APR 03rd 2015

Thank Frankel It's Friday ‑ The Lotus Position

As a phrase it is almost perfect. Sufficiently concise to comprise just six words and sufficiently clear as to be entirely unambiguous, it is nevertheless also packed with revelation and overflowing with passion. It’s so good several people have said it to me without feeling the need to attribute it to anyone else and therefore tacitly claiming it as their own. In fact any one or, indeed, none of them could have been its originator. But I’m going to give the credit to Gordon Murray, because he was the first person to say it to me and of them all, the man to whom it has the most relevance. Better than 20 years ago while describing part of the inspiration for the creation of his F1 masterpiece, he simply said, ‘cut me and I bleed Lotus.’ Frankel_MG_73MM_Promo

And I know why. In purist engineering terms if no other, Lotus is the greatest of them all. And it’s manifested not just in Colin Chapmans’s maniacal aversion to mass that lives on in the company to this day, but also the company’s on-going suspicion of mechanical devices long since accepted as not only inevitable but clearly beneficial by other sports car manufacturers: anti-roll bars, limited slip differentials, that kind of thing. Lotus is, for want of a better word, proper.

‘So of course I bought a Lotus Esprit. It wasn’t new, but it was only six years old and had done a trifling 30,000 miles. What could possibly go wrong?’

Of course the Lotus approach has had its downsides in the past with which I once began far more familiar than I’d have liked. But now the pain and financial suffering has passed I look back on my time as an Esprit owner with the unalloyed joy of a man whose misty eyes and rosy spectacles have blocked almost to the point of total obscurity what a nightmare it was at times. Which is one reason I’m writing this: it helps me remember, because to this day I still look through the classifieds, hoping to come across the right Esprit at the right price, and without reality checks like this, I might go out an buy one. I’ve done it before and this is what happened.

It was the last days of Thatcher’s bull market and back then the City of London was like the Wild West. I once came across someone who worked for a spectacularly unscrupulous company who’d return from his daily three hour lunch, throw a dart at a board nailed to the back of his office door and advise his clients to buy or sell depending on which half of the board the arrow landed. So very briefly, at least until the company I worked for realised I was the sole exception to the otherwise bombproof rule that anyone could make money in the City and fired me, I had a small amount of disposable income. So of course I bought a Lotus Esprit. It wasn’t new, but it was only six years old and had done a trifling 30,000 miles. What could possibly go wrong?

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If I’d known Gordon then, I’d have suspected this wasn’t the kind of Lotus he’d bleed over, but I didn’t care. It was utterly beautiful, was probably the best handling car on sale at the time and wasn’t even turbocharged, so it sounded and responded as it should too. I knew all about Lotus unreliability even then, so I needed to fool myself it would be alright. So I reminded myself this was the S3 model, which meant Lotus had had two entire previous generations to iron out its foibles. It had a trusty Citroen gearbox and even Land Rover indicator stalks. I reminded myself its body was made from glass fibre so could never rust and I even convinced myself that everything that could have gone wrong with it as a result of being inexactly constructed would have fallen off long ago and replaced by someone who knew what they were doing. My capacity for self-delusion was unlimited.

This column doesn’t pay enough for me to list all the things that went wrong with it but even if you exclude facts like panel gaps so wide you could sink fingers into them up to the middle joint, it was a total disaster from start to finish. Talking of starting, this was not a process it appreciated at all. A par time for arriving at its parking space to leaving it was 20 minutes because, while the engine would eventually catch and idle, the moment you applied any throttle it just died. The clutch went, the exhaust disintegrated. The cooling fan broke free of its moorings, cabin trim came loose, the gaiter around the gearbox split and then there were the headlights. Sometimes they’d pop up, sometimes they would not. Sometimes only one would rise and just occasionally the other would too, but never when you wanted it too.

Looking back the most extraordinary aspect of the whole affair is that I only kept the car six months, which was all the time it needed to burn all my spare cash and a lot more beside and make me beg the dealer who sold it to me to take it back. Even now I can’t bring myself to tell you how much less money he offered for it compared to what I’d paid him just half a year earlier. It was a sobering and largely humiliating experience.

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And one I’d not have missed for anything. Despite it all – and that includes the fact that not once did it ever complete a journey of any note without something going wrong – I adored that car. On those rare occasions when it was running right, it taught me how to drive a wide, mid-engined, two-seater. I learned about managing mass, progressive throttle applications, carrying speed into corners and just how fast a car, even with a trifling 160bhp, can be if you hardly need to slow down for anything. For a very young me, it was a rite of passage that enabled me to graduate from inelegantly thrashing small hatchbacks to being able to appreciate how a thoroughbred sports car can feel and behave. Indeed it’s not too much of a stretch to say that much of what I learned in that car I carry with me to this day.

It’s also fostered within me an irrational love of all sorts of Esprits. I think a Sport 300 is one of the most desirable British sports cars of the last generation and while the world has woken up to them and prices disappeared out of sight as a result, it does not yet seem to have realised that the 2-litre GT3, while slower, probably offers as pure a driving experience.

So I was sad to learn that the new Esprit, which I understand was all but finished, was killed in the latest attempt by management to save the company. I don’t know if it was a good, bad or indifferent car or whether it would have killed or cured Lotus. But I do know we have been without an Esprit for far too long and the wait for the next one just got a whole lot longer.

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