DRIVING WITH A MAJOR PLAYER
Coffee with Carr
Carr. Russell Carr. Lotus design boss drives the 007-spec Esprit that still inspires him
‘Being lightest is the Lotus mission, 100 per cent’
The Lotus brain drain is over. For years, McLaren, Jaguar Land Rover, Aston Martin and others have been plucking many of its brightest and best engineers and designers. Now, emboldened by new owner Geely’s investment, Lotus grows again. The engineering team has almost doubled since the takeover in 2017. Within a year, it will double again (to 500).
One of the biggest winners is Russell Carr, the man shaping Lotus’s bold new future, who has seen his design team swell from under 20 before Geely to 50 today. It will likely grow to 100. The Hethel factory once seemed a sad reminder of a glorious past. Now, you can begin to believe its best days may lie ahead. After years of remodelling Elise-type roadsters into faster and meaner shapes, Lotus design director Carr now has a licence to thrill. And the budget to deliver.
First, there’s the electric Evija hypercar, likely to be the world’s most powerful sports car, as well as one of the most visually spectacular. Then there’s a new family of sports cars, including modern versions of the Elan and Esprit. There’s even a Chinese-built SUV – no matter how improbable (or unbecoming) a Chinese SUV Lotus may seem. Construction of the new factory in Wuhan, where it will be built, started in April.
Today Russell Carr is also looking back. And he’ll mostly be looking at one of his all-time favourite Lotuses, the Esprit. He could have chosen any classic Lotus for our drive today. An early Elan (my choice). A visionary first-generation ’50s Elite, with super-light glassfibre-composite monocoque, the ultimate manifestation of Lotus founder Colin Chapman’s weight-saving genius (‘Simplify, then add lightness’). Or maybe even an Elise, 23 years old but still Lotus’s best modern-day car.
And, yes, Carr loves the Elan and the Elite and today’s Elise – a car he helped to shape. He loves a whole range of classic Lotus racers too. But he is a designer. So little wonder he chose an Esprit. It may not be the best of all Lotuses, nor the most coveted. But it’s surely the most spectacular.
‘I’d just started grammar school when sales commenced [in 1976],’ recalls Carr. ‘When I first saw one, I just thought “wow”. It was so strikingly modern. The flat surfaces, the wedge, the extreme proportions – it was much lower than any other car, including Ferraris. They were only 205 S1 Esprits registered in the UK but you did see them around. You could also see the connection between the Esprit and Formula 1 cars like the Lotus 72 and their wedge shape.’
Our car today is a 1977 S1 Esprit like the car that appeared, driven by Roger Moore, in The Spy Who Loved Me. It belongs to Lotus’s UK sales manager Scott Walker. We drive to the University of East Anglia, a popular recruiting ground for Lotus. UEA is distinctively designed, much of it the Brutalist work – with its box sections, muscular towers and bare concrete – of Denys Lasdun, best known for the South Bank’s National Theatre, which opened the same year the Esprit went on sale.
The UEA’s Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts is one of Carr’s favourite buildings. It is among Norman Foster’s first public commissions, completed in 1978, so another contemporary of the Esprit’s. You’ll find artwork by Alberto Giacometti and Francis Bacon, as well as Jacob Epstein and Henry Moore. It also has a very nice cafe, where today Carr drinks lots of tea. Carr is very familiar with Scott Walker’s Esprit, although it’s the first time I’ve been in an Esprit for some 20 years. There are the Morris Marina (or MGB) door handles of distant memory, Triumph TR7 vents and Fiat X1/9 tail lights. Lotus had neither the budget nor the inclination to tool such utilitarian components. So it just bought them from other car makers or their suppliers. There are easy-to-use rocker switches and ashtrays ringed by carpet. The distinctive 14-inch Wolfrace alloys are tiny by today’s standards, but they sit well in the wheelarches and are capped by the tautly surfaced wings. The bodywork is very slender above the wheels, so it actually makes the wheels look big,’ notes Carr, with his designer’s eye.
The trim is green and red tartan, and the carpets are orange. It’s very Austin Powers shagadelic. The Veglia instrument dials are green. It’s a welcome change from today’s cabins, with their 50 shades of grey. The gearknob is period wood. There is a sense of lightness and openness and the wraparound one-piece binnacle is easy to use – major switches are simple to reach from the steering wheel. As a driver, you feel delightfully at one with this car, and there is a sense of occasion as we cruise, serenaded by gruff engine bark, down Norfolk backroads to the UEA.
I’d forgotten what appealing cars these are, as the 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine growls behind us. (The more powerful Turbo came much later, in 1987.) It was a Giorgetto Giugiaro design, one of Il Maestro’s most celebrated, based on the wedged Maserati Boomerang concept that was first shown at the 1971 Turin show. The result was one of the most striking sports cars of the ’70s, which kept looking modern and fresh for another 30 years until its death in 2004. It was also a true Chapman Lotus: the S1 Esprit weighed less than a tonne, its steel backbone chassis clad in glassfibre. Rear discs were inboard, as had recently become modish in F1. The steering was unassisted and deliciously feelsome. There is no steering quite so nice today.
The mid ’70s were happy days for Lotus. Chapman was at his peak. Mario Andretti would soon win Lotus’s sixth (and final) world drivers’ title in the pioneering ground-effect 78 and 79 models: a special-edition Esprit S2 would celebrate the victory, in F1-like JPS cigarette livery. Carr followed Lotus closely at the time, and joined the Hethel company in 1990, after a brief stint at design consultant MGA. His boss then was Peter Horbury; the ex-Volvo design chief now oversees Geely group design.
In those 29 years, Carr has seen Lotus go through the worst of times and the best of times. ‘When I first joined, I was really optimistic because we were owed by General Motors, a motoring giant, and there was still the strong link with the Chapman era and motorsport, and the Formula 1 team was just down the road and we used to do work for them. People used to talk about Chapman all the time: they’d say “the Old Man wouldn’t like that” or “the Old Man would love that” and that Chapman link and the continuation of the Chapman philosophy was reassuring. Plus some of the great old Lotus names were still around, like Tony Rudd [F1 and road car engineering guru], Peter Wright [F1 designer] and John Miles [ex-Lotus GP racer and Lotus test driver].
‘The front-wheel-drive Elan had just been launched. It was over all the magazines and there were high hopes for it. The Esprit was also still around and although it wasn’t selling in big numbers, it was still a reference point for supercars. And then all of a sudden General Motors sold us. That was the first really low point. There was a huge redundancy programme and I was worried about my job, although I had few responsibilities back then and wasn’t really tied to Norfolk.
‘Julian Thomson [the design director] must have done a good job of promoting the design department, because we were spared the worst. Then we were bought by Bugatti and [Romano] Artioli and we got into the Elise programme. By 2000, things were positive: we’d just done the second-generation Elise, the 340R, the Exige, and lots of interesting consultancy work. ‘The other really low point was just before Geely bought us [in 2017]. We knew we needed big investment and input. We knew we couldn’t keep doing variants of our current sports cars.’ Lotus was in a rut.
‘The outlook now has never been better. We’re getting record investment, more than Lotus has ever had. But it’s not just about money. Because money without knowledge, experience, technology and organisation can disappear very quickly. Geely brings a huge resource pool, including areas like connectivity and infotainment where we’re way behind. We can tap into whatever is necessary to move this company forward. We can also access Volvo, although they act quite autonomously from Geely.
‘Our design department is also strengthened. Car companies have different attitudes to design. Sometimes it’s seen as an expensive and almost frivolous thing. Within the Geely group, design is very well established and strong under Peter Horbury. They know how important it is. There are about 850 people involved globally – excluding the Volvo team. We have access to their talents and technology.’ He meets Geely design boss Horbury once a month and describes the amiable Englishman as ‘pretty hands-off. We get support when we need it’.
Carr got interested in cars through his dad, Peter, a former fighter-jet pilot and RAF squadron leader who was project director of Donald Campbell’s unsuccessful (and almost fatal) world land-speed record attempt at Bonneville in Utah in 1960. ‘Later he worked for the importers of Mercedes-Benz and NSU-Audi. He was always bringing interesting cars home.’ The seminal NSU Ro80, one of the most innovative cars of the late ’60s and ’70s, was the Carr family car at one stage. While in the RAF, his dad was familiar with Hethel, a former American airbase. (Lotus moved there in 1966.)
He’s loved Lotus most of his life. ‘I had a Schuco model of Jim Clark’s Lotus 33 when I was a little boy and a Matchbox model of a Europa, which was one of my favourite toys. I had a Scalextric of a Lotus 72 in JPS livery. I remember them all really well. Lotus was always special to me because it was modern, it was innovative and Chapman so clearly wanted to win at racing. He wanted it to be the best. Now, there’s the opportunity to perpetuate that and get Lotus back to where it should be. Our road cars should be some of the most beautiful and best-performing cars in their class.’
He talks a lot about ‘lightweighting’, just as Chapman did. But can new-generation Lotuses, some using Geely-derived platforms – and an SUV what’s more – really champion Chapman’s featherweight faith? ‘Lotus’s DNA is lightweight, great driver’s cars, racing heritage, efficiency, shrink-wrapped design, an elegance and design purity, Britishness and being a little bit of a maverick – like Chapman. As we move beyond pure two-seat sports cars, we’ll have to interpret that in a different way. I’m all about making the cars look beautiful and visually interesting, but that all has much more credibility if you can link it with a technical reason. On the Type 130 [the Evija electric hypercar] the aero has hugely influenced the design and made it very distinctive.
‘Moving forward, we’ll design cars to look light and also to be light. We’ll combine aesthetics and the technical side to minimise the visual mass and give a genuine form-follows-function aesthetic without ornamentation. That’s what Lotuses will continue to be.’
The Evija will influence new Lotuses. ‘Some of the extreme aero may not be appropriate but that taut shrink-wrapped design, the muscularity, the hand tailoring – more hand-crafted than a Porsche – the modern Britishness done with creativity and a touch of humour… they’ll continue, just as they were an aspect of past Lotuses. We want beautiful and also rational cars, elegant but tough. They need to look fast, too, as though carved by air.’
But how do you make an SUV, and other forthcoming non-sports-car Lotuses, look like a Lotus? ‘It is a challenge. Not only do we have to make a car that’s good in its class, but we also have to make something that people recognise as a Lotus. But challenges are what makes this job exciting. The Type 130 was a huge challenge – the aerodynamics, the electric powertrain.’ And an SUV? ‘It’s as difficult as any car that’s not a pure sports car. We wouldn’t try to recreate a product that Range Rover might produce. It would be a car that’s specific to us.’ These new Lotuses won’t use a current Geely or Volvo platform, says Carr. Rather, Lotus will influence all the new Geely-shared platforms that underpin these models. So, no Lotus XC90.
‘We’ll also aim to be the lightest car in the class. That is the Lotus mission, 100 per cent. Reducing weight is so important. It affects the feel of the car. Lotuses need to feel light and agile – how they steer, how they brake.’ We talk about that old Chapman diktat: ‘Adding power makes you faster on the straights. Subtracting weight makes you faster everywhere.’ He owns two Lotuses, a black 2011 Evora and a new Exige 410. ‘I also own a car from the other side – a 1966 Series 1 E-type coupe which I’ve had for 20-odd years. It’s a very nice car to drive.’
The sensible day-to-day car is a new Volvo XC60. It’s one of the other perks, he says, of working for the Geely group.
Esprit looks stayed fresh throughout its near-30-year production run
‘We knew we needed big investment and input. We knew we couldn’t keep doing variants of our current sports cars’
There’s a sense of occasion as we cruise, serenaded by engine bark, down Norfolk backroads to the UEA. Styled in Turin; built in Norfolk; turning heads everywhere ever since. The supercar it’s okay to drive over speedbumps on a rainy day in Norwich
HOW I GOT HERE
THE ROAD TO
At school, Carr told his teachers he wanted to be a car designer. ‘They all said that’s not a real job, you need to be an engineer – but you’re not clever enough to be an engineer.’ He says his ‘road to Damascus’ moment occurred when he found a prospectus for Lanchester Polytechnic’s (now Coventry University) transport design course. ‘I got accepted and that changed my life.’
After graduating, Carr’s first job was at MGA Developments, the Coventry-based design consultancy whose design director was Peter Horbury [who later became design chief of Volvo]. ‘Peter interviewed me and became my boss. Oddly, he’s now my boss again.’ Horbury oversees all design for the Geely group.
In 1990, Julian Thomson, design director of Lotus, approached Carr. ‘We operated out of two Portakabins. It was a tiny operation. Design wasn’t a big deal then.’ Carr became Lotus’s senior designer when Thomson left in 1998, and was appointed design director in 2014. The wild new Evija electric hypercar (below) is Carr’s baby.
The Esprit may not be the best of all Lotuses, nor the most coveted. But it’s surely the most spectacular
The man, The car, The coffee
Design director of Lotus, serial Lotus enthusiast, and the man behind the shape of the new electric Evija hypercar. Has seen Lotus through good times and bad.
Lotus Esprit S1
An early 1977 version of Lotus’s best-known supercar, in ‘James Bond’ spec (from The Spy Who Loved Me). Now worth about £65,000.
For CAR, but not Carr. ‘I prefer tea. I drink about seven or eight cups a day. Normal breakfast tea, medium-strength, with milk – I gave up the sugar years ago.’
Russell Carr was a Lotus fan as a schoolboy. No wonder. Carr, Green and
1977 Esprit: ‘When I first saw one, I just thought “wow”’