In early 1956, when the Lotus Eleven was launched, it was an amazingly advanced design. Not only did it boast a rigid type of multi-tube chassis frame, but it featured an attractive wind-cheating body style.

Compared with any other racing sports car of the day, it was smaller, lighter, and better shaped than its rivals. It was proof, in the metal, of Chapman's philosophy, which was to push his new designs up to the very limits of known technology.

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lotus eleven 1956
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The 1956 Lotus Eleven Le Mans model was notable for its low plastic windshield that wrapped around the driver's head and for a raised headrest that extended to the extreme end of the car's tail.  See more classic car pictures.

Chapman, who did all his own design work, was a daring and innovative engineer who made every bit of metal do its job to the utmost and who inspired the shaping of bodies to cheat the wind wherever possible. Then, as later, a Lotus was elegant if a touch fragile, beautiful and entirely functional, nimble and amazingly efficient.

Way back in the early 1950s, Colin Chapman was working rather unhappily as a civil engineer for the British Aluminum Company, Limited, but his passion was always for designing and building cars. The "day job" was only there so that Colin could indulge himself to create special, lightweight sports cars.

Having built a short series of racing specials, called Lotus and based on the ubiquitous Austin Seven, there was a demand from British enthusiasts wanting be supplied with replicas.

This encouraged Chapman to set up a tiny business, which he could only attend to in the evenings. Using premises rented to him by the man whose daughter he would eventually marry, Chapman followed up with the first Lotus "production" car -- the open-wheeled Mark VI of 1953.

This rugged two-seater was built in tatty premises in Hornsey, North London, and sold in build-it-yourself kit form. Not only did this car put the Lotus name on the open market, it also introduced the term "space frame" to British buyers. From 1953-1962, almost every other Lotus would use the same type of construction.

After the Mark VI, which had all the aerodynamic qualities of a brick, Chapman then turned to the idea of an aerodynamic body form. One of his first part-time employees was Mike Costin, whose elder brother Frank was in charge of flight test aerodynamics at De Havilland Aircraft, so when the time came it was the elder Costin who was consulted.

Up to that time, Frank Costin had not appeared to be interested in cars, so he treated the challenge of clothing a modified Mark VI chassis purely as an aerodynamic exercise. When developing the Mark VIII, the result was that he didn't copy any existing style, but offered an attractive shape that was both efficient and unique.

Go on to the next page to learn about the development of the Lotus Eleven.

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