Frankfurt, 1995. In spite of its perennial financial struggles, Lotus Cars launches a brilliant new sports car, the brainchild of Romano Artioli, boss of parent firm Bugatti, and named after his granddaughter Elisa.
Although envisaged as a pure enthusiasts’ plaything, a fun car to be produced in very limited numbers for a limited period, the Elise that hit the market a year later went on to become the biggest seller in the firm’s history, aided by its many and varied offspring.
But all good things come to an end, and in 2021 the final example rolled off the Hethel production lines after a quarter of a century and just shy of 35,000 cars
To mark the occasion, we reunited the two people whose shared creative vision was the driving force behind the car, Julian Thomson and Richard Rackham, along with a twin for that original Frankfurt show car.
As best friends, each serving as best man at the other’s wedding, their lives were intertwined with the development of the Elise, and its success provided a platform for their futures in the industry.
Engineer Rackham remains a Lotus stalwart, having joined the firm as a contractor in 1987 and risen to Head of Vehicle Concepts at the fast-expanding Hethel site, while Thomson was then in charge of Lotus Design and, having recently left Jaguar after a stellar career, has now launched his eponymous Julian Thomson Design.
But where did it all begin?
RICHARD RACKHAM “The original business case was for a ‘step-in car’, a race car for the road, with 750 a year for four years. There will always be that many people who are willing to put up with those compromises.
“The changes adding doors and a roof came after the main structure had been designed, which compromised ingress and egress. If it had doors and a roof from the start, it would have been quite different.
“This was the simplest car we could do. The complication of vehicles is a huge issue. Just take the length of the shutlines: they are as simple as they can get because the clamshells are all integrated.
“It’s the same story with the interior – the more you add, the more the cost goes up, so keeping the number of panels down was key.”
JULIAN THOMSON “What we were allowed to tool up for was really limited, hence the indicators and the tail-lights are the same moulding – and even that was a big tooling investment for us, which shows how low the budget was overall.
“I left Lotus in 1998 and went to Volkswagen, where one of the first jobs I did was a headlight. We had more budget for that than we did for this whole car!”
RR “Early on, we went to the Donington Collection and jumped into the Group C cars. There was a. fantastic sense of safety with those fuel tanks on either. side of you, and that really inspired the chassis design.
“There was no side-impact legislation, but I felt. so. vulnerable in the Caterham we used for benchmarking.”
JT “It’s just like getting in to a race car. It’s not for everyone, but that was always part of the appeal.
“I wasn’t so disappointed by the addition of doors, because with the cutaway sides it looked like a beach buggy and I wanted that purity of line.
“I remember watching Beverly Hills, 90210 and one of the characters had a Porsche 356 Speedster, and I loved the beltline and the way he sat so low.
“There was also a lot of influence from motorbikes – the Honda CBR’s engine cover, Yamaha lights, and the filler cap, which Richard says was inspired by his Sunbeam motorcycle. All of the team was incredibly young and naïve to the sensibilities and practicalities of a car, but for this project that was a good thing.”
RR “I had a Ducati 916 and he had a 748… When you have limited ability, the last thing you want is something as challenging as a 916! But I loved it because it was such a joy to look at.”
JT “You couldn’t see a line where the design ended and the engineering began. Every part was beautiful, and that’s what we tried to achieve.
“Visually, everything in a car is usually covered up but in this it was all going to be exposed.”
RR “Bugattis were always like that. Every piece was beautiful, crafted, but everything had to be functional, too – whereas a Bentley was a lorry.”
RR “The friendship undoubtedly helped. We were both single and lived and died for this project. We talked about it all the time, it was just fun.
“As a result, a lot of the creative decisions were made easy. I worked from one Portakabin and Julian was in another.
Looking back, it was an extraordinary situation: it was a very small team, but everyone had the same mission.”
JT “Lotus always seemed to be for sale so we never knew what was going to happen. We were trying to build credibility for Lotus Design, because Lotus was always known for its engineering.
“The car was already a scale model when this huge packing crate came in on a pallet. We were told it was drawings from Italian design houses for the Elise and a new 2+2.
“We were told to pin them up all over the studio and a winner would be chosen. That was a nerve-racking time for us, and quite distressing.
“I’d been at the firm for years and I had always wanted to build a new Lotus sports car. This was our moment and we didn’t want it to be taken away. But we were sufficiently progressed and our car was the best-looking, so luckily it all came together.”
JT “It was so good designing a car with Richard. He is an exceptional engineer because he wants to talk to you about making it look beautiful.
“We were all very clear that we wanted a minimalist structure: very simple and as honest as possible. We didn’t even want these pads on the sills and originally we wanted an exposed dashboard but eventually we had to cover it up.”
RR “The headlights were meant to be cowled, too – they were on the launch car – but they weren’t in the end due to cost, though they eventually came back on the 111S.”
“The pedalbox is a lovely thing and really does demonstrate his artistry. It’s so beautiful, so functional. The artist coming out of the engineer – that’s very special.”
RR “Of all the projects I have been involved with, the pedal extrusions of the Elise remain the one thing I am totally, completely happy with – they work on so many levels.
“The first pedal design even had ‘Lotus’ running through it like a stick of rock, but it was too heavy.”
RR “Originally, Lotus engineers were consulting with Rover to develop a new structure for Land Rover and I was involved.
“That initiative was stopped, but I’d seen the opportunities that extrusions could bring. We didn’t know how strong the bonds would be so the 100mm x 100mm joints we used were a guess – in practice they could have been half that size.
“[Chassis manufacturer] Norsk Hydro wanted to sell aluminium, and we were coming up with a. way for them to sell less – the wall thicknesses in the Renault Sport Spider, for example, are twice as thick to allow for the welds. But Hydro also realised that we were doing something new and different with extrusions.”
JT “We always wanted to do a ‘naked’ version, which eventually came with the 340R, to answer criticism from Caterham owners that it was too sophisticated.”
RR “I realised that extrusions could offer perceived quality, which is why they ended up in places such as the door hinge, where they add surprise and delight as a bit of sculpture as well as function.
“They are used for the suspension uprights, too, because they give lots of stiffness as well as quality. The car was spartan, so why not celebrate the things that are there?
“I would have liked the rear subframe to be aluminium, too, but to achieve the necessary thermal protection would have added cost and weight. In this case welded steel was the right material for the application.
“Where the suspension mounts to the chassis there are steel bobbins. I’d like to have made those high-grade anodised aluminium because they suffer from galvanic corrosion, but it was cost-driven. And I’d have made the sills 100mm lower. It would have cost weight – about 6-7kg – but given that entry/egress is the main criticism of the car it would have been worth it.”
JT “But at the time it didn’t. matter. We were young – we. could leap in and out of the car like little rabbits!
“The seats were modelled on those of the Lamborghini Diablo, but with a pump-up lumbar support – that’s out of a Granada and it works beautifully.
“It’s a very minimal car, but everything you touch is special, the bits you are invested in.
“The ridged plate you step on is cool, because it also provides bracing for the chassis.”
RR “For me, the best thing about the design is the way the power is put into the back of the car through the intakes, it’s classic supercar stuff.
“The worst… Probably the window winder, but Julian wasn’t responsible for that!
“I also don’t like the bend in the wiper arm; it could be an elegant curve, it didn’t need to be that harsh – we have really good metalworkers here.”
JT “This windscreen is on its way to Mars on a Tesla, it’s the fastest ’screen in the world on a Hennessey, and goes underwater in the Sbarro. It’s the most famouswindscreen in the world!”
RR “That ’screen has as much curvature as you can get with a single wiper; it really limits what you can do.
“But it was about having what race cars have – as well as being simple, cheap and not handed for different markets.
“It’s also why the occupants sit so close together, to take advantage of the small swept area.”
JT “For me the body was too wide around the rear clamshell, but all engineers get wheelarch envelopes wrong – that was a. miscalculation in terms of accounting for shrinkage in the manufacturing process. And the vents at the back are fake, which always annoyed me.”
“But I do love the extrusions, the way we designed it together, and the pedals in particular. The worst thing for me is that it’s too noisy – it’s just so mechanical.”
RR “There were no NVH requirements for it at the time, though: this was a pure fun car.”
JT “Oh, and as an owner [Thomson still has an S1 Sport 160 in the garage], anything to do with getting at the battery is a pain.”
RR “But it was buried low down for weight distribution, as low as we could get it.”
JT “Normally in car firms as a designer you don’t get to work so closely with your opposite number in engineering, but when you do something where you have such respect for each other’s discipline, that’s how you end up with such purity.
“We always reminisce about doing something like this again but it is difficult to imagine it today. It’s unique.
“In my previous job at JLR there were 10,000 engineers, but this was just a handful of people. It was like doing a car for ourselves. If you are designing for yourself then you get the best results.”
Images: John Bradshaw/Lotus Cars