The Men Who Made Lotus

The following article is from the December 7, 1988 issue of Autocar & Motor magazine

The Men Who Made Lotus
The names of Michael and Nigel Allen are unknown today but without their engineering skills, dedication and facilities Colin Chapman might not have established Lotus.
By Mark Hughes

But for Michael and Nigel Allen, it is possible that Colin Chapman's name would mean nothing today. Until he met them, Lotus was merely his spare time passion, a hobby rather than a business. With their enthusiasm and hard work, however, LMU 3's racing success was achieved, leading to the creation of the Lotus Engineering Co Ltd.

The first Lotus letterhead shows them as directors, along with Colin and his father. They were instrumental in Lotus' early growth as a small manufacturing company, but before too long they felt they had to quit, leaving Chapman to find other enthusiastic aids to help him to his ambitions.

Today, neither Michael nor Nigel has more than a passing interest in cars. They run separate businesses in Dorset, and Lotus is just a distant memory which was revived for Autocar & Motor one evening after my telephone calls to arrange to meet them. Although 35 years have passed since they split with Chapman, their boxes of mementos - photograph albums, press cuttings, letters, bills, notebooks, tools, engineering drawings, even their shared old racing helmet - triggered memories so vivid that it might all have happened yesterday.

Both dental students, Michael and Nigel lived a couple of miles from Chapman at their parents' large house in Vallance Road, Wood Green. When they were not studying, they spent most of their time in the garage attached to the house, tinkering around with cars for fun. With their father's help, they had turned the garage into a well equipped workshop, with an inspection pit, lifting gear, bench drill, lathe and welding equipment. They were busy rebuilding a damaged 1929 Austin Seven two-seater with dickey rear seat when they first met Chapman.

"We had seen a fellow in a fabric-bodied Austin Seven Chummy driving past occasionally," recalls Michael, "but one day he stopped. This was Colin, and he looked at our Austin Seven. "It's too heavy, you must alter it. You're going to race it, aren't you?" We had not intention of racing it, but before we knew it we had been talked into a plan of building three cars, one each, for the 750 Formula. His would be the fastest because he had a special tweak he wanted to do to the engine.

"Looking back on it, Colin obviously couldn't believe his eyes. Here were two chaps with all these facilities who were keen to have a go. I suppose we were receptive to his suggestions, and he was a very persuasive and pleasant character. Before he left he wrote his name, address and phone number on the wall. Unless the garage has been painted, the writing must still be there."

The Allens' facilities must have looked magnificent to Chapman. At that time he was working in a lock-up, without power, behind the house belonging to his girl friend's parents. He had met Hazel Williams at a Hornsey Town Hall dance when he was 16, and until he joined up with the Allen brothers her family's help had been vital to him in building his two trials specials. By the time he met Michael and Nigel, he had sold the Lotus MkI (advertised at 135 pounds) and MkII (325 pounds) to finance his MkII project.

Early in 1951, the Lotus trio began work on modifying three chassis. They had gone as far as buying three engines and gearboxes when they realized that time was running out before the start of the 750 Formula season. They decided to concentrate on one car - the one subsequently registered LMU 3 - and share it at the early races until the other two cars were ready. It may have taken more time than expected, but LMU 3 was put together very cheaply. Michael and Nigel still have the ledger itemizing all expenses, under "N & N" for the two of them and "C" for Colin. At the bottom the total cost is given as 66p 3s 7d ($100) with a set of Lockheed drums brakes (from a Morris Minor) the most expensive item at 15 pounds.

"It took us the whole season to get just one car finished," says Nigel. "Our two cars were never going well, and suddenly he would think of all sorts of improvements. It took all our efforts. We did so much that we never really knew whether or not we were improving the car, but every time it came to the line people would flock to see what the latest changes were. Colin could never settle with it - there always had to be something better so that we would win by an even bigger margin. He even fiddled around with nitro-benzine in the fuel!"

"He always sounded as if he knew what he was doing, and we never knew any better. To us it was all a bit of an adventure. It became a full-time task for us during the week after a race just to rebuild the car, because it was worn out after we had all driven it at a meeting. Colin helped in the evenings when he got home from his job at British Aluminum, but it was only because Michael and I had time during the day that we kept the whole thing going."

Chapman really ran the show, but there was proper division of responsibilities. Michael handled all engine work, Nigel looked after welding and the chassis, and Colin was in charge of the bodywork as well as general design and development. According to the Allens, "design and development" involved Chapman sitting on what they dubbed the "Mediation Box" scrawling things in a spiral bound pad labeled "Big Notes". They still have "Big Notes", and leafing through its grubby pages shows lots of tiny engineering drawings and huge lists of "things to do".

"At one meeting I ran a big end in practice," says Michael. "Here it is in the race record book - Eight Clubs, Silverstone, 2 June, I remember Colin saying that we had to start the next race, because it was a big one for the 750 Formula. 'Got to start, got to start. Come on, get the engine out,' he shouted. In about an hour, we took the head and block off, removed the con rod and piston, put it all back together and got into the race. Looking back on it, actually, all we needed to have done was take the plug out! Colin had a half mile lead in the race when he broke the crankshaft."

"Then at one hillclimb, Shelsley Walsh I think, Colin clouted a bank and ruined a wheel. Of course, we didn't have a spare one with us, but we had to drive home again. Colin disappeared, and came back later with a wheel. He had found an inoffensive little schoolmaster sitting in his Austin Seven fabric saloon watching the action. Colin conned this man into giving him his spare 19 inch wheel, which was rather ridiculous as LMU 3 ran on 15 inch wheels. We wobbled home like that."

Fun thought it all was, exhaustion often set in. On one occasion Nigel fell asleep at the wheel of LMU 3 while being towed home after yet another breakage. Although totally committed to her boyfriend's hobby, Hazel also demanded a break before the season finished. Colin did a hillclimb at Prescott, and then the two them drove LMU 3 northwards for a week in Scotland, traveling very light. The car even broke up there, for Nigel and Michael remember Chapman returning to Vallance Road with the car on the back of a lorry - he never explained what had happened.

At the end of 1951, Lotus' reputation was bringing in the first customers. Larger premises had to be found to cope with manufacturing on any scale, so Colin persuaded his father, Stanley, to let them convert a stable behind his pub, the Railway Hotel in Tottenhame Lane, Hornsey. The floor was concreted, 12 volt light bulbs powered by an old US army generator were slung from the roof and Chapman sidelined some doors and frames for British Aluminum.

The Lotus Engineering Co Ltd was formed on 1 January 1952. Deciding that dentistry was not for him, Michael ran the company day to day while Chapman continued his job at British Aluminum, but Nigel pulled out of a full time commitment to concentrate on his studies. Both of them were cross about Stanley Chapman's involvement as a director now that Lotus was becoming successful.

"He never did anything except complain," says Nigel. "He was a fuss-pot, a bombastic little chap. I never took to him at all. He was always critical, and never came forward with any cash when we needed it. Through 1951 it was always left to our father to keep putting a hand in his pocket for equipment of materials and helping us in all sorts of ways, like lending us the family Armstrong-Siddely as a two car."

The MkVI, the first Lotus to use a Chapman designed chassis, was the new company's major project, but the first task was to build two customer cars. One was a MkIII chassis and body into which Adam Currie planned to fit an 1172cc Ford sidevalve engine, the other a MkIV trials car for the MkII owner, Mike Lawson.

The MkVI was designed to accept several engines, but the promising new Ford Consul 1.5 liter engine was chosen for the prototype. Chapman tried unsuccessfully to obtain one from Ford, but the company did not want a bunch of racing amateurs giving its new engine a bad reputation. The only answer was to tour Ford dealers buying parts until a complete engine had been accumulated.

Despite Lotus' growing professionalism, there were still mistakes - like discovering that the steering worked the wrong way round when the car was first wheeled out of the workshop - before MkVI was ready for its race debut, as Silverstone on 5 July 1952. It turned plenty of heads but finished second.

Early one morning the following month, Nigel was driving the prototype MkVI to Borehoam, Essex, for a prestigious 100 mile sports car race when he met a bread van heading towards him on his side of the Great Cambridge Road dual carriageway. He and his girlfriend were only slightly injured in the collision, but the car rolled over and was written off. Apart from the loss of the latest new Lotus, it was a significant point in the story for another reason.

"The insurer paid up like a lamb," says Michael. "As the money cleared all the firm's debts, I decided that it would be a good point to get out as life had become very difficult at Lotus Engineering. Every day people would come in to see or talk about a car, and wanted to meet Colin. We had make a verbal agreement that he would give up his job at British Aluminum once we had the new premises but still he carried on treating Lotus as a part time thing.

"I got very fed up with never getting any credit. You would work all night for perhaps three nights in a row, and then old Chapman would stand up at a 750 Club meeting and say, 'When I took the engine to bits I found this. I did that...' Nobody else, and there were plenty of us eventually, got a look-in. He had a favorite expression when he wasn't happy with something on the car. 'Completely and utterly bloody useless,' he would shout, which wasn't very helpful if you had been up all night working on whatever it was."

Although Michael lost contact with Lotus, Nigel built a few MkVIs for other people and continued to race Chapman's cars until the end of 1954, ending up with a streamlined MkVIII. His last race was on Boxing Day at Brands Hatch, when he finished third behind the Emperor HRG of David Blakely, the man who was shot a few months later by Ruth Ellis, the last woman to hanged in Britain.

Within 10 years of their parting company, Colin Chapman became one of the greatest designers the motoring world has ever seen. How special did he seem in those early days.

"He was never short of ideas," Nigel recalls. "There's no doubt that he was very clever. He was a brilliant mathematician and a good stress engineer. He was also a very good driver and had to win, so much so that he took risks. I remember going to the Nurburgring for the first time, Colin and I, with two MkVIIIs, Colin's lighter and faster than mine. He was determined to get to know the course, so my wife traveled with him in the back of a Ford Anglia and wrote down everything he said as he drove round the 14 miles. He memorized it overnight, and next day led his class until the car broke.

"He badly wanted to be successful too, and that made him ruthless. He really did use people: it was fine for people drawn into the excitement to come and work for nothing, but as soon as anyone started to make a fuss someone else would be found instead. But then most successful businesses need a dictator at the top. In the early days there was always an unending crowd of people willing to work for nothing, just for the glamour of it. This is really how Lotus Engineering took off."