Motorsport history will remember Colin Chapman as an innovator, but I think it’s safe to say that, after the man’s early death, the small details of his personality and business practices have fallen by the wayside, eclipsed by his introduction of aerodynamic wings, his two-chassis F1 car, and ground effects. But those smaller details are just what Colin Chapman: The Man and His Cars by Gérard Crombac does.
Crombac was intimately involved in the Lotus F1 team, frequently serving as a translator for Chapman when the Englishman conducted business in France. As he states in the introduction, Crombac picked up where Chapman had left off: he’d write the ultimate Chapman biography, the one that Chapman himself never quite got a chance to do.
Chapman grew up in a fairly well-established family, which meant he received a solid education and was expected to take on a career in businesses like engineering — but that wasn’t meant to be. Chapman became absolutely obsessed with cars and with the prospect of racing them.
One of the things I wish we got to have was the inside look into Chapman’s mental processes as he came up with his sketches an engineering ideas. Hazel, Chapman’s wife, says in the book that she felt Chapman was able to break a problem down into its smallest parts and think about it logically, with a kind of bird’s eye view. His solution generally wouldn’t be conventional, but it would get the job done — often in a more efficient way than it had been done before. And I wish we could have known more about how that process actually worked for Chapman; it was often something personal, so Crombac wasn’t able to really give it what I thought was the true depth, where we could have had the chance to parse out some of the mysteries.
The book follows a fairly standard year-by-year or car-by-car progression, with Crombac recounting predominately about the machinery involved. Personal details — like moving house, getting married, or having kids — generally took a backseat to technical details about the Elan or the Lotus 88. I personally prefer a better blend of the personal and the business, but I can also understand why it wouldn’t have been feasible for this book; Chapman kept his cars close to his heart, which means that, for the most part, his legacy lies in small details like ever-increasing torque numbers and more efficient production techniques.
It definitely brought to light a lot of things I’d vaguely known about Chapman but hadn’t necessarily parsed together. He was the ambitious kind of man that was prone to biting off more than he could chew, the kind of innovator whose genius was exceptional but left no wiggle room for error. He was deeply empathetic and prone to developing close relationships — like his friendship with racer Jim Clark — but when he was hurt, he’d not just withdraw into a shell but build up defenses so you’d end up with driver-owner relationships like the one Chapman sustained with Jochen Rindt. Those two were always at odds, both publicly and privately. Chapman didn’t let himself get close to another driver who might die.
At the same time, Crombac was a friend of Chapman’s, so there’s a definite bias in favor of the positives, not the negatives, of Chapman’s life. I think that’s something any biographer attempts to do, but Crombac only skims over the David Thieme and De Lorean fiascos, only just touches on how disconnected Chapman had become from just about everything in his final years. It’s definitely the sympathetic tone you’d get from a close and loyal friend — not from a reporter.
Colin Chapman: The Man and His Cars is a fascinating book, one that’s about as close as we’ll ever get to a Chapman autobiography. It’s worth a read to understand the way Chapman responded to the constant evolution of Formula One and how the F1 administration responded to him in kind.