The story of a match made in automotive Heaven. Lotus+Toyota=Perfection
July 16, 2019
Not too long ago, the name of auto manufacture “Lotus” was a colloquial acronym among gear heads and car enthusiast. To them, “Lotus” stood for Lots of Trouble, Usually Serious. Cars like the iconic Lotus Esprit, made popular by James Bond were almost universally, but sometimes controversially, adored for its unmistakable wedge design. A style, in the Esprit’s case, that carried on to the early 2000s. In addition to the iconic, often copied styling, Lotus vehicles were well respected for their elite handling characteristics. Head of Lotus, Colin Chapman had a simple motto for achieving industry leading performance, “Simplify, than add lightness.” Chapman was obsessed with making vehicles as lightweight as possible, decades before the industry caught on to the philosophy. According to Chapman, it was simple. “Adding power makes you faster in the straights; subtracting weight makes you faster everywhere.” All of this sexy design and industry leading handling was fine and dandy apart from the elephant in the room. Buying a Lotus was like dating a nutcase. Looked good on a date, but taking her home meant Lots of Trouble, Usually Serious. Lotus engines were notoriously temperamental and unreliable. So let’s talk about how Lotus wised up, broke up, and married its true ride-or-die. This is the story of a match made in automotive Heaven, the marriage of Lotus and Toyota.
The story of how a little boy from England grew up to marry a nice Japanese girl starts in unassuming recommissioned stables in the North London village of Hornsey in 1954, though Chapman had built his first racecar as early as 1948. Without getting to bogged down in the details and to keep this content as neatly digestible as possible, suffice to say the Lotus company maneuvered its own twists and turns in the world of business and ownership. As early as its first professional spilt in 1954 when its offshoot “Team Lotus” went off to compete, quite successfully, in Formula One while Lotus Engineering stayed home to focus on road cars and production vehicles. Suffice to say, historically, this is merely rolling off the lot compared to the long winding road of the company’s professional history. I will note however, since it pertains to me personally, that along the way in the 1970s, Lotus teamed up with a certain former GM executive by the name of John Delorean to create a car bearing his name that sits as fondly in my heart as it does, currently, in my mom’s garage, but back to the story.
Racing is one thing, selling road cars to paying customers is entirely another. While winning races certainly does wonders for promoting a brand, it is meaningless when your customer’s word-of-mouth is grumbling over a pint about how their Lotus is in the shop. Again. Apart from notoriously brittle transmissions, Lotus’ home-built 4 bangers and V8s, naturally aspirated, force inducted, or otherwise, suffered a terrible track record in terms of reliability. For instance, pre-2000 Esprits often suffer water leaks that are disastrously expensive requiring a complete engine teardown to fix. This in addition to coil packs failing due to excessive heat exposure. Since this is a learning show, for anyone who may not know, coil packs are what make spark plugs spark. No spark. No combustion. No go. Again, these two issues are only the tip of the iceberg of mechanical gremlins over the years and across most models. It was a true shame that such beautiful cars with such amazing handling and pedigree racing heritage were undone by bad hearts. They were like Michael Phelps if he had crippling asthma or a cross-eyed Brad Pitt. Lotus needed to change course, and thank God they did.
Lotus dabbled with other engine manufacturers, perhaps most notably Rover which powered the first models of the much loved Elise. It wasn’t until Lotus sourced Toyota engines that the angels sang and doves flew. Once Lotus put the famous and ubiquitous Toyota 2ZZ four cylinder in the 2005 Elise, the clouds parted. Greatness was realized in one of the most pure forms in automotive history. Lotus now had one of the best handling cars of all time powered by a heroically reliable Toyota engine. There is a comically good chance that someone listening to this or reading the write-up is driving a decades old Toyota powered by the exact same engine or variant. I myself drive a 2001 Toyota MR2 with the less powerful 1ZZ variant of the 2ZZ in the Lotus Elise. The MR2 Spyder shares most of its chassis and DNA with the more expensive Elise. Many speculate that Toyota made a gentleman’s agreement not to put the 2ZZ in the MR2 as it could easily take away from Lotus sales numbers. However, many swap 2ZZ’s into their MR2. It drops in rather easily and can be done over an afternoon.
The MR2 weighs next to nothing and the Elise weighs even less. Thus far we’re only talking about Lotus’ smallest offering. We haven’t touched the Evora. The Lotus Evora is mid-engined like the Elise, yet has 4 seats…at least technically…and is powered by a supercharged 3.5 liter Toyota V6…and it is a 400+ horsepower monster.
In its latest form, the 2019 Lotus Evora is the culmination of decades of pedigree and performance powered by a comically indestructible Toyota engine. The same engine in Toyota sedans, minivans, and SUVs, albeit with a supercharger and strengthened components here and there. If you own a modern Lotus, it must be a comfort to know that in the 250,000 mile Camry next to you beats the same reliable heart as in your supercar. Though German hearts now beat in the heaving chests of Italian bulls, it is the marriage of Japanese honor with a British icon that gave birth to some of the greatest children in automotive history.