That Time Lotus Built a Shopping Cart
Over the years, Lotus Engineering has taken on some curious projects.
The backstory is the stuff of legend. In 1952, a University of London graduate named Colin Chapman borrowed £50 from his girlfriend to found a new company, Lotus Engineering. Within five years, he’d developed a kit car to revolutionize grassroots racing; inside a decade, he’d started scheming up a rear-engine chassis to turn F1 on its ear. By the time Chapman died in 1982, his company had become Lotus Group, a conglomerate with arms in components, manufacturing, motorsport, and road cars.
But the centerpiece, the beating heart of thing, was and will always be Lotus Engineering. It’s a laboratory full of tinkerers and perfectionists, folks with big foreheads and little allegiance to convention. Sometimes, they design overhead cam Chevy small-blocks. Sometimes, they tune the suspension on Kia hatchbacks. Then, every so often, they do something entirely different.
Here are four of Lotus Engineering’s most curious projects.
Thirty years before Ford’s Active Noise Control, Lotus Engineering was fiddling with the same technology on airplanes. A decade’s worth of effort and resources went into R&D, resulting in a prototype system for 1993. Lotus Engineering's people called it Antinoise. They installed it on a Cessna Caravan II twin turboprop for testing.
“There is nothing terribly new about active noise control,” project director Dr. Steve Hutchins said. “The basic idea was patented back in 1934 by a German scientist.”
Still, Lotus Antinoise was cool kit. Sixteen button-sized microphones in the cabin headliner fed a central Texas Instruments microprocessor. Each mic was on its own feedback channel. From this data, the T.I. chip whipped up a mirror waveform, then played it back through eight speakers stashed under the seats. The effect canceled out 25 dBDA of propeller and engine fundamental and harmonic frequency; cabin noise was reduced 7 dBA. The system weighed just over 100 pounds. Of course, Hutchins made sure to note that could’ve been offset by strategically removing sound deadening. (Really.)
LotusSport Pursuit a.k.a. Type 108
An entire generation came and went between Great Britain's cycling gold medals. Seventy-two years. But heading into the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, there was hope. There was Chris Boardman, young and talented as any rider alive. And his coach, Peter Keen, a sports scientist and brilliant man. The Brits had momentum, funding. Now all they needed was a bike.
Enter: Lotus Engineering. It had resources, a wind tunnel, carbon fiber smarts. Plans, too, in the form of a radical monocoque mold by aerodynamicist Mike Burrows. Using that as a baseline, Lotus cranked out a striking prototype. The frame was composite, its profile just over an inch in cross section. The fork had a single blade and rear stay, both on one side. The seating position was based entirely on airflow and totally ludicrous; during testing, Lotus gaffer-taped Boardman’s forearms underneath the handlebars to force him lower and lower, until he’d been optimized for drag. In terms of Olympic cycling tech, the LotusSport Pursuit was basically the Moon Landing.
So of course it won. Tore right through the 4000-meter pursuit world record time, and carried Boardman to a gold medal. Lotus Engineering got most of the glory, but the rider didn’t take it personally. “Everybody seemed to think I should mind but me,” said Boardman. “I’m amazed people still remember it and consider it such an iconic image, but I benefited from it.”
The report is 23 pages long, hardly believable, and impossibly cool. It’s dated May, 1992, and marked declassified. The title? Specification Report for TACOM Track Tensioning Programme. Inside, it describes how Lotus Engineering developed and tested a computer-controlled hydraulic dampening system for British military battle tanks—as in, Active Suspension. Like, the system Ayrton Senna helped develop on the Lotus F1 car during the Eighties.
Seriously, how cool is that?
The design is both wonderfully simple and incredibly complex. Lotus Engineering replaced the existing track tensioning devices on a Scorpion tank with hydraulic actuators and two-stage servo control valves. The actuators’ motion and loads were dictated by signals from an electronic controller. The algorithmic brains, ostensibly built off Senna’s F1 car, sensed load, then “bumped” (tightened) or “drooped” (slackened) the drive wheels to maintain constant tread tension during large changes in load. Acceleration. Gear changes. Whenever it’d be needed. This kept the Scorpion’s body—and gun platform—steady at speed while “not shaking its crew to pieces.”
Airplanes, bicycles, tanks—hell, why not a shopping cart? Yes, in 2000, Lotus Engineering built one of those. The concept was to promote the Exige as part of a series called “Better by Design” on British television. In a press release that reads like April 1 but was published August 8, Steve Swift, then head of vehicle systems at Lotus Engineering, explained:
“The fundamental techniques of vehicle engineering apply to both sportscars and to all other vehicles including the humble shopping trolley. The requirements for a fine handling sportscar are both stability and agility in the driving experience. This can be a conflict but with clever, intelligent design you can find a perfect and balance between sporty handling and confidence inspiring stability.”
Swift said shopping carts suck at handling. He didn’t like how that had a “life of their own” and were always “crabbing” sideways. His solution was to add a fifth wheel, then rearrange the other four. That put one castor wheel up front, two special “breakout” wheels at the cart’s center, and a wide-set pair at the rear—basically, a flying-vee formation. Those breakout castors locked under acceleration “for stability,” but freed up under lateral movement. But the pièce de résistance: Lotus Engineering actually fitted racing-style, super-soft compound tires to the cart. Godspeed, you magnificent weirdos. Godspeed.