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The Lotus Esprit and The Spy Who Loved Me

Re-living the captivating story behind the selection of James Bond's Esprit, its transformation into a submarine and the key players at Lotus who made it all happen

By Craig Toone

Images via Lotus Media

he spy who loved me had all the classic Bond hallmarks - guns, gadgets, girls and a legendary henchman. Cynics might point to the film essentially being a remake of You Only Live Twice, swapping outer space for under the sea. But where both films featured a car chase making use of a helicopter, in You Only Live Twice, Bond was riding shotgun - in a Toyota.


Okay, so it was a one-off 2000GT Spider, but thankfully in The Spy Who Loved Me, Bond was back in the driving seat, making full use of the Q branch arsenal to outrun the bad guys. It’s a good thing he had the right car for the job in the Lotus Esprit because he had to fend off a motorcycle with a rocket-propelled sidecar, a pursuing car, a helicopter and eventually, a fellow submarine. Along the way, viewers were treated to magical tracking shots of the Esprit tracing the Mediterranean coastline and some dramatic, groundbreaking stunts.


It was peak Moore-era Bond - not taking itself too seriously, but overloaded with charm and having a whole lot of fun in the process. After the climax of the chase, Bond returns to dry land and discards a small fish. Given the engineering expertise of the Q division on display, we can put the scaly invader down to Hethel’s suspect grasp of quality control in the panel gap department.


It’s a testament to the suitability of Moore’s Bond to the Lotus Esprit that no hardcore 007 fan complained about the lack of an Aston Martin. How the Esprit came to be the secret agent’s new wheels has become the stuff of legend, with some tradecraft and audacity worthy of Bond himself, orchestrated by two key players at Lotus.


The first, PR boss Don McLauchlan, got the Esprit on the silver screen. The second, Director of Vehicle Engineering Roger Becker, made it dance across it.

he spy who loved me had all the classic Bond hallmarks - guns, gadgets, girls and a legendary henchman. Cynics might point to the film essentially being a remake of You Only Live Twice, swapping outer space for under the sea. But where both films featured a car chase making use of a helicopter, in You Only Live Twice, Bond was riding shotgun - in a Toyota.


Okay, so it was a one-off 2000GT Spider, but thankfully in The Spy Who Loved Me, Bond was back in the driving seat, making full use of the Q branch arsenal to outrun the bad guys. It’s a good thing he had the right car for the job in the Lotus Esprit because he had to fend off a motorcycle with a rocket-propelled sidecar, a pursuing car, a helicopter and eventually, a fellow submarine. Along the way, viewers were treated to magical tracking shots of the Esprit tracing the Mediterranean coastline and some dramatic, groundbreaking stunts.


It was peak Moore-era Bond - not taking itself too seriously, but overloaded with charm and having a whole lot of fun in the process. After the climax of the chase, Bond returns to dry land and discards a small fish. Given the engineering expertise of the Q division on display, we can put the scaly invader down to Hethel’s suspect grasp of quality control in the panel gap department.


It’s a testament to the suitability of Moore’s Bond to the Lotus Esprit that no hardcore 007 fan complained about the lack of an Aston Martin. How the Esprit came to be the secret agent’s new wheels has become the stuff of legend, with some tradecraft and audacity worthy of Bond himself, orchestrated by two key players at Lotus.


The first, PR boss Don McLauchlan, got the Esprit on the silver screen. The second, Director of Vehicle Engineering Roger Becker, made it dance across it.

It is also quite possible that fate intervened too, because Don Mac (as he was affectionately known inside Lotus) just happened to be at Pinewood studios pitching the Lotus Europa to the producers of The New Avengers when he received a discreet note, scribbled with the words “see me - Bond”. Immediately grasping the gravity of the opportunity, Don made his excuses and left the Avengers team to their lunch, who would go on to select an MG and a Triumph.


McLauchlan’s contact informed him the Q Branch was looking for a suitable car to transform into a submarine. This was top secret information, known to only a few key players in James Bond’s circle. Luckily, Don had an equally top secret prototype car up his sleeves - the Esprit. Don knew he couldn’t just approach the Bond team directly - revealing his source - so he had to hatch a cunning plan to get their attention.


Don commandeered a red pre-production Esprit and removed all branding and references to its manufacturer. This included the badges on the speedometer, gear knob and steering wheel. He even doctored the tax disc to cover up the word Lotus. Then he parked the mysterious car directly outside the offices of the senior management at Pinewood, placing it in such an obstructive manner it forced anyone entering the building to walk directly around the car.


Throughout the day, Don shifted the car around the studio complex, ensuring maximum visibility among as many people as possible. By the end of play, the prototype car had generated quite a crowd. Instead of capitalising on the moment, Don politely brushed past the onlookers, hopped into the Esprit, and drove away. This ensured the buzz and guessing game around the car was kept alive for several days afterward.


The production team's interest was thoroughly sparked, leading them to approach a colleague who happened to be a friend of Don's at Pinewood. Tasked with discovering the identity of the car, the colleague responded tantalisingly, "I can't really tell you—it's a prototype." Under mounting pressure, he eventually relented, sharing a phone number. Subsequently, the film's Head of Special Effects contacted Lotus, and the rest, as they say, is history. It was a PR masterclass.

It is also quite possible that fate intervened too, because Don Mac (as he was affectionately known inside Lotus) just happened to be at Pinewood studios pitching the Lotus Europa to the producers of The New Avengers when he received a discreet note, scribbled with the words “see me - Bond”. Immediately grasping the gravity of the opportunity, Don made his excuses and left the Avengers team to their lunch, who would go on to select an MG and a Triumph.


McLauchlan’s contact informed him the Q Branch was looking for a suitable car to transform into a submarine. This was top secret information, known to only a few key players in James Bond’s circle. Luckily, Don had an equally top secret prototype car up his sleeves - the Esprit. Don knew he couldn’t just approach the Bond team directly - revealing his source - so he had to hatch a cunning plan to get their attention.


Don commandeered a red pre-production Esprit and removed all branding and references to its manufacturer. This included the badges on the speedometer, gear knob and steering wheel. He even doctored the tax disc to cover up the word Lotus. Then he parked the mysterious car directly outside the offices of the senior management at Pinewood, placing it in such an obstructive manner it forced anyone entering the building to walk directly around the car.


Throughout the day, Don shifted the car around the studio complex, ensuring maximum visibility among as many people as possible. By the end of play, the prototype car had generated quite a crowd. Instead of capitalising on the moment, Don politely brushed past the onlookers, hopped into the Esprit, and drove away. This ensured the buzz and guessing game around the car was kept alive for several days afterward.


The production team's interest was thoroughly sparked, leading them to approach a colleague who happened to be a friend of Don's at Pinewood. Tasked with discovering the identity of the car, the colleague responded tantalisingly, "I can't really tell you—it's a prototype." Under mounting pressure, he eventually relented, sharing a phone number. Subsequently, the film's Head of Special Effects contacted Lotus, and the rest, as they say, is history. It was a PR masterclass.

A white Esprit S1 was chosen because it would be equally visible in the bright Mediterranean sunshine and once underwater. A total of eight cars made the journey to the set in Sardinia, all in various states of build - two complete cars, and six bodyshells to destroy in the stunts or to use for the sub conversion. One of the complete cars was obviously used in the film, whilst another was converted into a camera car by the crew. The body shells were used as sacrificial lambs by the stunt team, launched into the sea as 007 evaded the machine gun equipped helicopter. The cardboard boxes Bond ploughs through at the end of the jetty weren’t in the original script - they had to be improvised as the air cannon proved so powerful it kept blowing panels off the Esprit bodyshells. 


Speaking of stuntmen, the driving team were having trouble getting the limpet-like Lotus to look dramatic on camera, despite coaching from Roger Becker, who was on hand as technical support. As Becker recalled “One day 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.”


Despite Becker’s renowned precision behind the wheel, it wasn’t all plain sailing. Slaloming between trucks at high speed was nothing compared to filming the sequence where Bond dispatches Jaws and chums. During the chase, Bond activates one of the Esprit’s defence mechanisms, spraying concrete (actually porridge) onto the pursuing baddies windscreen from the back of the car. The scene had to be filmed with both cars reversing, and while the stunt driver of the henchmen's car could look behind him as he wasn’t on screen, Becker had to remain looking forwards at all times. This meant he could only rely on the Esprit’s mirrors to judge the twisting road, and coupled with the unique handling properties of driving a car in reverse at speed, the inevitable happened - Becker put the car in a ditch.  





The submarine, dubbed “Wet Nelly” in a Nod to You Only Live Twice’ s autogyro Little Nellie, was constructed by American firm Perry Oceanographic. Converting one of the donor body shells into a “wet” sub (where the occupants needed to wear a wetsuit and scuba gear) cost approximately $100,000. It was piloted by ex US Navy SEAL Don Griffin.


Once submerged, the wedge styling of the Esprit proved somewhat of a hindrance to the pilot. Lotus’ desire for an aerodynamically stable car with downforce meant Wet Nelly would constantly seek to dive towards the seabed. In the film, you’ll notice the fins were constantly turned to the up position. An additional countermeasure to provide lift was to fill the front luggage compartment of the Esprit with ping pong balls. Not only that, captain Griffin had to contend with the fact Wet Nellie only had forward thrust - there was no braking capability or reverse thrust.


After filming, the sub went on a promotional tour, then it quite literally disappeared off the radar. Nellie was placed in a lock-up in Long Island, New York on a ten-year lease. When that lease expired and no-body came to claim the contents, they were put up for auction Storage Hunters style. The winning bidder paid just $100. It took until 2013 for them to realise the sub was genuine, whereupon it was sold at auction and purchased by Elon Musk - a potential real-life Bond Villain for £550,000.


It’s safe to say Lotus got equally good value for money. The whole endeavour put a dent of £17,500 in McLauchlan’s PR budget - a small price to pay for the creation of an instant cultural icon. Another Esprit would later appear in 1981’s For Your Eyes Only, aligning it with the only other recurring Bond car, the Aston Martin DB5. Alas, it didn't transform into a submarine this time, but it didn’t need to resort to such antics to outrun the bad guys - because it was the newly launched Esprit Turbo.

A white Esprit S1 was chosen because it would be equally visible in the bright Mediterranean sunshine and once underwater. A total of eight cars made the journey to the set in Sardinia, all in various states of build - two complete cars, and six bodyshells to destroy in the stunts or to use for the sub conversion. One of the complete cars was obviously used in the film, whilst another was converted into a camera car by the crew. The body shells were used as sacrificial lambs by the stunt team, launched into the sea as 007 evaded the machine gun equipped helicopter. The cardboard boxes Bond ploughs through at the end of the jetty weren’t in the original script - they had to be improvised as the air cannon proved so powerful it kept blowing panels off the Esprit bodyshells. 


Speaking of stuntmen, the driving team were having trouble getting the limpet-like Lotus to look dramatic on camera, despite coaching from Roger Becker, who was on hand as technical support. As Becker recalled “One day 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.”


Despite Becker’s renowned precision behind the wheel, it wasn’t all plain sailing. Slaloming between trucks at high speed was nothing compared to filming the sequence where Bond dispatches Jaws and chums. During the chase, Bond activates one of the Esprit’s defence mechanisms, spraying concrete (actually porridge) onto the pursuing baddies windscreen from the back of the car. The scene had to be filmed with both cars reversing, and while the stunt driver of the henchmen's car could look behind him as he wasn’t on screen, Becker had to remain looking forwards at all times. This meant he could only rely on the Esprit’s mirrors to judge the twisting road, and coupled with the unique handling properties of driving a car in reverse at speed, the inevitable happened - Becker put the car in a ditch.  





The submarine, dubbed “Wet Nelly” in a Nod to You Only Live Twice’ s autogyro Little Nellie, was constructed by American firm Perry Oceanographic. Converting one of the donor body shells into a “wet” sub (where the occupants needed to wear a wetsuit and scuba gear) cost approximately $100,000. It was piloted by ex US Navy SEAL Don Griffin.


Once submerged, the wedge styling of the Esprit proved somewhat of a hindrance to the pilot. Lotus’ desire for an aerodynamically stable car with downforce meant Wet Nelly would constantly seek to dive towards the seabed. In the film, you’ll notice the fins were constantly turned to the up position. An additional countermeasure to provide lift was to fill the front luggage compartment of the Esprit with ping pong balls. Not only that, captain Griffin had to contend with the fact Wet Nellie only had forward thrust - there was no braking capability or reverse thrust.


After filming, the sub went on a promotional tour, then it quite literally disappeared off the radar. Nellie was placed in a lock-up in Long Island, New York on a ten-year lease. When that lease expired and no-body came to claim the contents, they were put up for auction Storage Hunters style. The winning bidder paid just $100. It took until 2013 for them to realise the sub was genuine, whereupon it was sold at auction and purchased by Elon Musk - a potential real-life Bond Villain for £550,000.


It’s safe to say Lotus got equally good value for money. The whole endeavour put a dent of £17,500 in McLauchlan’s PR budget - a small price to pay for the creation of an instant cultural icon. Another Esprit would later appear in 1981’s For Your Eyes Only, aligning it with the only other recurring Bond car, the Aston Martin DB5. Alas, it didn't transform into a submarine this time, but it didn’t need to resort to such antics to outrun the bad guys - because it was the newly launched Esprit Turbo.

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