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Behind the Brains of Lotus: “Inside the Innovator”

The Lotus marque is drenched in myths, but Karl Ludvigsen’s book on Colin Chapman “Inside the Innovator” covers Lotus’ technology and its background – and not least Chapman himself, the man behind the technology.

I simply adore Lotus and all that they stand for – or at least used to stand for. Their relentless striving for success in Formula One, the minimalistic road cars, and not least the founder, Colin Chapman’s, general approach to building cars. But Lotus and Chapman are surrounded by myths, not unlike the ones covering the famous names from Modena, Ferrari and Enzo. The multiple books available on the subject of the two and their cars reflect this too, as most releases merely throw themselves at the feet of these two innovative automotive legends and thereby only contribute to enhancing the myths – sometimes just adding great pictures in the process. Ludvigsen’s book on Chapman is more critical, which by no means makes it a lesser read.

The front page illustrates the content of the book perfectly: A lot of technical subjects thoroughly described, and a nuanced description of Chapman’s complicated person on top of that.

The book is primarily about the race cars, where it’s fair to say that Chapman spent most of his energy. And while the book does of course tell the well-known story that Colin Chapman often bordered on the verge of genius – neither does it hide that the same Chapman could sometimes be bordering psychotic in his relations. It is clear from the book’s interviewees, that Chapman could be very, very difficult to work with – but equally, that a large number of former employees and partners had huge respect for him. Not least for his fabulous ability to briefly inspect an engineers’ half-finished drawings, sketches and drafts and immediately understand what they had in mind and wanted to achieve, and then suggest valid improvements. In addition, his energy was extraordinary: Employees compared Chapman’s passage through the drawing room to a whirlwind in a paper mill.

Several technical aspects are covered, thoroughly described and illustrated, as here with gearboxes – but it’s often the stories of why Chapman went in a certain direction that’s the real eye-catcher for the engineering interested reader.

The never-ending quest for improvement that was a great strength of Chapman, was at the same time also his biggest shortcoming as a racing car designer and team owner: Before the latest idea was even matured and made reliable and profitable, Chapman would continue on to the next idea before even reaping all the benefits of the previous idea.

Here is one of the ideas I had never heard of before: On the first Lotus 77 the brake calipers were mounted on the chassis and the suspension was then bolted to the calipers. No thought was holy to Chapman.

Karl Ludvigen’s book is a tour de force on the technical field, especially in explaining the background for the various directions that Chapman worked in. This is also emphasized by the structure of the book: It would have been obvious to tell the history chronologically, but instead chapters are divided into technological areas such as transmissions, suspension, aerodynamics, weight and management, and this actually works surprisingly well. Each area described with great insight and also beautifully illustrated with explosion drawings, photos and plenty of side stories – often about explaining the basis of the many myths.

For any car enthusiast more fascinated by the technology itself (especially within motorsport, of course) than by the myths of Lotus, “Inside the Innovator” is probably the best Lotus book on the market. As an added bonus, the book also manages to dive behind the scenes and look into Chapman’s thriving life – which turns out to be almost equally exciting.

The book has ISBN 10: 1844254135 and comes very warmly recommended.

This is a Lotus 77, a perfect example of Chapman’s genius and weakness: It was PACKED with innovation and EVERYTHING was adjustable – from wheelbase to track. But win, it could not.

2 Responses

  1. Lars S.

    Great book, very recommendable especially for the technical minded nerd
    I read it last Christmas (a Christmas gift for myself, the best ?)

  2. Andrew

    I have been re-reading this book several times and Ludvigsen does a very interesting job of it, digging up information that even fully zipped up anoraks like myself have not come across.

    However, it makes me realise that much of the science developed by the Chapman generation has never been written down or at least, not outside SAE papers…


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