Ron Hickman – car designer and creator of Black & Decker Workmate – dies at 78

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The Independent Online

As the director of Lotus Engineering in the 1960s, Ron Hickman – who died yesterday at the age of 78 – was responsible for the seductive lines of the Elan sports car.

However, he owed his greatest success to a moment of slapstick foolishness as much as his skills as a master inventor.

While making a wardrobe in the early 1960s, he used the arms of an expensive Swedish-made Windsor chair as a makeshift workbench. On it, he balanced a panel of wood that he needed to saw through. However, with his mind fixed firmly on his pencil line, and one foot placed on the panel to steady it, he ended up cutting straight through the seat of the chair. He had destroyed one piece of furniture while trying to create another.

To avoid the same thing happening again, Mr Hickman devised a rudimentary wooden bench with a gap along the middle to grip a piece of wood and a foot platform to keep it steady.

He had invented what was to become the Black & Decker Workmate, and thus won the gratitude of DIY enthusiasts everywhere. Not everyone thought it was such a good idea. Black & Decker eventually took it on, but, with sales now numbering more than 30 million, the response from rival manufacturer Stanley – "sales would be measured in dozens rather than hundreds" – looks even more unwise than Mr Hickman's use of that Windsor chair.

As a motoring designer, Mr Hickman was the brains behind two classic models. He played an important part in launching the Lotus Type 14 Elite, widely cited as revolutionary for its fibreglass shell over a steel backbone chassis, before developing this technology with the Elan. This nifty machine featured lowerable headlights and body-contoured bumpers.

It was such an impressive piece of engineering that its chassis remained the standard for Lotus until the launch of the Elise in 1996. Former racing driver Derek Warwick, who took the wheel for Lotus in Formula One in 1990, said the multimillionaire was a unique character with a distinctly inventive spirit. "He came to my offices a few times with new designs and they always intrigued me," he said. "He always thought of clever ways of doing things. Whatever he saw, whatever he touched, he wanted to reinvent it. That was his mind."

Mr Warwick added that Mr Hickman was "a little bit off the wall, a little bit eccentric, a little bit wacky". "He was one of these 'crazy scientists' types. They are not like the norm; they are just different people. You don't design the Elan or the Black & Decker unless you are a very clever man."

Mr Hickman was born in South Africa but moved to London in the 1950s, before settling in Saint Brélade in Jersey in 1977.

It was in hospital on the island where he died yesterday, having endured a long illness following a serious fall several months ago. He is survived by wife Helen and children Karen, Janeen and Marcus.