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Flawed Masterpiece of a Wayward Genius!
on 30 January 2009
'Colin Chapman - The Wayward Genius' is about Colin Chapman in his role as founder and leader of Lotus: there is almost nothing of the private family man, husband, father or friend, except for their part in the Lotus story. Tellingly, Chapman's family and friends outside Lotus contributed little to the book, and we hardly learn anything of his personal relationships, not even with his "best friend" Jim Clark. Lawrence's Chapman is the "spiv" who ducked and weaved in his professional life, and he is not described in particularly flattering or sympathetic terms: he is a man to be grudgingly admired, but not necessarily liked.
The early years up to the mid 1960s occupy roughly the first half of the book. Lawrence's account could probably be considered to be definitive: it is meticulously researched and carefully presented as he ruthlessly, and almost sadistically, explodes the myths that arose around Chapman, and sets his legend into its true context. Many of Chapman's early associates contributed willingly and in great detail to create a solid chronology and to set the record straight.
Later years become increasingly less satisfactory: Chapman recedes as Lawrence trots out a more conventional history of Lotus with seemingly very little original input from the major players and with very few insights. Chapter 22 is entitled "Losing The Plot", but by then the author has certainly lost his! The watershed is around the period that Lotus moved to Norfolk and even Lawrence admits his story becomes less interesting from that point until winding it up with the infamous Delorean affair.
On several occasions Lawrence is disparaging of Norfolk (we are not all Turnip growers!), and is inaccurate in his geography (Snetterton is not in north-east Norfolk). Indeed, his questionable accuracy in other known areas (eg John Surtees was not the last motorcycle racer to move to cars) reduces the reader's confidence in his writing, which, together with his opinionated and confrontational style (eg he doesn't believe Jim Clark had a 'natural talent'), are factors that add to a sense of unease.
Overall, this is a good book within it's limited scope, but you will need to look elsewhere to find an intimate portrait of the man's complex character. Despite his obvious failings, so gleefully revealed by Lawrence, Chapman was clearly an inspiration and motivator to those around him and perhaps that was his true genius.
'Colin Chapman - The Wayward Genius' is an essential addition to the corpus of material on the early years of Lotus, but is otherwise fairly disposable. Presentation is simple but acceptable with a few monochrome photos, though a number of printing errors are a frequent irritation.