Lotus Elan

The Finest Wine in a Plastic Bottle

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The Finest Wine in a Plastic Bottle
Magazine Title: Unknown
Published: 1975
Author: Graham Arnold

Genius, crook and bully are just three of the words used by Graham Arnold to describe his erstwhile boss, Colin Chapman. Arnold joined Lotus from Ford on May 1, 1963, six months after the Elan's debut, and was sales director for the next eight years. It was clear, right from the start, that Chapman and his team had created a truly remarkable little sports car whose specification was very advanced. It combined performance with race-bred handling that set new standards. One pundit praised it as a car in which you could average 69mph without exceeding 70. However, Arnold was equally sure that the Elan's packaging was wrong, in terms of who would want to buy it, and what someone who could afford such a car expected for their money. He likens it to putting the finest wine in a plastic bottle.

'Very few Elans had been built before I joined the company, so my job was to re-launch the car,' he recalls. 'It was aimed at the flat-hat brigade. But at that time you could buy an Elan, or an MGB and a Mini, or an E-type for about the same money. So we were asking people to buy this kit of parts, then have it built, for close to the price of the Jaguar. People in that purchasing bracket were not the flat hatters who owned rusty MGAs.

'I knew from an involvement with the Radford Mini de Ville what our customers would expect, so drew up a package specification for what we in the sales department wanted for the Elan. We said it must have such things as wind-up windows, carpet and a proper boot. It must feel nice inside. Features we didn't want included what was called an oiled teak facia panel. You would call it old packing case! There was no lid to the glovebox, so everything fell onto the passenger's knees when you accelerated, and those early cars leaked like you wouldn't believe. They leaked when standing still. They leaked on the move. It was incredible.'

Gut-feeling market research, later supplemented by the professional variety, convinced Arnold that an Elan coupe was essential. How did Chapman react to the proposal? Arnold smiles; 'Colin was totally disinterested in a car five minutes after it had been launched. He was a great man for proving that something could be done, but that was that. He would have the baby, but someone else had to rock the cradle and change the nappies.'

Arnold, whose interests now range from operating as a consultant to car clubs to running a donkey sanctuary, tells a nice tale about the first Elan to use electrically operated windows. Launched at Earl's Court, it attracted the attention of two technical types from General Motors. Their brief was to look for innovations, they explained, and the Elan's power windows came under that heading.

'The show car had the original prototype frames, and they were flexible. They twisted slightly, when the motor first took up the torque, so the glass went in at the top before going down. One of the GM guys asked why the glass moved in a fraction. I said it was something we'd devised to cope with North American winters: the idea was to break the ice before lowering the window. A year later, the same guy came back and asked if we would mind telling them how the ice-breaking bit was achieved! The poor bugger had never realised that he'd had his leg pulled.'

Arnold believed that carefully selected, high-volume promotion was one of the keys to marketing a low-volume car. One year, no fewer than 250,000 people-doctors, dentists, lawyers, architects, and the like -were sent gilt-edged invitations to visit the Lotus stand at Earl's Court. The response was astonishing, says Arnold; 'We were swamped by well-to-do gents in bowler hats and astrakhan coats, and got a lot of orders. That was the proof of the pudding. We were part of the two-car family thing, which was quite new then. It started with the husband, who ran something like a Rover, getting a Mini for his wife. Then he began taking the Mini to the station . . . and, in the process, discovered handling.

'The next thing he wanted, because his son had made off with the Mini, was a car that combined good handling with a bit of class. He didn't want an E-type, because it was too big. He didn't want an MGB-which I've always called an Austin A60 drophead - because it didn't handle or perform. Many people in that position rated the Elan as a very attractive proposition, once the packaging was right.'

Lotus cars - driven by such stars as Jim Clark, Graham Hill, Jochen Rindt and Emerson Fittipaldi-were winning races all over the world during the Elan years. Did that success make the sales director's job easier? Arnold shakes his head: 'Winning at Indy made no difference to sales in the United States, although it might have been different if we'd had 4000 dealers, not 40. I don't think formula one did much to sell Elans. Most were bought by people who had an aesthetic appreciation of the car. Looks attracted them in the first place. Then they went for a drive, and discovered how superb the handling was. Incidentally, my budget had to contribute £100,000 a year to Team Lotus, for what the racers were supposed to be doing for us. It was Colin's way of milking Lotus Cars.'

Graham Arnold's twin sons were about five years old when Lotus started developing a two plus-two. The boys hated their father's Bentley S1, because they couldn't see out of the back windows, so visibility from a child's viewpoint became one of the Lotus project's top priorities. The junior Arnolds later modelled for the sales brochure.

'The Plus 2 that was handed over for use as a press car was 2cwt over target,' says Arnold. 'I knew we'd be dead if magazines started saying the car was under-powered, so we dropped in the engine from the Elan I'd been hillclimbing in Europe. It had been built by Expert Engineering, and produced possibly 130bhp. Press cars in general were built to the highest possible standard from carefully selected components. In ordinary production terms, they were one-in-a-million cars.'

Arnold challenges the marque's reputation for awful quality and reliability. Elan warranty claims were infinitesimal, he maintains, and Motor described its Elan as the most reliable car the magazine had ever owned. Jokes about providing a trailer to pick up the bits that fell off prompted Arnold to ask British Racing and Sports Car Club members how they rated several sports car manufacturers for quality and reliability. They did not know that the survey was being conducted by Lotus. Chapman's company came out bottom but one. Arnold then launched an advertising campaign that banged the drum about quality and reliability. When he repeated the survey, Lotus was second only to Porsche.

Arnold remembers Chapman as 'an incredible bloke' who could do anything better than the next man; 'If he'd been put in charge of the Royal Shakespeare Company, within a year he'd have produced the definitive Macbeth, the most controversial Macbeth, or even the most controversially definitive Macbeth.

'Colin, who loved bending rules, was the most innovative engineer since Brunel. Concorde would have been far better if he'd been in charge of the design team. But deep down he was a motor trader, so that enormous genius was totally wasted.'