Lotus was 70 last year, or more precisely it was 70 years since Colin Chapman built a sports car based on the Austin Seven. The Lotus company was founded in 1952 and since 1966 has been hidden deep into the Norfolk landscape in at a place called Hethel where skilled men and women create the Elise, Exige and Evora. Prices range from £42,000 to more than £103,000. Each takes three weeks to hand-build.
The company and its cars are a true racing legend. Chapman’s mantra was “simplify then add lightness”. Amongst the racing drivers who won in the cars were Graham Hill and Jim Clark, the Scot from Duns. He died aged 32 in a Lotus in April 1968 and yes, I do remember where I was – at Harewood hillclimb.
Lewis Hamilton is one of the 20 current F1 drivers who have signed the 100,000th Lotus, a unique Evora, in a competition to raise money for the new Jim Clark Trust museum in Duns. The winner will be named next month.
Has Lotus escaped your attention? It’s a possibility. For one thing they are focused on little but high performance. If you want a shopper, get a Porsche. Lotus has spent little on promotion vis-à-vis its rivals.
Enter Chinese money from Geely, the company behind Volvo, which bought a 51 per cent controlling chunk of Lotus from its Malaysian owners.
Imagination and flair had long been an admirable Lotus trait, reliability less so. DIY cars like the Lotus 7, still built by Caterham, and the Elan celebrated the virtues of light-weight in the Swinging Seventies. Factory cars, notably the sleek, low, wedge-shaped Esprit by the Italian maestro Giugario, took us towards the 21st century.
The introduction of Toyota engines and gearboxes and proprietary electronics transformed quality and now the influx of capital seem to have resurrected this maker of classic English sports cars. A fair amount has been spent on new management at the public relations office. Thus, we found ourselves in Oxfordshire at the Bicester Heritage Centre, an enclave of car-related stuff..
The small fleet of Lotus still attracted attention. Their bodies, the candy in the shop window, are lascivious, a word which sounds apt for the Elise, Exige and Evora.
All have engines mounted ahead of the driven rear wheels, with luggage space aft of the motor. The synthetic bodies come from France. The extruded aluminium chassis are made at a Lotus forge near Worcester. Toyota Japan ships the engines and gearboxes which are worked upon to various degrees by Lotus in Hethel.
The 1.8 litre Elise sounds marvellous, the supercharged 3.5 litre V6 Exige and Evora are a stage louder. All are far too fast to enjoy satisfactorily, or at least with a clear conscience, on anything other than a circuit or private road. Indeed, the area around Bicester is quite properly speed restricted and monitored.
This turned out to be a tasting menu, with suggested 30-minute drives in each of the cars. First, the Evora GT 410 Sport, enhanced with a carbon fibre roof and louvred tailgate through which you get slivered glimpses of the road behind. And so it was that, driving solo, and with my phone navigation freezing, I was lost variously in a green maze of country lanes through lovely villages. Or chittering for three miles down a newly surfaced A-road, meeting ring-roads and wrong turns and a housing estate where a postwoman put me back on route.
It wasn’t by any means my most trying drive in a Lotus. That came a lifetime ago in my own Super Seven, returning after an electrically troubled drive to Spain, funds (pre-credit card) so short and the engine innards so poorly that I didn’t know whether to buy petrol or oil. I slept in it somewhere near Rouen.
We are in the realm of enthusiasts’ cars, where ride comfort and practicality and peace are replaced by dazzling acceleration and agile handling and, I suppose, image. The Evora had rear seats, a no-cost extra, but I didn’t even try to get into them. You might, or put your dog there or shopping. This Evora costs £89,135. Automatic gears would be an extra £2,000. It is the only current Lotus to be legal in the US.
The V6-engined Exige is most popular in Germany while the skinnier Elise sells best in Italy and Japan. World sales are steady, around 1,500 a year.
The Elise has the rawest ride and the most direct steering. Like the Exige the mechanism of the gearshift linkage is open at the sides and top to view and touch and I suppose adjust. “How did you lose your finger? Well, when I was little my daddy had a car with…”
Verdict: Fast and noisy.
www.lotuscars.com and www.jimclarklotus.com