Though he retired in 1982, Ron Hickman never really stopped designing things. Over a three-decade career, his achievements include a quartet of Lotus automobiles, but his most successful invention was a folding, portable workbench that became the Black & Decker Workmate. Now, seven years after death in 2011, at age 78, Hickman’s widow, Helen, has donated a trove of drawings, photographs, and documents from his automotive design career to the U.K.’s National Motor Museum Trust at Beaulieu.
Ford Chameleon GT sketch.
Born in South Africa in 1932, Hickman formally studied law and justice, not art or engineering. Following the completion of his studies, he relocated to London, England, to pursue a career in automotive design, his real passion. Initially, Hickman found work with a music publisher, but his persistence soon paid off, and he joined Ford as a clay modeler in 1954, later advancing to the role of stylist. At an Earls Court Motor Show, Hickman met and befriended Colin Chapman and, before long, he moved on to Lotus.
Selections from the donated archive showing Hickman’s work on the Lotus Elite.
His first project at Lotus was the Elite coupe, which he worked on with Chapman, Peter Kirwin-Taylor, Frank Costin, John Frayling, and Peter Cambridge. Next came the Elan roadster, which Hickman is credited with contributing to both the design of the body and the car’s backbone frame. Even the Elan name was reportedly Hickman’s idea, continuing a theme – with the help of a dictionary – begun with the Elite.
Sketches for the M20 project, showing a variety of removable roof panels.
Hickman worked on sketches for other projects at Lotus as well, including a 2+2 version of the Elan that was initially referred to internally as the M20, and later, as the Metier II. Early drawings for the project showed an interchangeable rear roof panel, similar to the optional top Nissan offered on its 1983-86 Pulsar NX, though this would not see production. Hickman’s Metier II became his daily driver during his time as director of Lotus Engineering, and – with a few styling revisions – the car was eventually built and marketed as the Elan +2.
The Metier II, during its unveiling to Colin Chapman and the Lotus product policy committee in November 1965.
Hickman also penned a design for Lotus’ bid on the Ford GT40 project. Though rejected in favor of a Lola Mk 6 variant, his sketch later evolved into the Lotus Europa coupe, which went on sale in Europe in early 1967. About the same time, Hickman resigned from Lotus, leaving to design the main lounge seating for Cunard’s under-construction flagship, the Queen Elizabeth 2.
Afterward, Hickman pursued his idea for an easily transportable workbench and vise. With his wife’s encouragement, he established Mate Tools and continued to hone the design until he believed it was ready for market. The retailers and corporations he contacted disagreed, with one projecting sales of just a few dozen units. After displaying it at a home exhibition, orders began to trickle in, building volume as the word spread. By the time Black & Decker signed an exclusive agreement for the design in 1972, Hickman had sold 14,000 copies on his own; today, the number of Workmates sold totals somewhere north of 70 million, with Hickman (and, presumably, his estate) receiving royalties on each one.
Hickman’s proposal for a Ferrari-beating Ford race car, which later evolved into the Lotus Europa.
Hickman’s donated archives include more than 100 concept sketches and drawings, plus numerous photographs, documents, and notebooks. The collection spans the entirety of his automotive design career, from his years at Ford to his time designing a replacement for the Caterham Seven, itself derived from the basic-as-a-car-gets Lotus Seven.
Andrea Bishop, National Motor Museum Trust director of collections said of the donation,
We extend grateful thanks to Mrs. Hickman for this generous and important donation. Ron Hickman’s significant contribution to automotive design adds a fascinating insight into the development of Lotus Cars to our motoring archive. We are looking forward to exploring this large collection and sharing some of its content on our website next year.
This vehicle in this sketch, dated July 1963 and December 1993, appears to carry a Lotus badge on its nose.
Located in Beaulieu, Hampshire, England, the National Motor Museum Trust is home to more than 250 vehicles, plus an extensive collection of artifacts, photos, and other reference material. For additional information, visit NationalMotorMuseum.Org.UK.