This article was originally published in Rouleur 115. Support our journalism by subscribing here.
The most beautiful bike there has ever been came about because of the combined consequences of a Ford Cortina Mark One GT conking out and the 1970s oil shock.
The Lotus 108 was a sleek, low-slung bike with organic lines and a classy-looking black and yellow paint job. It looks futuristic even now, in 2022; 30 years ago in 1992 it was nothing short of revolutionary. Its first iteration was designed by Mike Burrows in the late 1980s and it was picked up and developed by Lotus Cars, who’d identified a potentially lucrative sideline in high-end race bikes in the very early 1990s. They needed a guinea pig, to help with the R&D, and a marketing strategy, and these two questions turned out to have the same answer: Chris Boardman.
Back in the days when British gold medals at the Olympic Games could routinely be counted on the fingers of one hand (between 1928 and 2000, Team GB won five or fewer golds every Olympics bar one, when they took six) the Lotus 108 was one of the biggest stories of the 1992 Games in Barcelona. Boardman, a young trackie and time triallist, was the perfect subject for Lotus and Burrows - he was open-minded, talented, very good at identifying the right people to work with and physically flexible.
For his part, Burrows was a model plane enthusiast who’d fallen into engineering by accident when he got a job turning lathes at a metalworking company in St Albans. Burrows, who died recently, drove the Ford Cortina in question, but when he tried to rebore the engine, he hadn’t quite got it right and the car blew up. Still needing to get to work, and without the financial resources to buy a new car, he borrowed his wife’s bike to get around.
By the time the Ford Cortina had been sorted out, the price of petrol had rocketed, so he shelled out £42 for a bike of his own. He was later pulled along to a local evening ‘10’, where a time of 27:05 didn’t mark him out for greatness. However he realised that he could make significant gains by applying what he’d learned about aerodynamics in constructing model planes to cycling; crucially this would also mean he didn’t have to train. He understood full well that the bike contributed a huge amount of wind resistance, and set about vastly reducing it; by making the frame much smaller, and eventually into one piece, using a revolutionary new material, carbon fibre.
His bike eventually evolved into the Windcheetah, a monocoque carbon-fibre frame; this was what the retired racing driver Rudy Thomann, who was working for Lotus, picked up on and took to the company.
Boardman spent time in the MIRA wind tunnel, near Birmingham, as the Lotus engineers tried to get him lower and lower on the bike; Burrows later recalled that the sessions were always late at night, in the cheaper slots, and so freezing cold that Boardman’s shivering showed up on the drag profile. By the time they were done, they’d found an Olympic gold medal-winning combination: Chris Boardman and the Lotus 108.
Chris Boardman racing in the Men's individual pursuit in 1992 at Sant Sandurní Anoia Velòdrom d'Horta, Barcelona, Spain (Photo by David Cannon/Allsport/Getty Images)
We’ve celebrated the Lotus 108 in Rouleur 115, the Design Issue. Good design happens when form and function work together to create something that both works brilliantly and looks fantastic. In the best cases, you cannot have one without the other.
The 108 was a significant contributing factor to Boardman winning the 1992 Olympic individual pursuit gold medal (though the rider himself later expressed frustration at the perception that the bike had been the main factor in his victory).
It also looked elegant and clean, but that was a result of the practical necessities Burrows and Lotus needed from the bike. You couldn’t have one without the other.