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Mecca Part 1

Thought you all might be interested in the report I wrote on another forum (hadn't discovered this one yet-you guys are very entertaining by the way!). I was at the factory Apri 17th.

The purpose of my trip was to take my two younger daughters to compete in the Irish Dancing World Championships in Belfast. So our trip started with a week there, then a couple of days in Dublin before proceeding to London. We spent a week there and it was on our last full day that I was scheduled to be in Hethel.

Annette Lancaster is in charge of Factory tours and Lisa Hartgrove sets up the Alastair McQueen Experience. They were both tremendously helpful in making my visit possible.

The train from London to Norwich takes about 1 hr and 45 minutes. I then took another train to Wymondham which is only about 3 miles from the factory. I stayed the night at Old Thorn Barn which is a B&B right next to the factory. The proprietor Danny Pickwell is very nice and this is a super (and very reasonable) place to stay.

When I arrived, Danny said my wife had called and wanted me to call her back. I had left my family at the apartment we were renting in Kensington, and when they returned to the room that evening, the front door had been torn of and all our belongings were strewn about. Amazingly as far as we can tell, all they took was my cell phone! They left our plane tickets, passports, cameras, etc. there.

The next morning I woke early, looked outside and was much relieved to see no rain (it rained on and off our whole trip so I had been worried about that), and took the short walk to the factory. Now, I am sorry to disappoint, but no cameras are allowed on the grounds so I had to leave mine at the gate. So I will have to describe what I saw rather than show you.

I met Annette, who leads the factory tours and is a terrific spokesperson for Lotus. She is clearly very proud of the company she works for, said she grew up near the factory and it was always her dream to work there. I also met Phil, a very nice Lotus enthusiast from London who would join me for the days events. I can’t recall for sure if Phil said he was on he 2nd or 3rd Elise, but he currently owns a 111s. All of them have been his only vehicles, so he knows the cars well. So off we headed for our tour.

The Lotus factory is built on an old US WWII airfield. Some of the original runways make up the test track and some of the old buildings are used. The production area is in a large warehouse type building. Assembly of the cars starts with the body shells. They are made mostly of injection molded fiberglass with the front and rear “bumpers” and the engine cover made of sheet molded composite for extra durability. As a side note, I recently learned my Corvette is actually predominantly made of sheet molded composite, only the rocker panels are fiberglass. The body panels are made by an outside company but arrive in a rough state.

Each Elise is made to a specific order from the start, so at this point the necessary body panels are “assembled” and have a build sheet detailing the car’s individual specs. The body panels are cleaned up and fitted to a master “pattern” or jig to be sure that they will ultimately fit to the chassis. Modifications are made as necessary to make the seams consistent. The panels are now on a “dolly” that holds them all in the relative positions they will take on the car, but spread out from one another. There are no machines, the bodies are sanded, primed, and sprayed individually by hand in a large paint booth. Dupont water based paint is used and all colors get clear coated. They generally don’t even group cars of the same color; just do them one at a time in sequence. The finished pieces are then stacked on “shelves” and we move on to the assembly of the chassis.

The glued and riveted, extruded aluminum chassis also arrive to the factory pre made. Each then proceeds down the “assembly line”. Again, all the work is done by hand, the only automation being a computer controlled torque wrench to provide consistent torque of critical parts. The chassis are on dollies or rolling jigs that are moved through a series of maybe 5 stations. Wiring harnesses are installed; suspension, brakes, the engine and transmission are lowered into place (I assume these also arrive pretty much complete). This whole process only takes a few hours.

Ultimately the body panels are affixed, along with the glass, lights and everything to complete the car. There were only a couple of US cars on the line, both identified as dealer demos. There were quite a few Exiges, but mostly 111s or 111r models. I asked when we will get our cars and Annette couldn’t say, but I can see it won’t be next month! (We now know I was correct on this prediction!)

The factory looks like a big warehouse, with areas for certain parts of the production process. Forklifts rolling around, but generally things are moving at a comfortable pace. There is a big clock above the production line that keeps the chassis moving from station to station at a consistent pace. The factory was not as “high tech” as I expected as there are no machines, just people doing everything by hand.

I will post my report on the Driving Experience next.
 

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Mecca Part Deux

Mecca Part Deux!

Annette dragged Phil and I out of the factory and introduced us to our instructor Alastair McQueen. He is not a big guy, maybe 5ft 6in and although he doesn’t have much hair left on top, he has a very youthful quality about him and a very relaxed nature which would become very important as he would soon be in the passenger seat with ME at the wheel! Alastair has been with Lotus since the 60s, and has been very involved with testing and development of the Elise. There is no question that he knows these cars inside and out.

Now before I continue I must tell you that I have no racing experience other than a couple of days in carts. I have however driven sports cars all my life starting with a Porsche 914-4, then on to a 914-6, 89 944 Turbo S, and now 02 Corvette Z06. Fortunately the Lotus driving course is set up to benefit people of varying skill levels and experience.

Alastair talked to Phil and me a bit to judge our knowledge and experience. Unfortunately the test cars are all right hand drive S2s with 120HP, and 111Ss with 156HP (so I didn’t get to drive the Federal car).

We started on a circular section of pavement that had been wet down using an S2 with front tires fitted all around to reduce rear grip. Object: drive around the circle faster and faster until you feel the front tires lose grip (understeer), then provoke oversteer by abruptly lifting off the accelerator. The Elise, unlike virtually all street cars is very sensitive to brake and throttle inputs. What strikes me first is how fast I can go around the circle, even on wet pavement with narrow tires. This car has amazing grip! Once at the limit it is easy to get the car to spin, but we have a problem with the car’s battery.

So the car has to be towed off the track and a replacement brought. The new car is a 156HP car with the normal rear tires. On top of this, the track is drying out. This makes it much harder to provoke a spin. Ultimately the objective is to abruptly lift off the throttle at the limits of adhesion, cause the weight to transfer forward allowing the rear to break loose and rotate. Once the car rotates, apply power hard, turn the wheel the opposite way and power slide the car around the circle. I worked up a sweat trying to do this, but wasn’t able to. This car does not have enough power to break the rear tires loose with the accelerator, so you have to use weight transfer.

Alastair:”Steve, let off the throttle, wait for the rear to come around more, NOW full throttle, no that was too late, wait for the slide, NOW power, nope too early”. Finally I just ended up being so aggressive that I got the car sliding back and forth a couple of times with me overcorrecting right left right left. Alastair can power slide the car with ease, but confided that he hasn’t had any students that could do it for more than a few seconds. Alright, that makes me feel a little better. The most important thing I learned was to keep my hands in one position on the wheel, even if they are twisted around. If you try to turn “hand over hand” as on the street there is no way you can make corrections fast enough and you lose your orientation on the wheel. Now on to the slalom course!

Pairs of cones were set up for each of us to negotiate with varying distances so that a rhythm could not be established. The objective is to go through the course as quickly as possible, which requires using “trail braking” to unload the rear wheels allowing the back of the car to swing around and turn more effectively. Since we burned through the front tires on our “skidpad” car we got a 120HP car to work with. Alastair slides the car through the course unbelievably fast, I think he is going to take out every cone but he doesn’t touch one! I on the other hand took out more than a few cones, but had a tremendous time sliding the car through the turns.

Now I am beginning to see what this little car is all about. It has tremendous “feel” in the steering, suspension, and brakes. It has lots of grip but can easily be transitioned from understeer to oversteer with throttle and brake inputs.

Now by this time my back is hurting quite a bit. One of my vertebrae feels like it is rubbing on bare metal. (My back is still sore today!) There is so little padding in the seat that if you don’t fit it just right it is pretty darn uncomfortable. I am also having some trouble shifting. The 3rd to 2nd downshift is tough because you have to push away from your body, so I am missing quite a few shifts. Now I know I am shifting left handed, and I know that this car can be shifted quickly and smoothly because Alastair can do it, but I am not impressed with the shift mechanism at all. It is vague and has a rubbery feel like my Porsche 914s had. Of course those cars were designed 35 years ago! I am very glad we are getting more “plush” seats (in the touring pack) and the Toyota shifter. Now on to the track!

We review the track layout and Alastair takes us around demonstrating the racing line. The old runways have been modified to form a 2 ½ mile course with a variety of turns. Cones mark the turn in points and apexes. There is a chicane made of tire walls that is quite exciting as it looks like there is no way around it until you are right on top of it. Now instead of sliding the car with reckless abandon I had to be smooth and neat. I was doing fairly well with shifting but I had to concentrate on the downshifts which made it hard to slow the car aggressively into the turns.

Finally, Alastair took each of us out for a couple of “hot” laps. All the way around he had a smile on his face like it was the first time he’d ever experienced it. Alastair is a great teacher, knows the Elise’s handling characteristics probably better than anybody, and clearly loves what he does. Those laps were amazing: accelerating through the gears, braking hard into the turns as your body is thrown forward against the seat belt, double clutch downshifts, trail breaking allowing the rear to slide, tires straining for traction on the varying road surfaces, heading for the tire wall chicane at over 100 then braking in just a few feet, a flick of the wheel right left and your through in a blink. And Alastair is talking while he is doing all this, “felt slight understeer at first, now the tires are wearing more and it is more neutral, probably will have oversteer in a couple more laps”! I’m thinking, shut up and concentrate before you run us both into the tire wall! I couldn’t get the grin off my face for 10 minutes after.

Now, we were driving the Rover engined car with 156 HP not the 190 HP car that will come to the US, but I think I can draw some conclusions. Guys on the forum have talked about power. The Elise is quick, with brisk enough acceleration to just tear up that test track. But the car is not about power. You want power; drive a Corvette Z06, or a Viper for some tire smoking power! But the Elise feels exquisitely light and well balanced. The steering has no power assist, but is light and has incredible feel. The steering and suspension communicate everything about the texture of the road surface and what the tires are doing about it to you, the driver. The brakes are wonderfully progressive and haul the little car’s speed down in incredibly short distances. Antilock brakes just don’t seem as important in this car because you can feel everything that is happening (but we get them anyway).

In contrast, my Corvette has excessively boosted power steering that damps out everything about the road surface. The car has tremendous grip but as it approaches the limit you feel nothing. The Corvette and Elise are both two seat sports cars with plastic bodies on primarily aluminum chassis, but the two could not possible be more different. (Really should have both!) My 944 had much better “feel” than the Corvette, it had just the right amount of power assist in the steering, the body leaned more around corners, but as the suspension loaded up you could feel the car approaching its limits. My 914-6 was similar to the Lotus. It weighed about the same and had no power steering. But its older technology meant a much less rigid structure and much less grip from the tires and suspension.

Alastair said people are always asking for more power. He said the car doesn’t need more power, if you want to get more out of the car most owners would be much better off investing in driver training. There has also been much discussion in the forums about tire and wheel, suspension, and other modifications. There are many people on this forum and others who have a lot of track experience and mechanical expertise. The people at Lotus bristle when they hear about modifications, and the impression I got was that Alastair and the other test drivers have put countless hours into the development of this car trying to optimize its performance. Of course they need the car to be streetable, but their emphasis is on maximizing its performance on the track. The car is very well balanced and I think most owners would be hard pressed to improve upon what the lotus folks have created without a great deal of effort.

Other forum members have said stuff like, at 45 thousand dollars this car should have … or why don’t they put on … Well all those little things add weight. Haven’t you read about this new sports car or that new sports car with an all aluminum chassis and body, or carbon fiber this or that, and somehow they always end up weighing over 3000 lbs. The folks at Lotus have made a commitment to living up to Colin Chapman’s philosophy; that means putting only what is necessary on the car, and making each component and system as light and simple as possible. I can’t imagine many street legal cars being more effective on a tight track than the Elise.

Our driving was done, and I had a small favor to ask of Alastair, could I have a photo with him? He was kind enough to comply! I also had a favor to ask of my driving partner, Phil. Would he mind giving me a lift to the train station in his black 111s? He said, I’m going back to London also, I’d be happy to give you a ride! Well let’s see, ride back on the train for 3 hours, or 3 hours across the British countryside in an Elise? Let’s just say, he didn’t have to ask twice!
 

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thanks for sharing....I definitely will make the trip at some point...
 

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Awesome post, thanks Steve.

Your driver training explains why Jeremy Clarkson was "unable" to get the Elise to oversteer during Top Gears S2 Elise Video, but Gavin "magically" got oversteer in every corner ...

Gavin was simply lifting off, provoking weight transfer, then jumping back on the throttle

Mystery solved :clap:
 

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Body panel question

Hi, Steve -- many thanks for the report, and it's nice to have you around here.

What is "composite" material made from? Apparently it is like
fiberglass, but tougher -- but is it a plastic of some sort? I had a 'Vette many years ago, and I fixed the body after a wreck, so I understand fiberglass, although I assume what they use now is better than what was on my '69 model. So the Elise engine cover and front/rear pieces are different than the rest of the body?

If composite is more durabile than fiberglass, then why not make the fenders out of it, too. Weight? Expense?
 
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