Marking 40 years of Bond’s sublime submarine Lotus

lotus-subForty years ago, Lotus made a huge splash with the cinema-going public when James Bond ditched his Aston Martin in favor of the lightweight, submergible Esprit.

On August 3, 1977, “The Spy Who Loved Me” premiered in the US. The film cemented Roger Moore’s credentials as the right actor to play the world’s most famous fictional British spy, but it also well and truly put Lotus on the world stage.

It may have used the same taillights as a Fiat and door handles from a Morris Marina (a bargain-basement British sedan), and its four-cylinder engine may have only developed 160hp. But its chassis and suspension were F1-derived and its feather-light fiberglass body had been penned by legendary designer Giorgetto Giugiaro, ensuring that it looked like — and handled like — the future, in automotive form.

In fact, its grip in the corners was so great, that the filmmakers had to use Lotus test driver and development engineer Roger Becker, rather than their own stunt drivers, in the chase scenes to capture the car at its edge of grip limit best.

As for how the Lotus Esprit managed to usurp Aston Martin as 007’s automotive marque of choice, Don McLaughlin, Lotus’s head of PR during the 1970s, has always taken the credit. The oft-repeated story is that he parked an Esprit outside Pinewood Studios with all badges and emblems taped over and got the filmmakers so excited about this futuristic mystery car that they had to have it in the next film and had to know who made it.

However, Oscar-winning set designer Peter Lamont, who was the Supervisory Art Director on the film, says that the story, like Bond, is a complete work of fiction. He and Ken Adam picked the car from a magazine, started doing the initial submarine sketches based on its lines, and then phoned Lotus. The company agreed to loan them two Esprits and give them three bodies for conversion into submarines. “Then the car came to the studio,” said Lamont. “And then it was parked outside our offices with all the badges covered up.”

Regardless of how the Lotus Esprit usurped the Aston Martin as Bond’s car of choice, the resulting appearance in “The Spy Who Loved Me” was sufficient to turn it into an automotive and pop culture icon and to give Lotus the welcome headache of trying to honor a three-year waiting list for orders.

“Of all the Bond films and of all the Bond cars that have done different things, I don’t think there has been anything that has been as outrageously memorable as a car that transformed itself into a submarine,” said Don Rose of RM Auctions. He presided over the sale of one of the only surviving submarine conversions of the car when it came up for auction in London on September 9, 2013.

And, despite not being able to function on land, it still fetched £616,000 ($997,000). And while the winning bidder’s identify was initially unknown, a month later Tesla CEO Elon Musk revealed that it was he that had snapped up the Lotus in order to fulfil a childhood dream.

“It was amazing as a little kid in South Africa to watch James Bond in ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’ drive his Lotus Esprit off a pier, press a button and have it transform into a submarine underwater,” he said. “I was disappointed to learn that it can’t actually transform. What I’m going to do is upgrade it with a Tesla electric powertrain and try to make it transform for real.”

Earlier this year, Musk tweeted an update on his plans for the car saying that he would “keep the original Bond Lotus sub as-is. That design can’t actually convert from car to sub. Have a new design in mind that does.”