Ron Hickman: Lotus car designer and inventor of the Black & Decker Workmate

By Martin Childs
Sunday 23 October 2011 06:29

South-African born Ron Hickman not only worked as a car designer for Lotus, but invented the iconic Black & Decker Workmate, which became a must-have piece of equipment for any DIY enthusiast.

Initially rebuffed by all the leading manufacturers and even told by the Stanley Tool Company – producers of drills and planes – that "sales would be measured in dozens rather than hundreds", Hickman was unrelenting in his self-belief. Eventually, Black & Decker realised its potential and put it into mass production in 1973. At one point the Workmate was selling 15,000 units a day; it went on to sell more than 70 million worldwide, with Hickman reputedly earning a royalty of £1 on each one sold.

Black & Decker said, "Ron Hickman's contribution to our company and his support for many years afterwards will be missed, but his legacy will live on forever."

Born in Greytown, in Natal province, South Africa, on 21 October 1932, Ronald Price Hickman was the son of a book-keeper. Although he trained in law in the department of justice in Pietermaritzburg and not as an engineer, Hickman was obsessed with cars and constantly sketched pictures of them and whittled them out of wood. Upon completing his legal training in 1954, Hickman still wanted to style cars – an ambition that could not be fulfilled in South Africa. He subsequently borrowed £100 from his father and travelled to London, quickly securing a job as a clay modeller in Ford's styling department in Dagenham, east London.

Soon after, at the Motor Show in Earls Court, Hickman met the renowned engineer and founder of Lotus, Colin Chapman. After a three-year stint with Ford, Hickman joined Chapman's new company in north London as a production engineer and general manager, working on their first car, the Elite, and later on the Elan. He was also moonlighting as a designer for a furniture manufacturer.

The Elite, although beautifully styled and a superb drive, proved too complicated to build to be practical and too frail to be a vehicle to capture the public's imagination. Something more inspirational and practical was needed. Hickman, working alongside John Frayling, headed the team that brought the Elan into production in 1962.

Hickman was instrumental in coming up with the simple but ingenious idea of using commercial off-the-shelf parts – a Ford Classic engine block here, the steering rack from a Triumph Herald there. These were skilfully blended with grand-prix inspired engineering finesse – ultra-stiff backbone chassis, all-independent suspension, disc brakes and a sprightly twin overhead camshaft engine.

Yet this tiny 1600cc two-seater was so light and perfectly balanced that it could accelerate as quickly as an E-type Jaguar. The simplified production and significantly reduced costs also made the Elan affordable to many at about £1,200, or less in kit form.

Hickman also originated the car's ultra-stiff backbone chassis, the lightweight uni-mould glass-fibre body, and the desirable pop-up headlights. These made the car almost as sleek and eye-catching in the television series The Avengers as its driver, Diana Rigg's cat-suited Emma Peel. Hickman is also attributed with having come up with its name – by looking through the "E" section of the dictionary. The backbone chassis was such an impressive piece of engineering that it remained the standard for Lotus until the launch of the Elise in 1996. The Elan was followed by the Lotus Cortina, Lotus Europa and Elan Plus 2, of which Hickman was especially proud.

In 1967, Hickman left Lotus to work in Hoddesdon, Hertfordshire, on prototypes for the seating in the main lounges of Cunard's new flagship QE2. He then set up his own design company, Mate Tools, re-mortgaging his bungalow to raise capital, and continued to refine his Workmate design, which had been inspired in 1961 following a mishap. While building a wardrobe, he had used a rather expensive Swedish chair as a sawhorse and inadvertently cut its leg off. Determined not to damage any more furniture, Hickman came up with a simple but multifunctional bench – a combination sawhorse and vice on a foldable alloy frame which allowed its user to saw through timber without using the edges of chairs or tables.

In the face of rejection from the major manufacturers, Hickman persuaded a DIY magazine to let him show a prototype in a corner of the magazine's stand at the 1968 Ideal Home Exhibition at Olympia. Within a year he had sold 1,800 Workmates. Black & Decker eventually signed an exclusive manufacturing deal for his Mark II version – with a lightweight foldable alloy frame for portability – in 1972. By then Hickman had sold 14,000 Workmates by mail order. In later years he successfully defended his patent on numerous occasions against manufacturers attempting to copy it.

Hickman's exclusive deal saw him receive a 3 per cent royalty on each unit sold and allowed him to move to the millionaire's tax-haven of Jersey (he had previously honeymooned there) where he designed and built his own villa with views of St Brélade's Bay. He put some of his personal wealth into a design factory where more inventions were spawned, but none were as successful. In addition to his own labour-saving devices about the house, Hickman maintained a small collection of vintage cars, including a 1931 Cadillac V-16 drophead coupé built for an Indian maharaja, and an Elan Sprint.

Hickman officially retired in 1982 but continued to design. In 1994, he was appointed OBE for services to industrial innovation.

Hickman died in hospital on 17 February 2011, aged 78, having endured a long illness following a serious fall several months earlier. He had married fellow South African Helen Godbold in 1959 and had three children (Karen, Janeen and Marcus). All survive him.

His friend and former racing driver Derek Warwick, who took the wheel for Lotus in Formula One in 1990, said Hickman was a unique character with a distinctly inventive spirit that intrigued him. "He always thought of clever ways of doing things. Whatever he saw, whatever he touched, he wanted to reinvent it. That was his mind."

Ronald Hickman, inventor/car designer: born Greytown, Natal, South Africa 21 October 1932; married 1959 Helen Godbold (one son, two daughters); died Saint Brélade, Jersey 17 February 2011.

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