Words: James Walshe Pictures: Matt Howell
Roger Moore’s spokesman was quite firm: ‘Sir Roger never really enjoyed driving the Lotus and back then, the company wasn’t terribly kind to him after filming was completed so alas, he has no interest in talking about the car.’ Forty years after The Spy Who Loved Me hit cinemas, reuniting James Bond with a freshly restored Esprit was clearly going to be a non-starter.
With that idea in the bin, I turned instead to the real hero of the story and arranged to meet our real-life Q, Paul Coleman. The college lecturer from Bedford restored his Series 1 in the family garage. ‘Apparently Sir Roger quite fancied himself one but Lotus wouldn’t give him a discount.’ Paul stands gazing at his car – the result of an arduous decade long rebuild. ‘I didn’t have time to install rocket launchers or machine guns’ he wearily admits. And although we establish that it will no doubt go underwater, this particular Lotus probably won’t fare well. ‘There have been moments I’ve wanted to drive it into a lake.’
The Esprit is forty this year and, having made its famous debut at Pinewood Studios (see page 6), its impact on our Paul was great. ‘I remember seeing the film and the Lotus really stuck with me. Even though I’m not what you’d call a classic petrol head. Design interests me more than engineering.’ I ask what he finds appealing about his car - inescapably a true icon of the silver screen. ‘Regardless of the James Bond nostalgia and the fact it’s a supercar, to me the Esprit is art. It’s a beautiful thing that sits happily beside other beautiful designs, such the Supermarine Spitfire. I always wanted one of those but it won’t fit in the garage.’
Paul spent two years looking for the right car and found this one on a driveway in Bristol for £2000. It hadn’t been on the road since 1989 so you can imagine the condition it was in. Once he’d dragged it home on a trailer, Paul was able to have a proper look. ‘The chassis was in a terrible state at the rear of the car so I would have to replace the rotten rear tubes and engine mounts for starters. First job was to crack the body off the chassis and once separated, he set to work on the big white fibreglass bit. The process was neither quick nor pleasurable. ‘In the end, I spent four years alone doing the bodywork.’
There were times when he felt like giving up. ‘I came close to selling it twice. I would go six months and not touch it out of frustration. It gets to a point when you’re doing endless work and it doesn’t look any different. You don’t feel like you’re getting anywhere.’ But he persevered. Before I could even think about prepping for paint, I left the fibreglass repairs for six months to make sure the filler didn’t sink.’
Having never attempted paintwork before, Paul did the job himself in a big tent in the back garden. ‘I spent a lot of time studying the internet and talking to experts and discovered painting a fibreglass car is very different. You have to be careful with the thinners on a car like this as they can fetch out any previous repairs.’ Paul then dished out the etch primer and two-pack. ‘It took time to perfect the technique. ‘The front wing had runs the whole way down, which led to hours and hours of sanding it back. But I got it right eventually and would say the paint job is a nine out of ten result!’
Paul looked into buying a new chassis but at the time, they were £3000 each with a minimum order of three. With that in mind, he went to work on repairing the steel backbone himself. ‘The top tubes always rot under the exhaust manifold so I fabricated them using thicker metal. I even painted the insides and injected it all with wax.’ Attention to detail at this point was everything. Paul wanted to ensure he would never have to do any of this work again. ‘I made a jig based on the original so I could get all the engine mounting brackets back to where they should be.’ The pursuit of perfection extended to every nut and bolt, with each one re-plated.
A previous owner had wanted to fit a Rover V8 but fortunately, the car had been sold to him with the original 2-litre four. Before refitting the engine, he stripped it and fitted many new parts, including liners, pistons, rings, shells, valves and valve guides. ‘The original head had been skimmed to bits so I sourced a new one from a bloke in Coventry for a tenner!’
Watching James Bond and Agent Triple X (Barbara Bach) attempting to evade Stromburg’s helicopter wench, you can’t fail to admire those sporty green tartan seats and sumptuous orange carpet. Paul is a big fan too. ‘I had a quote for the upholstery from a coach-trimmer but just couldn’t justify the £15,000. The cost of doing the interior was way beyond the value of the car at the time and since I wanted to do all of the work myself, that had to include the interior.’ This is where wife Vanessa came to the rescue, having just finished making all the curtains in the family home. ‘Luckily, she’s quite handy with a sewing machine.’ Over many weeks, Vanessa did the lot using the original (but mouldy) upholstery as a template. The result is stunning, with every panel perfect and to original spec. ‘The amount of effort involved in the interior was enough to put us off doing it again for life!’
Sliding into those seats for the first time was, as you might expect, an exciting moment for Paul. That said, having never driven one, he wanted an expert to spend some time making sure it ran just as an Esprit should and so took it to specialist SJ Sports Cars in Exeter. They identified a few issues, not least a leak from the cylinder head. Replacement studs did the trick and the car was at least ready to be driven – and enjoyed. ‘It’s a great little sports car’ he grins. ‘It has its quirks but the handling is sublime. My nerve goes long before the Esprit begins to twitch. It’s a special thing to drive.’
We can’t help noticing his next project, slumped across the other side of his double garage. It’s the shell of a 1965 FHC E-type surrounded by many tiny bits. Paul has a confession for us. Looking wistfully towards the stripped and very frilly Jaguar shell, he confesses. ‘The E-type is actually my number one favourite car of all time. I absolutely love the Lotus but if you presented me with the keys to both the E-type and Esprit, I’m afraid I’d walk right past the Lotus. I’m afraid that’s the way it is. I am... a Jaguar man.’
My heart sinks. For this writer, at least, the Lotus Esprit is a dream car. E-types are ten-a-penny. And anyway, how can a chap invest so much of his blood, sweat and tears into something he regards as second best? Paul’s reply begins to seriously erode my passion for this iconic machine. ‘It’s a beautiful thing but it isn’t very dependable, it’s quite difficult to drive day-to-day, my right foot aches after just a few miles and I was recently outgunned by a Nissan Leaf.’ For Paul, the fun of the Lotus was immersing himself in nostalgia and restoration. ‘Finding all the hard-to-find parts and bringing it back to life was the best part. But it’s done now.’
Maybe because of my dejected expression, Paul begins to look a little uncomfortable with himself and looks off into space. ‘I suppose I’d have to sell it to find out if I missed it. By which time it’d be too late.’ There’s a long pause and he gazes down at the car. ‘I’ve put so much of myself into that thing, I would probably regret selling it for the rest of my life.’