Soft Launch of the US Spec Lotus Elise
By Michael Sands
Would you drive 700 miles to see an auto show? I did and I was ecstatic!
In response to Editor David Nagler's comments in a recent Lotus ReMarque about this being a club newsletter, I sent him an e-mail, offering my assistance. I was surprised when I got a message a week later, asking if I might be willing to attend, and report on, the Greater Los Angeles Auto Show (held between January 5th and 13th). He suggested it might just prove to be an interesting experience, but didn’t give me a hint as to why other than Lotus Cars USA (LCU) were to have a stand. Despite the somewhat cryptic comments I agreed to attend and take photographs for Lotus ReMarque. Although I wondered if David realized I lived in Northern California and that Los Angeles was a long drive.
A week later the reason for David’s request became clear when Andrew Barron gave me a heads-up as to the contents of his, at that time, as yet published Elise Watch article. As was reported in the last issue of Lotus ReMarque, LCU was going to two Elises on show.
Like many of you, I have carried on a personal campaign to bring Lotus Elise to the States ever since I saw the prototype in 1996. I created a detailed web site covering the Elise (http://www.sandsmuseum.com/) and even made trips to Atlanta trying to convince Arnie Johnson (CEO of LCU) to import the car. So as you can imagine, the news that examples of Series Two Elises were to be displayed piqued my interest.
I made travel plans, with the help of LOTUS reMARQUE applied for press credentials, and like any good reporter did a little research. I spent some time reading about the Series Two introduction, about the cancellation of the M250, and about the current financial woes at Lotus. I also researched the cars that might be considered competition here in the States. I formed a list of interview questions.
I talked my wife into letting me borrow her M3 for the trip, preferring it to my Seven. I drove down on Wednesday; spent the night in Los Angeles, and then drove an additional 150 miles to San Diego to fix an antique pinball machine as part of my business, doing museum quality restorations of antique coin operated games. I was happy to discover a previously unknown machine. After fixing the machine for the new owner, I returned to Los Angeles late on Thursday evening.
I still did not have confirmed press credentials and I had missed the media day keynote speech by Bob Lutz. I figured I would just show up on Friday morning and talk my way into the show. The show would not be open to the public until Saturday.
Friday morning, I arrived at the Los Angeles Convention Center and presented my card at the media center. It lists me as the proprietor of The Sands Mechanical Museum. The attendant looked at me sideways and asked what this had to do with access to the show. He asked if I was registered? I told him I was there as a reporter for Lotus ReMarque. After studying his computer terminal he said, "Oh, there you are… " He printed the badge and I was in!
I wandered around the show floor, looking for the Lotus stand. The Convention Center was ery as it was empty of people. All the stands were set up and there were occasional press photographers taking pictures of the various concept cars: the Ford 49'er was there, next to the new Thunderbird, the Crossfire, a Mazda minivan concept, and a bunch of Rally prototypes were scattered around. Before the trip, I had researched the competition for the Elise. I expected the Audi TT, Porsche Boxter S, the BMW M coupe, and Honda S2000 to be the primary competition. My choice for competition might be the Subaru WRX or a Nissan Skyline. There were no new introductions at the show that might challenge the Elise.
I finally found the Lotus stand. It was situated in the Concourse Hall, a small hall between the main North and South Halls. Also present were the Ferrari, Lamborghini, Brabas, and Saleen stands. Ignoring the new Lamborghini Murcielago, the Ferrari 360 Modena, and the Saleen S7, I was suddenly awestruck by the five cars in the Lotus stand.
At the front of the stand were the two new 25th Anniversary Esprits (red and yellow), while situated behind were three Elise models. A Motor Sport Elise (in a two-tone blue/white scheme) and two Series Two Elise cars. One of the Elises was blue like the original introduction car and one an off yellow. The yellow was not as bright as that on the Esprit and met with mixed reactions from the crowd.
I prefer function to form, and generally do not care about how a car looks. I drive a Seven! However, I was in awe. As always, the cars looked much better in person. I liked the proportions of the original Elise, low, wide, and short with little overhang. The new Elise still looks similar, but now has a pronounced coke bottle narrowing just in front of the rear wheels. I am not as keen on the new edge focus of the newest concept cars, and the Elise carries this into the new front end. At the rear, the upswept diffuser looks more like a design theme rather than an effective aerodynamic device and it goes up very high. The only part I felt strongly about was how high the clamshell was in the front, over the front wheels. With the new edge or crease coming from the head lamps, it is carried much higher than in the original car, making the car appear more like a box, and less like a low wedge.
Once I recovered my composure, I took several quick pictures and went back to my car to get my tripod. By the time I returned there were two people from Lotus Cars there, talking with a person from the press. I introduced myself first to Sue Lascelles-Hadwen, who is the project manager for the M260 project (as the Federal Elise is designated within Lotus). I found out that the other person was Roger Becker, Program Director for this project. What was he doing here?
I always thought of Roger as senior management and wondered why he would run a booth at a show. He must have more important things to do at Lotus back in Britain. Later I thought that this effort must be important to Lotus and this explained why they were having such people running a booth. I wanted to believe this was the case.
In talking with Sue I learned that she was the project manager for both the 340R and Exige. She was originally part of the facilities management team (taking care of the new buildings recently constructed at the Lotus factory and moving people into them). She has recently moved over to the production side. I was then introduced to Roger Becker. He and I talked for about an hour, about any number of things. We talked about planning and staffing the effort, about some of the technical changes required to make the US specification car, and how far the approval process has progressed at Lotus. I never got a chance to pull out my reference material and ended up madly scribbling notes at every opportunity.
As much as I tried to get specifics from Roger, Sue, and Arnie about the new car, I was always given a nice smile and reassurances that I will be very happy with the new car. I wanted more specific information, I wanted details, and I wanted to know why I would be happy. It is clear they are keeping the specifications secret. One the one hand much of the car will be as it is today. The body design, most of the chassis, and the interior will not change dramatically for the Federal car. My interest was in weight, nimble handling, and power plant. Unfortunately they do not know the answers to those questions yet because that part of the car does not exist yet.
I spent about an hour taking pictures of all the cars. I took pictures of the stand, pictures of Roger and Sue, of the cars and parts of the cars, and I still did not take enough. I spent some time writing more notes. I even got to sit in one of the Elises!
The original Elise was frequently criticized about the difficult entry, and the Series Two was supposed to be much improved in this regard. I was therefore curious to see for myself. I have a process for getting into and out of my Seven, since it has no doors. I developed a process for the Corvette and for the NSX as well. Once derived, access is never a problem. Getting in the Series Two Elise is still an exercise! I needed to leverage my rear end into the car, while supporting my weight with my arms. No problem! I am willing to suffer a bit to get into a car since I am going to spend most of my time driving, not getting in and out.
The Elise seats are amazingly low, reclined, and form fitting with good back and lateral support. The seats in the blue car were part Alcantara and part leather. I liked the non-skid surfaces and thought there was enough lateral support to autocross the car without a four or six point harness although, now that I write this, I realize I did not try the seat belt. Once in the car I adjusted the seat forward and aft to find out how much room is available for the taller than average driver. I always like a car that can slide the seat so far back that I cannot reach the pedals! Upon closing the door it feels like this is where you are meant to be. All the controls seemed to be immediately accessible and the pedals are spaced evenly allowing easy heal-and-toe for rapid gear changing. The STACK tachometer and speedometer are analog, large, and easy to read. Overall, the interior stuck me as being spartan. The radio looked like it was added on by a cheap car stereo store. In common with the Europa and Esprit before, there was a significant blind spot to the rear, blocked by the buttresses.
While I was trying on the car, Arnie Johnson arrived with Clyde Shepard (After Sales Administrator at LCU) and I talked with them about the cars. Both seemed excited about Lotus prospects in America.
After my study of the Elises, I spent some time looking at the new Esprit. As described in the last Lotus ReMarque, the rear now has two round taillights, just like the Elise. There is a grate where a diffuser might be and a central twin tail pipe. I think it is a fresh new look, but I wish they could have spent some time updating the front end. However, this would mean having to undergo recertification of the crash test.
By early afternoon I had crammed about as much information into my notebook and brain as I could. Clyde Shepard and I wandered down to the after market show where the Wheel Warehouse had a 340R on display. It was strange to see it all covered with American manufacturer stickers and surrounded by 22-inch and a 26-inch wheels.
That evening I reviewed my notes and created an outline for this article. I realized I was missing a lot of specification type information. The cars on display were Euro specification and would need modification to meet the Federal requirements. The engine will need to be changed and I did not know how that might impact the current car.
I returned to the show on Saturday. Now the Lotus stand was cordoned off, people were admitted only when escorted (except yours truly who was allowed full access at all times). Small groups of people, two or three at a time were invited into the stand and allowed to sit in the cars. They were asked to fill out a questionnaire.
The questions asked were general brand and vehicle kinds of questions, such as "Lotus. What immediate thoughts come to mind?" and "What type of car would 'Lotus' make?" Regarding the car itself, they asked about quality, features, styling, and the important ones about if you would buy it and, if so, how much you would pay? (For the full questionnaire see side bar).
As things got busy, I found myself helping to work the stand; first I was a reporter, and now temping customers for Lotus. This was turning out to be a great opportunity. I spent time answering questions posed by people looking from around the edge of the stand. It was interesting to hear the questions and provide answers. I was able to get a sense of what people thought and of their impressions of the cars.
Everyone wanted the Elise. The questions came from two directions. The most common questions were, "What is it?" and "Who makes it?" followed by, "How much?" People did not seem to be able to see the Lotus symbol turning on the pedestal but the car's size and styling seemed to attract people.
The second direction for questions was from informed people that recognized the car. They wanted to know if they could buy it now and if not, when. I was actually surprised by the number of people that fell into this latter category. Most were very disappointed that deposits were not being accepted and the delivery was not until late 2003.
The Esprit got very little attention relative to the Elise. Even people that seemed to be able to afford the Esprit were more interested in the Elise. I did not get a single question about it, and only saw a couple of interested buyers actually enter the area to look. The Esprits were locked because they were already promised to a dealer and this may have discouraged some.
After some time, it got so crowded around the stand that it was impossible to walk around the isles. At this point I finally had enough. I wanted to survey some of the cars that might be competition for the Elise and Esprit. I wandered the show for a couple of hours but was unable to get much information because of the crowds.
I left late in the afternoon and drove home, arriving late at night. What a great trip! Thanks to David for asking me to cover the show. The club is only as good as its members make it. You should volunteer as well and enjoy the opportunities.