It Helps to Know Someone in the Business
It would be the height of dishonesty to propose that car writers don’t profit from their association with the makers of new cars. There are to be sure the wages paid motor scribes by publishers for their collective musings. But in fairness to myself and my fellow automotive journalists I must point out that such sums are with few exceptions appallingly low and going lower, like the compensation for most old-world employments in the twenty-first century. So low, you might argue, that one needs the perks -- the all-expenses paid trips to exotic destinations, the raft-loads of frequent flier miles and perpetual supplies of free test cars -- for employment in this profession to make any sense at all, at least while there are good jobs going at Burger King. And that’s assuming you are crazy about cars. Because if you are, only then will the value-added stuff, the driving, the behind-the-scenes insights and introductions to the places and personalities of all the world’s automobile industry, count as sufficient reward. In fact, they seem pretty cool.
It can be argued that this state of affairs – underpaid scribes living like kings and queens for two days at a time on a whirlwind of fly-away junkets underwritten by major motor manufacturers (between return journeys to their hovels or, as in my case, other day jobs) -- has a strong corrupting effect. No one wants the fun to dry up just because they had to be the one to open their big mouth and say in their report that the new (insert luxury car brand name here) is an embarrassment, a fraud and a blight on the landscape as well as an insult to the memory of all the years/decades/centuries of good work that preceded it, even if the charge is patently true.
I have been most fortunate in this respect, as in over twenty years on the case I have been able to carve out a place for myself as a critic of cynical cars and ungainly SUVs as well as a proponent of automotive safety, fuel economy and reduced emissions, which in enthusiast car magazine terms, pretty much used to define my residence somewhere within the city limits of the lunatic fringe. At the same time, I’ve also kept a loopy, eternal flame going for the cars of yesteryear, despite their lacking most of the virtues enumerated above (safety, low emissions, etc.). And I’ve happily assumed cheerleading duties for the most fun cars of today. I may loathe me a Porsche Cayenne with the crazed intensity of a Trotskyite Weather Underground recruit, c. 1968, but I love me a Porsche Cayman just as much, and I don’t care who knows it.
Mine is, then, a world-view that has confused many. As the then editor of Car & Driver wrote me in 1980, when I sent in the first column I’d written about cars for my college newspaper, looking for assignments, “We think you write well, but suggest you get back in touch when you can think of something nice to say about cars.”
Now there was a fellow who failed to see the duality of the universe.
However, and presumably because the competition was so slight in the industry critic department as recently as a few years ago (things have improved of late), I have been able to find my way in the automotive journalism game. I’ve found plenty of nice things to say about cars, along with plenty of not so nice ones. And rarely, if ever, have I ever felt compromised by unholy associations with carmakers. If I don’t bite the hand that feeds me, I am at least free to nibble on it enthusiastically. That’s in no small part thanks to the editors of Automobile Magazine, as well England’s Car and Top Gear magazines; they stood behind me when the angry advertisers started ringing and the publishers called for my hide. Mine’s a great gig.
There was a thing many years ago that still leaves me wondering, though. Never has the benefit of industry-outsider-insider status been more obvious to me than the day in 1998 when I went to visit Lotus Cars in England’s Norfolk countryside to drive its Series 1 Elise. A revelation that car, the one that saved Lotus (the last of many times it’s needed saving), was. And I loved it: a proper, ingeniously high-tech successor to the great Lotus 7s, Elans and Europas of the 1960s and early 1970s which cemented the firm’s reputation as a maker of improbably light weight and phenomenally engaging road cars, about which I’d happily bore on in the pages of all the magazines for which I wrote with a frequency out of all proportion to their sales, profits and name recognition.
So it was that I was only too happy to make my way to Lotus headquarters at my own expense to drive the Elise – which wasn’t being imported to the U.S., a tragedy in my view – assuring the company’s press office that I, a serial owner of Lotus Elans, would come home to spread the good word. No thanks to me, the Elise did make it to the U.S. in 2005 – I own one – only to be withdrawn from the American market last year following the financially beleaguered company’s inability to meet the latest airbag standards.
Not unlike today, when Lotus is in crisis, the day I arrived in 1998 was one of those times when they were up against it and Lotus HQ was hitting the panic button, as it has been forced to several times since its founding by the crafty Colin Chapman, a structural engineer and race car constructor, sixty years ago. Racing success (Formula One championships, World Driver awards aplenty, and an Indy 500 win, to name a bit), helped cement the Lotus image, but cost a lot. Successfully designing and building great purist sports cars, the part of the business that was supposed to make money, wasn’t always the easiest thing to do, from a financial perspective. The market was fickle and susceptible to myriad influences besides the world economy. It’s a roller coaster if there ever was one.
As Lotus today enters its seventh decade, a remarkable number of years in carmaker terms, it once again knows the risks and ravages of small-volume vehicle manufacture. Even with the Elise’s crucial success, 1998 was no exeption. Great car, strong initial sales, followed by sales dip, and resultant cash flow difficulties (emphasis on difficulties). The day I came to Norfolk all those years ago, they’d only just held an auction for the contents of the company’s museum of landmark Lotus cars; they needed the money.
On a lark, I asked the press officer what hadn’t sold at auction on this saddest of sad days. Among the handful of cars that had failed to find new homes -- a small group which included a few styling bucks and a non-working refugee from a James Bond picture -- was a 1969 Ford Cortina Lotus Mark II. A distinctly amusing co-branding exercise the companies began in 1963, the Lotus Cortina was gone by 1970. Tell me more about that one, I blithely requested, scaring even myself.
Here was a car that had been a gift from the Ford Motor Company to Colin Chapman, perhaps in honor of the imminent dissolution of their successful relationship, along the lines of a pre-divorce, post-affair parting gift. Painted amber gold, it had only 14,000 miles on the clock. It needed a re-spray, but it was in otherwise very good condition. How much were you asking for it at auction? I inquired. They’d expected £10,000, it seemed, but the best offer they received was for £3,500. “Well, I’ll give you four thousand!” I jocularly, even boldly, declared, without regard to where I was going to find the then equivalent of $7,500. They called the next day. “We’ll take it,” the man from the Lotus press office said.
Upon returning home to America, I quickly recalled that I was broke, with two small children and a wife who’d never heard of Colin Chapman or his outsized historical significance. But on the eve of bringing shame upon my house by pulling out of the deal, I somehow miraculously managed to persuade my near-70-year-old Yiddishe mother that what she really needed was a large, temporary interest in an obscure British sports sedan that wasn’t yet held in particularly high regard, with a star provenance that involved a celebrity she’d never heard of and that she’d almost surely never drive, not least for the fact that its steering wheel was on the wrong side. Suddenly, I was free to buy it, and did, arranging for it to be re-sprayed and generally re-commissioned in England. Four months later it arrived at the docks in Newark, N.J., aboard a German freighter.
Times change. So I am happy to report, while home prices plunged, millions lost their jobs and the economy generally went to seed, prices for the Lotus Cortina (as the first series was called) and Ford Cortina Lotus (as the second series is known) went through the roof. Recently, I turned down an offer of many, many times what I paid for my historic Lotus-tweaked English Ford.
Don’t feel jealous, I’ve probably lost more on old cars in the ensuing years than I’m showing on paper with this one. Like I always say, you’ve got to spend big to lose big.
And rest assured, a once-in-a-lifetime price on Chapman’s own Lotus Cortina didn’t change the way I thought or what I said or wrote. Not long ago, Lotus CEO (until he was fired a month ago) Danny Behar was screaming loudly at me when I told him his plans for the perennially cash-starved cottage car company (going way up-market with five new models in five years) seemed unwise to many Lotus fans, not to mention impossible.
Still, it nags at me. As the world’s handful of other Lotus Cortina fanatics have observed when learning the story of how I got this car, “Not fair.”
So I feel ambivalent (there’s that duality of life, again.) Slightly guilty. Maybe because it wasn’t fair. Then again, life isn’t fair.
And I can take some solace in remembering that I was favored by a company so broke that it had no money to do anything conventional for me. No free business-class trips to drive their cars in the Algarve. No sumptuous repasts to buy my vote. No new cars to test. Just a pretty good deal on a very used car.