Why Some People Think Lotus Founder Colin Chapman Faked His Death

Colin Chapman helped revolutionize motorsport and road cars before dying at age 54. But conspiracy theorists don’t think that’s where his story ended.

byMar 21, 2022 12:02 PM
Why Some People Think Lotus Founder Colin Chapman Faked His Death
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On Dec. 16, 1982, Lotus founder and motorsport pioneer Colin Chapman succumbed to a heart attack at the age of 54. He went well before his time, and had he lived longer, he might have further altered the automotive and racing landscapes in ways we can scarcely imagine. Since his death, however, some conspiracy theorists have alleged that instead, Chapman faked his own death and fled to South America to escape a potential prison sentence tied to his involvement with the scandal that brought down the DeLorean Motor Company.

It's an outlandish conspiracy theory, even as those go, and one that involves a fake identity, fraudulently obtained money and disgraced automotive upstart John Z. DeLorean

It is, of course, almost certainly complete nonsense, with shaky evidence, a murky timeline and questionable motives for those who believe it. Still, the notion that there's an untold story involving two of automotive history's most influential figures captures the imagination, grim though the subject matter may be.

Colin Chapman poses with a John Player Team Lotus plane, The Colin Chapman Foundation

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The DeLorean Connection

The course toward unfounded claims about Chapman's death was set by his contributions to the automotive and racing worlds, which extend far beyond those encompassed by his famous credo: "Simplify, then add lightness." 

Starting in the 1950s, Lotus, with Chapman at the helm, conceived and popularized many innovations now commonplace in top-level motorsport, from "stressed member" chassis-integral engine blocks to monocoques, aerodynamic downforce (including recently revived ground effect), and major sponsorship. That goes without mentioning its role in getting the legendary Cosworth DFV racing V8 built, or building the first Indy 500-winning mid-engined car.

All this and more established Lotus as a racing icon, and helped it make its name in road cars too, like the Elan and Esprit. These achievements earned Lotus performance consultancies with the likes of General Motors and, crucially to this story, the nascent DeLorean Motor Company

That company was established by former GM executive John Z. DeLorean in the mid-1970s, and he spent years looking for both financing for his project and a place to build it. Eventually, he got both from the British government: some $120 million to set up the factory in then-impoverished and conflict-torn Belfast in Northern Ireland. DeLorean's company was partially funded with public money in the hope it would provide jobs and an economic turnaround for a region that badly needed it. 

DMC also needed expertise to build its rear-engined, stainless-steel-bodied sports car, the DMC-12. For this, DeLorean turned to Lotus for engineering work, allegedly paying for the work through a Panama-registered and Swiss-based firm called General Product Development Services, as The New York Times reported in 1983. The firm had apparently been registered by Colin Chapman and Lotus chairman Fred Bushell and involved John Z. DeLorean, according to the Belfast Telegraph.

John Z. DeLorean leans against his creation at San Francisco Bay, Photo by © Roger Ressmeyer/CORBIS/VCG via Getty Images

Many people know what happened to DeLorean next: though his company had collapsed, his 1984 federal drug trafficking trial ended with him acquitted of all charges. Still, DeLorean (and those involved with his failed venture) faced legal troubles back in the UK tied to alleged misuse of those government subsidies. DeLorean managed to avoid extradition, but Bushell wasn't so lucky. 

In June 1992, a Nothern Irish court determined that Bushell masterminded a scheme to "defraud" DMC of over £5 million, money which had, in large part, come from the British government. Bushell pled guilty, getting the next few years in prison for what the Belfast High Court's Lord Justice Murray reportedly deemed a "barefaced, outrageous and massive fraud." Bushell got off light compared to what the judge wanted to hit Chapman with, according to Dyler—which was at least 10 years' imprisonment. 

That, however, was never to be Chapman's fate, because he died in 1982. He had been dead nearly a decade by the time of Bushell's sentencing, having passed away two months after the DMC debacle reached its climax with DeLorean's arrest with the coke sting. It's this timing that led some people to suspect that Chapman saw the writing on the wall and faked his death to flee to South America.

The Conspiracy Theory

So, who actually believes this, and what evidence do they have to offer? Are there real public figures with suspicions about Chapman's passing, or is this the fabrication of crackpots? 

Colin Chapman, The Colin Chapman Foundation

Renowned Formula 1 aerodynamicist Adrian Newey claims the former, alleging in his autobiography that 1978 Formula 1 champion Mario Andretti (who raced for Lotus during the period Chapman was involved with DeLorean) has "always maintained that Chapman had faked his own death and fled to Brazil in order to escape trial, a claim that would be absurd if it were anybody else but Chapman." 

Through a spokesman, however, Andretti himself denies this. His publicist told The Drive that Andretti "doesn't want to talk about what Adrian Newey said. He has nothing to say about it and had no idea that was in Adrian's book."

With the most reputable source counted out, that leaves only the loose band of Chapman conspiracists, whose narrative is most clearly outlined in a story from The Classic Car Trust. The way that site tells it, Chapman allegedly passed a medical exam required for needed renewing his pilot's license—and life insurance policy—shortly before his death, the motive presumably being to leave his widow Hazel financially stable. Chapman then supposedly roped in a doctor who'd issue a death certificate, rushed the body away, disappeared, and left Hazel as the only witness. His funeral was then purportedly so hurried that drivers who had reached out about attending the services were told it had already happened and that the body was already buried in a cemetery near the family estate. The apparent wife of the cemetery's caretaker is also said to have found Chapman's date-of-death altered in parish records.

Hazel Chapman (left) with Team Lotus in 1985, The Colin Chapman Foundation

With his trail swept up behind him, Chapman is alleged to have fled to Brazil, changed his name, received cosmetic surgery, and had his fingerprints wiped. From there, he supposedly lived a relaxed life under a new identity, flying under the radar of BBC reporters and FBI agents purportedly sent after him. (For the record, our digging turned up no evidence of either pursuit.) 

Finally, an apparent trip that Hazel Chapman made to Brazil for a month following the country's 1983 Grand Prix has also been offered as supporting evidence, due to her claimed fear of flying that supposedly kept her grounded for the preceding decade.

Flimsier Than Any Lightweight Car

Despite numerous holes large enough to drive a DeLorean through, The Classic Car Trust's is the most complete account I managed to find of this long-known theory, much of which predates the internet because of when Chapman died. 

Details are otherwise scattered around the net piecemeal, on forums, dubious blogs, and the occasional social media post. There doesn't seem to be a single complete recap of how Chapman supposedly fled to Brazil—nothing to bind this anthill of anecdotal and circumstantial evidence together—and even fewer citations. As for Hazel Champman, she died in December at the age of 94; it's hard to fathom why she would stay heavily involved in the Lotus family business and foundations as she did if she knew her spouse had abandoned her decades ago. 

The simple reality is that, almost certainly, Chapman didn't disappear — he just died young. He had a long and successful but strenuous career competing in the world's most cutthroat category of racing, and trying to keep a road car company afloat at the same time. Additionally, some motorsports historians believe Chapman used drugs to maintain his hyper-driven pace, which, if true, would've been additionally detrimental to his health.

Colin Chapman drives the innovative Lotus 49, with F1's first stressed-member engine, at Hethel, Lotus

"For at least [20] years he was on 'uppers' (amphetamines) and 'downers' (barbiturates)," wrote Mike Lawrence, author of a biography on Colin Chapman. "When he started, the world was innocent about drugs and [Chapman]'s were prescribed by his physician. Chapman made no secret of his uppers and downers and his colleagues sympathized with him because he was always flying 'round the world going through many time zones."

Drugs or not, it's no secret that the F1 lifestyle takes a toll on those committed to it. Working conditions aren't as live-out-of-a-van as they were in the 1960s, but the Grand Prix racing calendar is now six events longer than it was in the 16-race 1982 season. That's already too many races, according to some in the sport, never mind the 25-race calendar sought by F1's commercial rights holder

Furthermore, not unlike the DeLorean Motor Company, Group Lotus was struggling financially by the early 1980s, which in part led to Lotus's deal to help engineer Toyota sports cars. To say that Chapman must've been facing an extreme deal of stress in his final years and months is probably a grand understatement, and his company would face financial turmoil off and on for decades even after he was gone.

While it's fun to imagine that this racing legend's final act was to engineer himself an escape worthy of D.B. Cooper, in the end, it's almost certainly just a fantastical story and nothing more. If nothing else, it may show how much Chapman and his genius — and the tale of DeLorean, too — still occupy in our collective imaginations today. 

Got a tip or question for the author? You can reach them here: james@thedrive.com.