Lotus Elise for America - Los Angeles Auto Show
By Michael Sands
Lotus introduced the Elise to America at the Los Angeles Auto Show in December 2003. It was amazing to see the car, in US legal configuration and realize that finally, we will soon be able to buy one!
The show opened to the media and trade on December 29th and 30th, and to the public starting January 2, 2004. I was able to attend the media days and arrived early on the first day. As I approached the booth, I was struck by the five Elises lined up in front. About the size of a squished Miata, they seemed ready to run.
I have wanted this car from the first time I saw the pictures of the prototype camouflaged as a Seven. I have pestered Arnie Johnson, President of Lotus Cars USA to bring the car here for over six years, even making the trip to Atlanta to make my pitch in person. Seeing the cars sitting there was amazing.
Unfortunately, the environment was very poor for taking photos. The lighting was very uneven, with overly bright spotlights and dark shadows. There was insufficient light to take hand held digital pictures and so it was all tripod mounted, making it difficult to move around. There were always people in the picture and the space was tight. Looking back on my effort, I wish I had more time, more light, and had taken more pictures of the people. To make up for the quality of photos, I found the folks from Lotus ever so generous with their time and comments.
I talked first with Arnie Johnson. Arnie has worked very hard to bring the car to the United States. He helped determine the configuration of the car, helped with the engine selection, dealt with all the difficult regulatory issues, worked with the factory on marketing, sales, and pricing, and is staffing up at LCU to handle a new product. Fortunately, he now has the help of Mark O’Shaughnessy as the Director of Sales and Marketing, but he is still busy.
I asked Arnie about the car and if he was happy. With a big smile, he indicated he was. I asked him if I could pay him for the green one and drive it home. He smiled again. We had a short discussion about how long it was going to take to work through the orders. He suggested the first year’s cars were already sold. The allocation of cars from the factory is set. I asked if the production could be increased and he said, “No.” The first year’s cars will be sold to enthusiasts. It is important to work though the backlog and shorten the lead-time to reach the regular customer. Few people are willing to wait six months or more for a car and will usually go spend their money elsewhere.
Next I tried to talk with Roger Becker, the senior consultant at Lotus. He brought the series two car to America to test public reaction. I met him at the 2002 Los Angeles Auto show and interviewed him then. He and Sue Hadwin had spent a year making the business case for the American introduction and had already determined the engineering modifications needed, including the engine. His campaign was not immediately popular at Lotus but he managed to convince them it would be a financial success. He continued to consult with the project and was here to see the introduction of “the little lady”.
Roger’s voice was failing and he was concerned about being able to speak at the next day’s introduction of the car. He was still excited and could not help talking about the car. We talked several times over the two days, and I got to meet his lovely daughter. This was her first show and she seemed excited for her father but disinterested in the car. Perhaps she has seen enough and heard enough of the Elise?
I planned to ask all the Lotus people what their favorite part of the car was. Roger was the first and picked the engine, of course. He brokered the deal with Toyota! He was excited about the performance characteristics and about how the engine was designed for the Elise. He understood some of the concerns about the engine in Toyota cars and suggested the right way to transform the rev happy nature of the engine to one that fit the characteristics of the Elise.
I pushed him about increasing production. I understood the answer but was still disappointed. I thought the bottleneck in production was the assembly of the chassis as it has been in the past (it requires a clean room environment.) Roger indicated the painting of the car was the main problem. Parts suppliers also need lead time, typically five or six months, in order to ramp up production and thus contribute to the delay. It would require a major effort to significantly increase production. So the question in my mind was what happens when deliveries of the car starts and the orders hold firm, will Lotus run the risk of angering their customers by taking too long to get them the cars?
He and I also spent some time talking about the core nature of the car and if it has been preserved. I wanted the original car, with its pure design and extreme lightweight. Much has changed since the car was originally introduced! Roger’s answer was consistent with what the rest of the team said and either they are well rehearsed or they honestly believe it! I suspect the latter because the engineers gave too many good reasons.
The weight is up but the power is up more. The car is more civilized, but still has the immediate feedback and ultimate driver control. It looks less like a kit car and more like a serious, exotic car. Some changes were required for the US roads and driving style. The car has benefited from the additional years of development and is getting better.
I asked what he might change or do next. I almost got an answer but he spotted all the ears that suddenly turned our direction and chuckled, “You almost got me,”, making me wish I had!
The anti-lock brakes seem to be a real issue. The original Elise had metal matrix brakes from Lanxide. The supplier could not produce the brakes and the Elise reverted to heavy iron but still not with servo assist. Many were concerned when the 111S showed up with power brakes. Now the Elise has anti-lock and many wonder if the feel and performance are compromised. (I related my stories about the Corvette’s first ABS and how it was better than the NSX four channel system.) Roger suggested the anti-lock brakes were going to show up over two years ago and the bonnet would have to be raised to clear the new servo. I thought he said anti-lock was required in the European Union during the design life of this car and so the change was required. I am not certain if this was legislated or marketing driven. He now explained that the performance of the system is amazing, that few can beat the stopping distances, especially with uneven road surfaces, and that it only activated around 20 times in a trip around the Ring. During the press conference, he asked us to trust him about the performance of the brakes and offered to buy us a drink if we can detect it activating.
As before, one thing that is impressive about Roger is his unswerving support for the team. He gives credit to various team members for the amazing design and function of the car. He mentions his son, Matt, with pride as he worked on the ride and handling of the US car. He defers to Nick Adams for various figures and the coming together of the car. He promotes the team even in the press conference.
Alastair Florance – PR Manager
Next I was introduced to Alastair Florance, Group PR Manager. He had a great deal of passion for the car, especially for a marketing guy! He expressed his interest in renewing the brand here in the States. We also talked about pricing and how it was difficult given the currency fluctuations of late. (I suspect the latest fluctuations influenced the sudden price increase in the car.) He told a great story about driving the Elise in the fog, top down, fog lights low and the stereo blasting.
I offered to help market the car with my website and presented him with my business card. He took one look and said he knew of the Sands Mechanical Museum! What a shock to me as I sometimes feel like no one from the factory notices.
I was dazed with all the information I was getting and worried I was going to forget it all. I also was not getting around to asking any of the interview questions off my list. I sat at a table out of the way and tried to compose some of my notes. I was surprised when Tony Shute approached and sat down. Tony is the head of product and is elevated in management from his original position where he managed the development of the original Elise. I was not sure what to expect.
He was most proud of the overall function of the car. It comes together as a great package.
Tony spoke of his son, Robin, who was at the show. Robin was 13 years old when he was racing radio control cars, usually with polycarbonate bodies. Why not build an Elise with the same material? The result was the 340R based Expose, which Tony races frequently in hill climbs. Tony was proud of Robin’s efforts with the car color display, composed of radio control model Elises, all painted in the available colors and detailed with lower chassis and accents.
I asked what cars he thought might be the competition here in the States. He did not think the Miata, Boxster, or S2000 were important, as they did not have the performance. He also thought more exotic cars were priced beyond the reach of the target customer. I mentioned my alternative was the Subaru Sti and he smiled. Apparently some studies at Lotus indicated the Subaru offerings were the competition, making me wonder exactly what the attraction of two very different automobiles might be?
Tony suggested that of all the Elise models, the Federalized car is the one he would most like to have.
Tony easily moved to other topics such as the business proposition and marketing. He expects the car to be used only occasionally and that it will be a second performance car in the family, along with the expected utilitarian cars. He thought the Elise might be side by side with a Corvette for example. He also had some interesting perspectives in how American are different from the English, especially when it comes to spending habits. I ended up liking him and thanking him for being one of the creators of the Elise.
Tony introduced me to his son, Robin Shute, and I spent some time talking with him. For a second time, I presented my card and was surprised when Robin recognized my website! We talked about his racing career, how he graduated from carts and was looking forward to turning 16 and driving the Expose. He suspects he is a faster driver than his dad but does not have any times in similar cars to back it up. He talked about putting an electric motor in a Lotus 119 and entering it in some engineering competitions. He certainly seems to be following in his father’s footsteps!
I approached Steven Crijns, the designer of the car, as he was standing off to one side. This conversation was one of the most pleasurable of the event! Steve is very quiet but extremely well spoken. He has the amazing ability of a good designer to listen first and then speak. When he speaks, you realize he really understands.
I asked him about his favorite and not so favorite parts of the design. He was most proud of the overall consistency of the car, front, sides and back. We talked about how he was severely constrained in how the car was packaged, with the mount points for the body and the desire to stay within inches of the internal components. He was adamant about how the design needed to be simple and contribute to the use of the car. For example, he admitted it was difficult to climb over the sill to enter and exit the car. Sweeping the side of the car inwards just ahead of the rear wheels facilitated the climbing, and added to the dramatic effect of his design.
We spent some time talking about the styling process, about his initial drawings, the conversion of the drawings to small clay models, the digitizing of the models and the final production of a full-scale clay model by computer aided machines. The full-scale clay model was used in the aerodynamic studies and the discussion went on about the rear spoiler. (The series one car did not have a rear spoiler at the start and the design was modified to add one later, compromising the original intention.)
My favorite exchange involved an awakening on my part. I have often claimed that the appearance of the car does not affect my desire for it. I am more interested in the function over the form, dramatically I thought since I would buy the Elise or the NSX no matter how it looked. Steve listened carefully and then asked a couple of insightful questions. He quietly pointed out that if form was part of the function, such as aerodynamics or weight reduction. I came away from the conversation believing the appearance is important and not just because he was the one responsible.
I asked what about the design he disliked or would have changed. The Elise has a lot more heat to dissipate with the increase in horsepower. Many things needed to change in the package, including dual oil coolers, reduction in radiator exit grill, and the “grass catcher” exhaust enclosure in order to remove the added heat. There are a couple of small grills on the outside of the taillights. These ducted hot air from the engine compartment to the low-pressure area at the back of the car. Unfortunately they were unable to keep the compartment cool enough with the new engine and so caused some melting in the body around the ducts. They were closed off and the fake grill remains as a reminder.
I was very excited to see that Nick Adams, the Vehicle Development Manager, was there. I knew of Nick’s expertise from his postings on the Lotus Life Forum, where he provided detailed, objective, and amazing information about the existing versions of the Elise. When I finally get my car, I want Nick to come and visit for a month!
We talked about the exhaust. Routing the exits to the sides, as in the Rover engined car, would add 2.2Kg to the weight of the car. The rounded exhaust as it exits from the diffuser was requested by marketing but we (engineering) preferred it cut off at the diffuser.
I asked about the size of the wheels and the profile of the tires. He chuckled and admitted the style was more towards very low profile tires, what I call rubber bands. He might have preferred to put 13-inch rims on the car and suggested, along with the tire manufacturers, that 50 and 45 profile tires are about as low as you want to go for performance. In the United States, the road infrastructure is very poor, with joins and potholes pounding the suspension. The lower profile tires transmit much of the shock loading into the suspension. The lower the tire, the more weight needed to handle the loads in the wheels and tires. High profile tires do not maintain tread stability. The best compromise with lightweight and good tread control is with 50 series tires. Even though the engineers have communicated this to the style department, the stylists still draw their cars with rubber band tires.
Nick has the amazing ability to see the compromise in any design effort and has the communication skills to pass it on. We had a long conversation about the benefits and problems with the handling package. Nick suggests that most people will benefit from learning how to drive long before they will benefit from the added performance available from the sport package. Further, Nick added the Elise with the suspension package the increment in performance is small, the ride is harsh, the car requires more concentration to drive. On the street, this package provides no real advantage and is uncomfortable as well. The package is beneficial on the track, when ultimate performance will be measured by tenths of a second.
We talked about the obscure and oppressive lighting requirements here in the States. The twin taillights run afoul of a number and spacing limitation, so the inside one needs to be disabled. If the unit were connected, even behind the fascia, then it would pass. Ferrari does this and so Lotus tried as well. Too late, you already have applied and passed with the inside lens disabled. Look at the side marker lights for another example.
We talked about the “grass catcher” enclosure for the exhaust as heat management. He showed us the electroluminescent display on the instrument cluster. He talked about his 20-minute drive to work on sports car roads and how he tries out various prototype parts. The aftermarket exhaust will have difficulty matching the Lotus exhaust for power because of the critical bifurcation that needs to happen after the headers. Lotus will offer three levels of exhaust, each progressively louder and lighter. An EU requirement makes 70dB the level for the manufacturer, but an owner can immediately install an exhaust that makes 100dB and still be legal. California will not allow exhaust modification but other states vary.
I asked Nick about his favorite thing on the new car. He likes the new forged rims.
Errors and mistakes in context are all mine. I did my best to write what I heard but I was overwhelmed much of the time with information, the cars and the people.
I want to thank all the staff from Lotus for taking the time to talk with me. I was impressed with the information they provided and the insight that went along with it. They are all articulate, knowledgeable, and passionate about the Elise. It was a most wonderful experience for me and can only be surpassed when I finally own an Elise. I look forward to meeting them all again. They are what make Lotus and the Elise exactly what they are.
(My thanks to Kiyoshi Hamai for all his support and knowledge.)