TMC Costin

There's something so perfect about the Lotus 7 that other automakers have been trying to copy and make their own for years. Same goes for all great automotive designs, whether the Citroën 2CV or Austin Mini or Porsche 911. The most loved vehicles seem to get the most love from those hoping to improve upon it.

If there was anyone in Britain to improve upon the Lotus 7, it would have to be Frank Costin. An aerospace engineer by trade, he became involved early in Colin Chapman's Lotus Engineering Ltd., notably designing the bodywork for the Formula 1 Constructor's Championship-winning Vanwall VW5 after Chapman had been contracted to design the car for Tony Vandervell. He was also one of the first to adopt the NACA duct on his race car designs, and co-founded Marcos—named after founders Jem Marsh and Costin.

His brother, engine specialist Mike Costin, was the 'Cos' in Cosworth.

So he knew how to design race cars. I'll even go so far as to say that he's the reason most race cars looked like they did through the 1950s and 60s—certainly until spoilers and wings came into use.

Later in life, Costin decided to produce his own Lotus 7—by then the Caterham Seven—in Ireland. Designed to be a far better aerodynamic shape than the original, with its small protruding trunk, the new car would have a semi-enclosed targa-top'd cabin, curved windshield, and sloped rear hatch section. From the Bane-like metal bumper up front, shaped to echo the front air intake to the integrated turn signals in the front cycle fenders—to the single rear license plate light, it was clearly designed by someone who knew what he was doing.

The problem as far as I can see is the whole car looks a little bit off. We're spoiled these days with 3D printers, LED lights, and computer-aided design—almost anything is possible when designing a vehicle. But to take a retro design and update it in the early 1980s meant using a fibreglass body and parts sourced from other automakers…with the end result not quite as elegant as you'd expect from such a talent.

Also, apparently, it was nearly impossible to enter or exit the car in an elegant way. Skirt-wearing ladies need not apply.

Underneath the skin is a complex spaceframe made from small diameter tubing; also underneath was a choice of engines—to be fitted at the factory or left to the owner. Yes, you could order it as a kit.

I found a period review of the car in Motorsport, and the performance is explained quite well:

"Most of my driving was done in a car fitted with a standard Ford Kent engine, giving 84 bhp, and driving through a four speed gearbox. Even so, 60 mph was reached in under nine seconds with a maximum speed of just over 100 mph. With the CVH engine, the company claim a 0-60 mph time of 6.7 seconds and a top speed of about 120 mph. "My" car felt dreadfully underpowered for the chassis is designed to take up to 300 bhp with a safety factor of two (i.e. it conk!, it is claimed, handle 600 bhp). That is a claim which has yet to be put to the test, but the car felt as though it was hungry for a well-tuned BOA or, perhaps, the turbo-Pinto engine which will form the basis of the new Formula Turbo Ford."

In its limited on-track appearances, the TMC Costin often won—hell, it won its first race despite being completed hours earlier. But for a road-going car, the chance to develop the TMC Costin into something faster or better-looking was not going to happen. Just 39 were made before the enterprise went bust.

I could end it there, of course, but the TMC Costin's chassis lived on after being bought by an American entrepreneur named Don Panoz. That's right: the Panoz Roadster and AIV Roadster are based on a design that started life as a reborn Lotus 7, assembled in Ireland by one of the world's most gifted automotive engineers.

That Motorsport reviewer would have approved, surely, of Panoz fitting a V8 engine…