b>On the occasion of the U.S. launch of the Elise, our own British import,
executive editor Mark Gillies, waxes poetic about Lotuses he has loved.
The thing about cars is that we tend to gravitate to particular makes—even, it seems, when the budget is unlimited. With me, my makes of choice are Riley, Lotus, Brabham, and, if I had pots of money, Maseratis of the 1930s and the ’50s. I occasionally think about throwing my spare cash at a or 356, or even a four-seater Ferrari, but the next addition to the stable will undoubtedly be a Riley or a Lotus or a Brabham.
The reasons are pretty obvious, actually. I love pre-war cars and grew up with Rileys. Having been lucky enough to drive all manner of pre-war greats, Rileys stand up in terms of handling and looks and performance. They are also reasonably priced. They weren’t dubbed the “poor man’s Bugatti” for nothing.
I also love old racing cars. The primo pre-war and 1950s racing cars are beyond my budget, but cars from the 1960s and 1970s are affordable, drive great, and look just fabulous, little cigar tubes on wheels. Brabhams provide the most performance for the dollar, but on an aesthetic front, Lotuses win hands down.
There’s more to Lotus than just looks, though. The company has made more truly great cars than all but Ferrari, Porsche, Alfa Romeo, Jaguar, and Mercedes-Benz, in a shorter period of time. Its road and racing cars have been innovative, beautiful, and have redefined roadholding and handling to an extent that Ferrari, etc, can only dream about. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve lusted after Lotus Elans and Elites, drooled over Lotus 23s and 47s, and rooted for Ronnie Peterson and Mario Andretti in black-and-gold Lotus 72s and 79s. One of my dad’s best mates had a Lotus Europa in the early 1970s, which looked like a shark among tuna compared with the stodgy sedans of the time.
Since then, I’ve driven a boat load of Lotuses, all the way from Sevens to the current Elise, and none have disappointed. Some have been dreadfully made, some have crapped out on me, but they have all been great to drive, looked wonderful, and shown the solid virtues of light weight, good aerodynamics, and great chassis engineering. Choosing personal favorites is tricky, but here are the five I’ve driven that I would want in my garage.
The original Elite was revolutionary, using a glassfiber monocoque and a highly aerodynamic shape (with a Cd of just 0.29). Despite its tiny 1.2-liter, SOHC, in-line four-cylinder Coventry-Climax engine, a standard 75-horsepower S1 could reach 115 mph and return 50 mpg at a steady 60 mph. In 1958, for goodness sake. Elites handle beautifully, go well, and look just gorgeous. The later Elan is a better car, but the Elite gets the nod because I could stare at one for hours.
This one already is in my garage. The cigar shape formula junior cars—the 20, the 22, and the 27—look just like a single-seater from the early 1960s should. My car (shown above) is a 20 with later 22 mods such as a five-speed, disc brakes, and a more sophisticated rear suspension. It has no particular history, goes superbly, and is green with a yellow stripe, yellow wobbly webs, white roundels, and a red seat and steering wheel. The full Jimmy Clark knock-off, in other words. Sometimes, I just go and sit in it and realize how bloody lucky I am. Jamie Kitman broke the windshield two years ago and I have only just forgiven him.
The first successful monocoque GP car, and—with the 49 and Indy-winning type 38—the ultimate Clark/Lotus fantasy. I drove the car that was reconstructed from the remains of chassis R5 at Silverstone, and it was a true career highlight. The wail from the 1.5-liter Coventry-Climax V-8, the delicate fingertip handling, the laydown driving position, and the sheer beauty of the car are amazing. Mind you, it’s a good job I’m short and skinny, because you couldn’t drive it otherwise. The nearest I will get to owning one is the Corgi model that Martyn Goddard gave me one Christmas and which I guard from my son Cameron’s clammy paws.
Another racing car. Sorry. Massively innovative, with its wedge shape, hip radiators, and rising rate suspension to get the most out of then-new low-profile tires. The 72 won the world driver’s title in 1970 (Rindt) and 1972 (Fittipaldi), and was still winning grands prix in 1974, its fifth season. With nearly 500 hp from the 3.0-liter, 32-valve, DOHC, V-8 Cosworth DFV out back and wide slick tires, the thing goes like a bastard. And whether it’s in Gold Leaf or John Player colors it looks wicked. Hubba hubba.
Esprit Sport 300
The Esprit is one of founder and editor emeritus David E Davis Jr’s least favorite cars, but don’t hold that against him. The early cars weren’t fast enough, but the addition of a turbocharger in 1980 changed all that. I’ve driven loads of Esprits, but my favorites are the later ones, as re-styled inside and out by Peter Stevens. The Sport 300 (shown below) was a super-limited edition street version of the X180R IMSA racer. A stiffer chassis and suspension, bigger brakes, wider wheels and tires, less weight, and more oomph (302 hp) from the last-of-the line 2.2-liter slant four made this the most memorable of the breed. Especially in yellow, when applying a touch of corrective opposite lock out of a hairpin bend.