I only refer to my project as a “Locost” when on this blog, otherwise I refer to it as a Lotus 7, or Lotus Super Seven. Cheating you say? I don’t think so. But let me take a step back.
We’ve all been there. The conversation goes something like this… “I hear you are building a car in your garage?”
What is it?
“It’s a “Lotus Super Seven- inspired car”
“Oh, cool, so it’s a kit car?”
“Well no, I’m building it from scratch.”’
“But you started with a frame, right?”
“Well, no. Actually, I started with a set of blueprints and bunch of steel tubing”
It is usually at this point that the polite questioner gives you a quizzical look, somewhere between, "your putting me on", to "this guys off his rocker", and they change the subject, or more commonly, wander off to find someone who will talk with them about the last episode of “Lost”.
The idea of a person building their own car from scratch is bizarre in the extreme for most people. But more vexing than any engineering challenge can be deciding what to call it. I’ve tried them all. “Locost” only works with people who know about this cult of shed-builders, so the audience for that term is limited. Besides, I’ve never liked the term, it seems kitschy to me, like people who want to spell “car” with a “k”, as in, “Oh, so it must be a kit-kar.” Call me a snob but the word “locost” diminishes the whole experience in my mind. I’ve tried “Lotus-inspired car”, but that prompts the whole series of kit car questions as well. I’ve tried “scratch-built car”, but “made from scratch” seems to imply cake baking skills more than car building in my suburban circles, so this does not help much either. So, I’ve just settled on calling it a “Lotus” which is a nice compromise. Using the term “Lotus” produces better outcomes as well. People who know next to nothing about cars, and don’t care to, will recognize the Lotus name, raise appreciative eyebrows and simply say “ooh, isn’t that nice” or some similarly gratuitous remark, which is ideal because it usually ends the conversation right there. A modestly interested person might show some genuine interest, and ask which model?, or what year? Which is okay, because in either case it starts the conversation off on a different footing than challenging the provenance of one’s frame.
However, this approach is not bullet proof. My Japanese CEO said… “You call it a Lotus, but it does not have a Lotus engine, what part of it is a Lotus?”
“ That’s true,” I replied sneering inwardly with contempt at his question, [which is the only approved method for sneering at your CEO], I then added… “It’s a Lotus frame design.” Which I made up, but it quieted him down. I didn’t want to get into the fact that most original Lotus 7s came with ford engines, and it wasn’t until years later that Chapman made his own engines.
And what about this business of being a “kit car?” Well, you history buffs don’t need to be reminded that Colin Chapman practically invented the concept with the original 7, sending “knock-down kits” to export markets to avoid paying taxes on automobile imports. By every reliable measure there were many times more Lotus 7s sold as kits than as turn-key cars. Have you ever heard of any owner of an original Lotus 7 refer to his car as a “kit?” I didn’t think so.
So most original 7s were kits, and few had “Lotus” engines, so what makes our cars so very different from the pedigreed cars? Is it the amount of engineering time that goes into its design and manufacture? Is that what makes a Lotus a Lotus? I don’t think so. Multiple biographers have made it clear that Colin Chapman designed the 7 as a necessary commercial enterprise, something to pay the racing bills, but that he quickly grew bored of the car and was disinterested in developing it beyond its original design. I don’t think he spent more than 2 years on it from start to finish. With 6 years on the clock, I have way more time invested in my Lotus 7 than Colin had in his!
And what should we make of all the replica manufacturer’s, the Robin Hoods, Daxs, Donkervorts, and of course the Caterhams. Are these cars any more entitled to the Lotus moniker than my shed-built special? Is a Caterham more of a ”Lotus” than a Coveland? If you are like me, you have your favorites, the manufacturers who “got it right,” or at least “more right,” than those who didn’t. And clearly there are cars that are better built than others. I’d venture to say that a great many of these are better built than the original Lotus7. But do any of these cars deserve to be called a Lotus? No. I don’t think they really do, and of course legally they can’t. I say this because if you manufacture something you need to be at peace with what it is. I think the Donkervort people are quite content to make donkervorts, as well they should be. They are beautifully crafted machines. But answering my own question, I’d fudge a little and say that a Caterham is not a Lotus, but, it is more of a “Lotus” than a Factory Five is a 427 Cobra. That’s for sure.
So then this issue of “provenance” really boils down to a badge on the hood right? Well hang on. Who here looks at a Lotus Cortina and in their heart of hearts really believes the Cortina deserves to wear the green and yellow Lotus badge? Not me, I can assure you. The thing looks like a turd in the punchbowl. But, it is in fact a bona-fide, documented, legitimate Lotus, no less real than Jimmy Clark’s type 23. That’s a harsh bit of reality to swallow. A bit like putting a Maserati trident badge on a Chrysler LeBaron! That kind of sacrilege would never happen… wait what’s that your saying? It actually did happen? Never mind.
I’d contend that my hand-built special is way more Lotus, than the Lotus Cortina, at least spiritually, if not by pedigree. Today the practice of re-badging cars has grown epidemic. I don’t think there is a car company that does not engage in it. So if that’s that case, if a car company can say this Korean car is a Chevy, simply because I choose to call it a Chevy, then all bets are off. Provenance means nothing, or more accurately it means what you want it to mean.
Here’s my ultimate justification. Instead of asking Jesus what he would do, I asked Colin Chapman what he would do. The other night I had a dream, I was hosting a dinner party, and I have invited some of my favorite automotive historical figures, Nikolaus Otto was seated next to Dr. Ferdinand Porsche, chatting away in German. Raymond Lowey was talking streamlining techniques with Zora Arkus-Duntov, and so on. After the guests have all gone Chapman was the last to depart. Putting on his scarf and tweed cap, I walk him through the garage out to his car. We stopped and chatted about my project. He was amazed to learn that a cult of Lotus 7 devotees actually builds these cars in their garages all over the world as part homage, and part obsession, with little more than a book and each other for inspiration. I ask him if he thinks it’s cheating to call it a “Lotus”. He pauses, then wordlessly walks out to his own car, does something to the hood, and a moment later he flips me what looks like a silver dollar through the darkness. I catch the familiar enameled badge with its green and yellow logo, and he says. “Put it on. You’ve earned it.”
So it’s a Lotus.