“Want to drive the Lotus to Colorado?”
It started simply as many of our crazy ideas that go nowhere do; an off hand question. It was summer 2014 and it had just been announced that the Lotus Owners Gathering (LOG) for 2015 would be in Colorado Springs. My dad lives south of Boston. Of course I did, but we get crazy ideas like this a lot and don’t follow through on most of them. But around May 2015 we sent in our registration, so we had kind of committed. 2060 miles from Colorado Springs, no real plan for our route, no real itinerary, just a week and a half of vacation time, a 2005 Lotus Elise, and two cars guys. This is how the best trips are born.
Full Disclosure: This may turn into a glowing rave review of the Elise. You’ve been warned.
Some quick back story. My dad bought the Elise in the fall of 2005. He didn’t tell me he was doing this. I was a freshman in college, and on one weekend home he said I had to see a car. We drove to the local Saab dealer (I’m not joking), who was trying to convince GM to let them take on Lotus as a second brand. They had a bright red ‘05 Elise in the show room. I got to sit in it, walk around it, and finally just looked at my dad and said “this would be so cool.” A month or so later I was home again and noticed the background on his phone was the Elise taken at a local Marina. I just stared at him and said “you didn’t…..”. A sly smile and he replied: “Might have.” I got to drive it that day. Less than 1000 miles on the car and he let me drive it. That is how I became a car nut.
Flash forward almost 10 years and 41k miles to Wednesday August 19th, 2015 and we’re staring at the trunk trying to work out how to pack 12 days worth of stuff into the car. Doug DeMuro, if you’re reading this, it’s possible, you just have to possess a little bit of problem solving capability. Every morning for the remained of the trip we’d load the car in the exact same tetris inspired order, packing every nook and cranny.
Next, how to solve the problem that the lotus only has a single power outlet, which is placed between and behind the two seats. Considering we wanted to power enough electronic equipment to support a low scale NSA tracking van, this was a problem. I ended up with two power outlet expanders daisy chained to provide 6 plugs and a USB port. The Radar detector went on a bracket between the seats at rear window height, a cell phone went on the dash in a dock, the iPad went in a mount that placed it right where the passenger’s left leg might want to be, and charging cables littered the passenger side floor. Perfect.
By 1:20 we folded ourselves into the car, noted the 41,818 starting mileage, and left my Mom shaking her head in the driveway convinced that 2 days into this stupid idea we’d be drawing straws for who had to drive the car back home and who got the privilege of spending money on a gloriously comfortable coach class plane ticket.
We had no plan on how this was really going to go, but figured buffalo NY was a good aiming spot for day one. 475 miles later we found a hotel. While eating that night we debated how far to go the next day. Should we split the remaining 1585 miles into two even parts, or go for broke and knock out as much as we could to make Friday better. Turns out Buffalo to Omaha is 997 miles. What the hell, lets go for broke(n).
Allow me to paint a picture of what that drive looks like once you clear the general Chicago area. Corn fields. That’s it. Rolling hills and corn fields. A map tells me that i drove through western Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa that day. I couldn’t tell you where one stopped and the next started, it all looked the same. It all looked exactly like this.
The first 900 miles were fine. We stopped roughly every 260 miles to refill the 10 gallon fuel tank and swap seats. I wasn’t sore, cramped, or uncomfortable. But that last 100 miles seemed to take longer than the entire day. The last 20 miles in felt like torture. I’d stare out at the road for what felt like an hour, glace back at the nav and see only a half mile improvement. I only contemplated crashing into something to make it end once. But we made it. By 9:10pm we pulled up to the hotel I had located about an hour earlier with my phone. We found another quick dinner, braved the local 24 hour Walmart (a story that could fill another article on its own), and collapsed for almost a full night of sleep.
Thursday brought Nebraska. Guess what, it’s exactly the same as Indinoisowa. So we’re going to skip to crossing the Colorado border. Now I’ve visited Colorado before, and it was beautiful. We drove in through the southwestern corner and up to Silverton. I was excited for that boarder. I wish someone would have told me the eastern half of the state was worse than Nebraska. Nothing exists there, just open treeless rolling hills and the occasional abandoned shack. Had I really died the day before and entered some strange hell were one of the prettiest states was actually awful? No unfortunately I had just been lied to about half of Colorado. One of the most gorgeous states in the country is half lies.
I did learn something on this drive out. Cruise control is overrated. There, I said it. The lotus has one of the longest throw gas pedals I’ve ever personally seen on a car. This means that getting it to hold speed is incredibly easy. I drove 80 miles without looking at the speedo, and when I did check I was going exactly the same speed. In fact over the entire 4900 miles that we’d eventually cover, not once did I ever wish for cruise control. Not even in that terrible state known as Virginia.
Denver brought the first signs of major human existence we’d seen in over 1500 miles, even if the haze from western forest fires was hiding the Rockies from view. Colorado Springs welcomed us with fantastic weather. The event was being held at the Colorado Springs Marriott, which welcomed us with open arms. We had three parking lots reserved for everyone, blocked off with Lotus height limbo bars. The lobby was redecorated with lotus memorabilia, old car magazines, and photos from a private collection. 2060 miles complete and we sat back watching the cars roll in. For the record, yes Lotus guys do walk around fully decked in Lotus branded clothing and debate exactly when the last “real” lotus was built. It’s great people watching. It’s even better with a beer.
Saturday everyone got up early and assembled for the traditional picture of all the cars. This year it was set with the gorgeous Garden of the Gods in the background. The haze cleared enough to let the Rockies break through. Over 120 cars assembled for a stunning picture.
Returning to the hotel we had every intention of bailing on the car show and judging, and just running around the local mountain roads. However as we approached the car we found a trail of coolant glistening and trickling away from the front bumper. For whatever reason, even though every other car maker in the world can use plastic capped radiators, the ones Lotus picked for the Elise/Exige all seem to fail by 45k miles. Ours picked 2000 miles from home as the perfect place to let go. While everyone else was walking around voting on cars I was jacking up the front and pulling the car apart to figure out how bad the leak was.
Skipping some boring details, the leak stopped. Just magically stopped. Stumped, we put it back together and took it for a drive. 2 hours later we returned and not another drop of coolant had leaked. Well screw it, we’re in Colorado surrounded by Lotus, we’re going to enjoy ourselves.
On Sunday I got to cross off a bucket list item. Pikes Peak. The rangers were going to let us up early before they opened the gate to the public. And they were going to look the other way on the speed limit of the mountain. I’ll never again get this chance. So at 6:30am we completely filled the lower parking lot, and then proceeded to drive past the line of waiting cars at the gate as they stared wondering what strange universe they had stumbled into.
Pikes Peak at speed is insane. It builds your confidence through the lower forests and winding road. It eggs you on as the trees fade to breathtaking views. And then it smashes you in the face with switchbacks and steep climbs where the edge of the road just falls away into nothingness. With the early morning sun blindingly shining in your eyes you race towards a hairpin you can’t see but know is coming. At the last second a guardrail appears and you stand on the brakes, drop a gear, and floor it around. Now do it again, and again. I’ll never forget that drive. In 50 years I’ll still be bragging to anyone that will listen about the time we completely filled the parking lots of the Pike Peak summit 3 deep with Lotus.
That drive also reminded me of something I’ve forgotten in the past couple of years. Targa tops are amazing. I’ve always felt this way. I hate full convertibles, but there’s something about a targa. With the roof on the Lotus feels like a cocoon. The windshield is short, being first at a stoplight means never being able to see the light and waiting for someone to honk angrily and alert you that you can go. The sun visors are comically small, reducing the overall height by about an inch, which is still too much. The rear view mirror takes up about 30% of your view. You’re forced to deliberately look where you want to go instead of generally looking forward.
But take the roof off, and it’s a whole other car. The whole cabin is bright and airy. You can see everywhere. Wind is manageable, mild hurricane with the windows down, and tropical storm with them up. Pulling the roof reminded me of how it felt 9 years ago when I first rode in the car roofless. An almost childish sense of wonder at how different it feels to race down a twisty road with nothing but sky overhead. We haven’t taken the roof off the car in a couple years. After that drive up Pikes Peak, I’m starting to wonder why.
The rest of LOG was awesome. We had Bobby Unser, Clive Chapman, Arnie Johnson, and a few others as speakers. I got to catch up with some old friends, make some new ones, and see some awesome cars. Sunday night we decided to divert the new radiator that was being boxed for us and have them send it home instead of to a local shop, and just risk it going home. I’m glad we did.
We took the same approach going home as getting there. Switch drivers at every fuel stop and find a hotel when we were done for the day. We had one goal: get to the Tail of the Dragon. Stopping in Kansas City and Nashville we reached the start of the start of the Cherohala Skyway on Wednesday morning, which gave us a nice warm up after two days of mind numbing straight highways. A quick bite of food at the base of the tail, and we once again pulled the roof off, stuffed it behind the seats, and set off.
I’m sure there are a handful of cars out there that can be argued as better than a Lotus for this road, but it’s a short list. The Lotus is absolutely mental on rt 129. Our car is what I like to call stock plus. We have upgraded brakes and Penske non-adjustable coilovers as our only mods. I couldn’t have asked for a better car on my first running of the dragon. The Elise just eggs you on, asking why you’re going so slow. Push Push Push, faster faster faster. The steering is perfect, and the tires utter just enough noise to warn you when you’re near the limit. It’s impossible to not just giggle as the car seems to read your mind and dance through the bends.
My dad acted as co-pilot, trying to call off upcoming turns by watching a GPS that couldn’t keep up with the speed we were rounding the corners. I could hear in adjectives he was choosing that maybe I was carrying a little too much speed. Oh well, too much fun. Spilling out of the woods by the Chilhowee Lake I pulled over completely high on adrenaline. Quickly swapping seats and I went from ecstatic to terrified in a single hairpin.
My dad pushed just as hard as I did, but shifting to the passenger seat makes the ride terrifying. Not being in control I was now sure that we were going to fly off a cliff and die. Never in my entire life have I ever gotten motion sick, not once. But by the end of the return flight my stomach was contemplating emptying itself. I made this remark to him as we parked and he offered the best possible response: “It takes some confidence to ride with you too.” Touche Dad, touche.
Once we were satisfied with ourselves we turned our sights on the start of the Blue Ridge Parkway and meandered to Asheville North Carolina. The rest of our trip was calm and uneventful. We visited family in Annapolis, stopped at the Air and Space Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center to drool on the SR-71 and space shuttle, and eventually rolled into my parents driveway at around 3pm Friday afternoon 4900 miles added to the Odometer. Much to my mom’s surprise neither of us had considered bailing at any point on the trip, neither of us had found the car uncomfortable, and we still had usable legs.
I’ve always loved the Lotus Elise. The styling is something you’d never see from another car maker, the steering is the best I’ve ever used, and the way it makes you feel while driving can’t be compared to anything else I’ve ever sat in. But I walked away from that trip loving the car even more. It reminded me that naturally aspirated engines are just better. They are, and if you disagree you’re wrong. I’ve driven a WRX for the past 4 years, and I love the turbo engine, but NA is just better. Throttle response that is instantaneous, engine braking so good that it feels like you lightly applied the brakes. Everything about the Elise is instant, and by the time I flopped into my WRX on Friday I hated the lag in the throttle. Want to add 5mph in the Elise? Stab the throttle for half a second and back to cruise. My WRX would still be thinking about it. I hated how high the seat was, that my legs aimed down instead of straight out in front of me. I hated the steering that felt vague and dead. I hated how tall the windshield was, how spacious the interior was, how many cup holders and random cubbies surrounded me. Mostly I hated that I was in a car built on compromises to make it ok at several things, instead of being amazing at one.
10 days, 4900 miles, 18 states, 165 gallons of gas, 2 bucket list items, all completed in 1 Lotus Elise. It’s a trip I’ll be reminiscing about for the rest of my life. So thanks Dad, thanks for asking if I wanted to drive to Colorado. I can’t wait for the next trip.