Colin Chapman memorial service address
February 12th 1983
Grand Prix International
March 16th 1983
On Saturday, February 12, at a memorial service for Colin Chapman, the Vice-President of Ford’s Public Affairs Department in Detroit, Walter Hayes, spoke of his long friendship with Colin. We at GPI were so moved by this simple farewell to a near-genius, that we decided to pay homage to the father of Lotus by reproducing the complete text of Walter Hayes’ tribute to him.
On many occasions such as this – when people gather in a great cathedral to honour the passing of a man of distinction – the person mourned was neither a friend nor an essential part of their own lives.
But there are many here today who shared in the joy of Colin Chapman’s company, many who personally helped him to write his name large in the history of British invention and daring, and so I hope that this valediction will be heard as part of our common memory.
History is best remembered through anecdotes, and it is the stories about Colin – light hearted and funny and irreverent – that will continue to keep him alive in our memories. The statistics of his enormous influence and his many achievements are best left to the record books.
For he himself raced past milestones. No achievement was ever as important as the one he was planning. When you asked him which of his cars he liked best, he always smiled and said: “The next one.”
He never had any doubt about what he wanted to be. He was only twelve when he told his father that he intended to be an inventor, and Mr Chapman believed him. If Colin said he was going to do it – then it seemed reasonable to assume that he would, sooner or later, one way or another. His life followed a path of singular dedication. It was a course of many obstacles, but each of them was overcome.
He started with no resources save his won. He entered London University when he was seventeen. From the university he got a BSc, and the Royal Air Force gave him his wings.
He tried selling cars but emerged from that experience with nothing except an old Austin 7. It was his only capital, but he turned it into a remarkably successful trials car, and almost immediately people began to say what they subsequently said all his life: “What’s Colin up to?”
Team Lotus, the greatest racing equipe of its day, was not formed until 1954, but it really began in 1946 when Colin met Hazel Williams, and Lotus in those days was very much the story of a man and a woman – both dedicated in their way to each other and to Colin’s vision.
Their first cars were put together in a lockup garage behind Hazel’s home. She was secretary, confidant, tea-maker, inspiration, co-driver and – when Lotus Engineering Company was formed – one of the two investors, one of the two directors.
They went on together to converted stables behind the Railway Hotel (the pub that his father owned in Hornsey) with a few other friends and a mechanic called Graham Hill. When I persuaded Colin, at that time, to become motoring editor of a London Sunday newspaper, he brought Hazel along to discuss the contract. It didn’t work out very well, because he liked to dictate at the wheel of his car on the way to race meetings, and the young reporter who was supposed to write it all down was sooner not resolute enough to sit in the passenger seat with him.
He wasn’t dangerous. He was always in a hurry. He had an amazing appetite for work and extraordinary application. When he joined British Aluminium in his early twenties, he would start the day in his Hornsey workshop, go off to his nine-to-five job, and carry on at Hornsey again until the small hours of the morning. When he started driving on the continent with Mike Costin, they would leave on a Friday evening after work, arrive at Nurburgring in Germany by mid-day Saturday, compete in the race and catch the night boat on Sunday back to London for work on Monday morning.
By the time he reached his twenty-eighth birthday, he had built a dozen different cars, acted as a consultant to Vanwall and BRM and designed his first Grand Prix car. Rob Walker bought one for Stirling Moss, who then gave Lotus their first ever Grand Prix victory at Monaco in May 1960. It was that year also he told a young man called Jim Clark that he thought he had potential.
That was the beginning of a golden era. It was a magical time. At the wheel of the green and yellow Lotus, Jim Clark began to dominate Grands Prix, winning the world championship in 1963 and 1965. Nothing seemed impossible, and when I went to Lotus HQ at Cheshunt to sign the agreement that would take Lotus to Indianapolis, he never doubted his ultimate success. He nearly won at the first attempt and confounded the entire American racing establishment.
One official history of that period reports that he looked like David Niven, that his primary out-ward feature was his arrogance but that he had a right to that attitude.
It was never arrogance; he merely knew better than anybody else. He also knew more. In 1977, Colin laid the foundations of the new Lotus factory at Hethel, here in Norfolk – a county he came to love very much – and one weekend in November the entire operation moved there from Cheshunt.
The air conditioning didn’t work, but Colin, who knew nothing about it, nevertheless redesigned the system so that it did. He was also very innovative with drains.
He could have succeeded at almost anything. He could, in my estimation, have been a world champion himself – for he raced against and beat the best – but he was forced to make a choice between designing and running a business and the indulgence of continuing to drive. Still the driving talent was important, for it gave him a special ability to measure other drivers. Jim Clark once told me that he never expected to be world champion and would not have made it had not Colin “made me more than I thought I could be.”
He was a serious man but not solemn. I think I shall remember more than anything how easily you could make him laugh.
He was also impatient. They chided him for taxiing his plane too fast right into the hangar and one day he put its nose through the end wall. So he designed wooden blocks which were fixed to the floor to prevent the aircraft advancing too far. When these were in position he taxiied even faster…and removed one of the landing wheels.
He had an essential optimism that tomorrow would always being about an even better idea which would materialise apparently without effort from his fertile brain. His inventiveness was so rich that it seemed like an inexhaustible well. Occasionally, yesterday’s ideas were not developed as they should have been because new ideas crowded in upon him and he was impatient to get back to them. Looking back was a kind of private betrayal. His thinking was always ahead of his rivals, and his contributions to automotive design – monocoque chassis, driving positions, aerodynamics – were superior to any other single person’s. Everybody who loves cars and motor racing is in his debt. He was the quintessential man to watch – and to copy.
All this left little time for anything but business, but he loved his family. He was proud when Clive got into Eton and when the girls followed Hazel to Queenswood. He was a benevolent father. When Jane had a hairy moment with her car, rolled it on to its side and badly scored the roof he had “This Side Up” painted on the roof of the new one.
But he could be very tough with people and angry if they tried to improve on his ideas. He had the natural vanity of a man who knew that his ideas were better.
In his life he was a lesson to us all, and I believe an important reminder to this country at this time. For he represents, I think, that peculiar British genius for invention and for individuality.
He did not believe that the battle always went to the big battalions – that wisdom resided in the bigger offices – that authority was always right- that a resourceful bureaucracy was better than the God-given resources of a man with a private vision.
He liked to fly solo which is as it should have been, for he was his own pilot. We are saddened by his untimely departure, for he had much to do. At the time of his death, he had a revolutionary engine on the drawing board on which we had both pinned many hopes for the future. But still we cannot be anything but grateful that we were so enriched by his company when he was with us. He added to the gaiety of our life, and he left us the poorer by his going.
As the poet Stephen Spender put it, he was one of those rare few who:
“In their lives fought for life,
Who wore their hearts at the fire’s centre.
Born of the sun, he travelled a short while
Towards the sun
And he left the vivid air signed with his honour.”