Here Are The 6 Forgotten Cars That Led To The Revolutionary Lotus 7
The pace of life in the early 20th century was such that before Colin Chapman founded his sports car company, he’d already found time to earn a Mathematics degree, learn how to fly for the Royal Air Force, and devote time to the study and mastery of aluminum materials—for buildings, not cars. Any one of these things would influence how someone approached the challenge of getting from A to B quickly, and for Chapman, those lessons learned were poured into his early vehicle designs.
He was just 24 in 1952 when Lotus Cars bounded onto the scene with race cars that could be bought in kits. Few, in those days, did. Done right, it’s a scheme good for both a small automotive engineering firm and its customers. For the automaker, providing the plans to a vehicle means that its knowledgeable customers should be able to fix things for themselves when they break, avoiding aftersales headaches—while at the same time, letting enthusiastic amateur race car builders and drivers shoulder your R&D budget as you observe what gets broken on the track. It was an arrangement that let the company put down its roots in the early ’50s.
For customers who can turn a wrench and have some time, kits mean that if you assemble the vehicle yourself taxes can often be saved. (This fact of saving money is as true now as it was in 1952, by the way.) If you’re looking for a car to assemble yourself, why not buy a car from the then-24-year-old Chapman? He’d already been racing for four years since his first design hit the track, and had amassed an impressive set of performances in competition.
In an era where “safety” meant staying home, Chapman’s decades-honed approach to racing with highly-engineered yet sparsely constructed cars was most often the fastest way to get around the course. “Any car which holds together for a whole race is too heavy,” he’s quoted as saying, which would have been tough to disagree with in period given his practical experience—and the Team Lotus trophy cabinet.
Our recent film on the Lotus Super 7 is one enthusiast’s take on ownership of Chapman’s “7th” design—but what about the cars that came before?
Lotus Mk I
The first car Chapman designed was an Austin 7-based “special” not designed for racing—just designed to be driven! An outing competing in off-road Trials competition with the car and then-girlfriend (and future wife) Hazel Williams helped to convince Chapman to continue building cars, only with the next to be faster.
Lotus Mk II
His second machine was built to compete in trials competition, and tellingly, was also able to run on the road. Think of it in spirit as your grandfather’s Ariel Nomad. Chapman entered it into events held by the yes-you-can-still-become-a-member-of-it 750 Motor Club. Once he realized it was quick in circuit racing, his next car was built for the tarmac.
Lotus Mk III
Technically-speaking, this is Lotus #1, or at least it was the first car to be “called” Lotus, though its lineage is clear. It’s as advanced as you’d expect from a Chapman design, even one from 1951: aluminum bodywork, 0-50 mph in less than 7 seconds, and a top speed of around 90 mph—did I mention it had just a 750-cc engine?
Lotus Mk IV
Lotus Engineering Company—founded with the help from a £50 note from Hazel Williams—finished up the Mk IV, a car that would be the final Trials car—naturally, it won on its debut, and requests to purchase a “Lotus” pushed the company ahead with its most revolutionary design yet—the 1952 Mk VI.
Lotus Mk VI
Lotus Mk V development was abandoned for the VI, the first car from the company to sell in great number—more than 100 kits—and the first to resemble the 7 we all know and love. Even today—forgive its lack of safety—its performance is brisk: 93 mph top speed, 0-60 mph in about 15 seconds from your choice of engine. Weight was a comically-low 952 lbs, which is a near-40% saving from the minimum weight for a 2016 Formula 1 car.
Once assembled, it was a car that gave many amateurs around the UK and beyond their first taste of victory—the first of only a few times where DIY designs have trounced factory efforts.
Lotus Mk VII
What else should we say about the 7, beyond what Geoff Wise says about his beloved Super 7? It’s remarkable that designs from so far in the past can still be relevant—and cherished—today.