Mike Costin, Keith Duckworth and Graham Hill.

Lotuses were intentionally built sparingly because Chapman was unwavering in his focus on minimalist design philosophy. Each part had to be as multi-functional as was possible. Sometimes this did not work but oh, when it did! He once said: “Adding power makes you faster on the straights; subtracting weight makes you faster everywhere.” And this was the Lotus philosophy.

But back to the second hero of our story: the Lotus Seven.

By the end of 1955 there had been enough Lotuses sold and enough success on the racetrack for a club to be formed for those supporting the marque, and the inaugural meeting was held at on 15 November. The MkVI, Lotus’s first production car, had been very successful – both in sales and racing. By the end of 1955, over one hundred had been made and demand for cheap, light and competitive sports cars was higher than ever.

It was, however, apparently Hazel who decided that a more basic, cost-effective successor to the Mark VI was needed, and so the Seven was born. The Lotus Seven actually had its first customer lined up before it was even designed – one Edward Lewis, who owned a racing footwear manufacturing business. Lewis was already a well-known Lotus racer but reckoned he was getting a bit old for serious racing and was looking at creating a car of his own specification for hillclimbs.

chapman driving

The Edward Lewis Special was based on a MkVI chassis with a Williams and Pritchard body designed by Lewis himself. It first competed in the West Sussex Speed Trials in September 1956 and went on to achieve several successes. Seeing the popularity of this racing and the success that Lewis was enjoying, Chapman decided that there was a potential market for a new production racing car that would also be road-legal. A deal was struck with Lewis: his Lotus-based Special in exchange for the prototype Lotus Seven.

The prototype that was supplied to Lewis had a Coventry Climax FWA 1100cc engine, close-ratio Austin A30 gearbox, De Dion rear suspension with a 4.5:1 final drive ratio, wishbone front suspension, four-branch exhaust manifold, knock-on wire wheels, Dunlop racing tyres and spare wheel. The car first competed in the Brighton Speed Trials on 7 September 1957. Confusingly, the race programme shows that Lewis was entered in both the Sports Cars up to 1100cc and also Sports Cars 1101 to 1500cc categories – seems he entered the event not knowing what exactly he would be driving and therefore entered the two most likely classes. Race results, however, show an E. Lewis won the Sports Cars 1501 to 2500cc class at the event in a time of 29.72 secs, so it’s likely he was penalised and put up a class.

The first production Seven was considerably less sophisticated than the prototype Lewis car, with wide-valve Ford 100E, rigid ‘live’ rear axle from the BMC/Nash Metropolitan and drum brakes to all four wheels. The engine produced between 28 and 40bhp and the three-speed gearbox had a Buckler ‘C’ type close-ratio gear set. As with previous Lotus models, the chassis frames were made by Progress Chassis Company and the all-aluminium bodies were crafted by Williams and Pritchard. According to factory records the first production Sevens started leaving the factory in December 1957.

The Seven was designed for a very specific purpose: to serve as daily transport to work during the week and for entry-level competition at weekends. The race series that many entered was in the Seven Fifty Motor Club’s 1172 Formula based around Ford’s E93A and 100E side-valve engines. And true to their purpose, of the first 100 cars made, well over half competed on the race track. Lotus Seven, available in kit form and factory finished, ceased production in 1972, but the rights to produce it were secured by Caterham in the following years. Something tells me that Colin Chapman would have been very satisfied to see his Lotus legacy still going strong.

chapman in 7

1962 SPRINGBOK SERIES

The Lotus Seven appeared in the Springbok Series of 1962 at a time when Formula 1 motor racing was very strong in South Africa. There were two races prior to the South African Grand Prix of 1962: the Rand Grand Prix at Kyalami on 15 December and the Natal Grand Prix at Westmead on 22 December.

The entrants for the Rand Grand Prix included several teams from England like Lotus and BRM and there were also Coopers and other older Lotuses, a Lola and South African specials like the LDS, the Assegai and the Netuar. However, by far the most unusual entrant was Capetonian Brausch Niemann’s much-modified 1958 Lotus Seven Series One. Brausch worked as a mechanic for Willie Meissner and was a pretty capable driver in his own right.

Niemann's car had a Ford 109E all-steel engine bored out to 1475cc with four Amal carburettors, special camshaft and head. The chassis was halved lengthwise and reduced by two inches to comply with Formula 1 regulations. The front brakes were 1958 Mercedes 180 with finned drums. The rear axle was changed to Austin due to the wide choice of ratios and free-floating hubs were incorporated as a safety feature. There was no limited-slip differential so a fiddle handbrake was used on the driver's side. The car was painted red, had steel wheels and the cycle wings were removed. To everyone’s astonishment the Seven easily qualified for a place on the start line.

The Seven eventually finished in a respectable 10th place, having incredibly beaten three of the Climax-powered Lotuses. Through the speed trap Niemann was timed at an astonishing 127mph. The car was so fast that when Chapman saw it screaming down the Kyalami straight, 'stuck' to the rear of Jim Clark's Lotus 25, he was heard to remark that it must be the quickest Lotus Seven in the world.

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LOTUS SEVEN REPLICAS IN SA

If you are talking Lotus Seven in South Africa, the name Birkin automatically springs to mind. John Watson, a descendant of pioneering race car driver Tim Birkin, founded Birkin Cars in 1982. The company produces one vehicle, and that is the S3 Roadster, a kit-car replica of the Lotus Super 7.

When the Lotus Seven ceased production and could no longer be purchased as new, Watson developed and built his own version of the Seven. The cars were unveiled to the public at the 1983 South African Grand Prix. Enthusiastic home builders could buy DIY kits and spares or a complete car. Birkin was soon able to establish a decent export programme, with the local supply ticking along. To cope with demand the facility was split, with part of the manufacture taking place in KZN and the rest in the North West province near Hartbeespoort.

Lotus 7 65 (3)
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