Lotus is not out of the woods; it hardly ever is. But its trajectory is extremely encouraging, and the quiet way that it has been improving the fundamentals makes the whole recovery look plausible and durable.
Perhaps — we say this with caution — a new Lotus is being born this time.
Tuesday – Driving home in the Autocar MG 6 diesel last night, radio off, just enjoying the car, I fell to wondering why this ordinary machine, too-hastily rejected by most of the market, seemed so damned pleasant to operate.
We were driving through ordinary outer London traffic, on greasy and rutted outer London roads, with the MG proceeding in that neatly brisk way cars always do when you like them, and are perfectly familiar with the way they work.
What made the 6 special, I decided, was its sweetly balanced control efforts. None of the driver’s Big Three — steering, gearchange and throttle response — was class-leading in its own right, but the combo was exemplary. Balancing control efforts is hardly new. As long ago as the 1920s the ruling wisdom was that the more performance a car had, the more strength a driver needed to make it go.
That bred a postwar generation of “hairy chested” sports cars — Triumph TRs and Healeys — and even today some cars, usually German, have controls that seem coarser and less well matched than they could be, in pursuit of sportiness. Lotus’s Colin Chapman was among the first to overturn the “speed needs strength” philosophy in a co-ordinated way. From the beginning his cars were light and easy to operate. The original Lotus Elan’s suspension was daringly supple when others were unnecessarily stiff.
But the move to true co-ordination came in the 1970s when Chapman & Co launched the flat-screen Esprit and the new generation Elite. When you dipped the clutch you had a pretty good idea what it’d be like to move the gearlever. I owned an Excel, an uncommonly sweet car on long journeys even against the Porsche 944 most buyers in the class chose.
In modern times, all car-makers have embraced the idea. Jac Nasser, Ford’s biggest cheese of the ‘90s, talked a lot about “the handshake”, the notion that opening a Ford door should promise enjoyable driving in a couple of minutes’ time.
Many now make the same claim, but the best still stand out. The common “miss” nowadays is with gearchange quality. Even the near-perfect Ford Fiesta ST has a gritty, rather unsophisticated gearlever action, and the reduced wheel-winding needed by latest-generation Peugeot 208s and 308s makes the long throws of their manual gearboxes seem distinctly odd.
At one time, road testers talked a lot about the national characteristics of cars (soft suspensions and funny controls for French models; top-endy engines and “brio” for Italians) but that stuff has been “internationised” out of existence.
For British cars, only one important dynamic characteristic survives: carefully balanced control efforts. Feel it in an Aston, Land Rover, Lotus, Jaguar — or MG6 — and be proud.
Monday – A colleague called today to do a bit of business. Drives a 2002 Smart Roadster – as does Gordon Murray, as does Jenson Button. According to my friend, prices have been on the floor but are starting to turn upwards as these quirky, underpriced little rear-engined roadsters catch the eye of people who know their cars.
The Button Tale (well known to existing owners) is that the McLaren star did have a Bugatti Veyron, but swapped it for the Smart after he became sick of the Bug maintenance bills. And because he simply liked the Smart.
You don’t see many of the Roadsters about – with the help of the options list you could spend nearly £20k on one, so they didn’t exactly walk out of the showroom — so you forget how cute and space efficient they are. But if my friend’s experience is anything to go by, they certainly get used. He’s done 90,000 miles without so much as a puff of oil smoke.
The gearboxes seem bulletproof (I established this myself, years ago, with a Coupé) and if you remember that the Roadster has a galvanised chassis and a plastic body you can see why this modern car can be expected to live a full-life span, rather than rusting away before the first engine job, as did so many of the Spridgets and Triumph Spitfires that were the little German two-seater’s ancestors 30 years ago.
Took a peep in Auto Trader and rapidly established that you can buy a Roadster for just over £2000, and find a healthy Brabus for £4500 or so. The world’s best late model Brabus will set you back £7000 – before the haggling starts – and that’s with just 22,000 miles on the clock. Before my pal had driven out of our car park I was overtaken by that familiar gotta-have-one rush, especially after he told me various “fixes” had long since become available for the funny gearchange and the over-light power steering (you go for a manual).
Simply can’t believe such prime little cars will stay so affordable much longer – in fact, I’m having trouble understanding why Smart should have killed them in the first place.