Final Chapman Years
the mid 1970s Lotus changed direction completely. The familiar
glassfibre body over pressed steel backbone chassis remained, but
that was the only link between the new cars and the old. The cars
in the new range were bigger, more sophisticated, more expensive,
used new engines and new mechanical parts and were, initially at
least, less overtly sporting. Lotus was moving into a whole new
market sector - a sector dominated by Ferrari and Porsche. Some
might argue, including this writer that, Chapman's genius notwithstanding,
abandoning an entire successful model range at one stroke to replace
it with a completely untried range aimed at a completely different
sector of the market was not the wisest of moves the company could
make. And as time was to tell the move came close to bringing about
the demise of the famous marque.
was unlucky with their timing. How could they have known that their
planned announcement date for the first of the new cars, the Elite,
would coincide with the international problem of a world oil crisis
and the domestic problem of a miners strike and a government imposed
three day working week. The result of these was that demand for
fast exotic cars dropped like the proverbial lead balloon.
the old but successful range of cars becoming increasingly anachronistic
in a world of pollution controls and safety regulations Colin decreed
that the new range should comprise two designs - one front engined
car of larger dimensions than the +2 and one pure mid engined Coupe.
The new 16 valve all aluminium double overhead cam engine to power
the range was introduced in Autumn 1971, and went on to power the
Jensen Healey whilst it was waiting for the cars for which it had
been deigned to finish their development. Although it had been hoped
to announce the new range in 1972 a dip in company profits had made
this impossible and it was May 1974 before the first new model,
the Elite, was unveiled. A full four seater designed in house by
Lotus two models were initially offered - the basic 501 and the
502, which added air conditioning, a more sophisticated radio cassette
unit, and quartz halogen headlights.
this time Lotus were in a very vulnerable position as a one model
company, the Esprit being still under development would not be ready
until Autumn 1975. Original company forecasts were that initially
demand would be for 25 Elites per week, rising eventually to 35
per week. Although nothing like these figures were ever attained
the Elite did go on to do a good job of keeping Lotus going whilst
the remainder of the new models were awaited. It was also distinguished
by being awarded the Don Safety Trophy in1974.
1975 saw the unveiling of the Eclat and the Esprit. The Eclat was
basically the same car as the Elite but in fastback 2+2 configuration.
It was a useful addition to the range and eventually went on to
outsell the Elite. The headline stealing car however was the sensational
looking Esprit with looks designed by Giugiaro. This wedge shaped
mid engined two seater was unfortunately not as fast as it looked
and was slated by the press for lacking refinement. Added to this
prospective customers had to wait until mid 1976 before the first
deliveries were made.
So this was the new line up which was to take Lotus into the future.
It lead to massive losses in 1975 which were turned into a small
profit in 1976 and a surplus of over half a million in 1977. Around
this time Colin became more detached from the car division, concentrating
more on long term planning and Team Lotus, with Mike Kimberly became
Managing Director of cars in !977. Shortly after this the
company took on American Express as principal bankers, who also
took the option to buy 10% of the shares.
Sunbeam Lotus Talbot was the result of an approach to Lotus by Chrysler
in 1978, and the enlarged engine used in this car led to the development
of the 2.2 litre 912 engine to be used in Lotus cars from 1980.
Sales of the Elite had been falling dramatically and the model was
discontinued in 1982 with only 14 being built that year. The Esprit
was developed to become ever more sophisticated through the S2 and
S2.2 models, and really grew up with the introduction of the fabulous
Turbo of 1980. This 152mph supercar was everything that the original
Esprit was not and was eventually chosen to spearhead Lotus's new
assault on the US market in 1983. Using the new improved chassis
of the Turbo and with the same suspension modifications as that
car the Esprit S3, announced in April 1981, became the definitive
normally aspirated mid engined car of the range.
1980 Lotus car production had dropped from 1,200 per year to a mere
383. A world recession was setting in and US sales had virtually
collapsed. Lotus was is a serious marketing position in so far as
the model range had not seen a restyle since it was introduced and
customers were perceived as becoming bored with the product. Neither
could the successful and ever growing engineering consultancy side
of the business (Lotus Engineering & Technology was formerly
set up as a separate company in 1989) be relied upon to bolster
profits, since the development for DeLorean (financial irregularities
from which were to come back to haunt Lotus) was almost completed
and production of the Sunbeam Lotus Talbot was winding down. It
was fortuitous therefore that Colin came to an agreement with Toyota
of Japan for cooperation between the two companies. Whether this
was a result of development work Lotus did for Toyota on its Supra
model is not known, but the immediate effect of this link up was
the introduction of the Lotus Excel.
called the Eclat 3, and then the Eclat Excel, the Excel was a thorough
reworking of the Eclat theme. Toyota running gear was used where
possible and the styling freshened and made more aerodynamic. The
improved chassis used top links to provide sideways location and
the car was altogether more reliable and efficient. Importantly
material costs had been much reduced and the Excel was able to be
offered in October 1982 for a saving of £1,109 over that of
the outgoing Eclat.
this is where the Chapman years at Lotus finish. With a successful
new range comprising the sensational Esprit Turbo, the much acclaimed
Esprit Series 3 and the new Excel, described by the press as 'the
best Lotus ever', the Lotus world was thrown into disarray. Completely
out of the blue and with a suddenness which shocked and horrified
everyone, Colin Chapman, founder and Chairman of Lotus, collapsed
and died from a massive heart attack on Thursday December 16th 1982