It is amazing how much you pick up when you’re a child. I was still in primary school when my mother was building plane and car models and, very uncharacteristically, fangirling over James Hunt. One of the cars she recreated on a smaller scale was one of the iconic Lotus F1 cars. It was black and gold and had big letters on it: JPS. And I loved it. Of course at that age I knew nothing about Lotus, I just thought the car was pretty. I also loved watching the races with my parents. The cars were going around the track time and time again in spectacular fashion and I got my first taste of pit stops, tyre changes, disputes between drivers and teams, on and off track rivalry and a lot of noise. This was all even before my dad explained to me how a cylinder worked, so no technical data yet.
Things you pick up and remember from that early on in life start leading a life of their own. They become part of you and for some reason have an emotional impact. So when I went to Autosport Inernational for the first time in January 2014 and saw the iconic black and gold cars up close for the first time I did almost cry. They are still the most beautiful F1 cars I have ever seen and I don’t expect that to change. And I expect that hardly anyone will argue they are iconic.
I ended up talking to one of the people at the Classic Team Lotus stand and was told that it is possible to visit them and see their work and some of the cars. And that is exactly what I recently did.
In order to visit Classic Team Lotus you have to book a Lotus Cars factory tour. I booked mine via the Lotus Driving Academy. The additional tour of Classic Team Lotus is not always available, so if you’re interested make sure you check what is included in the tour!
So far I’ve been on two factory tours, both Aston Martin. Of course I was well aware that Aston Martin tend to make their cars a little bit different than other car manufacturers, so I did my best not to compare. It was surprisingly easy.
The group was relatively small, I think about 14 visitors in total. Our guide, called Guy (unfortunately I did not get his last name), works for the sales department. He has been with Lotus for 27 years and it’s easy to see what the reason might be. He has a passion for Lotus. And he knows his stuff!
He took us through the factory at a nice pace, all the while explaining about Lotus, its history, the future, the current models and the technical side of things. I thought it was all quite fascinating. For example, I never knew the current models’ body work is 100% glass fibre. Or that the engines are no longer made by Lotus; they are from Toyota. Or that the chassis is made of aluminium.
At each station on the assembly line there was a story to tell and we could see the cars come together. As luck would have it, a car was about to be tested on the ‘rolling road’, so we even got a taste of that before we saw the final checks and polishing.
Apparently they are doing well. Last year they built just over 2,000 cars and they want to increase that number to 2,500.
Photography is, understandably, not allowed in the factory, so you’ll have to take my word for it: it’s cool to see the Lotus cars being built.
But…I was mainly there to see the classic Lotus cars. Only four of us stayed behind and joined Guy on a trip through race car history.
For some reason I had the silly thought that at Classic Team Lotus they had a nice building with lots of old race cars on display. Eh…no. It’s a workshop.
That was not the only thing I was wrong about. They also do not have all or most of the race cars in their possession. After the season the cars were sold off, left behind or re-used for the next season. Some of the cars are family owned, but most of the cars on the premises are customer cars. The team simply helps the customers maintain these classic machines.
Another misconception is that Lotus only raced in F1. They raced in a few series. Something I never knew. Just like the fact that their original colours are yellow and green, not black and gold.
And the mother of all misconceptions: the Lotus F1 team stopped in 1994. The current F1 team only uses the name. Outside of that they have nothing to do with each other. Wow…
I’ve mentioned ‘family owned’. That family is called Chapman. Colin Chapman designed the cars and made Lotus a household name in racing between 1954 and 1994. If I were to write about him and all he has achieved this post would become far too long. If you want more information on the history of the race team, I suggest you go here.
Unfortunately we had too little time and too much history to cover to leave a lot of time for photography. As I said before, Classic Team Lotus is housed in a workshop and the cars are here, there and everywhere. They are most certainly not on display. Thankfully there was some room to maneuver around one VERY iconic Lotus race car: the one driven by Ayrton Senna.
I am very much aware that Lotus had a whole host of well-known drivers, but for some reason seeing this particular car did something to me. Of course it helps that it’s black and gold.
The story of the Lotus race team really is quite extensive and very interesting. The innovations of Colin Chapman were remarkable. I think I couldn’t do the man or the marque any justice by trying to sum it up in one blog post, so I won’t.
Throughout this post I’ve added clickable links. If you want to know more, just click them and have a good browse. You might just be amazed.