Proud of Lotus' Norfolk Heritage
PUBLISHED: 09:42 15 November 2016 | UPDATED: 09:42 15 November 2016
As one of East Anglia's most famous companies, the connection between Lotus and our region goes back 50 years and is getting stronger each year
If you hear the name Lotus, you naturally think of the world-famous motorsports marque. Racing enthusiasts can tell you about the Formula One team’s glorious string of victories dating back to the sport’s golden years and its iconic heroes who are still household names today, while legendary sports cars like the Elan, the Europa, the Esprit and the Elise capture the public imagination and bring the excitement of a race to the road.
The first Lotus sports car was built in 1948, and for most of the 68 years since the company has had a strong connection to Norfolk, and the charming village of Hethel, 10 miles from Norwich, is now mentioned in the same sentences as Ferrari’s Maranello and Porsche’s Stuttgart. Today, Lotus is also one of Norfolk’s biggest employers and the relationship between the marque and the county is now entering its 50th year.
The story begins in 1966 when the legendary Lotus founder Colin Chapman was on the lookout for new premises. The young company was already outgrowing its original home in Cheshunt, so Colin started searching for a convenient location for a factory within 100 miles of London. With Lotus now a force to be reckoned with in Formula One, a test track suitable for the development of the company’s race cars and the production vehicles rolling off the line was essential too. That’s when he found Hethel airfield.
Originally a stretch of farmland, the airfield was first developed in 1942 to be used by the US Army Air Force as a bomber squadron base (Station 114) from which to launch attacks across Europe during the Second World War. After the end of the war in Europe and the departure of the Americans, the airfield was assigned to RAF Fighter Command and saw further service before its closure in 1948. That sounded very promising, so Colin flew up in his personal plane, circled the site to get a good look and landed for a personal inspection. The rest is history.
Later that year, Lotus moved production to a purpose-built factory unit at Hethel and the two old runways were developed into a single two-and-a-half-mile test track, with the original primary runway becoming the main straight. Since then, the site has seen extensive development and modernisation and has become the advanced production and testing facility it is today. In addition to producing about 2,000 cars every year, Hethel has become a global icon in the production of light, fast and exciting sports cars thanks to Lotus.
The famous Hethel track has made history all by itself, and upcoming production cars and Formula One cars driven by some of the world’s most famous drivers – Jim Clark, Graham Hill, Jochen Rindt, Emerson Fittipaldi, Mario Andretti, Nigel Mansell and Ayrton Senna to name but a few – have been regular sights there over the years. It was sometimes even pressed into service as a runway once again for the black and gold JPS liveried plane that Colin Chapman used to travel to and from Formula One races.
Today, it is used for testing and development of new Lotus cars, emergency services training and even by local cycling clubs for racing competitions. The company’s engineers can test potential design improvements on the track so fast that changes can be assessed and implemented the same day and, better yet, the engineering teams also have ready access to Norfolk’s country roads for real-time road testing too.
Today, Lotus employs 800 people in Norfolk, 22pc of its suppliers are within the wider East Anglia and it spends £7 million a year within the region. However, that 50-year legacy is still very much alive too and historic race cars from Classic Team Lotus also use Hethel for shakedown testing, so working at Lotus means that having a gorgeous Type 49 blasting round the track is just part of another day at the office!