We all have schoolboy memories of sports cars including anything from Ferrari, Lamborghini, Jaguar, Aston Martin or whatever. The Lotus fits nicely in there as well, be it the truly fantastic shape of the Elite or the groundbreaking if not a little quirky Europa and of course the Elan.
The Elan in many ways was the true British sports car. It had fantastic road holding, was great fun to drive, and of course in every way showed the classic Colin Chapman principles of innovation and performance through light weight.
For many years the Elan stood out as a true icon and couldn’t be beaten, but as the seventies and eighties came and went a lot was to change in the world of true sports cars. Certainly Lotus seemed to lose their way, the value of a small, light, efficient and fine handling sports car that was practical for every day use seemed to be hard to find, especially at Lotus.
But in 1993 things started to change, Group Lotus was acquired by the Italians in the form of Bugati Industries headed by the charismatic Romano Artioli. He decided that Lotus should look back to its core values of innovative design, superb handling performance cars that achieve their speed through light weight rather than huge engine power.
Tony Shute was given the project code named M111 with a big brief – ‘realise a car that would revive Lotus with the true ideals of the company’s founder Colin Chapman’.
Head of design was Julian Thomson, he and his team would end up creating the saviour of Lotus… the re-birth of the true sports car… The Elise.
I was fortunate enough through an introduction arranged by Sue King – the licensing Manager of Jaguar Land Rover, to meet up with Julian Thomson who is now the Studio Director of Jaguar Land Rover Advanced Design. I was warmly greeted by Julian at his offices in Whitley near Coventry. His office is a true car designer’s home, packed with superb drawings on the walls, a large poster of Steve McQueen above his desk and many cabinets with all sorts of model cars. Bookshelves line one wall with an array of fabulous books, which as you would expect, included various Lotus classic copies.
I started by asking him what was the most enjoyable and technically challenging aspect of developing the Elise, he explained that there was a big effort to keep Colin Chapman’s ideal of minimalist engineering based on early Lotuses, their first challenge was to explain to visiting Lotus dealers with early designs to show them a car with bare floors, no winding windows and possibly no opening doors, they were aghast at the radical ideas. The designers then set about the task of proving it could work.
Trying to sell the idea of a bonded aluminium chassis to the Lotus Board was never going to be easy but Land Rover had already approached Lotus many years before with ideas of aluminium structure design, and there was good credibility built up with aluminium and the aircraft industry. The alternative was a steel space frame but as Julian pointed out; wonderfully engineered aluminium looks fabulous and would give them just what they wanted in this forward looking modern car. Richard Rackham was a true inspiration with his ability to make the aluminium design work in the way they needed it to. Renault showed the Spider sports car a few months before the Elise, but although this vehicle was of a similar concept the chassis was welded aluminium, much cruder and heavier than the Lotus.
Aston Martin used similar aluminium joining technology with the Vanquish and Lotus helped with the early stages of this cars structure.
Richard Rackham looked after the chassis design and was happy that the patents were good enough to protect the Elise for many years to come.
The Rover K-series engine was the best available and affordable at the time. They did consider the 16v Renault Clio engine but it was too heavy and expensive, the K series was the ideal weight and fitted nicely into the early designs.
I asked him what else has challenged him along the way as the design of the Elise did; he explained that as a designer and engineer he always does his best job to meet the requirements at that time. The Elise was the nearest thing to car meets motorbike that he could achieve then, the new Land Rover LRX project is an equally big and challenging project today that will help Land Rover meet the challenges required and enable the brand to continue to move forward just as the Elise did back then.
I wondered what his proudest boast to others when talking about the Elise might be, as you would have expected he takes it all in his stride, but recognises that being the main key designer of the Elise it realigned the Company back to where it should have been, and is proud that it re-invented Lotus again and enabled them to attract a new type of customer and penetrate markets that Lotus sadly had not been able to get into before.
Did the Elise save Lotus, or is that just a silly notion?
It certainly did, especially as a car producer and of course it’s now become the most successful Lotus ever. It did just what Lotus needed at the time, just as Ducati had done – gone back to its roots and re-invented itself.
Certain cars from the past inspired Julian with his design of the Elise, notably all Ferraris from the ’60s and ’70s because of their shape and that they are such emotional products. He still proudly owns his beloved red Dino today.
Shape and style of the Elise was very important, it had to carry the test of time. It’s always difficult to determine just how much you can copy existing or past models, the Type 23 and the Europa certainly feature here, you have to do light weight, fun and retro at the same time, it must fit the brand, the M100 didn’t do it then so they certainly didn’t want to make that mistake again. In the ’70s the Eclat and the Esprit were very square edged but due to their hard edges became unfashionable too soon, so Lotuses from the ’60s worked best as a reference point.
Front engine or mid engine is always a good question when relating to the design of a car, but it means so much more. Mid engine works best from the weight distribution and crash testing prospective, front engine is much more difficult. Vision lines are better, and pedestrian crash protection is more important nowadays. The most intensive part of car design tends to be at the front, but mid engine enables the designer to be more dramatic with the lines and looks, there is also a good association with race cars so that’s a good start. The Elise has a small lightweight engine which helps with the costs as well because large motors are costly and more difficult to accommodate.
There were a number of new and radical ideas considered with the Elise. Ducati motorbikes were a big influence, especially as Richard Rackham and Julian were both owners and keen motor cyclists at the time.
Thoughtful detailing and no-compromise attitude were apparent in the Ducati along with the philosophy of pure driver appeal and aesthetic perfection that would create a pride of ownership that the team at Lotus wanted to create.
Radical ideas that didn’t get used included gull winged doors and a hinged opening larger engine cover/boot. Initially there was to be no roof or opening doors but that would have been too radical and severely narrow its appeal.
The introduction of the doors and roof were accepted but simplicity in their design would be of key importance, but Julian still thinks the rear wheel arches are too big to give the best final look, they were victim of an over cautious engineering team.
During the design of the Elise Julian was young and single, and very much into cars and motor bikes, working at Lotus was just like a wonderful all consuming hobby, thoroughly enjoyable, a great time to be at Lotus, very exciting. The design that Julian first created included a flatter sharper looking rear end to the Elise, but unfortunately it didn’t work in the wind tunnel as it gave un-wanted rear end lift so the final design with the lip and spoiler on the back was opted for as the best solution.
You would think that the history of Colin Chapman and Lotus should mean a lot to Julian but as he explained, because of all that everyone expects him to be an historian on all things Lotus! What Julian needed to do was understand Colin Chapman’s ‘elegant engineering concept of thoroughness and simplicity that results in lightness and focused driving’. Plenty of other people were able to cover and recite all the detail of Lotus history; designers need to move it on and look forward to keep the brand alive.
I wondered if the concept Elise M120 could have really been a viable car for Lotus. Julian was involved with its early detail. It has a Rover V6 engine and longer wheelbase but for various reasons never got much further, but the rear end design clam went straight on to the Exige. Julian was the designer of the first S1 type Elise, so I was interested to know how he viewed the revamped S2 model. The revamp was very quick after the original but was much needed to renew interest and stimulate more sales so the brand could keep moving forward. It was a great job to further exploit the whole concept of the Elise by up-dating it and creating many variants including race cars to appeal to an even wider market, Julian is proud to be there at the birth of the car. It will be interesting to see how the Evora does although it is defiantly a good product it’s entering an extremely tight market in difficult times, with a niche product competing against the best such as Porsche it won’t be easy, but the Elise is what Lotus does best so it will be a hard act to follow.
Looking back do you miss your time at Lotus?
I went from College then to Ford and then eleven years at Lotus. I thoroughly enjoyed it, living in Norfolk was great being so near to the office, it was a very focused time working on the Elise, and I met some great people such as Richard Rackham and Gavin Kershaw who I still see regularly even today. When I left it was the right time for me to go, there wasn’t another model to do so I took the opportunity to move on.
What cars do you own today?
I drive a Jaguar XKR convertible today, which I really like due to its combination of luxury, style and performance, but hot hatch type cars still hold an interest, even a hot Megane R26 would be a hoot to drive and own today!
I don’t own an Elise now, but I did buy the last right hand drive S1 Elise just before the S2 came out but owning three cars proved difficult as I couldn’t find time to use them all properly. I also felt very self conscious driving the Elise knowing I was the chief designer of it.
When washing it I kept on reminding myself of all the design conflicts and discussions about every little detail so I ended up selling it for someone else to enjoy. I enjoy motor cycles nowadays for pure excitement and thrills but wouldn’t mind an Exige now… an S1 of course!
It was a real honour to meet and chat with Julian, I can now understand the rebirth of the true sports car much better, and believe the comments like ‘a real racer for the road’ and ‘it’s like a little stripped out skateboard’ don’t go anywhere near enough to give it the credit it deserves.
I’m sure this clever, timeless little Lotus will go on for many years to come.