‘Not a nine-to-five job’: Oliver Winterbottom looks back on a life of car design at Lotus and Jaguar
PUBLISHED: 09:24 29 May 2017 | UPDATED: 09:24 29 May 2017
So sleek are some of Oliver Winterbottom’s designs they look like they want to leap off the page and drive away.
And the remarkable life and times of this former Lotus and Jaguar car designer is the subject of an autobiographical tome covering everything from stillborn experiments to his first visit to Silverstone as a five-year-old.
The 73-year-old from Wymondham said: “It’s not a nine-to-five job. You can wake up in the middle of the night with fresh idea that could change everything.
“But creative work is so satisfying - when you can look at something and know that you’re responsible for that.”
The book A Life in Car Design tells the tale of Mr Winterbottom’s career, starting out as an apprentice at Jaguar’s Coventry base in the 1960s and finishing up decades later as a consultant for motor firms abroad.
He said it had been a revolutionary time in car design.
Mr Winterbottom said: “When I started nothing had much changed in design since Victorian times - you drew with pencils and all your calculations were in longhand, which meant accuracy was sometimes in the eye of the beholder.
“Now there are so many computer-aided programmes and you need specialist teams to design everything from the fuel tank to the suspension.
“I don’t know how they keep communications open - when it was half-a-dozen of us you could have a chat over lunch and save a meeting or two.”
After about 10 years at Jaguar, Mr Winterbottom joined Lotus founder Colin Chapman’s team at Hethel.
There he worked on a coupé variant of a four-seater Lotus as well as the sporty Esprit, had a spell with Mr Chapman’s boat design team at Ketteringham Hall before going freelance and then designing the TVR Tasmin.
More years at Lotus, and ventures in the US, Italy and China followed.
Mr Winterbottom said he was proud of what he had achieved, and said he would recommend a creative career to anybody.
He said: “I’m not suggesting that half the nation suddenly become car designers, but any creative work - be it architecture, furniture, or straight product design can be immensely satisfying.”
A Life in Car Design is available from good book stores and online retailers.
Off the drawing board
A design Mr Winterbottom is most proud of is one many motor fans have never even seen.
He dreamt up the angular Lotus M90 in the early 1980s, using many Toyota parts.
Mr Winterbottom said: “It was a part of a big challenge to produce a new sports car with Toyota that was both affordable and competitive.
“Unfortunately it went through difficult times at Lotus and the design was scrapped.”
The final version was a convertible with a five-speed transmission and a fibreglass body. A single prototype, then called the X100, was built in 1984.
After its engine was first started, Mr Winterbottom said he: “Covered 35 miles on the Hethel track with no problems.
“It was a fine example of a small team working together with no communications problems, in the traditional Lotus way.”
The X100 survives to this day in the ownership of a Texan enthusiast.
A marine interlude
Mr Winterbottom joined Mr Chapman’s JCL Marine boat firm in 1975, four years after he had acquired Moonraker Motor Yachts with its boatyard at Brundall on the River Yare near Norwich.
The same clean lines and speedy silhouettes found in Mr Winterbottom’s cars can also be seen in the marine models he worked on, including the JCL Mistral and JCL Mamba. Tests for the Mamba produced a maximum speed of 30 knots.
He said: “I thoroughly enjoyed my marine saga. The styling was influenced by fabulous Italian bespoke designs of the day.
“Working for Chapman and being involved with his far-reaching ideas, had been invigorating.
“The massive change of product size from a motor vehicle had taken some getting used to.
“And the change in finished body weight - being approximately 50pc less than contemporary similar-sized vessels - was a leap forward I was privileged to experience.”
Speeding across the sands
Mr Winterbottom became chief engineer of high-end sports car firm TVR in the late 1970s, where he designed the TVR Tasmin, later known as the TVR 280i.
First released in 1980, this flung-back coupé and convertible had a number of innovations, including being the first production car in the world to feature a bonded windscreen.
Like TVR’s other models, the Tasmin had a tubular spaceframe steel chassis. 1,167 V6 models were made.
Mr Winterbottom recalls speeding the finished model across the Southport sands at 60mph for an advertising photo shoot.
He said: “There was a little white van, looking innocuous enough - but it contained the beach police.
“The speed limit on the sands was 5mph. The combined arguments in my defence resulted in my receiving just a verbal warning.
“It was probably the biggest margin I have ever had for speeding.”