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In 1995 Paula Newbie Fraser had a pretty comfortable lead in the Ironman World Championship on Kona, Hawaii. A few hundred yards from what would have been a triumphant finish, she collapsed. I have often wondered what that would have felt like…

The Esprit failed again last night. It left me in a car park after something like an hour off the trickle charger. Still, to be 8-2 in the last 10 starts is something close to measurable progress. The culprit is either the damnable charging system, or the battery itself (likely).

My first call was to Nancy for a recovery. Her frosty response was evocative of the Ward Hunt ice shelf, and I am fairly sure contributed to the unseasonably cool weather we are experiencing in Chicago today. Capital offense is to strand her. Life without parole is to interrupt prime time television with something Esprit related. Thank god they are closing Gitmo.

My second call was to my friend the field engineer who thought I was taking the piss out of him until he heard my wife in the background of the call declaring her vow with an authority that would impress Nancy Pelosi that she would NEVER ride in this crapwagon again and that it was NEVER to be trusted with anything except making it look like the driveway was still in the eighties.

Esprit flavored humble pie is an acquired taste.

After a moment on the charger it fired, threw its now customary check engine light, and slunk the half mile back to its den.

A half mile from home. That’s about as far as I can bring myself to drive it right now…

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So then, in the garage, deck lid up, handy dandy power probe out, Beck on the phone, battery showing 11 volts. Which is slightly less than required to fire the car. The battery will charge, but not hold it, so it is either the biggest parasite this side of a Chicago labor union, or the 4 month old battery has failed. Mensa membership not required to figure out which I prefer…

I should also mention that both Stan and TJ were all over me while I was working thought this, and it was well after their normal business hours. Try getting a BMW or Porsche tech to do that.

Needless to say, there are now a good pair of running shoes in the boot.

By the way, brave Paula actually rallied to finish fourth after some time on the deck. There’s always hope.

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They’re not completely OUR cars. Well, in the tax and title sense of the word they are, but lotus cars are kind of claimed by a number of folks who help keep them in service. It’s actually kind of cool.

When I had my Exige, for example, I got the feeling that the tech who serviced it, T.J. Waszak (of the now defunct Fox Valley Motorcars) sort of thought of it as one of his babies. I didn’t have a problem with that because he knows more about the 111 cars than anyone but the factory guys, and he has been a great friend for many, many years.

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My level of trust in him was such that from time to time he would take it to a friends EPIC Indy 500 party for the weekend, and I could still sleep. On some level, I think, he loved that car more than I did, and I can say that I hung on to it a few years longer than I should have so as not to disappoint him.

I think T.J. is a pretty good example of the kind of guy Lotus wants at a dealership with their sign over the door. Not only can the guy turn a wrench, but during his down time he is a ferocious brand ambassador for the marque as well as whatever dealership he is working with at the time. He has also taken the time to become a known and valuable part of the Lotus community, which doesn’t hurt.

I’m not going to go into how I first met him, except to say that my stories of a much younger T.J. and his adventures at the brickyard will remain a closely held secret unless he try’s to run for public office. I will say that he has matured fabulously into a fantastic husband and father, and someone that can be count on to do the right thing.

Anyway, when you pick your car up from a trip to a tech like him, he usually admonishes you for something. Crap tires, letting it get dirty, or in my case, not driving it nearly enough. He was right about that, and ultimately drove my decision to go back to an Esprit. As much as I bitch and moan about the “lack of use abuse” I inherited, I was becoming guilty of the same.

T.J. has left the Chicago area for a fantastic opportunity in Indianapolis, and I think he will be missed. We still keep in close touch, but I would have prefer having him 20 minutes away, not 3 hours. I suppose it’s rather less of a issue now that I am back in an Esprit, but it is what happened. He always kind of thought of Esprits as stepchildren anyway.

I have a feeling he will be back at some point.

There are a lot of Esprits that spend time on Ebay. Some seem to be listed for ages. They seem to have one of only a few story lines. First is the car that is such a basket case that the owner actually has to be honest and describe it thus. Second is the owner that had the car for a few years on the tail end of a replacement cycle, worked on it more than drove it, and has become exhausted (I was THAT guy once). Third is the nitwit that puts fancy-pants wheels, or huge stereos’, or Lamborghini wings or other things on it and declares it “improved” (about as dumb as thinking that Kate Upton need a boob job…). Fourth is the dealer that either thought they got a deal at an auction, did a favor for a good customer and took the car in on trade, or stopped reading the DuPont registry in 2002 and believes their car is worth $8-12,000 MORE than the market and gets offended when you suggest otherwise. Fifth is the guy that bout a wreck or a salvage and did his best to sort it out for a flip. Finally there is the owner that has driven and serviced his car properly and is either moving on to a new project, or really needs the money. Those, are the ones to look for.

The funny thing about the Esprit community is that at this point, almost all of the cars are known, and after a little looking you can find out their histories. The they ALL seem to have them. For instance, there is a V-8 listed now that sat at a dealership for almost a year because they couldn’t get the thing running and didn’t want to spend the money to make it right. It went to auction and now is represented by a few glorious glamor shots and a testimonial that is best considered brilliant fiction. Lift the deck lid and the poor car goes from Penelope Cruz to Cunègonde in the Transylvanian kitchen instantly. Putting the car right will cost the new (no experienced Esprit owner would EVER buy the poor car) Lotus guy thousands and probably turn him off to the marque forever.

Sometimes I like to call those dealers and talk to them about their cars. They start out all self assured, telling me that no expense was spared in keeping them commissioned. The talk gets somber when we get to timing belts. They always phone that bit in. They HAVE to. The tools alone for the job are prohibitively expensive, and the number of people actually qualified by Lotus to do the job are fewer than winning lottery tickets. If they can’t name proper names, and express serious regret at the cost of the service bills they incurred they are lying. When I tell them that, the call usually ends.

My current car never made it to eBay. I found it on autotrader. The pictures were stunning, and I knew based on the miles that the car would ned some attention in spite of the previous owner telling me he spared nothing… … Sparing “nothing” and leaving 13 year old tires on a car with the capability to go 175 miles an hour are sort of mutually exclusive. However, the car was fairly priced, and I do not regret pulling the trigger.

The only real issue I have with my car is the constant Anzio-like shelling I endure from my wife when it won’t run, but I believe in my heart after the last trip to Stan than my “spring offensive” has finally begun. Spiritually, she is the Lotus equivalent of a CIA interrogator in a camp no longer on published maps, but she means well. She doesn’t save it for me either. In fact, if she could get her hands on Colin Chapman himself she wouldn’t miss a beat. She can’t understand why I would willingly give up an Exige which had impeccable reliability, for an Esprit, which hasn’t (but will when I am done with it). Sometimes I don’t understand it myself.

On the front end, you are probably better off buying a car from a well known enthusiast that can provide the pedigree a car requires. It’s more expensive to do that, but several standard deviations less aggravating.

One of these days that’s how I intend to do it…

I had a chat with the Field Engineer of Lotus Cars USA yesterday. We were discussing evap code errors. Somewhere in between him telling me to check the gas cap, and some vacuum lines it occurred to me that there is literally NO other auto manufacturer where you can have such a deep relationship with the factory. Not even Ferrari or Lamborghini.

I’m pretty sure he made his way to the states as a part of the crew that had wild success with the X-180 Esprits in the World Challenge years ago. He has been the field engineer as long as I have been involved with the brand and it would be harder to imagine someone doing a better job.

I’ve known him(Dave) for many years now, since the early days of my first Esprit where he went out of his way to protect me from unnecessary and expensive work that a now-defunct dealership advocated, and I am humbled that when he comes through the Midwest, he makes time for the occasional dinner.

Throughout the years, Lotus has become legendary for its customer service. They seem to know each and every car they have produced, and in my case, they have occasionally twisted their own warranties beyond all reasonable shape to help me keep my cars on the road. If you are reasonable with Lotus Cars USA, you can never end up disappointed by the folks who work there. It’s because of people like Dave, not something written in a procedural manual, and I selfishly hope he never retires (for the sake of my Esprit…)

Its not always easy sledding. There are people that push him a little too hard, or for things that really aren’t all that important, or timely, and Dave was blessed with a wicked sense of humor, exclusively reserved for owners that do make unreasonable demands, like the time an Elise owner was so obsessed with a minor rattle to the point that he summoned poor Dave half way across the country to look at it. On the road during their test drive, the owner continued bellyaching, and unable to take it anymore, Dave pointed to the right knob on the radio. “See that?” he asked. “Yes” responded the driver. “Turn it all the way to the left”. The driver did, and the music started blasting. “Can you hear the rattle now?” And the lesson the taught…

Dave has also talked me through technical issues at hours usually reserved for business that get people thrown in jail, never complaining, and never making me feel like an idiot (or any more than I deserved).

He is, however, scared to death of my wife, and he should be. As far as Lotus cars goes, she is a “bottom line” kind of participant, and the early returns on the new Esprit have been less than amazing. The opinion she lays on him about his marque is as unfiltered as whiskey taken straight from the still, and the back and forth they enjoy is usually hilarious. If anyone can find a way to get the car back in her grace, it’s him.

I’ve known him to show up at some of the national Lotus club events on his own dime too. That’s pretty cool.

The company knows when one of their cars is out of sorts. A warranty manager equally as effective and twice as funny as Dave once told me that he had begun to look at my old Esprit as his “own personal Vietnam” and was willing to sell his house and everything in it to help sort the poor car. You would never live to speak to a warranty manager at a typical car company unless it was in a court of law.

Even though my Esprit is years out of warranty, I am pretty sure Dave will keep me on a short leash until its fully recommissioned. He takes an unusual amount of pride in his cars and won’t accept anything but the best for them. I have a feeling he would be like that no matter what company he worked for, but we are lucky to have him at LCU.

I doubt it would be possible for me to take another brand seriously at this point.

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Esprits are usually in A garage. It’s better if they are in the owners garage, because that means that they are in rude health, but it isn’t taken for granted, is it?

As the story goes, mine is in my garage again, and the garage has that “Esprit smell” to it. You know, a little oil, a little coolant, and car polish… …it’s nice.

We went to get it Saturday. I confess to a growing sense of excitement. It’s a cool car and I very much want to put some miles on it.

As the story goes, we turned up at SCC Auto (Stan the Lotus whisperers garage) at about noon. A fellow was picking up his Chevrolet Chevelle and he asked me if I wished I had his engine in my car. I told him I liked my chances against his car with the engine I had. In the next bay over I found the Lotus purring away, (I had asked Stan to fire it up so I had some engine temp when I left), and the second I stepped out of the Volkswagen to greet the car, the idle went haywire, the check engine light went on, and it died. Stan gave me this suspicious look, and muttered “it’s you… …this car was running perfectly until you got here…” (Thank god Chevy guy was gone) It was priceless.

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Moments later my cell phone rang. It was my wife who was in the VW, six feet away. She was aware of the crisis, and due to a prior relationship with my 98, has a level of trust with Esprits, that rivals the relationship between the North and South Koreas. Sadly, it’s earned. I told her to hold on, she replied that she was giving odds it was staying right where it was for the time being.

Stan plugged the scan tool in and we pulled the codes. Mat sensors and evap. Both minor. Both emissions related. We cleared them and it was fine. Off we went. Good temp, good idle, no leaks. All systems go.

We got the car in the garage and on a battery tender and I hoped to drive it later that day when my chores were done.

When I finally got around to driving it again the next morning, I fired it up and let it idle for a few minutes before I took off. As I sat down I noticed the “check engine” light on again. Unfortunately, Nancy was next to me and gave me that “look” again. She said, “you ain’t going nowhere, are you”, and I feared she was right.

It was exhibiting a p0442 code which is a minor emissions leak. I phoned Stan who told me to check the connection on the solenoid on the firewall. I pushed on it and it clicked. I cleared the codes and fired the car. It SEEMED fine, so off I went as my wife rolled her eyes.

At this point it’s pretty obvious to me that I need new tires. As in, I think the set of Dunlop’s it is on at the moment are original equipment. I hope there are some viable choices left.

The good news is that it feels mechanically strong. The better news is that ignitiongate is over.

There is never a dull moment.

The Esprit comes back tomorrow. I’d like to say I’m excited, but I am not. I am apprehensive. The thing that is getting me is the worry that we are not done with its issues yet. That circle of trust that normal people have with their cars, (you know, the ones that start every time…) isn’t quite there yet, and while I embrace the idea of Esprits as driveway art, I still kind of want to drive the fucking thing from time to time.

I know it’s kind of like complaining about the taste of grape Flavor-ade AFTER Reverend Jones makes you hero chug a cup, but what’s a fellow to do.

The starter is a plenum-off job. Since Stan was in there, common sense dictated that the spark plugs, plug wires, and coil packs had to go. We took advantage of the down time to replace the water pump as well, and while the coolant was drained, changed the coolant hoses. The oil leak at the turbo was a loose fitting, and the axle seals I’ll ignore until the gearbox comes out.

Thank god the weather has been mostly crap.

The way I see it, if we have indeed, finally and forever, iced the ignition issue, I am a radiator, some catalytic converters, a chin spoiler (my fault) a timing belt service and some tires away from being recommissioned. The tires will be an issue as the factory recommended rubber has been out of production for some time, and ever since the day my pal Dave Minter once growled at a group of Esprit owners when one of us (thank god not me…) haplessly suggested that they had IMPROVED on a Lotus suspension, I have been more than a little OCD about keeping as close to stock specification as humanly possible. Especially with regard to the tires and suspension. You know, if its good enough for Alister McQueen, it’s good enough for me…

In other news, on the recommendation of my buddy Beck, I bought a very fancy-pants fuse tester with the kinky sounding name “Power Probe”. I imagine it adding several years to my life as it tests fuses without having to pull them. In an English car, that’s material.

I hope the next couple of posts are about road trips, but with an Esprit, you never really know what is going to happen next.

The unemployment rate is 27% in Spain. There is an entire generation there who will end up lost in this depression. As bad as things are here in the states, they are several standard deviations worse overseas. I mention this because, as diehard a Lotus Formula One fan as I am, I was cheered to see Fernando Alonso lay waste to the field in Barcelona yesterday. Those folks need all the good news they can get at the moment, and anyway, Kimi took points off the gap to Vettel (whom I hate worse than math homework).

I thought Kimi drove a good race, while never looking particularly racy, somehow ending up on the second step of the podium, and while he is taking a page out of the “win the title with a hunting lodge full of seconds and thirds like Bobby Rahal” book, he is only something like 4 points adrift. The lad from Espoo is pretty consistent too, so I hope he will be in the fight this autumn. I hope anyone besides Vettel and Red Bull win.

If you like Formula One, and you don’t have a soft spot for Ferrari, there is something wrong with you. Of course my mast flies British Racing Green and Yellow, but the sheer joy the Tifosi have at every single good thing that the Scudaria does for the, is completely charming. While I admit they were hard to watch while Spoon-face Schumacher was dominating at the expense of everything else, up to and including both his team mate and the integrity of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Fernando is a worthy leader. Firm, but fair, and driving at a level most of the rest of us could only imagine. I do wish, they would remainder his annoying sidekick Massa, but not at he expense of taking Kimi from us.

Even though there is only the thinnest tie between Lotus the F1 team, and Lotus the auto manufacturer, I like it. There are a lot of similarities to them as well. Both are underfunded. Both make cars that handle ( see Kimi’s three stop to the rest of the leaders four stop strategy), both are resilient, and both enjoy killing giants when they can.

At any rate, if it shapes up,that there is a fight between Lotus and Ferrari for the title, between two of the best drivers alive, that would be a good thing.

The Tifosi will still cheer Fernando when he ends up in second place.

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The Esprit is at Stan’s shop at the moment. Ignition-gate is about to be resolved. It seems the starter has failed. That, is an acceptable outcome, and I kind of suspected it as a possible culprit anyway. While the plenum is off, we decided to replace the spark plugs, and wires as well. The coil packs look good, thank god, but there are a couple of cooling lines that would best be replaced.

Is ALWAYS something…

So, I have decided that while I can still recollect it, I want to talk about driving the sublime 2006 Lotus Exige. You know, I owned one for several years, and I got to know it fairly well.

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They are small and abusively quick little gits. Not quite as low as an Esprit, but shorter and more narrow, the dimensions are the first thing that shocks you. The interior is elemental. Small steering wheel, an utter lack of carpeting on the floors or padding on the seats, (in fact the passenger seat is fixed in place), you,are given almost nothing you don’t require to drive (stereo being the exception).

You climb over a fairly steep door sill and, for lack of a better term to describe it, you plop, into the drivers seat. The controls are all at your fingertips, and the driver position is surprisingly comfortable.

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You don’t see much out of the rear window except the wing, the hips of the car are obvious in the side mirrors, and although the view of the road is good out from the windshield, it takes a bit of time to adjust to the lack of periphery.

You make sure the car is in neutral, push a button on the key fob, depress the clutch (very light pedal effort) and put your finger in the start button. Is odd that such a minimalist car has one of those.

The staerer cranks, and it fires, or in the case of my car and its Larini exhaust, it explodes to life with enough volume to set off car alarms.

The engine note is nothing to be cherished. It is a small GE designed, Toyota manufactured four cylinder, but it is enough.

Once the car is at operating temperature, you depress the clutch again, select first (the gear selection is somewhat vague and awkward to me) and off you go.

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The 2006 is a “drive by wire” car and the lack of a solid connection between your foot and the fuel injectors causes a slight pause between when you ask for power and when you get it. Lotus tried to solve the problem by adding supercharges to every model of Exige after mine (that was extremely annoying, btw) but I cannot comment on those as I have never driven one. Anyway, the gas pedal is the least important part of the car if you are actually driving one of these on a track.

People,compare these to go-karts all the time. I actually think that is an insult to the Exige. Most karts understeer. The Exige threatens to do that, but it makes itself a available to pretty much whatever slip angle you want, pretty much whenever you want it.

The sheer amount of information that comes to you through the steering wheel is almost indescribable to someone that hasn’t driven a 111. There is no power steering and, while at super slow speeds the effort is a little heavy, in motion, it’s simply magic. Every undulation, change in pavement, type of pavement, everything, is communicated to you. Amazingly, even though there is very little body roll, the car is never really unsettled by this. That’s Lotus for you.

Coming from a V-8 Esprit, I was comfortable with the Exiges power (relatively speaking…). I was also ok with the chassis. Same, but stiffer and more focused. The thing that threw me for a huge loop, and considerable anxiety on a track, is how devastatingly effective the brakes are.

Take turn one at the Autobahn Country Club (full circuit) for example. Is a meaningful straight followed by kind of tight left. In an Esprit, I was hitting the hooks at sign board number 4. In an Exige, I was braking at the 2. And my foot would shake, because cars are NOT supposed to be able to do that. You are through that corner faster too, with the steering wheel dancing in your hands.

They have traction control. Mine was never engaged. Those AO-48’s just grip. Even in the wet.

The trouble with an Exige is that unless you live with a race track in our back yard, they are kind of tough to live with. They are complete overkill for public roads and it is kind of hard to enjoy them in a suburban setting without doing something criminally insane. As good as they are on a track they are dreadful to drive in traffic.

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The very car I owned is my good friend, and fantastic Lotus tech T.J. Waszak’s dream car and, in fact, I probably owned it a few years longer than I otherwise would have so I didn’t disappoint him. I would give him the car to pay with from time to time and it would come back to me in a different but better specification. Such is the way of things in the Lotus community.

T.J. Has moved on from Chicago, and I wish him, and the owner of my car only the very best. I would miss the Exige more if I wasn’t an Esprit guy.

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The Esprit broke again. Is the electronics. The sense of dread I get turning the key at this point is not unlike that one might have felt heading into Number 93 rue Lauristan, Paris, in the 1940’s…

My friend Beck, when made aware, offered to come to the aid of the beast, but I demurred. The Esprit has crossed a “red line” and unlike certain other folks, when that happens, I react.

Clearly, with driving weather slipping between my fingers, and my confidence in the car at an absolute low, I’ve got to do something. Its time, to feed it to the “big dog”.

Stan Chaffin is an extremely unassuming guy. He’s tall, quiet, and completely unaware that he is one of the nations foremost “Esprit whisperers”. He is my trump card, and the car will be in his care Monday morning.

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Stan used to be the Lamborghini and Lotus tech at the now defunct Fox Valley Motorcars. He is the man responsible for transforming my 98 from a disaster into something worth driving, and I am sure he will do it again with this one. In the Chicagoland area he should be the very first choice for V-8 service.

Stan owns his own shop now, SCC Automotive in Bristol Illinois (http://www.sccautomotive.com/index.asp). It’s kind of rural and when you walk in you will see a collection of “bread and butter” jobs as well as several “project” cars (muscle cars, exotics) from people that know just how good Stan is. I am proud of him for having the balls to start a shop in the middle of the recession, and happy that he is doing well.

The difference between a good Lotus tech, and a bad one was demonstrated to me when the engine on my 98 popped. It went to Bellman Midrivers Lotus in Saint Louis. They had the car almost a calendar year and the circus clown that effected the rebuild installed the rings incorrectly, failed to adjust the timing belt, and sent the car to me without oil in it. It lasted another 320 miles in that specification. It then went to Stan with the instructions to burn it to ashes unless it could be completely sorted out, which he duly achieved.

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I got the call from him that it was running while I was staggering around the Indianapolis motor Speedway for the Grand Prix.he was right. When it was done, acceleration in third gear affected the rotation of the earth.

I like that.

We will have some work to do rehabilitating this car. Wile I am disappointed at its state of repair, I don’t blame it. It didn’t pick the previous owner, did it?

“Patience of a saint” is a term that must be affixed to the owner of any Lotus manufactured prior to the 111 series. Even the very best cars require looking after and because of the low volume nature Lotus cars is unfortunately burdened with, specialists and suppliers are servicing the brand because they love it, not to make a living, and as such you are subject to their schedules. I actually think this is an advantage, because if they think enough of you to affix their reputation to your auto, the bits they manipulate tend to stay fixed.

Another cool thing you find out is that each of them is completely worth knowing.Take Paul Quiniff, proprietor of Fiberglass Solutions inc. in Addison Illinois (http://fiberglasssolutions.biz/)

I’ve known Paul for years and have been on the receiving end of exhaust smoke from his extremely mean looking, (sounding, running, etc) Élan a few times, and have socialized with him as a member of Lotus Corps (Chicago Lotus club completely worth joining). He is one of those Elan, Elite mafioso who systematically deconstruct the myth of horsepower for the rest of us on track days.

My friend Sanj suggested that I reach out to Paul about wheel arch-gate because fiberglass is what he does. I found the time to put the bits in the car and head over.

I walked into the shop and found Paul hammering pistons into a racing engine. To a car guy that is almost as cool as finding your dads porno stash. He was finishing spare number three (the season is a long one)…

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Among the presses, lathes, sanders and that type of stuff, you could see chassis, wheel sets, a couple of racing cars (one stacked on top of the sand blaster), his élan and just looking around makes you want to go to a race track. If you close your eyes, the shop even kind of SMELLS like a hot Esprit.

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Paul is the right kind of Lotus guy. He is a car guy first, a RACER second, and a Lotus guy third. I was there for an hour on my first visit. We spent 5 minutes looking at the arches, which he could fix with his eyes closed, and the rest of the time “bench racing” as he gave me the nickel tour of his operation ,(which by the way, is really impressive). He told me to come back in a week, two at the latest.

I forget who it was that told me that buying a Lotus changed his social life, but I find myself agreeing with him. Wen you get the keys to one of see magnificent cars, you inherit a network of pretty cool people who actually “get” Motorsport. Separate from the pleasure of driving the cars, it is almost as rewarding.

Anyway, Paul called yesterday and told me he was all set. He should have charged me triple what he did. We chatted for a few minutes about cosworth engines and dirt tracking a formula car and I was on the way home.

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Of course they fit perfectly. Wheel arch-gate resolved.

If you ever need a capable fiberglass fix, and you can find the majority of the parts, Paul is your man.

Now it’s time to go drive the thing.

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