In some cars, you never ride alone. And so it is with the Lotus Evora S, a car that is animated and defined by a man who died 34 years ago: Colin Chapman, the legendary founder of Lotus cars.
Long before Robert Downey Jr. played Tony Stark in Ironman, Chapman defined the role of the world-changing mechanical genius. He started a car company in an abandoned London horse stable and went on to win seven Formula One championships, operating from a Second World War airbase that he turned into his factory and design centre. Every car Chapman made was special, and not always for the right reasons. Some skirted the rules, many broke them, but every last one was fast and innovative. As one auto buff put it: "Colin Chapman was to racing as Sun Tzu was to war."
The Evora is the latest in a long line of Lotuses. Its competitors include the Porsche Cayman and 911, but the Evora is a very different car. For starters, almost no one knows what it is, which adds a note of mystery and intrigue. Unlike Porsche, which has grown into a large-scale manufacturer, Lotus remains a tiny, boutique builder, putting out about 2,000 cars a year.
Few companies have been as enduringly defined by their founder as Lotus. Chapman's initials are buried in the company logo and his philosophies infuse every car. Chapman began his automotive-design career in the late 1940s and quickly made a name for himself as both an engineer and racing driver. By 1952, he had founded the Lotus Engineering Company in a stable behind London's Railway Hotel – to save money, he only turned the lights on three days a week. He was obsessed with suspension geometry, aerodynamics and, above all, mass reduction. "Adding power makes you faster on the straights," he explained. "Subtracting weight makes you faster everywhere."
Chapman earned a reputation as a man who put speed above all else, including reliability and safety. Race driver John Cooper once declared that every Lotus should come with a free welding kit. Chapman himself once said that any car that could hold together for an entire race was too heavy. When Lotus engineers designed a chassis, Chapman ordered them to take out half the rivets. He once designed a car with a fuel tank that wrapped around the driver.
When Mario Andretti joined his race team, Chapman told him that he liked to build his cars as light as possible. Andretti replied that they needed to talk, because he wanted to live as long as possible.
Speed and risk were always part of the Lotus brand. Growing up in the 1960s and early '70s, I was obsessed with Chapman and his designs. I loved his Lotus 49 Formula One car, a spare and elegant aluminum torpedo of a machine. His street cars were also equally cool and unique. One day I walked into a Vancouver showroom to encounter a Lotus Europa Cosworth, a tiny, low-slung sports car with the engine mounted in the middle. It had a fire extinguisher bolted to the roll cage, and looked like it was doing 200 km/h standing still. Chapman had turned my teenage dreams into four-wheeled reality: The only thing that stopped me from buying the Europa on the spot was a bank balance that hovered somewhere around $125.
Great car brands capture inchoate longings, corresponding to the philosophy and desires of the buffs who love them. There are Ferrari fans and Ford lovers. For others, it may be Jaguar, Lamborghini or GM. Each represents its own faith. Although I love and appreciate many different cars, two brands insinuated themselves in my soul as a boy: Porsche and Lotus. So when I bought a Lotus Evora S a few years ago, there was a special resonance to it. My dream had finally come true, but in improved form. Like the Europa that I had lusted for so long ago, the Evora is a mid-engine sports car with exotic looks and race-worthy suspension, but it's a far better machine than the Lotuses of yore – the electrical system is trustworthy, and parts don't break off in your hands.
And yet some signature Chapman-esque quirks remain: The Evora's door opening is far smaller than most cars, for example, because that maximizes structural stiffness. (Getting in and out makes you feel like a burglar breaking into a house through the basement window.) There is no cup holder. And like every Lotus ever built, the Evora's name begins with the letter E (this was a Chapman edict, and some have speculated that the good E names will eventually run out, forcing Lotus to make a choice: Go with a name that doesn't start with the letter E, or build the Eczema and the Enema).
Never mind. Out on the road, the Evora S is a dream. It's light, low and quick, with a steering feel that you have to experience to believe. This is one of the best-handling cars ever built, with an aluminum chassis and double-wishbone suspension on all four wheels. When I took it to the Tail of the Dragon (a famous sports-car-mecca road in the southern U.S.), my Evora was in its element, flicking through the road's 318 curves like a supercharged cat.
I sold my second Lotus this spring – after five years of driving Evoras, it was time to move on to something more practical and less expensive. Between the two Evoras, I had done about 50,000 kilometres on roads and race tracks. They were incredible cars that allowed me to live out a dream I'd held since I was a little boy. And Colin Chapman had ridden with me every inch of the way.