The Lotus Elise at 25: A little green car celebrates a silver anniversary

Lotus Elise at 25

The Lotus Elise was unveiled 25 years ago today (12 September 1995). It is regarded by many as a once-in-a-generation car, so instilled into the culture of the motor industry that it has become a legend and an icon in its own lifetime.

Clichés aside, there has been much written about the Elise over the years – the technology under the skin, how it was named after the granddaughter of the-then chairman of Lotus, and the way it switched the global motor industry back to the benefits of lightweight performance, efficiency and being ‘For The Drivers.’

Patrick Peal was Head of Communications for Lotus in 1995 and recalls some of the lesser-known stories from that time – those that never made headlines because the Elise itself so dominated them.

The car which became the Elise was designated as next in the Lotus ‘type number’ sequence as Type 111 (the Type 110 being the Lotus bike which still holds the UCI Absolute Hour record, and the Type 112 an F1 car for the 1995 season).

The Elise was actually going to be called the Lotus 111 – to be pronounced One-Eleven – harking back to the Lotus Eleven of 1956, but also the Lotus 23 of 1962. The Elise concept was a spiritual successor to both. But just a few weeks before the planned unveiling, Lotus chairman Romano Artioli put forward the name ‘Elise’ so a logo and promotional material was hurriedly designed and the name registered with the trademark authorities.

Patrick, who is today the CEO of the East Anglian Air Ambulance, remembered: “I had even purchased the number plate M111 LCL to be used on one of the disguised prototypes, and already hinted to the media that this was going to be the name of the new car!”

He continued: “In hindsight, Mr Artioli was right. Elise was the perfect name for the car, shared with a playful little girl – his granddaughter Elisa – who helped launch the car to the world.”

The original plan was to unveil the Elise at the London Motorfair in the middle of October 1995. However, timings were squeezed even further as Artioli decided four weeks before the Frankfurt Motor Show, staged a month earlier, that the Elise should be unveiled there instead. His reasoning… the bigger the stage, the bigger the bang of publicity.

The extremely tight turnaround meant the official press pictures had to be taken quickly overnight in a studio in the north of Norwich. The chosen colour for the Frankfurt show car was a metallic racing green with tan interior and, as Patrick explained, this meant the background colour at the studio shoot became almost as important as that of the car. 

“We needed a background to offset the racing green of the car – the obvious choice would have been a conservative colour such as grey, but Lotus doesn’t follow convention and we chose a bright mustard yellow. It brought out the shape, lines and particularly the colour of the car perfectly and of course it was also a reference to the Lotus logo colours, the Team’s F1 racing cars livery of the 1960s and, more subtly, the spice famously grown in Norfolk!”

It has also to be remembered that the technologies under the skin of the Elise were pioneering for the time. The Elise had so many world firsts, but it was the extruded and bonded aluminium chassis that captured the media’s excitement most.

Again, in a departure from the norm, Lotus led the Elise unveiling with the chassis, followed by the full car. As Patrick explained: “We decided to unveil the chassis first, complete with suspension, brakes and subframe. We wanted the world to fall in love with the Elise’s technology and the engineering as well as with the actual car. Plus, the whole structure would become a talking point and an advertisement for Lotus Engineering.”

The plan worked, as proven by the number of car industry executives crowding round the chassis during the Frankfurt press day. “I even kept a throttle pedal in my jacket pocket which I would produce during conversations to show what extruded aluminium technology was all about. It was so light and neat – it weighed no more than a small wallet and summed up the car and its innovation perfectly!”

As had happened so many times in the past, 12 September 1995 was an occasion when Lotus caused the global motor industry to stop and take notice.

Patrick likened it to being on the F1 grid in the 1970s, saying: “Other teams would always keep an eye on Colin Chapman to see what his latest F1 car would be like. They never knew what to expect, other than it would be pioneering and they were always taken by surprise. It was the same at the Frankfurt Motor Show, but instead of F1 teams it was the other car companies who were stunned by what we had come up with, saying how ‘Lotus has done it again!’ 

“We knew the Lotus Elise could revolutionise the car industry and, sure enough, it has! It was a brilliant time and I am so proud to have been part of it!”