Lotus didn't just add lightness.
Lotus has been a huge deal for a long time. It was founded in 1948 by Colin Chapman when he built his first race car in a garage but formalized in 1952 when Chapman and Colin Dare formed Lotus Engineering Ltd. Split into groups, Lotus has gone on to build its own sports cars and race cars as well as provide engineering consultancy services.
Through the chapters of the Lotus story, you'll find the company has had its hand in a lot of key moments of automotive development. Some of those key moments feature a Lotus badge, but far from all of them.
The Corvette ZR-1 that changed the game for Chevy used some serious help from Lotus and, in particular, the engineer Tony Rudd. When GM floated the idea of using Lotus, which the auto group owned at the time, Rudd suggested a new all-aluminum V8 quad-cam engine. GM didn't have the resources to build the new engine, dubbed LT5, so Mercury Marine was contracted to build it at its factory. The Lotus Formula 1 division handled the new ZR-1's handling with its gas-over-oil shock absorber FX3 suspension system and set a new bar for the Corvette at the same time.
The Lotus Carlton was as a car that reached legendary status in the UK for it's BMW M5 blitzing speed. In 1990, Lotus went nuts on the Carlton's engine by stroking out Vauxhall's straight-six lump to 3.6 liters and bolting on twin turbochargers. The resulting powerplant was an absolute monster for its time with 377-horsepower and 366 lb-ft of torque. Lotus also used the same six-speed manual gearbox as the ZR1, and again took care of suspension duties. This time with a trick self-leveling system.
Lotus was doing wonderful things with large automakers before the 1990s. Back in the 1960s, Colin Chapman wanted to build his own engines and commissioned Harry Mundy to design a twin-cam version of the Ford Kent engine. While the engine was in development, Ford asked Chapman if he could bolt the engine to 1,000 Ford saloons aimed at Group 2 homologation. Lotus also gave the Cortina the Lotus Elan's close-ratio gearbox, reworked the suspension drastically, and added lightness with aluminum body panels as well as lighter differential and gearbox casings. A few were built with other colors, but you'll mainly know a Lotus Cortina by it's white paint and light green flash stripes.
When Delorean figured out that the DMC-12 needed drastic re-engineering, the company brought in Colin Chapman to help meet the pressures of scheduling. Chapman got rid of the unproven materials DeLorean wanted to use and switched to proven manufacturing processes including the steel backbone chassis. It wasn't enough though, and between the handling and engine it was lucky the DMC-12 was such a pretty car because otherwise we wouldn't remember it.
A common misconception is that the original Tesla Roadster was simply a converted Lotus Elise. The truth there is that it was supposed to be, but things got out of hand. The Roadster was built using a Lotus glider - a car sold without a powertrain. Lotus had a further hand in the Roadster by providing advice on designing and developing the car as well as producing part-assembled vehicles. When Tesla designed and built its own powertrain, Lotus then helped with developing the chassis. The Roadster ended up with a 2-inch longer wheelbase than the Elise as well as stiffer chassis, amongst many other things. Surprisingly though, the Roadster only shares around 6% of its parts with the Elise.
What seemed like a good idea in taking an excellent sports car and making it into an electric car turned out to be a completely redesigned sports car. Something Elon Musk points out was "... a super dumb strategy that we actually did."
So much of the Ian Callum designed V12 Vanquish is special. The 5.9-liter V12 engine was all Aston, but it's a little known fact that Lotus Engineering had a hand elsewhere in the car, although it's never been properly publicized exactly where that might be. Curiously as well, in 2014 a former Lotus chassis tuning man of 26 years called Matt Becker jumped ship to Aston Martin.
If you've ever wondered why Hyundai's former flagship handled so well, this is your answer. Lotus had significant input into helping Hyundai figure out and execute what North American buyers wanted in terms of steering, handling, and ride dynamics. It turned out to be one hell of a shrewd move.
"American owners criticized the suspension, steering, the absence of road feel, things like that," Hyundai Motor America CEO Dave Zuchowski said of Hyundai's cars. "We didn't bring them [Lotus] in because we didn't know how to do it. We wanted them to tell our engineers in engineering language what American customers are looking for. It really helped our engineers understand what we were looking for."
This is the unlikely hero of this list. When Peugeot acquired Chrysler Europe in 1978, they rebranded using the name of the historic British marque, Talbot. Peugot's director of motorsport, Des O'Dell, saw potential in the innocent looking little hatchback and decided it was destined to enter the World Rally Championship. For that, it needed a more powerful engine, so O'Dell turned to Lotus. Of course, O'Dell was a smart man so he also had Lotus wave its magic wand over the suspension as well, and the result was 2,300 homologation units sold and the Sunbeam taking the 1981 WRC Constructors' Title.
The Piazza was probably Lotus's most successful rescue. When it was released, the Piazza was lambasted by the automotive press for its poor handling and lack of grip. Isuzu and Lotus were both owned by GM at the time, and someone made the smart call to Lotus for its tuning skills. For Europe, the upgraded Piazza got Lotus badges to let everyone know it was the real deal on the road. In the US, the Piazza was rebranded as the Impulse and arrived with all the new components and setup.
Isuzu then did Lotus a solid in return by supplying the automaker with its zippy little 1.6-liter engine to go in the Lotus Elan.