TTAC goes international! We welcome Misty from The Netherlands to a new Two Girls & a Car episode. In Relationship Roadster, Amanda delves into Ferraris. Mickey grills Misty on her love for Formula One racing, and we learn about how Misty is learning to navigate multi-use traffic circles amidst tram tracks and bicycles. Ben’s Lotus update: his 1970 Elan Plus 2 has hit the road! Unfortunately, it’s leaving oil on the road. Listener Jennifer Bell writes in to ask the best way to junk a car. Listener Robert Drake writes in about auto repair shops going out of business because they can’t keep good mechanics. Elizabeth Parks writes in with her Worst Car Story, a Cadillac Cimarron. And, Mickey stumps the team with BMW GPS faults.
Lotus was and is more than just the Esprit that I had fallen in love with. The first Lotus was a trials car, a stripped-down and modified Austin Seven (the British equivalent of the Ford Model T), that a young engineer named Colin Chapman built in 1948 for amateur competition on rough, unpaved courses. Why Chapman called it Lotus is a secret that he took to his grave, although rumour has it that his now quite elderly widow knows- and she won’t tell. Within ten years Chapman had gained a reputation for building small, lightweight race cars that enjoyed plenty of success. Chapman had had some brief time in the Royal Air Force before setting down the road of motorsport, and from aviation he retained the philosophy that light weight is the most important attribute for excellent performance. Any race-driver will tell you this: more power helps you in the straights, but less weight helps you EVERYWHERE. The racing cars of Team Lotus became a force to be reckoned with in Formula One, seeing many victories, constructor’s championships, and six World Driver’s Championships starting with with Jim Clark in 1963 and ending with Mario Andretti in 1978. It is worth mentioning that in 1965 Clark became the only driver ever to win both the F1 World Championship and the Indianapolis 500 in the same year, and he drove Lotus to both titles.
It also wasn’t long before Lotus began to produce small, lightweight sports cars for the road. The early offerings were very basic cars, built to handle superbly and do little else. They were sold only partially assembled as a way to dodge taxes on new cars, earning Lotus a ‘kit-car’ reputation that would prove difficult to shed in later years. But that was part of Colin Chapman’s genius: he knew how to work around challenges, even if those challenges were rules or laws. Some of his race cars employed some really creative means of dodging the rules too, such as the Formula 1 Type 88 with its twin-chassis design that evaded rules meant to remove ground-effect cars from competition, or the clever windscreen of the Esprit that used a very slightly steeper angle in the middle of the glass than at the A-pillars to meet European regulations while still retaining a low, rakish profile.
It was Chapman’s gift for unorthodox means to achieving goals that got the Esprit into The Spy Who Loved Me. Shortly after the Esprit’s debut, Chapman heard that a James Bond film was in the planning stages, and he figured that an appearance in a Bond film would do wonders to promote the car (he was correct, of course!), and rather than try to make a pitch to the producers, he simply left an Esprit parked along the curb outside the offices of Eon Productions Ltd., the company that makes the Bond films. The rest is history, and the white Esprit with its submarine-tricks went on to become a cultural icon: being consistently rated as one of the most memorable movie-cars of all time, and being the subject of both admiration and jokes.
But Chapman didn’t do it alone- he hired lots of talented people such as Ron Hickman, Oliver Winterbottom, Mike Costin, Keith Duckworth, Mike Kimberly, Tony Rudd, and many others. The company succeeded and 18 years after Chapman built that first trials-car, Lotus acquired a defunct WWII airfield in Norfolk as the site for a new factory, where the company is still based today and is currently undergoing the largest expansion since the factory’s beginning. Despite many rough moments in the past, Lotus is now on the verge of a very bright future both as a manufacturer and as an engineering firm that counts a who’s-who list of other manufacturers as its clients. Lotus has also made a strong commitment to the future, having announced that the replacement for the Elise/Exige that is in development will be the final Lotus to be powered solely by an internal combustion engine, and Lotus has also formed a partnership with Warwickshire University to build a technology centre to develop the cars of the future.
But I knew next to nothing about any of this at age 13 when I fell in love with Lotus. The following year, Colin Chapman would be dead from a heart attack at age 54. For a kid just discovering a marque that was already legendary despite it being younger than my parents, Chapman’s death hurt. But Chapman had built Lotus into something not just bigger than himself, but better.
If you’ve listened much to The Thing About Cars, you’ve probably gathered that I’m a Lotus-enthusiast. How did I get to be one? The story goes back to my childhood. I’d loved cars ever since my earliest memories and it was a love I shared with my father, with whom I spent so much enjoyable time in the garage ever since I was able to hold a tool. But my enthusiasm for Lotus in particular began at age 9.
It was the summer of 1977 and my family was visiting some aunts and uncles in the Cleveland Ohio area. We had gone into the nearby shopping mall for reasons long-forgotten, and it was in that mall that I saw something that would leave a lasting impact on my life, even if I didn’t know this at the time. Outside the movie theater, there was a car parked right there inside the mall- and it wasn’t just any car, but a very low, sleek, sharply-angled wedge of a car, and it had a velvet rope around it. It must have been something special! It certainly looked unlike anything I’d ever seen, and it captivated me. Its appearance was pure, powerful mystique. I was so taken that I don’t even remember seeing any names on it. As I stood and stared, probably slack-jawed with wonder, this slightly older kid standing next to me said, with goofy enthusiasm, “This car can go underwater!” He also added that it was from a movie he’d just seen playing in the theater behind us, and he pointed to the lobby display, which showed helicopters and submarines and scuba-divers and a smartly-dressed guy holding a pistol, and a beautiful lady slinking up to him. None of it made any sense to me, including the image of what looked like the same car but with dive-planes instead of wheels. And I remember trying to get a look into the wheel-wells to see how the planes stowed and deployed. You probably know what the movie was: The Spy Who Loved Me. At that tender age I’d never heard of James Bond and didn’t know a thing about any of it, but it would only be a small handful of years later that I would be a complete nut about James Bond, and I watched the Bond films on the ABC Saturday Night Movie every time they came on. Somewhere along the line I learned that that spellbindingly alluring car was a Lotus Esprit. It was the first time I’d ever heard of Lotus. The car in the mall in Cleveland was silver or metallic grey as I recall, so it couldn’t have been in the movie- it most likely was borrowed from the local dealer for cross-promotion.
In 1981 two things happened. One was that an Esprit was on the cover of the January issue of Road & Track, to which my father had a subscription. I usually devoured the magazine in one sitting as soon as it came in from the mailbox, and the cover-story was no ordinary Esprit…if you can call an Esprit ‘ordinary!’ It was the new Turbo Esprit, which carried numerous improvements over the Series 1 and 2 cars, and it looked like PURE SEX to my 13-year-old brain- and four decades on, I still think so! In addition to the mechanical improvements that had been made to the car, there were also some cosmetic upgrades including some aero-stuff on the outside and a fabulously plush leather interiour. The car on the cover of R&T was a stunning dark metallic blue with red leather, and a set of red and silver stripes to commemorate Essex Petroleum, which was the main sponsor of Lotus’ Formula One team at the time. I was SMITTEN by that car!
The other thing that happened in 1981 was that the new Turbo Esprit appeared in For Your Eyes Only, the latest installment of the James Bond movies. Q hadn’t issued 007 a car since the Esprit two movies earlier in The Spy Who Loved me, and as rough on equipment as 007 is, I can’t blame him. Unlike in TSWLM, this time the Esprit saw very little action: a white Turbo Esprit does a little slow driving, gets blown-up, then comes back in a gorgeous metallic reddish-copper colour, drives in the snow a little, and that’s it…total time onscreen, less than a minute. Disappointing for sure, but in an age in which a movie was the only place to see such a car moving at all, it was exciting! 1981 Cemented the Esprit into my brain as the sexiest car around.
Over the next few years my car-geekery would lead me to love and have fantasies about many different cars, but the Esprit was always the first love and the ultimate fantasy. It never failed to capture me with its abundance of mystique and allure, a rare and exotic spirit that a small-town boy like me could never even dream of capturing. Or could I?