Look east for a truly clas­sic ex­pe­ri­ence

SUN­DAY DRIVER The oft-ne­glected charms of Nor­folk, with its great beaches, pretty towns – and famous Lo­tus sports cars – prove ir­re­sistible to Daniel Pem­brey

The Sunday Telegraph - Sunday - - Property -

Colin Chap­man, the founder of Lo­tus Cars, once said: “A quar­ter­inch bolt will lift a dou­ble-decker bus.” His knack for el­e­gant en­gi­neer­ing – do­ing more with less – proved a win­ning ap­proach on the race­track, and in the com­pany’s 70th an­niver­sary year I be­came lucky enough to ex­pe­ri­ence three po­tent ex­pres­sions of his phi­los­o­phy at Lo­tus HQ.

Chap­man bought the for­mer wartime bomber base at Hethel, Nor­folk, in 1966, to house the com­pany’s bur­geon­ing road car op­er­a­tions. He pro­ceeded to con­vert it into an adults’ ad­ven­ture play­ground. His orig­i­nal of­fice faced the run­way, and not just be­cause he liked his pri­vate plane; he sought to take the com­pany up­mar­ket, pre­dict­ing that cus­tomers would soon ar­rive by air­craft.

Noth­ing lands here these days, al­though he did take his cars up­mar­ket. The mid-seven­ties Elan + 2, re­s­plen­dent in Sig­nal Red, stand­ing be­fore me is sup­plied by Paul Matty, a clas­sic Lo­tus dealer; it comes metic­u­lously re­stored.

The zippy, ear­lier Elans were well known from their ap­pear­ances on TV shows such as The Avengers when, in 1967, Lo­tus in­tro­duced the + 2 with two ves­ti­gial rear seats to ac­com­mo­date grow­ing fam­i­lies. This ex­am­ple has a ma­hogany dash and elec­tric win­dows.

Lo­tus cars have been de­scribed as “fine wine in a plas­tic bot­tle” (the bod­ies be­ing made of glass-fi­bre); this car weighs only 950kg. Its pace and neat han­dling on the “tight and twisties”, as Lo­tus test driv­ers call the B-roads around Hethel, are sur­pris­ing – even by to­day’s stan­dards.

Nor­folk is fa­mously flat; lit­tle im­pedes the winds ar­riv­ing off the sea. While the car’s light­ness makes it vul­ner­a­ble to cross­winds, its aero­dy­namic shape helps me to make swift progress, while the good vis­i­bil­ity lets me take in the brood­ing skies.

There is time to stop for cof­fee at Holt at its stand­out food store, By­fords. The Elan sparkles like a jewel box – fit- ting for this pretty Ge­or­gian town with its fair share of bou­tiques.

While this pris­tine ex­am­ple is val­ued at £40,000, a good us­able one can be had for be­tween £15,000 and £20,000. It is hard to imag­ine a more driv­able, bet­ter-value clas­sic.

The next stop is Wells, with its renowned beach fringed with colour­ful wooden cab­ins. Over award-win­ning fish and chips from Plat­ten’s, I enjoy the vis­ual har­mony of bright sand and a grey sky. It’s a short sprint on to grand Holkham Hall, which is cel­e­brat­ing its own an­niver­sary with an ex­hi­bi­tion ti­tled The Mak­ing of a Gen­tle­man and a Great House. In 1718, landowner Thomas Coke re­turned from his epic six-year Grand Tour and, in­spired by Pal­la­dian ar­chi­tec­ture, set about de­vel­op­ing the house and grounds – but don’t ne­glect the four-mile-wide, un­crowded beach a short walk away.

I stay on the estate at the Vic­to­ria Inn, a dog-friendly ho­tel fea­tur­ing Nor- folk flint-and-brick walls and a menu fo­cus­ing on lo­cal fare such as crab, veni­son and sam­phire.

Next morn­ing, I swap cars for one that pro­pels me into the space age. The chunky switches and graph­ics of the 1976 Se­ries 1 Esprit’s “com­mand con­sole” call to mind the Space 1999 TV se­ries. The driv­ing po­si­tion is nearhor­i­zon­tal; pop-up head­lights com­plete the sense of time travel.

Gior­getto Gi­u­giaro styled the Esprit; no longer did the Ital­ian car aris­toc­racy re­fer to Team Lo­tus as “garag­istes” (ow­ing to their hum­ble north Lon­don work­shop ori­gins). At nearly £8,000, the Esprit de­buted as an ex­pen­sive car. Of course, it didn’t hurt that it was cast as the am­phibi­ous Bond­mo­bile in The Spy Who Loved Me.

The film’s direc­tor of pho­tog­ra­phy felt white was best suited to the Mediter­ranean sun­shine and to un­der­wa­ter shoot­ing. It cost Lo­tus £17,500 in props pro­vided; the pub­lic­ity was worth mil­lions – a clas­sic Chap­man move.

White paint­work is less suited to the muddy Nor­folk roads, how­ever. In the wet, care is re­quired cor­ner­ing in this light, mid-en­gined car; an alarm­ing twitch on one sharp bend re­minds me to brake be­fore turn­ing the wheel. In­deed, the car can chal­lenge the most ex­pe­ri­enced of driv­ers. On lo­ca­tion in Sar­dinia, the Bond stunt driver handed the ve­hi­cle to Lo­tus’s own test and devel­op­ment driver Roger Becker for him to per­form the pirou­ettes as Caro­line Munro’s he­li­copter gun­ship fires at 007.

But a se­ries of bends and straights on the B1135 ap­proach­ing the Lo­tus site al­low me to ap­pre­ci­ate more fully the equipoise of power and weight. There is a res­o­nance, too – you feel both the en­gine and the road, and what they’re do­ing. The sharp gear shifts, gut­tural ex­haust note, low driv­ing po­si­tion and sense of be­ing sus­pended make this a thrilling ride, even more than four decades on.

Back at Hethel, I try the 2.2-mile test track oc­cu­py­ing the for­mer run­way. It’s eas­ier to name the famous driv­ers who haven’t driven here – Ayr­ton Senna, Nigel Mansell and Gra­ham Hill all have. Now the old con­trol tower is a club house, and the Lo­tus Driv­ing Academy is open to ev­ery­one. Visitors can test their driv­ing skills with the in­tro­duc­tory Scare Your­self Sen­si­ble Course (£119 for half a day).

I’m in an Evora GT 430, the num­ber re­fer­ring to the horse­power, and I’m glad of the ex­pert guid­ance. “Look ahead to see where the track goes,” ad­vises my tu­tor, also named Daniel. “Peo­ple have a ten­dency to fol­low the car in front while on the [pub­lic] road.” Smooth­ness is key; any­thing else means lost time.

Then all hell breaks loose. Daniel is now at the wheel, tak­ing the car closer to its lim­its – 120, 130, 140mph on the straight; the ex­haust scream­ing, the car over­steer­ing around the bends, the back swing­ing out and tyres screech­ing as Daniel tries to out­wit the car’s trac­tion con­trol sys­tem (dif­fi­cult).

Visitors can also tour the fac­tory; all Lo­tus cars are still made here by hand. It is also pos­si­ble to visit the Chap­man fam­ily car col­lec­tion on site and see the vic­to­ri­ous cars from the race­track – the black-and-gold John Player Spe­cial stars from the Seven­ties and Eight­ies, in­clud­ing the 97T in which Ayr­ton Senna won the rain­soaked 1985 Por­tuguese Grand Prix, his first F1 vic­tory.

I fin­ish my tour at the Bird In Hand pub, two miles from the Lo­tus fac­tory.

The Elan sparkles like a jewel box, which is fit­ting for the pretty Ge­or­gian town

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