Take a tea towel

elise_32_4_49235e1622596-lightboxWhile researching the purchase I’d seen all the horror stories of vast numbers of Elises pirouetting as the winter drew in.

The car was, to my relief, very composed in the wet. However, I was about to be introduced to one of the golden rules of Elise ownership. Much like in Douglas Adams’ Hitchikers Guide to the Galaxy I’d been advised never to go anywhere without my tea-towel. I soon discovered why when the downpour began making its way into the cockpit, teeming in from the top of the A-pillars and falling onto my nice new alcantara sill pads. A couple of well-placed tea-towels caught the worst of it but the car did have that ‘eau de wet dog’ aroma for a couple of days afterwards. That was a rookie mistake though. Once I’d familiarised myself with the rather complicated roof and the various adjustments possible it never became an issue again.

SELOC and PistonHeads have been an incredible resource during my time with the Elise. There are a vast amount of Elise enthusiasts, which is handy as there is a huge number of potential ailments. Owning an Elise can be a terrifying experience to begin with. All manner of strange and expensive sounding noises randomly present themselves, to which the community usually respond with TADTS. They All Do That, Sir.

I wasn’t out of the woods though. Second day of ownership, Monday morning, and I was relishing the thought of my commute from Epsom to Guildford. After laughing off all those ‘Lots Of Trouble, Usually Serious’ jokes the past two weeks I was about to suffer my first Trouble. Barely 100 metres down the road, I took the first corner of the day and suddenly the dash went disco and the ignition went dodo. ‘Oh bugger. What have I let myself in for?’

Time to test that dealer warranty. A quick call to Wilson’s of Essex sees a mechanic appear an hour later. It transpires that the battery hadn’t been secured properly, nor it’s terminals covered. It had slid into the chassis, still damp from the earlier downpour, and shorted. Thankfully the Trouble wasn’t Serious and I was on my way shortly after. Not quite the introduction to Lotus ownership I’d imagined.

Sadly I’d missed the traditional hooning season and it wasn’t until January that I was able to enjoy a group hoon on the SELOC Winter Warmer. Nothing quite like the sight of 50+ identical cars all convoying together. It was here I was introduced to the multitude of tuning options. The car sounded pretty meek amongst this company – it seems everybody has a fruity exhaust. Ever since that first journey back from the dealers, through the Dartford Tunnel, I’d vowed to do something about the lack of noise. A little more research and it seems the Eliseparts Sports Exhaust is well rated for its excellent workmanship. I’ll have one of those please. Ooh and an induction kit. And a cat bypass pipe.

Scouring through the various profiles on SELOC revealed that these seemed to be standard modifications for the Elise and it’s easy to see why. They really did transform the driving experience. I can’t say that they actually improved performance all that much, but the subjective difference was enormous. Psychosomatic or not, the induction kit and exhaust finally made the car sound as fast as it looked and the whole experience suddenly became that much more engaging.

While my garage was fitting the exhaust they discovered that the manifold was very worn and really needed replacing. I’d already decided to continually replace worn parts with upgraded versions so I ordered an uprated 4-2-1 manifold from Eliseparts and all hell broke loose. I went to pick the car up and Seb, who looks after the car for me, flashed me a guilty look. “I’m afraid it’s a bit on the noisy side, mate”. “Too noisy?” I asked. He gave me that look and then offered suggestions as to how we might quieten it down a bit.

I turned the key and sure enough it was disgustingly loud. And I was smitten. 14 years I’d spent pining for a TVR Griffith and that glorious V8 growl. It was a different symphony but what the 1.8 piece orchestra created ticked all the right boxes for me. Conversations became impossible above 30mph and the radio hasn’t been turned on since, but to this day I still enjoy the roar it provides, the popping and banging on over-run and the wail as you approach the redline.
Fortunately my neighbours to the left are car enthusiasts and to the right are deaf. With my new rorty soundtrack, tunnels, even bridges, became a playground. I’m sure most will think it’s childish and ‘boy racer’ but petrolheads will know what I’m talking about.

“Anybody fancy a quick blast in France?”. An innocent enough post on a motoring forum. 20 drivers thought it was a fair idea and we set about organising a weekend jolly between ourselves. The plan we settled on was a long weekend, Friday afternoon to Sunday evening. We’ll head to the old Grand Prix ruins at Reims. Back roads all the way, of course. Someone sourced hotels, someone arranged crossings, a route, some stickers, a little website. Everybody got swept up in the excitement. It needed a name too. What would be the most ridiculous parody of all the xxxx-ball runs? The Doughball. No, the Hairball. No, the Furball. Perfect.

Now, I was in charge of stickers for our little jaunt and while I was at the signwriters I saw a 911 having vinyl stripes applied, which got me thinking. When I first bought the car I would loved to have stretched to a Type 25. I think the Elise, with it’s GT40-inspired bonnet, is one of the few cars to wear racing stripes well. What the hell, I’ll throw some stripes on for the trip too. I wasn’t particularly precious about applying them; they’d only be on for a week.

Friday comes and alongside the stripey Lotus in the queue at Dover are 19 TVRS and 1 Jaguar XKR. The excitement is unbelievable. Somehow, everything is magnified when you’re in a group. The drive was great and even on the open stretches the car never felt underpowered against the big-capacity TVRs. The French certainly have an appreciation of beauty and the curves of our convoy drew a wonderful reception wherever we went.

For such a sparse and uncompromised car I’ve always found it an incredibly comfortable place to spend time. It’s particularly surprising since I’m 6’4″ tall, but once you’ve mastered getting into the car (which takes about a week to perfect) it’s actually very spacious inside. Doing away with the transmission tunnel creates one big area rather than two separately defined smaller ones. It does mean you’re very close to any passengers you carry (opening up lots of extra opportunities for misbehaviour, but that’s for a different type of journal altogether).

On the final day of our trip I was inundated with offers to swap cars for a stretch. I had my pick of the TVR model range, the marque I’d grown up idolising. The truth is I was having far too much fun in the Lotus to share it with anybody else and it was obvious for everybody to see.

When we were planning the trip I’d been pushing to extend the route and head further south, but it wasn’t to be. On the ferry back, with everybody high from what had been a fantastic weekend, conversation turned to a longer sequel. I retold my stories of the previous year’s trip to Italy and this time the response was unanimous glee. The Furball was about to step up a gear.

Five months later, at the tail end of November, I find myself at Clacket Lane Services at 3:30am waiting for my Cerbera-driving accomplice. We were heading to the continent to recce our potential route and ahead of us was a frankly ridiculous schedule. 3,500 Alpine miles with numerous meetings along the way and just 5 days to cover it all. And it was winter. How would the Elise perform as a grand tourer under such extreme conditions?

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Darren Franks