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
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