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History of Lotus

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Lotus Booth, L.A. Auto Show 2009

Lotus Booth, L.A. Auto Show 2009

Kristen Hall-Geisler for About.com

Lotus Founder Colin Chapman - It's All in the Badge:

When you look at the badge on the hood of a Lotus, there's a jumble of letters above the company name. Those would stand for Anthony Colin Bruce Chapman, who built the first Lotus in a garage using a 1930s Austin Seven and a power drill. He built his second racer while in the Royal Air Force in that same garage. It was the first road-going Lotus, and it won its owner Mike Lawson a racing championship. Colin Chapman built Lotus racers throughout the 1950s, and founded the Lotus Engineering Company in 1952. The company's first production car was the Mark 6 racer, with about 100 being built over two years.

Lotus Becomes a Full-Time Job:

By 1955, Lotus was doing well enough that Chapman could quit his job at British Aluminum and work full-time at the Lotus factory. In the next few years, the Lotus Eleven and Seven would debut for the track. The road-going Elite bowed in 1957 as the company's first enclosed car. In the meantime, Lotus pursued and won victories in Le Mans and Formula 1 racing, where it did very well indeed. From 1960 to 1981, Lotus was the winningest manufacturer in F1, thanks to its mid-engine designs and help from legendary drivers like Stirling Moss.

Expanding the Lotus Lineup:

In 1962, there were four Lotus race cars and one road car, the lightweight Lotus Elan roadster, which was in production until 1973. In 1965, the Elan got a hard top, and in 1967, the Lotus Elan Plus 2 came on the scene, with a couple of small rear seats. The Lotux Cortina four-door had a short run from 1963-66, and the chunky, wagon-ish Europa followed it in 1967. The company was outgrowing its factory with all this activity, so the operation was moved to Norfolk, U.K., in 1966, where it still builds cars today.

Nobody Does It Better:

While manufacturers of heavy exotic cars with massive engines take a hit during the gas crisis of the 1970s, Lotus keeps its head mostly above water by sticking to its lightweight formula. A new version of the Elite with a wedge-shaped body came out in 1974, with the angular and instantly recognizable Esprit on its heels in 1975. The company didn't keep itself entirely above water in the 70s -- an Esprit submarine was made famous by James Bond in "The Spy Who Loved Me." In the end, Lotus suffered the same challenges as every other car maker in the late 1970s and felt the economic pinch.

Changing of the Guard:

In 1982, Colin Chapman died of a heart attack at age 54, but the company survived this setback. The Lotus Esprit Turbo of 1980 and Esprit S3 of 1981 share a lot of parts, which saved the company and the consumer some dough. The Lotus Excel 2+2 debuted in 1982, and the next year, Toyota bought a chunk of the company. But the big hand-off came in 1986, when GM bought the company outright. It created Lotus Cars USA in 1987, then sold the British company to Bugatti in 1993. That didn't last long, though, as Bugatti dumped Lotus on a Malaysian firm in 1996.

A New Day for Lotus:

Bugatti sold too soon, though. That was the year that Lotus began building the super-light, crazy fast Elise, named for the chairman's granddaughter. Also, it starts with E. The car proved so popular that production was upped from 800 a year to 2500. Notably, the Elise wasn't even available in the U.S. until 2004, the same year the Exige hardtop debuted. The company continued to stick to its minimalist guns, even with the four-seater Evora of 2009, with few interior creature comforts, a lightweight chassis, and a more-powerful-than-you-think four-cylinder behind the seats of its road-going cars.
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