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Lotus Cars Ltd Lotus Prototype

Rutan 91 ML

Lotus has long been known for sophisticated yet affordable sports cars, but founder Colin Chapman also aimed to build aircraft. Colin Chap­man, founder and head of the Lotus Car company, discussed a microlight project with Alain-­Yves Berger, who had met Colin on the motor racing circuits many years before and had remained in touch with him. Colin envisaged making a very high‑performance composite construction tandem two‑seater using a canard wing, and a four‑stroke engine of his own design, and had set himself some tough performance targets ‑ a design top speed of 125 mph (200 kph), fuel consumption per hour of 1. 3 US gal (1.1 Imp gal, 5.0 litre), and a selling price around £5500 for a production run of 500 aircraft.
Chapman believed that Lotus composites technology could be applied to build an aircraft that still met ultralight rules, would be cheap and easy to fly, and very attractive to buyers. After reading up on German glider technology, Chapman approached the Rutan brothers in 1982 to study the feasibility of the project and commissioned Burt to design a new type of microlight based on Rutan's love of composites, efficiency, and the use of the "canard" wing layout for which Rutan is famous. Several designs were envisaged, one being the Rutan Model 91 ML (for MicroLight), a one-person 300 lb. ultralight aircraft, powered by two 25 hp jet engines. Despite Burt Rutan's dismissing the idea as complicated, Chapman insisted that the new plane should be a two-seater.
By June 1982, the final configuration was chosen out of nine different studied designs, and in December, the prototype Lotus MicroLight (Rutan Model 97M), built by Scaled Composites Inc. and appropriately registered N97ML, arrived at the Group Lotus airfield at Hethel in Norfolk, England. It was a side-by-side two-seater with a pointy nose, an enclosed cockpit, a retractable front wheel, and is of a unique design with a canard foreplane and a swept back wing, and a pusher propeller behind the cockpit. Pitch control by elevator on canard; yaw control by tip rudders; roll control by spoilerons; control inputs through stick for pitch/roll and pedals for yaw. Undercarriage has three wheels in tricycle formation; glass‑fibre carbon fibre suspension on main wheels. Push‑right go-­right nosewheel steering. Brakes on main wheels. Composite fuselage, totally enclosed. Engine mounted below wing driving pusher propeller.
Tragically Colin Chapman, the visionary who championed the Lotus MicroLight, died December 16, 1982 at the age of 54, the day before the prototype's first flight.
It is often said that the program was shelved by Lotus due to the death of Mr. Chapman. This was not so. Prototype trials continued with a little Italian KFM 109 ER two-stroke 23 hp engine, up to the end of the proof-of-concept phase. Specs for the Lotus MicroLight are lacking, but a 25 hp engine was originally planned for it. A Lotus engine that was being developed by Tony Rudd (a senior officer at Lotus), the 50 hp Magnum 4.5, was to have been installed in the production aircraft. The plane was assembled and flown for the first time in public in August 1983. It arrived in a crate at Hethel in August 1983, two days before the Lotus Open Day. It was assembled on Friday and Saturday, and was taxied in daylight on Saturday afternoon, and "accidentally" hopped in the dusk. Its first proper flight was Sunday morning, and the demo flight was in the afternoon for the crowds. It was now registered as G-MMLC.
The Lotus MicroLight was apparently a technical success, but a marketing failure. Despite both Lotus's and Rutan's credentials, the business arrangements didn't work out. Lotus wanted to build a business for the MicroLight, and sought backing to continue alone. When that wasn't approved, Lotus went looking for partners and teamed up with the Eipper company to distribute it in the USA, while Malcolm Lawrence's Aviation Composites of Thatcham in Berkshire, was to distribute it in the UK and Europe.
Lotus originally planned to build the basic structure themselves, with Aircraft Composites finishing and distributing it. It was then decided that the materials (epoxy glass) and the quality control techniques were not part of the Lotus core business, and Aircraft Composites agreed to take over the development and build, with the help of Peter Jackson's Specialised Mouldings (a firm in motorsport). Since Lotus was struggling to cope with the aftermath of Colin Chapman's death, the Aircraft Composites move into taking over the whole project was heaven sent. Instead, Aviation Composites used the design's features as a basis for a different aircraft. The company employed VariEze builder Ivan Shaw, and built a similar but much heavier version, the Mercury prototype (G-INAV), which incorporated various modifications from the Rutan design and had several problems with it.
The MicroLight was de-registered and returned to the USA in 1988, but it was lost in an accident in which both the owner and test pilot of the aircraft were killed


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