Lotus Manufacturer Profile & Rally History

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Lotus Home Country: United Kingdom United Kingdom

This is probably the most surprising make to be found in a rally car database. OK, I am maybe a rally fan gone gaga, but I am fully convinced rallying makes perfect sense for Lotus and I am going to tell you why… later, first who is Lotus:

Colin Chapman is regarded by most insiders as one of the most genius car engineers full stop. The Lotus logo is a Strong Yellow base with a British Racing Green soft triangle symbol on which you find the initials ACBC for the full name Anthony Colin Bruce Chapman. The origins of the Lotus name, er, nobody knows, honest.

Still as a student Colin Chapman felt there was no car he liked, all too heavy without good handling (he should have seen the modern SUV times! I mean BMW calls a 1.7tons SUV the “Mini John Cooper”, a small Volkswagen is higher than it is wide and full of electronics to a larger 5-digit price tag yet still comes with a primitive solid rear axle…) Well, that’s why in 1948, 4 years before the company actually started, Colin Chapman took a small Austin 7, lightened it as much as possible, completely re-designed the suspension, and for reasons Colin Chapman never ever explained he called it the Lotus Mk1 – probably for the clean water lily type flower, but already that would be speculation. The car was an instant success as it sold well to people who wanted to use it for all forms of racing.

Following projects were on the same lines, also carrying on with the Lotus name followed by numbers in order. The Mk2 was an Austin 7 with a Ford Anglia engine. However the cars became ever more remote from already existing road cars and when he did no longer use the Austin 7 as base the “Mk” bit was dropped. The best car to show what early Lotus were all about is for you probably the Lotus Seven. The car is to the day famous as a Caterham. Indeed the Lotus Seven was such a success, that when Chapman wanted to move on with newer models, he sold the rights to the Seven to Caterham. However note that Caterham was a car dealer who also sold Lotus cars and Chapman sold him the rights only to this model, not to the Lotus name, a discussion that boiled up quite recently again in F1. Moving on the company grew employing i.e. an air craft designer Mike Costin, who later joined Ford engineer Keith Duckworth to start famous Cos/worth. With the Costin move Lotus cars evolved to aerodynamic coupé shapes up to the model Lotus Eleven. With the Eleven the company saw a strategic change in names. Numbers were from now on reserved to monoposto/F1 style race cars and prototypes, while coupé shaped road cars would get names with a meaning and always starting with an E. The successor to the Lotus Eleven was the Lotus Elite, followed by the Elan. This line also showed that Colin Chapman had the talent to surround himself with unorthodox, enthusiastic people. There is a story that the first Elite coupé was actually designed by Lotus’ accountant with aerodynamic specialst Mike Costin and his brother Frank only applying the finishing touches. (This still applies today, Lotus people are very special enthusiasts, i.e. try to find a video how Lotus converted an old Lada into a fun-drift car for Top Gear while actually sticking to the car’s roots, only the Lotus guys could have come out with such a result.)

It is time to make an important point about supercars. Quite rightly it is tempting to compare Lotus with the likes of Ferrari, Lamborghini, Aston Martin, etc.. But, while Lotus no doubt made supercars, there is an important difference at Lotus. Chapman and Lotus always stuck to their original idea that good handling and light weight is more important than big power. For example one of the most famous Lotus road cars ever was the Esprit. Someone found a ruler designing that, very nice, clean, characterful… different, yet easily comparable to a Ferrari or Lamborghini. You may be surprised that even that Esprit supercar in its first versions only had a 2.2L 4-cylinder engine with 155BHP! Unusually this was a Lotus designed engine, yet the Esprit is still an example that Lotus always concentrated on handling. Chapman never saw himself as big enough to compete the big car manufacturers, so instead he even actively searched for cooperations. On the Lotus Esprit i.e. the gearbox came from Renault, the door handles came from the Morris Marina and very visibly the rear lights were from the Rover SD1. Curious in this context this 155BHP 4-cyl. was actually Lotus’ own engine, only after a major facelift the Esprit got the Rover based V8 that Lotus than turbo charged for big power.

Back in order of history, long before the Esprit and its 2.2 Lotus engine, it is surprising than that Ford approached Lotus to help with a rally and touring car project, including the engine side! Lotus never did anything with engines until that point. Starting from the Ford Cortina GT, its 1500cc engine was bored up to 1600cc and given a twin cam cylinder head, plus the rear axle saw a complete re-design. The next big surprise was that the Lotus design rear axle was rubbish for rallying and Ford changed it back to the original layout, but it is the engine that made the Ford Lotus Cortina famous. Ford even carried over this engine to the famous early Escort Mk1 rally cars. And for Lotus this was good, as that gave them an engine for the Elan.

Despite this, Lotus carried on sourcing many parts as engines from outside, mostly Ford and Austin-Rover. But suddenly big companies were interested in Lotus parts too. The Vauxhall Chevette group4 rally car at first had a Lotus cylinder head. And when the Talbot Sunbeam Lotus was created, the whole engine was from Lotus, the unit found in the early Esprit.

However then Lotus fell into a huge crisis for a chain reaction of silly things. Colin Chapman tried to help De Lorean and ended up being sucked into the De Lorean scandal in accusations as well as finances. Quite likely as a result of all this Colin Chapman suffered a fatal heart attack aged only 54. With this all coming together Lotus seemed to be without direction and was bought first by GM, later Kia. At GM Lotus designed the Vauxhall Lotus Carlton and later the Vauxhall VX220 road cars. The Lotus Carlton (in some countries Omega) was mega, Lotus took it’s 3.0L straight-6 engine, bored it up to 3.6L, added bi-turbos, a Carlton with 377BHP! The VX220 (or Speedster for Opel) was more in line with typical Lotus cars which in turn allowed Lotus to borrow from this when they were in urgent need for new models, namely the 1997 Elise, the 2000 Exige and the 2006 Europa. In their short spell at Kia in 1993 to 1997 Lotus was first forced to stop production of the super successful Esprit (for Renault stopped making that gearbox and Kia did not allow Lotus to source and adapt another box), next suddenly and rudely the Lotus Elan (M100) hit the markets as a Kia Elan. These were their only two models in the mid 1990s and the result should have been certain death. However in 1997 Proton came to the rescue and wanted Lotus to design a mass production B-segment car for them. Now the Elise was created overnight, but that aside this looked like from bad to worse for Lotus. Yet it turned out Proton may have had a brilliant idea behind this, read in the Proton story about Campro engines, Satria Neo, Gen2. It is still not easy right now, but some money is made that way and Lotus gave us hints of a whole range of new models for this decade. Let’s see what happens.

However why rallying?

Lotus is famous as an F1 team. But look again at the current Elise and its coupé sister Exige. From the very beginning Lotus cars were always about light weight and handling to compensate for the expensive power of all those Ferraris, Aston Martins, etc., and deliver maximum fun. Compared to a Ferrari or Lamborghini a Lotus was always much more affordable, yet as an example the Lotus Eleven with only an 1100cc Coventry Climax engine could hit 143mph/230km/h! You even see hints of this big rule in the Proton Satria Neo, very much against the modern trend. Indeed even normal road cars become ever higher and heavier, making Lotus cars or Lotus designed cars ever more an attractive option for the enthusiast driver.

Point is, if the big difference of Lotus to other supercars is that low weight and handling is much more important than big power, than rallying is the perfect play ground! It is unorthodox thinking, but Lotus is good for unorthodox thinking. Yes, supercars you think racing, and Lotus always did a lot of racing. But rallying is natural, every day roads in beautiful scenery, changing surfaces, tight corners uphill and downhill, if you want to sell good handling and fun – and that is exactly what Lotus is all about – what better proving ground could you have than rallying? OK, we are not talking Safari Rally, but a Tour de Corse or Alpine roads surely tell potential customers and fans more about a Lotus Elise & Exige dynamics and handling than an oval race course!

Strangely, as much sense as this last paragraph may make, Lotus never was into rallying before. And especially in the modern WRCar days everything goes strictly into 4x4 hatchbacks, but especially in this monotone field a GT car may be the more a refreshing sight, so much so that it would quite likely be spectator’s favourite even before we are talking any results! Another good aspect is that the modern GT classes are gN based, even with far more of a road car relation than modern N4 & R4 Subarus and Mitsubishis, so Lotus can really prove a point to the products they sell on the road. A good time to join. However FIA had to do their own things. National authorities in Belgium and France, soon followed by other countries, opened an N-GT class in which we find mainly Porsche 911s but also Ferraris, Aston Martins, BMW Z3Ms, Nissan 370Zs. If Lotus was to go rallying, it was on international level. The supercharged Lotus Exige S became indeed the first car homologated into the international R-GT class, however R-GT cars are approximately 80BHP down on N-GT cars, which makes R-GT only competitive in a hand full of events – indeed the Exige S R-GT is even 43BHP down on its road car version. Clearly a problem the FIA has to address, as why would Lotus want to challenge national N-GT cars, and in return why would any N-GT make spend money on a new homologation to make their cars slower? (By 2014 the FIA did address the problem in allowing GT cars with an FIA log book to start in R-GT. The question mark on restricted power however remains. But this means the Lotus Exige will in fact be the only car ever officially homologated into R-GT!) Plus Lotus and their mother Proton are not going through an easy time. We have to wait how things develop, but no doubt it is an exciting idea.

For the same reasons a second Lotus rally project is sadly on hold: The next idea was to develop the Elise S into an R-GT rally car. While the Exige S has a supercharged V6, the Elise S only has a 1.8 4-cylinder supercharged engine. This much smaller engine makes the Elise less interesting as a Lotus works car. However the Elise is basically a hardtop cabrio with shorter wheelbase, such she is lighter and cheaper than the Exige, which turns the R-GT Elise into a very attractive rally car for amateur drivers who want to have fun. A few years ago you would never have thought this possible, but groupN, particularly the Subarus and Mitsubishis, have developed so far away from normal showroom cars, that already the R-GT Exige S is cheaper to buy and to run than a modern N4 car. The question mark on R-GT is still about the overall competitiveness, but if the Elise price tag is even lower, the fun is guaranteed and you stand out from the masses, it might really be worth a consideration even without big results!

One more aspect is probably my personal sympathies why I fell in love with the Lotus R-GT project. For some reasons that seem impossible to explain, the Lotus rally project leans in marketing very heavy to the Talbot Sunbeam Lotus. While the Talbot even won the World Championship (1981), Lotus’ first and most famous involvement in rallying was the Ford Lotus Cortina. Plus the Vauxhall Chevette and some other projects had Lotus help. The Talbot Sunbeam Lotus was a 100% Peugeot Talbot Sport UK project and only the engines were purchased from Lotus, but tuned and fitted again at Talbot UK (mind you, the Talbot Sunbeam Lotus road cars went through Lotus’ work shops – and the Talbot Horizon Lotus groupB prototype even used a Lotus Esprit chassis). So it seems quite strange that none of these projects, especially not the Ford Lotus Cortina, is ever mentioned. Maybe it is because the guy who opened the R-GT rally chapter at Lotus, Claudio Berro, is a former Talbot Italy team member in the Sunbeam Lotus days, maybe it is because Peugeot seems to have completely forgotten about Talbot as a brand and therefore Lotus won’t promote a currently existing brand while having good marketing links.... Hard to tell. For me, personally, I used to be a big Peugeot fan turn not so satisfied customer any more and disappointed by Peugeot’s lack of sporty cars and engines. So lately I decided what I love most about Peugeot was the actual Talbot bit. How weird and at the same time overjoying that, when Talbot owner Peugeot can’t be bothered, Talbot heritage is revived by supercar manufacturer Lotus these days!

I started the Lotus story with brand logo and colours. Let’s end it here, too. Because one funny aspect is that Lotus does not actually have a house colour as such. The British Racing Green in their logo is the old national race colour and therefore not a specific Lotus colour, so the closest to Lotus’ own house colour would be plain yellow – plain aka quite boring. Ever again we see Lotus works projects in black with gold, but that is definitely no Lotus colour as it links to Lotus’ most famous F1 sponsorship, John Player cigarettes! At first we repeatedly saw the Lotus Exige R-GT in light blue & red as their claimed works colour scheme yet this was clearly the Talbot works colours! Yet I like it, because, to tell you a little secret, exactly this was one of the ideas behind the rallye-info.com house colours!

Beyond this, the rally story of Lotus as well as R-GT will have to be continued.

COLOURS & TYRES:

Tyres simply too early to say anything. And colours, Lotus does not really have a house colour, but see the ending of the main story.

REGISTRATIONS:

Lotus is based in Hethel, a tiny village near Norwich. Like some other makes Lotus tried to promote their cars in films, most notably James Bond. Apart from maybe identifying presenters and test cars, this would be the only reason to list the old style UK registrations that would apply for Lotus cars. Norwich combinations of old (last two letters of the 3-letter-block) are AH, CL, EX, NG, PW, VF & VG. The two most famous Lotus cars of all time may be the white “submarine” Lotus Esprit series1 PPW 306R in “The spy who loved me” (note when in 2012 Top Gear/Richard Hammond showed Bond cars and tried to repeat the stunt, quite successfully, they used a Lotus Excel) and the lovely copper-red metallic with golden stripes Lotus Esprit Turbo series2 OPW 678W in “For your eyes only”. This info is more for Lotus fans. For rallying only the new system is relevant, as the only in-house Lotus rally project is the recent Exige R-GT. For the new system, note that the Eastern region of England is called Anglia. While in Anglia Bedfordshire (Luton) and Essex have their own registrations, the remainder of Anglia has registrations starting with an A, accurately AA-AN = Peterborough (Cambridgeshire), AO-AU = Lotus home Norwich (Norfolk) & AV-AZ = Ipswich (Suffolk). For some reason, maybe coincidence, Lotus presenters in recent years always showed reg plates starting with AU, the so far only Lotus Exige S R-GT has the reg plate AU61 DWK.

Lotus Rally Cars

Model Class
Lotus Lotus Exige  Class RGT