The Seventh Day of the Seventh Month: Lotus marks 'The Spy Who Loved Me' Day

Film crew wet the Lotus Esprit to suggest it has just emerged from the sea

“The role of the Lotus in Bond films was a piece of cinema history. After that, it all became big money. It now seems to cost millions. It cost my PR budget £17,500 – and I reckon that really was money well spent.”

The words of Don McLauchlan speaking in 2003 and recalling the product placement coup of the 1970s, when a white Lotus Esprit became the leading car in the 1977 James Bond film The Spy Who Loved Me.

The film’s Royal premiere was at the Odeon Leicester Square in London on 7 July 1977 (7/7/77) – 43 years ago today. It was the culmination of a number of incredible events by Lotus which helped the production team deliver what is one of the most famous car chase sequences in the history of cinema.

Before the Lotus Esprit had even been chosen as 007’s transport, Lotus PR boss Don McLauchlan – or Don Mac as he was known at Hethel – pulled off a high-risk stunt of his own. It was part of a strategy to make the Bond franchise production team, based at Pinewood Studios, London, actually want the Esprit for the next James Bond film.

Don was trying to get a Lotus Europa into The New Avengers TV series. This was very possible, as the Elan and Europa had already taken starring roles in an earlier show, The Avengers. During a lunch at Pinewood, Don was secretly slipped a piece of paper from another film contact with the words ‘See me – Bond’ written on it. He made his excuses, slipped away from The New Avengers team (who went on to choose an MG and a Triumph) and met with his contact. Don was tipped off that the Bond producers were looking for a car that could become a submarine.

Of course, that information was highly confidential at the time, so Don decided rather than approach the Bond production team directly, he needed a way to get them to come to him.

He took a red pre-production Esprit down to Pinewood Studios and let the car do the talking. Early one morning he parked it outside the main door where all the senior management had their offices, and left it in such a way that everyone had to walk around it to get into the building. To encourage further interest he removed or covered any branding from the car, including on the speedometer, gear knob and steering wheel. He even covered up the word Lotus on the tax disc!

Don moved it several times around the studio complex throughout the day to ensure it was seen by as many people as possible. At the end of the day, where a small crowd had gathered around the car, Don – saying nothing except “Excuse me please” – pushed past, got in the car and drove off.

The production team’s interest was piqued and asked a colleague, who was conveniently one of Don’s friends at Pinewood, to find out what the car was. Primed with a response, this friend said, “I can’t really tell you – it’s a prototype.” Under further pressure he responded, “Oh, all right then, I can give you a phone number...” The film’s Head of Special Effects duly called Lotus and the rest is history.

A white Esprit was chosen. The legendary cinematographer Claude Renoir insisted on white to make the car look stunning in both the bright Mediterranean sunshine and underwater.

Amongst the visual changes made to the car were replacing the stylised ‘Esprit’ lettering on the bonnet with ‘Lotus’ and removing the nearby badge. Presumably as the car was moving so quickly on screen it would be too small to read.

Don and others from Lotus spent several weeks on set in Sardinia during the summer of 1976 and recorded the period with behind-the-scenes photographs. They returned with several other interesting stories that are linked to the Lotus Esprit chase sequence.

For example, the late Roger Becker – the former Director of Vehicle Engineering, who retired in 2010 – was on hand for technical support during the famous Esprit chase sequence. The actual stuntman, who didn’t usually do stunt driving, was struggling to make the Esprit look dramatic and fast for the cameras, despite Roger’s coaching. He was struggling to make it look spectacular because of the agility and grip levels of the Lotus.

However, one day it all changed, as Roger explained: “They asked me to bring the car up for a certain shot, so I drove it as was natural for me. I screamed up the road, and the assistant directors were jumping up and down yelling, ‘That’s how we want it! Why can’t we get him to do the driving?’ And so I did it.”

During one scene, Roger ended up putting the Esprit into a ditch on the side of the road. This was not due to a rare driving error; during the chase sequence, James Bond activates a spray of ‘cement’ (actually it was porridge) from the back of the Esprit to evade evil henchman Jaws and his team. The cement covered the windscreen of the henchmen’s car so the sequence had to be filmed with both cars driving backwards.

The stuntman in the henchmen’s car was able to look behind him as he was not visible on camera, but Becker (dressed as James Bond actor Roger Moore, complete with wig) had to keep looking forward and was relying on his mirrors to stay on the road. Tricky enough, but even more so whilst driving at speed along a twisty mountain pass. A car handles differently when driven backwards and the inevitable happened – as the picture shows!

The climax of the chase sequence is when James Bond drives the Esprit off a jetty to evade a helicopter fitted with machine guns. To launch the Esprit into the sea (and it was actually just a body shell on wheels), a powerful air cannon was used. It was so powerful that the force blew part of the front bodyshell off the Esprit, so an additional scene had to be choreographed where James Bond drives through some conveniently-placed cardboard boxes at the end of the jetty. These destroyed boxes disguised the pieces of bodyshell that came off as the car dived off the jetty.

There are also stories from when the car was underwater. The Esprit is very aerodynamically stable with a shape that helps push the car into the road with downforce – but this shape doesn’t work as a submarine. Keen film watchers will notice that, in many of the underwater scenes, the front fins are in their ‘up’ position. Space under the bonnet was also filled with ping-pong balls, and together these changes provided enough lift at the front of the car to stop it ploughing into the seabed!

Today is 7/7/20 – exactly 43 years later – and to mark the occasion Lotus is revealing exclusive new photographs of another white car. It’s the all-electric Lotus Evija hypercar and we’ve photographed it with an Esprit S1 in ‘The Spy Who Loved Me spec’, which is white with a tartan interior. It’s a small nod of appreciation for one of the most famous cars in film history.