This year marks the 20th birthday of the Lotus Exige, an amazing milestone which has already seen the launch of a highly desirable 20th Anniversary edition. The genesis of the Exige is a fascinating story, born out of the worldwide success of the Lotus Elise, and a desire to return the brand to the cut and thrust of competitive motorsport.
Gavan Kershaw, the current Director of Vehicle Attributes at Lotus Cars, was part of the original team which made it happen. Here he explains what happened in his own words…
“The Lotus Elise had been launched in 1996, critically acclaimed by the performance car media and sold successfully all across the world. Over the following three years it had matured, and in 1999 the pinnacle of the range was the Elise Sport 190.
We had been out of motorsport for a number of years. Given our pedigree and the worldwide success we’d had in racing we were looking for a way back in. The British Touring Car Championship (BTCC) was growing in popularity and we were offered the chance to become the support race for it during the 2000 season. It was a great opportunity to put our cars back on the track, and in front of an audience which might be interested in buying a Lotus.
The idea was really simple and very appealing. The series would be solely run by Lotus, with 20 cars built and prepared by us for the drivers. At each race meeting in the BTCC calendar there would be a ‘Lotus village’ in the paddock where all the cars would be set up by Lotus technicians. Each car would be identical and drivers would buy into the series. Part of the attraction was that drivers only had to find 50% of the cost because we had some big-name sponsors contributing. Both we and the sponsors wanted to use an Elise as the basis for the race cars, so that it was recognisable, and so we set to work to develop the 20 cars.
We looked at the Sport 190 and realised that if we tuned the engine to over 200bhp it would have enough performance. The initial idea was to use an Elise with the hard-top roof fitted, but we also wanted it to look slightly different to the road car – a bit more like a race car.
Then the Lotus Design team put forward a sketch for a full coupe with flared wheel arches and a roof-mounted air scoop. Russell Carr, our head of design, felt the race car was an opportunity to do something different as the Elise had been out since 1996. Everyone fell in love with the new look, and it also worked as an engineering concept as all the body panels would fit on the existing Elise chassis and many other components would carry over from the Sport 190.
We swapped the Elise gearbox, replacing it with a non-synchromesh racing box. It was given the name Motorsport Elise and was unveiled at the 1999 Geneva Motor Show. It was a metallic green show car with gold wheels and a red interior.
The obvious question from the media was whether we would launch it as a road-legal ‘Elise coupe’ but there was no plan at that point. The engineering programme was simply to deliver 20 for the race series. It was run out of the now-demolished motorsport building in the centre of the Hethel test track. The only substantial change from the show car was that we fitted a single central seat, which helped with the weight distribution as the car was so light. We had a recruitment drive to bring in people to support the project, and we bought trucks to move the cars to and from the races.
By this time the race series had a name – the Autobytel Lotus Sport Elise Championship. I was taking part, as well as some well-known names including ex-Lotus F1 driver Martin Donnelly. Boyzone band member Shane Lynch was involved, and we ran a media car for journalists to compete for a race.
In tandem, following the car’s positive reception in Geneva, a production development team had been considering the idea of a road-going version. It got the green light so we worked on making that a reality. The car was really aimed at the track day community so we kept the concept simple and lightweight. For example, the cockpit went back to two seats, and it could be either left or right-hand drive, but there was no air-con. The overall design theme was race-focused, with a track-derived front splitter and rear wing, plus bespoke Yokohama road-legal track tyres.
Sunday 9 April 2000 was the first race in the Autobytel series and it was at Brands Hatch. We invited the media there on the Friday before to give the finished road car a world debut and to reveal its new name – Exige, from the French ‘exiger’ meaning ‘demanding’.
We staged a dealer conference later the same day and from that moment on the order books were open. It was a popular draw on the Lotus stand for the whole weekend as no one really knew we were going to have it there. I doubt anyone who attended thought it would still be so popular, and still winning fans, 20 years later.”