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.

The Esprit in the mall looked a lot like this one and it changed my life.

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.

It’s unfortunate that this was the most action that this stunner saw on film.

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?

I’ve said it before: sometimes you get lucky.

The company sent me to Colorado for a few days. That was already a nice break from the usual, as Colorado is one of my favourite places to visit. It has great scenery, lots of great twisty roads, and I have dear friends there who I don’t get to see near often enough. Would my rental car be on par with the other things in Colorado to which I was looking forward? Or would the question of the day be, which Dodge Caravan would you like? Don’t laugh, that’s pretty close to the situation the last time I visited Chicago.

There were only three of us on the rental car shuttle. One disappeared to another row, the other zeroed-in quickly on a red Camaro. I was in last place due to the amount of stuff I had to carry, and I strode the row with some trepidation, noting all the chunky SUVs and vans and dull sedans. Then, miracle of miracles, I spotted a Mustang! It was a beautiful dark metallic grey convertible and I knew that it needed me. After loading my gear I started the engine to get the aircon going and tune the radio and adjust everything, and a moment after starting I noticed that something didn’t sound quite right, a bit noisier than it should be. Was the exhaust system broken? I tickled the pedal to check- was that a rumbly burble? Oh my. Look on the side in front of the door, and sure enough, it says 5.0! And a GT badge on the back end! A Five-O Ford right here in the regular section, not over there in the special upgrade section. How could it be? I decided to take my chances and drove away with it. The gate attendant assured me that all was well, that the car was where it was due to some administrata that I won’t bore you with except to say that the upshot was that I got this V-8 Mustang for the price of the turbo-four Mustangs I’ve driven in the past. So there I was, in Colorado with a Mustang GT convertible, and nowhere to be until the next morning. What would you do? Naturally, I took it to Pike’s Peak.

What would you do?

Pike’s Peak is famous for having an annual hill-climb racing event that lasts a week and features every class from Lightweight Motorcycle to Unlimited Car. The road up the mountain is a 28-mile, two-lane ribbon of asphalt that starts out pretty tame but once above a certain altitude it has a lot of steep grades and tight turns, as in chasing-your-own-tail-light-tight hairpins.

Seriously, what would you do?

There are also very few guardrails and only limited shoulders, and many places where going off the pavement will result in a long and steep tumble, which is of course combined with scenery that will make you want to watch anything BUT the road. The summit is at 14115 feet above sea level, one of only three places in the United States where you can drive your car to above 14000 feet. Speed limits are low, and higher up in the thin air neither your engine nor your brakes will be able to cool themselves as effectively as at lower altitude. Add in the usual tourist traffic, and the reality is that most of the time you can’t go very fast- but it doesn’t take much speed to screw up on this kind of mountain road. Unless you go to some really unusual places, this is probably the most dangerous road you’ll ever drive.

Be careful on this road.

The cruise down the interstate to Colorado Springs was effortless. Colorado has some 75 MPH speed limits on I-25 and the Mustang’s cruise control handled them easily. The forecast for the day predicted a high of 100F, so I left the top up and kept the aircon working hard. The vented seat kept cool air at my back, and that’s a very nice thing. Once off the Interstate it’s a few more miles to the Pike’s Peak Highway toll-gate, and the road curves through some canyons and passes interesting places like Garden of the Gods and Manitou Cliff Dwelling. A few miles shy of the toll-gate I pulled over and dropped the top. I figured the adventure ahead was worth some sweat, although it really wasn’t bad since the Mustang’s vents allow the air to be directed almost anywhere you want it, better than in most cars, and keeping the side windows raised helps create a ‘bubble’ of more comfortable air. But it didn’t take long for things to get more comfortable anyway, since the temperature falls as you climb, and I would later observe about 30 degrees difference at the summit.

So how did the Mustang do on Pike’s Peak? It did just fine, and it didn’t miss a beat at all. The miracle of modern electronic engine management kept it accelerating eagerly at every altitude, and I had no issues with brake fade. In fact, there’s a mandatory brake temperature checkpoint on the way down, where a park ranger takes a second to aim an infrared thermometer at your left front brake. “You’re good, you’re doing it right,” the ranger said with a smile as he waved me away. That brings up technique. One thing I did do during both the climb and the descent was use the manual-shift capability of the Mustang’s automatic transmission. I’m not generally a fan of so-called ‘flappy paddle’ shifting, but combine it with the sort of throttle-technique that you’d use shifting a real manual transmission and I was able to get very precise shift-responses in either direction. I mostly used second and third gears on the way up, with first now and then in the tighter turns. The descent was mostly just second and first, since gravity’s pull is strong on the 3825-pound Mustang.

But if you get away from the numbers and the details, how was the experience? The best single-word answer is FUN! I’ve been up Pike’s Peak a couple of times in the past, once on a motorcycle and once in a VW Mk IV GTI 1.8T, and this time was as fun as those. A powerful convertible is a really great way to experience high-mountain driving, probably beating the motorcycle by a narrow margin since I didn’t have to wear a helmet and therefore had the wind in my hair at all times. Whatever conveyance you use on the Peak, horsepower is your friend because in most places you don’t have much distance to change speeds, so whenever you can steal a little speed it’s good to be able to take it. Of course you want great handling too, so if your car is optimized for drag-racing, it’s probably not the ideal choice. But get yourself in that curve-handling state of mind, start twisting the wheel, and you’ll have a great time. It may be a dangerous road, but don’t do anything stupid and you’ll be just fine. I find that there’s a certain rhythm to the hairpins, not in how one comes after another, but in the very similar way that each hairpin is constructed. They have a similar radius and a similar grade, so the right timing of throttle and steering will work over and over again.

Relax at the summit. Find a place to park up there and take the time to walk around, enjoy the views, and by all means, go into the gift-shop and get yourself some liquid refreshment and definitely get some of the donuts they make there. They can’t be replicated at low altitude and they’re delicious, so enjoy this special treat. The calories plus some hydration will recharge you for the drive down, which can be every bit as enjoyable as the drive up. On the way down it can be tempting to put the car or bike into neutral and let it coast, but this is probably not the best idea due to how fast brakes can get hot in the thin air. Use low gears to keep your vehicle from runaway speeds and still allow you to use some throttle on the less-steep parts between turns. At some point you’ll pass the tree-line, and I find that I notice the trees coming back on the way down more than I notice them going away on the way up. Stop where it’s safe and take plenty of pictures- the views are spectacular!

You can see a lot from up here!

Of course I had other fun too with the Mustang while I was in Colorado, like picking up my friend Craig from his office to go have a bite and a beer before returning him to finish the evening part of his shift. We made sure to leave some tire-marks in a distant parking lot before we parted. I was also able to visit my fried Ross and go for a spin in a couple of Lotus Elans he owns, and the contrast between their light, zippy quickness and the Mustang’s heavy powerfulness was really something to behold: great fun at two very different extremes. But eventually all things must come to an end, and so it was with a bit of sadness that I bid the Mustang farewell at the airport. I couldn’t have had a better rental-car for driving a fun, challenging, performance-intensive road. I really, truly enjoyed my high-altitude adventures with this ponycar and if you get the chance, you will too!

You can’t help but to have fun on Pike’s Peak.
With scenery like this, you’ll never want to leave.
Have a donut at the summit- they’re tasty!
Views in every direction make open cars ideal for this environment.
You’ll see lots of breathtaking views!
You might even see Bigfoot!
Hit the road for Pike’s Peak. You’ll be glad you did.