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Lotus has long been known for its racing exploits, at least as much as for production vehicles. Long before the first Lotus car went on sale, founder Colin Chapman had developed a series of racing machines, fitted with finely-tuned Ford and Austin Seven engines. His first car, an Austin Special, was completed in 1948, in his own garage in Britain.
While crafting his first race cars, Chapman was serving in the Royal Air Force. After discharge, he worked as an engineer for the British Aluminum Company while continuing to work on cars.
Wearing a lightweight aluminum body, Chapman's Mark 3 of 1951 held an Austin Seven engine. Mark 4 was the first to use a space-frame chassis. In 1952, Chapman and his partner, Michael Allen, formed Lotus Engineering Company. Not until 1955 did Chapman take a full-time role in the firm.
Mark 6 was the company's first production car, but not in the usual sense. Customers got a kit, and had to assemble the car themselves. By 1954, the Mark 8 adopted a space-frame chassis and could have a choice of engines. Chapman's numerical progression of model designations continued into 1966, reaching Mark 45.
Lotus's first single-seat race car came in 1956. The Mark 12 model used a new suspension, known as the Chapman strut and similar to the MacPherson strut that would become common years later.
Among the most notable products was the cycle-fendered Mark 7 (typically called Seven), which brought Lotus considerable attention for years to come. More than 3,000 Sevens were made from 1957-73; but again, nearly all were sold in kit form.
A prototype for the Elite, considered the first roadgoing Lotus, appeared at the 1957 London Motor Show. Elite coupes had fiberglass unibody construction and a Coventry Climax engine. Lotus's first factory-backed racing victory was at the U.S. Grand Prix in 1961, when a Super Seven became available. Next came the second roadgoing Lotus: the Elan roadster, with a converted Ford engine. An Elan fixed-head coupe arrived in 1965.
By 1973, Lotus's Sevens were being made by another firm, Caterham Car Sales, which had acquired the rights to that model. During 1974, the Elite name returned on a fiberglass-bodied four-seat model with a twin-cam Lotus engine and an automatic-transmission option.
Two related models followed the Elite: an Eclat fastback and an Esprit. U.S. versions of the Elite and Eclat faded away, but the Esprit remaining in Lotus's lineup through the Eighties. Turbo power became available in 1981-not long before founder Colin Chapman died. By 1986, Lotus was acquired by General Motors. Lotus returned to its roots in 1990 with a modern version of the old Elan, but now a front-drive configuration.
After almost three decades on the U.S. market, the mid-engine Esprit disappeared in 2004, but Lotus had something else ready: a new Elise roadster. Elise was the first new Lotus model for the American market since 1990, and marketers sought to make it appeal to a broader audience-including women. By this time, Lotus wasn't even fully British anymore, with a majority interest held by Proton, the national auto company of Malaysia, since 1996.
Looking toward the future, Lotus exhibited a new Exige S at the Frankfurt (Germany) motor show in September 2011. The first Exige, introduced in 2002, was billed as a "raw race car for the road," but a 2004 reworking sought to make it more driveable. Because of their serious racing heritage, Lotus cars haven't always been the easiest to get into or to drive, but those eager to make the attempt can expect a stirring experience.