Is lighter better when designing cars?

The men who shaved weight from cars to make them sexy and fast
by Paul Horrell | Oct 7, 2018
PHOTO: Top Gear UK

Meet the men who made cars sexy and downright fast, all by putting them on a weight-saving diet.

Colin Chapman

To be honest, the Lotus main man's slogan alone would have put him here. He hated complication, and he hated added weight. So, said he, "Simplicate, then add lightness." For the road, he made the fast and spidery Seven that still lives as the Caterham, albeit with every single component now changed. Then he made the Elite in 1958, to all intents and purposes the first composite monocoque.

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Such was the man's charisma (as well as the rightness of most of his ideas) that the company that outlived him is still peopled by engineers who regard his lightweight mantra as the foundation of all they do, in setting such standards for handling and performance with economy. If Chapman's devotion to lightness wasn't genius enough, by the way, consider his impact on aerodynamics—and the fact that he effectively brought sponsorship to Formula 1. Indeed, a true innovator and lateral thinker.

Gordon Murray

Another extraordinary thinker, who ties together all the elements of car design. He always says that packaging is the key: rearranging the jigsaw of a car so that many parts do several jobs each, and everything is as compact and light as possible. Smart packaging improves the weight, the weight distribution, the strength, the aero, the handling, the manufacturing ease, the space, everything. His McLaren F1 was small and weighed just 1,150kg, but still had room for three people, two trunks, and a humongous V12, all within the wheelbase.

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Gordon, music uber-geek, had a bespoke lightweight hifi designed by Kenwood. Greatest supercar ever? Yeah, probably. At the other end of the scale, his LCC Rocket, the 370kg car that kicked off the modern bike-engine fad. And now the design for his hyper-revolutionary T25 microcar. And just like Chapman, he designed a series of Formula 1 cars, some of which won championships and some of which were so revolutionary, the rest of the teams just got the rules changed to ban them.

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Simon Saunders

He was a lecturer at Coventry University and put his student Nik Smart's skeletal sports car into production, calling it the Ariel Atom. It weighed barely more than 400kg with the Rover K-Series engine. But if light weight is just the job for corners, a bit more power can't hurt on the straights. He's now talking of a 500hp V8. It'll probably out-drag an F1 car.

Jez Coates

The engineer who always kept the flab off the Caterham. He was always close to the marketing, too, and once had the brilliant idea of making an options list of carbon-fiber parts where everything was priced not by the money it cost you to have it, but by the weight it cost you not to have it.

Takao Kijima

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The chief engineer of the Mazda MX-5. He checked every individual component on the Mk3 MX-5 for weight, and pared out every gram he could. The result was a car stronger, stiffer, and roomier than the Mk2, but remarkably no heavier.

Ettore Bugatti

From a 2010 perspective, this seems surprising. The Veyron that Volkswagen currently builds to carry his name is so heavy, it distorts the space-time continuum. But back in the '20s and the '30s, his own racers were delightfully spare and light. You know what he once called the Bentleys that they raced against? "The fastest lorries (trucks) in the world."

Nobuhiko Kawamoto

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Chief engineer at Honda when the NSX was being born. Then he became the boss of the company. Kawamoto set the tone for the modern Honda, a place where efficiency counts for all. The first Insight hybrid reflected his obsessions—it was aluminum-bodied, too, and weighed just 850kg with batteries. He famously hated V8s and said his V6s rendered them obsolete. He then decided to tackle the sacred cow of the USA—the V8-engined, ladder-framed pickup. The Ridgeline is as big and as good and far more economical, but, heck, the good ol' boys can't abide it.

Note: This article first appeared in Top Gear UK's July 2010 Issue.

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PHOTO: Top Gear UK
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