Colin Chapman

From Academic Kids

Template:Wikiquote Anthony Colin Bruce Chapman (9 May 1928 - 16 December 1982) was born in London. He founded the famous sports car company Lotus in 1952. His initials are shown in the trademark of Lotus. He died of a heart attack.

He studied structural engineering at University College, London where he joined the University Air Squadron and learned to fly. After graduating in 1948, he briefly joined the Royal Air Force. His knowledge of the latest aeronautical engineering techniques would later prove useful in several of his major technical advances in cars.

Chapman started with the Mk1, a small soap box on wheels, which he entered privately into local racing events. With the prize money he developed the Mk2, Mk3 each with growing success, and as such he could begin to sell kits of these cars. It was the Mk7 where things really took off, and indeed Caterham still make that car today, and several copy-cat makes are also available.

Chapman progressed through the motor racing formulae, until he arrived in Formula 1. He, along with Colin Cooper, revolutionised the sport. Their small, lightweight vehicles gave away much in terms of power, but superior handling meant they could take on and beat the all-conquering Ferraris and Maseratis. With his beloved driver Jim Clark at the wheel, they could win races almost as they pleased, and Jim Clark would surely have won many more titles where it not for his untimely death in 1968 behind the wheel of a Formula 2 Lotus. Chapman was greatly affected by his death, and never allowed himself to get so close to his drivers again.

It wasn't purely as a designer that he excelled; he was also a canny businessman who introduced sponsorship into Formula 1, beginning the process of raising the sport from gentlemens' entertainment to a multi-million pound enterprise. Unfortunately, he made a bad decision to become involved with a new venture of his friend John De Lorean, to manufacture sports cars. The full extent of his involvement has never been made public, but it is believed he would have been prosecuted for his involvement of inveigling government funds.


A true genius, many of his ideas can still be seen in Formula 1 and other top levels of motor sport (such as Indycars) today.

He pioneered the use of struts as a rear suspension device. Even today, struts used in the rear of a vehicle are known as Chapman struts.

His next major innovation was to adopt the use of monocoque (stressed-skin) unibodies (i.e. it replaced both the body and frame, which until then had been separate components) for cars. This was the first major advance in which he introduced aeroplane technology to cars. The resultant body was both lighter, stronger (i.e. stiffer), and also provided better driver protection in the event of a crash. The first Lotus to feature this technology was the Lotus Elite, in 1958. Amazingly, the body of the car was made out of fibreglass, making it also the first car made out of composites.

In 1962 he extended this innovation to racing cars, with the revolutionary Lotus 25 Formula 1 car. This technique fairly quickly replaced what had been for many decades the standard in racing-cars, the tube-frame chassis. Although the material has changed from sheet aluminium to carbon fibre, this remains today the standard technique for building top-level racing cars.

It was he who really brought aerodynamics into being a first-rank influence on car engineering. He popularized the concept of positive aerodynamic downforce, through the addition of front and rear wings. Early efforts were mounted 3 feet or so above the car, in order to operate in 'clean air' (i.e. air that would not otherwise be disturbed by the passage of the car). However the thin supporting struts failed regularly, forcing the FIA to require the wings to be attached directly to the bodywork. He also pioneered the movement of radiators away from the front of the car, to decrease air resistance at speed. Both of these concepts also remain features of high performance racing cars today.

Another concept of Chapman's was "ground effect", whereby a partial vacuum was created under the car by use of venturis, generating "downforce" which held it securely to the road whilst cornering, etc. (Modern racing cars generate enough downforce that they could theoretically be driven on the ceiling once they are up to speed, although the fuel system and other parts of the car rely on gravity and so a Formula One car could not in reality be driven upside down.) Initially this technique utilized sliding "skirts" which made contact with the ground to keep the area of low pressure isolated. The skirts were also banned, for if during cornering the car went over a curb, and the skirt were damaged, downforce was lost, and the car could became extremely unstable. Downforce remains a critical part of racing car technology, and modern designers, aided by extensive wind tunnel testing, have regained most of what was lost through the banning of skirts.

His last major technical innovation was the creation of the dual-chassis car design, in which different parts of the vehicle were given different suspension. The banning of this by the FIA really upset him, and may have precipitated ill health, which was to dog him for the final few years of his life. However, it inspired active suspension, pioneered by Lotus.

Further reading

  • Gerard ('Jabby') Crombac, Colin Chapman: The Man and His Cars (Patrick Stephens, Wellingborough, 1986)

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