This Seat is Taken
Noise, Vibration & Harshness
Driving a McLaren cross-country reminds me of my very first car test. Back in 1985, while still in law school, I got to drive a supercar coast-to-coast -- the then-new Lotus Turbo Esprit, Series 3. For me, who'd never traveled across the United States in more style than when I did it in a 1964 Dodge Dart wagon with a shift-linkage problem, it was not just mind-blowingly cool but also a seminal introduction to one of life's great mysteries, how closely good news and bad news are often intertwined.
I was green. Aside from the occasional car column for the sports pages of my college's student newspaper, I had to this point in the world of automotive journalism sold two book reviews and a short essay on bringing Formula 1 to New York City, both to Autoweek. To place this in time, back then I thought of Opel Mantas and Ford Capri 2600s as fast and righteous cars, and I had probably never driven anything with more than 120 hp any distance.
That doesn't mean that I wasn't aware that Lotus was back on its wobbly feet again in the United States with a new distributor. Fortuitously, the head of the carmaker's new American advertising agency was an old family friend, Marty Solow. He was the guy credited with establishing the trend of using Yiddish words in American advertising in the 1960s. For those who weren't around, his ads for Vita Herring, featuring the "Beloved Herring Maven," were really big. No? I guess you had to be there. Because success selling herring to Americans was presumably as good a qualification for peddling Lotus cars as you were going to find. Never known for reliability, Lotuses had earned an unfortunate reputation for grenading spectacularly since they'd gone upmarket in the late 1970s, which is ironic in retrospect because this is also what they had been doing in the 1960s and early '70s.
Solow took a call from a callow youth in a phone booth, who was ringing with the ludicrous suggestion that Lotus let him put its new Turbo Esprit to the ultimate reliability test and prove its mettle by driving it from New York to San Francisco, by way of New Orleans' bankrupt 1984 World's Fair. Solow not only took the call, he then went one better and put in a good word with the American Lotus distributor, Wes Fredericks. Amazingly, one week later, I was able to pitch Bill Lovell, my contact at Autoweek, with Turbo Esprit in hand, so to speak. He got back to me quickly: they'd take the story.
One further detail: When the time came, I was spending a semester in San Francisco working for a civil-rights attorney. So, my next move was obvious -- I told my boss I had to rush to Boston on account of a vague problem at my apartment and the status of my tenancy and needed a week off. He was totally cool about it, so long as I stayed to help research a memo for a last-ditch death-penalty appeal he was preparing.
I was putting the finishing touches on my extremely humble legal work the night before rising early to fly not to Boston but to New Jersey, home of Lotus's U.S. operation. Then the phone rang. A senior Autoweek personage whom I'd never heard of and whose name you probably wouldn't recognize was on the line, asking me who the f@%# I thought I was. Why was I driving this Lotus, instead of, for instance, him? How come he'd never heard of the assignment until then? I couldn't answer these questions. He demanded 1500 words on what I planned to say, on his desk, in advance of my departure.
Fifteen hundred words was only 1000 fewer than I was supposed to write, I said, noting I'd written for Autoweek before and explaining that everything had been cleared by his staff. I'd been sent plane tickets and cash for expenses (proving this was a long time ago, right?). The car was waiting and I was busy working on a death-penalty appeal. He was unimpressed, antagonistic, and, it seemed, drunk, tired, and emotional, as the English say. Except he was tired and unemotional. He didn't care that he was ruining my life. I was sunk. Reason had failed. So I did what any other sensible lawyer in training would do and told him to just go f@%# himself. We exchanged further obscenities, and he told me that I could take the piece I'd sold Autoweek on my experience attending a Volvo focus group and roll it into a cone, dip it in Vaseline, and shove it.
It seemed like the worst day in the world to me, defeat snatched from the jaws of victory. So young, so fouled out. I was despondent. But, after a time, I began studying for the New York and New Jersey bar exams, which gave me something else to be despondent about. I began clerking for the chief justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court. Then one day, my cousin Bill Blank told me about a new publication being founded by former Car and Driver editor David E. Davis, Jr. It would be called Automobile Magazine. Unsolicited, I sent in the piece that Autoweek had returned with prejudice. It was about attending a market-research clinic that promised you could "earn fifty dollars if you considered buying a Volvo 760 and then purchased another car." Hearing nothing, I forgot about it.
Several months later, I got a call from a hero of mine, a lady named Jean Lindamood. Was an amount ten times more than Autoweek had paid me for the piece they'd returned acceptable? I thought about it for a second or two. And I'm still here today.
I should mention that even after my fatal contretemps with the buzzkill at Autoweek, I figured I might as well drive the Turbo Esprit across the country anyway. It was awesome, more car than I'd ever experienced, and for 4000 miles it ran like a train. Sadly for Lotus, Autoweek attempted to re-create the story without me, driving the car I'd driven to San Francisco back to the East Coast. The engine blew up somewhere along the way. Poor Lotus -- not what they'd been expecting, although they can't have been entirely surprised.
In 1987, lately bought by General Motors and freshly recapitalized, Lotus flew a handful of American journalists to Norfolk, England, in the first-class top deck of a Pan Am 747 for the launch of the newest Esprit Turbo, the Peter Stevens redesign. At a deluxe reception in a stately home, I watched as the man who'd fired me from Autoweek's freelance roster -- I'd only just met him in person for the first time -- sat down for dinner next to Lotus chief Mike Kimberley, taking for himself the clear chair of honor at this evening's dinner. A frantic Lotus PR man ran over. "Sorry, [name omitted], that'll be Mr. Kitman -- of Automobile Magazine's -- seat."