On my way home from Toronto’s trendy Queen West nightlife district, I often take the long way home, up through the newly gentrified working class neighborhoods of the city’s west end, which gives the chance to drive past a row of exotic car dealerships. A quarter mile stretch is home to Rolls-Royce, Aston Martin, Bentley, Land Rover and Lotus. The Lotus dealer formerly sold Ferraris as well, and the place was a long-time haunt when I was a child, where the only two cars in stock were a Mondial T and a gorgeous British Racing Green Esprit S4.
The same Esprit later ended up in the hands of a neighbor, a geeky looking guy who was probably in IT and also owned an Oldsmobile Eighty-Eight LSS. I had no real idea about the Esprit’s mechanical content, just that it made a fantastic racket when it would tear through the flat, straight stretches of my neighborhood – and I loved the color.
Over a decade later, I have my first Lotus experience with an Elise. For all the overwrought prose written about the car, the Elise really stood up to the hype. I loved the ultra low seating position with its one-piece buckets, the heavy, manual steering, the way I could be at eye level with the undercarriage of a city bus. Like many poseurs who’ve never driven a Lotus beyond the pixilated world of Gran Turismo, I used to dream about Exiges, but the Elise was more than enough to make me smile.
I was present at the 2010 Paris Auto Show, where Lotus unveiled their all new lineup for the next 5 years. The presentation was grandiose, with CEO Dany Bahar making all kinds of bold proclamations, trotting out C-List celebrities and showing off pieces from Lotus’ new “lifestyle” collection of branded apparel. The cars themselves look like different lengths of the same sausage, and there was even a sedan in the lineup, while the branded gear is seemingly the British alternative to Ferrari’s own lineup of merchandise.
Usually, the announcement of 5 new supercars would be greeted with the same enthusiasm as Scarlett Johansson announcing her upcoming Brazzer’s debut, but instead we were treated to apoplectic rage. Like a severely autistic child unable to break out of a behavior pattern, the same people who spend more time tweeting about cars than actually driving demanded to know what had happened to Lotus, and the barebones minimalist ethos propagated by Colin Chapman. Why were the cars unrecognizable as Lotus vehicles, and why was there a lifestyle component?
The answer is because things change. The Elise was first introduced in 1997. We still had dial-up internet and the Plymouth Prowler. The Motorola StarTAC was the hottest cell phone, and a nearly-broke boutique sports car company released a bathtub on 4 wheels with the engine out of an appallingly bad Rover subcompact. By the time the Elise is replaced by one of Dany Bahar’s creations, it will be 20 years old. Not even the Acura NSX stagnated for that long. Lest we forget that the previous Esprit was cool, but not very good, with styling that was essentially fossilized and a dreadful gearbox that was stolen from a French plumber’s Renault Kangoo while he was protesting a proposed change to a 35 hour work week.
By far the most hilarious criticism from the perpetually single keyboard jockeys is the Zola-like cries of “J’Accuse” leveled at Dany Bahar, for not being a “car guy”. Thank Fucking Christ. If someone tells me at a social function they’re a “car guy” I can be sure that I’ll spend the next hour hearing opinions of cars they’ve never driven, and their grand strategy for how Company X can revive their flagging product lineup, which is selling quite well. They will probably be wearing Puma or Piloti “racing shoes” and drive an automatic transmission midsize sedan as a “daily” while their dilapidated, non-running “drift/track/project car” sits at home, the victim of an over-ambitious engine swap and poorly made Chinese Ebay parts. The closest they’ll ever get to a Lotus is the velvet rope at their regional auto show.
Fortunately, Bahar has something for you. Because you can’t possibly afford a Lotus car, Bahar will sell you a baseball cap or polo shirt with a Lotus logo on it. Coming from Ferrari, Bahar knows all about selling merchandise to aspirational millionaires making $30,000 a year. I wanted to vomit when I heard him talk about “the brand” being a “lifestyle statement”, but fuck it, if that’s going to keep the company in business, then it deserves a shot. If you want to argue that it “dilutes the brand values”, then you might as well find organized religion, because nothing is more pathetic than believing phony narratives cooked up by sycophantic journalists and boardroom marketing jockeys about a car you’ve never driven. All too often these “values” are supposed to reflect your own vanity. You identify with the brand and said values because you see yourself as, say, a “no frills pure sports car guy”, even though you are a middle manager that drives a Jeep Compass and your wife would never let you buy anything with two doors, let alone a stick shift. You don’t have to deal with rainwater entering the cabin of your Elise, or having your voice go hoarse due to insufferable cabin noise, but boy do you like to think about taking down those Ferrari driving I-bankers at a track day in your imaginary Exige S 240, while you sit open-mouthed by a glowing laptop screen in your basement apartment as you read “The Car Lounge”, and buying some branded merchandise will let you feel like you’re part of the Lotus family.
Alan Mullaly was “not a car guy”. Ford is, without a doubt, the best of the big 3, and can go toe to toe with any volume manufacturer. Stephan Winklemann, head of Lamborghini, started out in finance. Soichiro Honda was more interested in aviation and motorcycles than cars. Car guys, on the other hand, fuck things up. It’s not that they create bad products, it’s that they create products that don’t appeal to the buying public, that only they would buy. Witness the complaints about the new Ford Explorer being a piece of junk, and losing its way by using a car platform. They’re selling so fast that Ford dealers can’t keep them on the lots. The joke about car guys thinking that the entire world’s needs are met by old BMW’s, Miatas and Jeeps is funny for a reason. If car guys had their way, the Elise and Exige would stay in production for another 15 years, and the company would be six feet under long before that. Hell, the reason Lotus needs to completely change direction is precisely because they have sold the kind of cars the “enthusiast” loves, and it has failed to bring them financial security. Car companies are a business, not a public utility meant to serve penniless car geeks with delusions of automotive grandeur, and as DJ Quik famously remarked “if it don’t make dollars, it don’t make sense”. The current path Lotus is on is unsustainable and the logical thing to do is try something else.
I know that an Elise will still bring me joy if it weighs 2600lbs and has a 350 horsepower turbo engine, even if it’s a very different experience than a 1975lbs version with a screaming 1.8L Toyota motor. But to the car guy, who defines himself not through actions and behaviors, but through material things and fallacious narratives, the former Elise is the only one that can exist, because it ostensibly says something about who he is, his tastes and likes and how he sees himself – an iconoclast of impeccable, sophisticated taste, willing to forgo the usual German brand in favor of the snob appeal of the Lotus, and thus the root of their angst at Lotus, which has spurned their constructed identity in favor of the wealthy, moneyed set that they could never hope to be a part of.
All the bitching and whining about Lotus and their new directions takes on a weirdly narcissistic character that betrays a lack of empathy typical for people who spend too much time on the computer. The fact that Lotus ignores the collective opinion of the automotive media only stokes the flames, and thus we get people lashing out at Bahar as an “over-coifed little shit”. The use of ad hominems may be artistic license for a blogger, but there are manifold others expressing a similar sentiment, while actually meaning it, as if they were lashing out at Brooklyn Decker because she refused to go to bed with them.
Although nobody could accuse me of being “to the manor born”, I know plenty of people who are either Lotus target customers, or better yet, current Maserati, Porsche, BMW M or AMG owners. They are professionals making well into the six figures (if not seven), and can afford a sports car as well as a sedan for taking people out to dinner, and a luxury SUV for the winter. None of them would ever consider a Lotus. The reasons are diverse from “I once owned [insert British car here] and it was shit…” to “I can’t get in and out of that thing more than once” to “$50k for a car with no carpets? Are you mental”? Current Lotus owners may mock the company’s new direction, but the fact remains that Lotus has very few buyers for its very niche products, and if they want to survive, they need to poach customers from established luxury and exotic brands, and the current lineup is NOT what’s going to help them achieve their goals.
So far, much of the Lotus lineup is preliminary and merely an indication of where the brand is going to go. We know for sure that the days of bare metal cabins and leaky roofs are gone, and leather seats, soundproofing and turbocharged engines are in. If these cars were made by any other company, people would applaud. It’s absolutely a deviation from the brand’s current direction, but surprisingly, people like to have conversations at normal volumes while driving, and hate having rain leak through the top of the car, and if Lotus is to survive, they will have to start making cars that attract these sorts of buyers.
Last night I made another stop at the Lotus dealer, hoping to get a few pictures with my new DSLR camera. None of them came out right, except for this shot of an Evora sitting in a service bay. If Lotus were to continue down their current path, this scene would not exist for much longer, when the dealer was inevitably shuttered and turned into yet another tower full of 500 square foot condos retailing at Manhattan-like prices. If the trade-off of being able to peer into a scene like this at 1 A.M. on a Thursday is a 4-door Lotus, then I’m prepared to swallow that pill.