Chapman & Glassfibre: From Microlights to Coffins
Esprit joins an extraordinary diversity of glassfibre objects and machines
created by inventional-prone Lotus boss
The restless genius of Colin Chapman could never by entirely contained within car design. Throughout his career, Chapman periodically ventured into new markets, bringing with him the unique Lotus approaches of lightweight construction using composite materials.
Furniture design was close to his heart, so much so that in 1963 he designed a one-piece moulded glassfibre seat with Lotus employee Ron Hickman (who went on to design the Black & Decker Workmate). The seat wass a simple cluster bench for use in airport lounges etc, comprising three chairs back-to-back in a pyramid shape with spaces between for luggage. The project was dropped because it could not be made profitable, but Lotus returned to furniture in 1973 with an award-winning recliner chair, which again never made production.
In 1970, Chapman fired his enthusiasm for boats when he acquired a personal interest in a boat company called Marauder Marine. He looked at all aspects of the existing Marauder leisure boat's manufacture and broke remarkable new ground by making the 14m hull in one piece of glassfibre using Lotus' innovative vacuum moulding, reducing the weight from 12 tonnes to 7 and radically boosting speed and economy. He also built a lightweight powerboat his son Clive raced sucessfully during his teens.
He also experimented with glassfibre baths and coffins. The latter idea was scrapped when it was realised they wouldn't rot when buried and would be hugely polluting if cremated.
The next step from boats was logically aircraft, for which Chapman had always had a passion. Following a boom in Microlight use, Chapman reasoned that if you made a closed plane light enough, this could take advantage of unlimited-access Microlight legislation without the drawbacks of crude and exposed travel. Tony Rudd designed a 25hp engine that weighted 100lb, and after reading up on German glider technology, Chapman collaborated with American light aircraft designer Bert Rutan to device the Lotus Microlight. Sadly, news that the prototype was ready to fly arrived at Hethel the day Colin died, and although the plane later made public apperances, its manufacture died with him.