In the early Eighties, the sports sedan world was dominated by Maserati, and seen with significant interest by Ferrari. But in those years another attempt was made, by Colin Chapman, who chose the all-Italian creativity of Paolo Martin to give shape to his thoroughbred “four-door”. An extreme, pioneering project, interrupted by the sudden death of the British entrepreneur. Exclusively for SpeedHolics, the story is told in the words of the Turin-based designer.
Photos Courtesy of Paolo Martin Archive
The Lotus Four Doors was to be the most extreme of them all. In line with Colin Chapman’s philosophy, it would show off all its sporting spirit, and would be light, low and racy, much more than the Maserati Quattroporte that dominated a segment which – between the Seventies and Eighties – was watched closely also by Ferrari. As the Trident brand presented its third generation of sports sedans, Pininfarina created the prototype of the Ferrari Pinin, a 4.8-metre-long thoroughbred with the 12-cylinder, 5-litre and 365 HP engine of the 512 BB. It was presented at the Turin Motor Show in 1980, but was never put into production.
Meanwhile, from the other side of the Channel Colin Chapman continued to make requests here and there to various stylists for a sporting four-door project. Paolo Martin’s design was deemed the best, but it remained on paper only after Colin Chapman’s sudden death following a heart attack on the night between 15 and 16 December 1982. What remains of this car are the renderings, the 1:4 scale model Martin made at Chapman’s request and the regret of a missed opportunity that would certainly have left its mark on the history of design.
But what was so innovative about Paolo Martin’s Lotus Four Doors? And how did the Turin-based stylist beat the competition and convince Colin Chapman of the merits of his proposal? He tells us the story himself. A project that ended in tragedy, and which also began with some equally dramatic warning signs.
“In 1979 I got in touch with Colin Chapman, the boss of Lotus in Coventry, when I found out that he intended to design and produce a four-door sports car in competition with Ferrari, which at that time was also planning to build the same type of car. I think he had also contacted other stylists, but in any case, he told me to submit a design to him. He didn’t want it to be anything less than what they could do at Maranello, and his Lotus had to have what it took to compete with Ferrari in that market segment. The car he had in mind was to be built on a very low chassis - no more than 1.2 metres high, which was really not much for a sports sedan.
The biggest problem I had was sticking to the design delivery schedule. Fate had it that I fractured a few bones in a stupid domestic accident, falling on my side from a height of just one metre. It left me with five broken ribs, a shattered ulna and radius and a crushed hip, and it was impossible for me to work. I couldn’t move, but at the same time I couldn’t miss that opportunity.
I had an orthopaedic bed set up in the lounge, bought a trapeze to keep me in permanent traction for 40 days and, with a specially built table, I began to work on the design, albeit with great difficulty (I fixed the sheets on the table with tacks and held the curved lines steady with my left arm in plaster, but they kept falling on the floor anyway). I did all the pencil drawings in this way, even the ones on red paper, a special card that was perfect for the alcohol-based paints and felt pens that were typical of that period, but which aren’t used anymore today.
Chapman had no idea what had happened to me, and on the day set he came to visit me at home, you can imagine his surprise at seeing me in such a state. He probably thought that I wouldn’t have been able to do a good job, and that I would have presented him something rough and ready. “What are we doing here?” was the first thing he said. “Things that happen,” I replied, worried that he would have been upset and left. But he was a gentleman, and examined my drawings before he left. Two days later he asked me to make a 1:4 scale model. The first hurdle had been overcome.
A while later Chapman came back to me to see the model, which was still in the rough stage, and together we corrected some minor details.
He had come with two of his staff, and as you can see in the pictures, he sat in the garden a few metres away from the model and began to study it.
He liked it, and decided to proceed in that direction. The car had a clean, soft line that was quite popular at the time.
Imagining that the car needed a powerful engine, I think that commercially, it would have been a success with the clients of that kind of car. It had a smooth, sporting line, we might even say fluid. But it was quite an unusual car.
Nobody had ever made a sports car like this before. It was the result of a – I think successful – combination of the philosophy of Lotus, which had always made sports cars, and a more family car, yet still very sporty.
Perhaps it wasn’t very easy for the passengers to get in and out, but inside there was plenty of room. And I had even designed a small boot.
One of the greatest difficulties in designing a car like this was also due to the material used for the bodywork. Lotus used a fibreglass moulding technique. Fibreglass is much thicker than steel sheet, and so some problems would certainly have been encountered in adapting some of the parts, such as the seals and external components, to be applied to the bodywork. You couldn’t just use standard profiles and adapt them to the new material: it’s one thing to work on six tenths of a millimetre (the average thickness of steel sheet) but something completely different to work on six millimetres of fibreglass. This was a huge obstacle for me. But it was an exhilarating project, because it was quite an unconventional car. A sports car like that had never been seen before.
Would it have been feasible to build a car like that? Most definitely. If you look at the chassis, all the elements were well arranged. It would certainly have been revolutionary, very different from the others.
Chapman was a car builder who had always aimed to produce different cars, and a sports sedan was a complete novelty for him too. He was quite a discreet person, but with clear ideas. Initially, he was rather hesitant with me, he didn’t really seem convinced about having me design the car.
But in the end, he was really pleased. He even hugged me. We had a good relationship. It’s a shame it ended so soon".