By the summer of 1985 I began work on a convertible version of X100 (Image 13), we should really have made the open car first, got that absolutely right and then done the coupe because the resulting roadster was rather boring. With the Etna looking very unlikely to become a production reality I felt that the design cues taken from it had become a negative rather than a positive influence. At this point it was once again clear that Lotus was short of money so the X100 project was put ‘on hold’, or stopped until new funds became available.
The company needed a major industry partner or owner and the two best prospects were both US based, Chrysler, with whom we had collaborated on projects, or General Motors (both companies were after the Lotus 'Active suspension' technology); it was GM that made the best offer for the company. A deal was quickly done and suddenly we no longer had Toyota engines available to us but were offered any motor from any of GM’s subsidiary companies. The 1,600cc Isuzu engine and transmission that was chosen was so much smaller than the originally intended Toyota unit that new packaging opportunities became available to the team. And a new model number was chosen that reverted to the traditional ‘M’ designation following the departure of David Wickens.
At this point GM’s design chief Chuck Jordan decided that it was his designers in Detroit who should design the third iteration of the ‘New Elan’. It was at this time that Spooner and I were alarmed to learn that there was a dedicated M100 studio at GM. Colin Spooner then discovered that Ital Design had also been given all the packaging information for the new car, neither he nor I were very impressed by this move from Kimberley who said that this was just a strategy to motivate the home team! However Spooner found the budget for an ‘in house’ proposal and within days he and I had made arrangements for a full sized 'showcar' to be built for us by MGA in Coventry, a very experienced prototype build shop who were both good value and proposed an aggressively short build time.
For me time was also short so I got straight into a quick sketch programme and within a week had a good idea of how the new design should look (14). Without the constraints of the 'Etna look', which I thought was a continuation of the Italian folded paper philosophy and would give us an appearance that was no better than contemporary, a much softer and more organic feel was possible. My thoughts were, and still are, that if you design a generic and immediately acceptable form then it is only through intense fiddling with the details that you differentiate your car from all the others. This still happens except that these days designers tend to use complex head and tail lights to make that differentiation. My intention was to make something very different for that time and if not everyone liked it that was OK with me.
A quick 1:4 scale modelwas made and after just one review by Kimberley and the board we started the full size show car. The 14th of November 1986 was when my car, GM's proposal and the car from Giugiaro were shown to the board; GM were represented by John Taylor from Opel and Ital Design by Silvano Corvasce. These two spent most of their presentation time strongly criticising my proposal whilst telling everyone how great their cars were. My plan was to ignore the other two proposals and concentrate on the production readiness of our in-house design. Thanks to some great creative work from young designer Simon Cox we had a fully finished and detailed interior with space for the 6 foot 5 inch (195 cm) Kimberly to sit comfortably (18a), GM only showed an interior design sketch and Ital sent an interior buck six weeks after the event.
The GM car looked like a Buick roadster (16), beautifully surfaced but without much character, and with no feasibility, it was 20 inches (500mm) longer than our car and 5 inches (125mm) wider so it looked huge. The Ital car was a great disappointment to me, I was a big fan of Giugiaro and so was expecting something outstanding, but what we saw looked like a rejected Renault Fuego replacement. It had two upper body components, one showing a convertible, the other showed how it might look as a coupe (17); this car was almost as big as the GM car, 250mm longer and nearly 200mm wider than ours. I remember thinking at the time that neither company understood what a Lotus was all about; small, light and nimble (18). The directors made their decision without the design representatives being present and much to my delight they voted 15:0 in favour of our proposal – so it was to be a Lotus designed at Lotus.
GM, and particularly Chuck Jordan (16a) were not at all happy with the outcome, Jordan was quoted as saying that his team had already lost two design competitions with us and no way was he going to lose a third! He flew across to the UK, demanded to evaluate the car for himself, and wrote a remarkably rude and critical document saying how amateur and crude the car was. His one sensible observation was that the front air intake needed more 'Lotus feel' to it. That was the only change that I would agree to, an approach that Spooner was a little uncomfortable with. The relationship never improved with Jordan until we met at the Detroit Autoshow a few years ago, by which time he was well into retirement and happy to greet me like a long lost buddy! In truth he was an ultra competitive perfectionist who hated losing and so the fact that our team also won the ‘in-house’ design competitions for the Lotus Opel Omega (Vauxhall Carlton), Corvette Indy phase III and Cadillac LSS (Light Sports Saloon), really annoyed him.
Lotus, and in particular Spooner, felt that my strained relationship with Chuck Jordan was causing a problem with engineering consultancy opportunities coming from GM to Lotus; he is quoted as saying that the problem went away when I left to work on the design of the McLaren F1! The M100 Elan was launched at the 1989 London motor show and went in to production in early 1990 (19).
Designers are often asked how close to their vision the production car turned out and that is what happened to me at the time. The answer then is the same as I would say today; on the early cars the track was too narrow and the wheels were not central in the wheel openings, and the wheelbase, and whole car ended up 50mm too short thanks to a major communication problem between the draughtsmen and production guys. However the biggest frustration that I suffered was that the boot, or trunk, opening lines were totally in the wrong place (19b). Production engineers had told me that you would never notice the cut line towards the rear where they had changed the opening of the trunk lid from the back of the car to the side of the car; but it really was too noticeable for me to accept! It was the only line on the car that jarred with the form. I managed to get this changed on later cars but it still troubles me when I see an older Elan. Apart from that it is still a very satisfying project to have worked on!
Part three in two weeks time!