Discuion from John O'Rear: Why Bring the Elise to America

From: John O'Rear

Subject: elise/failure of M100

Date: Sat, 6 Jun 1998 00:58:24 -0400

Since the high muckety mucks at Lotus are concerned about the Elise meeting the same fate as the M100 in the US, it might do to get a little discussion going on this.

I had a chance to tool around in a M100 a couple of years ago. It was a delightful vehicle. This was without a doubt the finest FWD roadster ever produced, and is likely to hold that title for some time. It was also more like production sports cars than the average Lotus. And therein lies the problem. It was more of a mainstream car, coming from a niche manufacturer. And history, even Lotus history, tells us that doesn't sell in the US. Consider:

FWD. Lotus builds cars that put performance, especially roadability, above all else. Like it or not, FWD is not the optimal for pure dry pavement handling. The M100 came closer than anything else, but one of the primary reasons people in the US want a Lotus is the absolutely no compromise whatsoever approach to chassis engineering and layout.

Demeanor. The M100 is a very civilised car as well. Not your daddy's Lotus. But, once again, that overlooks the reason people put up with the niche manufacturer status of Lotus. One doesn't shoehorn themself into an Esprit because it's a comfortable car. Quite the opposite. Just sitting in my Europa, starting it up and hearing that twincam growl, or driving it to the market is an experience. While the M100 feels like a very competent roadster, my little Europa feels like a hardcore race car. That's why I put up with it's quirks. There's nothing else like it.

Styling. On first glance, it doesn't look like that much, just another roadster with no real distinguishing characteristics. Not markedly different than, say, a fairly new convertible Celica. The more you look at it, the more handsome it becomes, with the huge tires and gracefully bulging fenders. But, one accustomed to exotic cars in general has come to expect the unusual from Lotus. Excepting the original Elan, Lotus cars have tended toward the extreme in appearance. The Elise does nothing but further that bit of tradition. The M100, while handsome, just wasn't exotic. And to people over here, appearance is a major factor in making a sale.

The builder. When one buys a car from Lotus instead of a mainstream builder, such as BMW, Mazda, or Toyota, they give up quite a bit. One loses a good deal of servicability, it just can't be fixed anywhere. This becomes increasingly important, as powertrains have become so complex as to discourage major work by weekend mechanics. Dealers are few and far between, which means you may have a waiting list for repairs, and may have trouble finding a dealer at all just to buy the car. Selling the car is never easy, to get a fair price you have to find a willing buyer, and that can take time. Now, in the case of an Esprit V8, it's probably worth putting up with, you get a landbound rocket that will hang with the best. But in the case of a reasonably priced roadster with above average performance, but not stellar, there are scads of cars in the same league from more established vendors. Not quite as precise, but close enough.

The M100 was simply too mainstream. Had they moved the drivetrain to the back wheels and given it a more exotic appearance, it would have sold more. Consider the historical perspective: some years ago, Lotus brought in another semi-mainstream car (well, for Lotus it was), the Eclat. Didn't sell very well, either. Americans don't want a Lotus with a back seat or FWD, they want an extreme one.

Try this simple test: if you were to find a clean M100 on an out of the way used car lot for, say, $8k, because nobody knew what it was, would you snap it up? Probably. Now, let's say the same lot had a clean early Esprit for the same price, for the same reason. Which one would you buy? See what I mean... One is very good, the other is absolutely wild.

In short, if Lotus is to sell a car in the U.S., it must have qualities that override the drawbacks of a niche manufacturer. It must be unique enough that owners will put up with service headaches, lengthy delivery times, less than perfect reliability and the Quest For Parts. With little name recognition, and little promotional budget, it must be so distinctive in appearance, and so superlative in performance, that people will want to seek it out. It must be better than very good, it must be absolutely wild.

In other words, it should be like, well, an Elise. Killer driving experience, exotic contruction material, modern, and very aggressive appearance - quite a bit like every successful Lotus during their introduction over here. Put some carpet in it (no carpet - that's carrying the weight reduction a bit far, isnt it?), get Bertone or any one of several dozen convertible conversion experts to design a decent, waterproof top. When I think of the difference in tops between my old TR4, and the tight, one hand up and down top on my Fiat Spyder, there's just no excuse for a half assed top. Don't know about AC - it adds weight and would be a real bitch to shoehorn into that tiny car. Turn someone loose in an Elise on a sunny day with the top down, and they'll never notice the difference. Make AC a high priced option. Airbags? The new low profile ones. Given all the bad press airbags are getting these days, breaking arms and blowing babies' heads off. I'd just as soon have an a stout set of belts - more effective and a damn sight cheaper.

The engine? There are scads of high output, lightweight, US certified transverse layout powertrains out there. From my prior diatribe, the Saturn twincam. Infiniti puts a good one in the I20, and they're hard up for sales. Honda/Acura has a good 4, and a killer V6. VW has a good one, too, and they're not selling all that well over here. They could probably use the extra business. Twincam, 4 valve engines attached to a transverse gearbox are as thick as fleas on a dog these days.

Oh, and one other thing: the price. Keep it under $40k. Why? So I can at least dream about buying one. Bring it in under $30k, and you'll have enough business to open a plant over here.

Finally, I humbly apologise to any M100 owners that I may have inadvertenly offended. It's a terrific little car, but the Lotus heritage of extreme vehicles is a tough act to live up to.

Anyone else care to add their thoughts?

John O'Rear

72 TC in rejuvenation

74 Special in pieces

and a host of other silly but essential toys...


Well, somehow I knew it wouldn't be that simple. But, as a Lotus exec pointed out, it's becoming a global car market, and sometime soon a Euro car will be built to pretty much the same specs as a US car. What will happen to cars like the Elise then? The point is, the problems you face with federalizing, you'll be facing just about everywhere soon. When this happens, will Lotus will cease production? No, they'll solve the problems, in the usually lightweight Lotus fashion. May as well get started on it now.

All the same, I still think it'd sell better than one might think. Americans buy silly things in mass quantities, just look at how Harleys are selling. Yes, there's heritage involved there, but that sure is one sharp little car you have there, with bags of racing heritage behind it. It will take marketing - a class win at Daytona or LeMans wouldn't hurt. That would mean reentering competition. Hey, it's a dirty job, but someone has to do it.

The airbag problem may go away soon. There's a strong backlash against them, and already there are switches to disable them. Soon, some ambitious politician will realize that people are paying thousands of dollars for something they are just shutting off, and it'll become a campaign issue. Maybe you could put in a Lotus airbag switch - hit it and a voice tells you to go buy a Miata.

No, we don't drive flat out in every corner, but I don't recall seeing that much hot driving on my last trip to the Continent. Well, outside of Germany, anyway. Most of the Elise owners contributing to this column appear to be the same as American enthusiasts - just good drivers who like to take an occasional trip on the wild side. I don't think anyone drives 10/10ths constantly, at least on public roads. Given the number of unknowns outside a controlled track, they wouldn't last long, and neither would the car.

Yes, FWD is probably more controllable to the average driver than RWD. But you miss the point. Most people, in the US and elsewhere, don't buy a hot car to get the most out of it. They buy the car to THINK they can get the most out of it, and rarely do. It's an image thing, but if you're selling cars, you're selling image. Otherwise, we'd all buy economy cars. The times I've twitched my Europa's tail into power on oversteer on a public road, I can count on my fingers and toes. But those few times - damn, that felt good! Once again, the M100 was built for a more average driver, and that's not what a Lotus customer wants. They want to know that this is the absolute, just one step off the race track, even if they rarely, or never, use it. Pearls before swine? Probably, but that's the car market. In an oblique way, this is why Harley sells bikes for twenty grand, the Japanese sell Harley imitations for ten grand, and Harley has an 18 month waiting list, while you can buy a wannabe tomorrow, discounted. It's irrelevant that no actual biker would be caught dead on a new stock Harley, or that the average Lotus buyer isn't a competition driver. People want the Real Thing.

Lest anyone think this is a US peculiarity, I know two individuals making money running Harleys into Europe. Old Corvettes sell like hotcakes over there. And my motorcycle, a 6 cylinder Honda CBX, is a prized item in the UK. They can be just as absurd about their machines as we can.

The QC and durability problems? While I'm no automotive engineer, I have done state modeling software for factory automation and control. Uses Petri nets, for anyone out there that's into the subject. Most of the problems with the Elise can be solved, without compromising weight. No, it won't be easy, but I think they told me the job can get that way at times. Crappy top? The Viper has a crappy top, and none of the owners complain about that. But, a leaky top? That can be solved, and not by drilling holes in the floor. Proper seals shouldn't add more than ten to twenty pounds, probably more like five. If you're selling it on the street, mere mortals will operate it, and mere mortals don't like to get wet. This will hurt you in any market. The Red Hose? No way - this is the very thing that Lotus is not supposed to do. What race track was that item proven on - Sarajevo? This is a black eye for the company that came up with such brilliant race derived mechanicals as the annular clutch linkage. If the radio knobs fall off the dash, it's a Lotus. If the clutch doesn't work, it's a piece of junk.

If the Elise can be federalized without gaining weight, the skillset required to do this will be very valuable as engineering services to larger manufacturers. Energy costs more, and we're dumping too much CO2 into the air. Cars will become more efficient, either by regulation (laws) or economic forces (rising gas prices). Probably both. Reduce weight, and the electric car becomes more viable. Lotus has two distinct advantages. They have a heritage of light weight, which means they should do it. And, they are a small company, without the massive corporate bureauracracy, which means they can do it. You may think you have the corporate overhead, but if you did, the Elise would have come out looking like a truck. A small team of brilliant engineers, without endless meetings, befuddled committees, or moribund and unknowledgable leadership can run rings around any large car builder. The fact that your skills are wrapped up in a beautiful, blindingly quick, sexy backroads bandit just makes it that much harder to ignore. Howard Hughes had to invent a revolutionary lamination process to build the Spruce Goose. While the plane flew only once, the process turned out to be a gold mine. Don't sell the engineering services short. They can be quite lucrative.

All the same, I feel priviliged to have a knowledgable answer to my uninformed daydreams. We probably won't see the Elise over here anytime soon. Too bad. I see nothing but potential: a company small enough to solve virtually unsolvable problems that desperately need to be solved, skilled enough to solve them, with engineering jobs out the wazoo if they do. Damn! Somebody loan me a hundred million or so, and I'll pepper the US with these little rascals. Okay, just dreaming again, but you'd be surprised what can be done if you're too dumb to know it's not feasable.

Finally, a rather silly question, if I may. I've been out of the exotic car market (never was in it, except in my dreams), but what happened to the gray market? Seems I recall that most if not all Ferrari 512 BB's got in this country via individual certification. Can't the Elise be brought in using this method?