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The Final Chapman Years

From 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.

Lotus 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.

With 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. 

At 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.

October 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.

The 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.

By 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.

Originally 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.

And 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 aged 54.



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