As Dr Octane regularly reminds me, this is MotorPunk, not PlanePunk or (in this case) BoatPunk – but Lotus’s foray into boats is well worth learning about. In the crazy days of Lotus in the Seventies Colin Chapman was at his most creative. Having an Engineer run a company is great for creativity, but perhaps less so for financial responsibility. More on that later. Chapman personally funded the creation of Moonraker Marine in ‘71, buying up some small boat-building related businesses in Norfolk to do so. For a company who were famous for F1 and sports cars this might seem odd, but Chapman was an Engineer and saw the potential for new applications for fibre-glass, a material he had considerable knowledge of, and that appeared shortly afterwards in his utterly brilliant Esprit. Leisure boats back then were often made of wood and although Chapman wasn’t the first to pioneer the use of GRP in boats he, better than anyone, appreciated it’s qualities of light weight, strength and the ease with which large shapes could be formed. He also had a technique for vacuum forming large hulls that was ahead of the competition and they set up a workshop in buildings on the Hethel site where their cars were (and still are) made. Chapman focused on low weight, high power and good handling for his boats and had quite a hand in their design. Here’s an early press picture (click to enlarge);

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The Maurader, with it’s bright yellow hull, was shown at the ’73 boat show and quickly Moonraker/JCL (the trading name) took more orders than they could handle. This first show alone netted orders for 36 boats. There was some chicanery with other businesses and finances at this time, Chapman and his accountant Fred Bushell were always one step ahead of HMRC and are still two steps ahead of me today. It was an intentionally complex business arrangement and there was never a dull moment. For example, in ’74 their display at the London boat show was ruined by a bomb. The boats got great reviews and orders were won from around the world but it’s fair to say that Chapman’s entry in the marine world wasn’t universally appreciated by the more established boat builders. Today, Moonrakers look great to my land-lubbers eyes, there’s even a whiff of Esprit about these interior shots I can’t quite put my finger on. I can almost small the fibreglass. And damp. Here are some fantastic brochure shots of a Moonraker Mystere. Welcome aboard!

The range eventually expanded to include the Mistral, Mamba, Mirage, Mystere and Mangusta (which never made production) and their boatyard was the first in the UK to gain a Llloyds certificate. Chapman’s boats had an aircraft inspired bulkhead and a clever ‘semi-flexible hull’ which reduced weight significantly and was supposed to minimise shocks and vibrations from wave action. These hulls were made at Hethel using an innovative vacuum form process with resin and delivered by truck to the boatyard miles away. One, in Norwich, fell off the back of a lorry. Feel free to come up with your own punchline involving Chapman and Bushell’s accounting. Below is a pic of the Moonraker boatyard.

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Lotus were as creative with their publicity as they were their engineering and finances back then. A boat called ‘Streaker’ was given away as a prize in a Martini competition. A photoshoot was arranged outside the Houses of Parliament (on the Thames, not the pavement, he wasn’t that creative). When a postal strike abroad made the news Moonraker made a big deal of using a boat to deliver their own post overseas, although in reality they cruised out of Great Yarmouth harbour and just lurked over the horizon until the press had gone home. Chapman was tied up with the DeLorean mess when Moonraker went into liquidation in 1980, having made about 500 boats, and owing nearly a million pounds. As MotorPunks know Chapman sadly went to Davy Jones’ locker, prematurely, in 1982. A fire in ‘93 destroyed many records of Lotus’s involvement with Moonraker/JCL but the moulds are still lying around, I believe, perhaps somewhere in this yard. Here’s a promo picture of a line-up of of four Moonraker models at sea taken shortly before the end.

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Poking about online I find an ugly court case in the ‘80s involving a boat called Miss Jay Jay which suffered a delaminated hull on the high seas and quite an insurance claim. I’m not entirely sure if this is a ‘Chapman boat’ or not. There’s also this picture of one on the rocks, surely too funny to be real?!

Boat experts might find my little feature on Moonraker rather lightweight. I make no apologies for being short on detail, I’m a MotorPunk, not a MotorBoater, but as a huge fan of Colin Chapman’s successes with sports cars and F1 I think it’s time we knew more about his work with boats too. If you’ve got a Moonraker boat then we’d love to hear from you. I’ve got this book about Moonraker boats on order and look forward to learning a little more.

Pics gratefully reproduced from here and here (no response from webmaster) and here and here. Huge thanks to Sarah at MoonrakerBoats.com for the information. If you don’t buy a Moonraker boat to go with your S1 Esprit, you should at least buy her book for the full story – here.

 

About The Author

Rich Duisberg

Rich Duisberg* has had work published in Classic & Sportscar, Practical Performance Car, Modern Mini, Banzai, MogMag, Evo, GT Porsche, Complete Kit Car, Absolute Lotus, Alternative Cars, Classic Retro Modern, and elsewhere. Rich often appears on CBS’s XCAR and Carfection channels, and Motors TV, plus JayEmm on Cars, enthusing about historic motoring. His latest book (find his work on Amazon) was described by SniffPetrol as "hilarious", although he was also threatened with legal action by elderly DJ Tim Westwood. In his Midlands man cave is a 1972 Fiat 500, a Lotus Elise, a BMW barge and a vintage Royal Enfield pushbike. Previous machines of interest include an Mk1 MX5 (owned for 14 years!), an Alfa GTV6, a Porsche 968 and a Sinclair C5. The Metro (right) was bought for an experiment, and abandoned in Africa. "I am not getting in a car with him" -  said Le Mans winner, Derek Bell. *A nom-de-plume inspired by the BBC's League of Gentlemen.

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