Serious question: Aren’t you tired of hearing about “handcrafted” cocktails and mixed drinks? Even the Hilton Garden Inn next to NCM Motorsports Park has a little sign in the elevator bragging that they serve handcrafted cocktails. What’s the alternative? A giant multi-armed robot that mixes cocktails with inhuman precision while it stares at you with a single baleful Cylon eye? Would you rather get your drink that way? I sure wouldn't.
The truth of the matter is that “made by hand” isn’t always better. You wouldn’t want your vaccines or your ball bearings or your airliner engines crafted individually by temperamental, possibly bearded artisans. That kind of attention really only pays off when the product involved is extensively tailored to your particular desires.
Which brings us to “Lenora,” the sparking green Lotus Evora 410 Sport that I drove around the Nurburgring for a story in this month’s print edition of Road & Track. Perhaps suspecting that I would become inappropriately attached to Lenora, the production team at Lotus took a series of photographs documenting her journey down the “Large Car Line” at their production facility in Hethel, UK. After I left the Ring, I was also given a tour of the factory so I could see how Lenora, and her siblings, are truly handcrafted by a small and dedicated group of assemblers and artisans.
There are two production lines at Hethel, but they bear very little resemblance to the robot-dominated, continually-moving affairs that you’ll find at major automaker plants from Marysville to Munich. Lotus truly uses lines of wheeled rotisserie carts, one per car. The “small" Elise-based cars go down one side of the building, and the “large" Evora-based models go down the other.
Every Lotus starts with a hydroformed aluminum frame on its own cart. A build sheet is taped to the frame; at each station, the builders examine it to see what’s needed. It’s a manual process, and unlike the “just in time” systems adopted elsewhere throughout the industry, at Lotus it’s not unusual for the whole thing to come to a halt while some missing part is found, sourced, or ordered. Which is okay, because each Lotus assembler is skilled in multiple steps and can do other things while he or she is waiting for said part.
In the early stages, the frame is married to its steel roll structure and given basic mechanical assemblies like the steering column, coolant pipes, and other things that will be buried later on. At the same time, the front and rear subframes are being assembled elsewhere in the building. Dozens of engines from Toyota wait to be married with USA-made Edelbrock superchargers and placed in their mounting cradles. A nose-high stack of AP Racing calipers in different colors sits on a pallet nearby, near a crate of Bilstein suspension components. There’s braided hose and a sur of A/N-style fittings everywhere you look. With just 10 unsupervised minutes in this building, you could significantly improve pretty much anything from a Miata to a Marauder.
The subframes are joined to the center frame in a simple but sophisticated arrangement. Tapered aluminum tabs on the front and rear assemblies slot into C-channels and are then tightened in place with two large bolts per corner. In a crash, these subframes can sacrifice themselves and detach from the passenger compartment, making a rebuild easier.
As the car rolls in leisurely fashion from station to station, it acquires wiring harnesses, hydraulic lines, and body panels. At the same time, the upstairs trim shop is working on the interiors, which are truly handcrafted from individual bits of leather, Alcantara, fabric and thread. Virtually anything is possible, and the selection of available fabrics reminds me of Richard Anderson’s fine clothing shop on 13 Savile Row. The difference is that the bolts of cloth are bigger—a lot bigger. Tartans are popular this year with Lotus buyers in the UK, apparently.
The stitches you’ll see on the interior trim are done by a group of ladies who use old-fashioned sewing machines and a lot of patience to get everything just right. As a final touch, a metal plaque with the name of a factory employee is attached to the passenger-side dashboard. To my amazement, the two managers who accompanied me on my tour could immediately recall personal details of employees I called at random. It’s a close-knit crew, to say the least.
Eventually my guides asked if I wanted to see “The Robot.” There’s just one true automated-arm robot in the factory, although the automated leather cutter that scans each tanned hide for defects before carving out trim pieces would probably qualify as a robot to most people. “The Robot,” however, is a waterjet cutter that trims and adds belt cutouts to the carbon-fiber and fiberglass bucket seats that are made entirely by hand in the layup room next door. US-market buyers aren’t allowed to purchase those lightweight one-piece wonders, because they don’t have any room for airbags. Not to worry; the seat supplier used for Lenora’s US-federalized chairs is the same supplier that built seats for the Bugatti Veyron.
Start to finish, the whole Large Car Line is about as big as the paint-booth area at most major auto plants. It’s difficult to imagine more than a hundred people working on it at once. I can’t help but envy the men and women who put Lenora together. While many assembly-line job can be dreary and depressing, there must be a tremendous amount of satisfaction in being part of this creative process. Each car is different, each one is special, and the vast majority are made to order for owners who are impatiently waiting for updates on their new Evoras or Elises or 3-Elevens.
A tour of the Lotus factory is available to anyone who can make the two-hour- trip up from London. If you’re a fan of the brand, or if you’ve ever wondered how this tiny company builds these remarkable and unique automobiles, it’s absolutely worth your time. I walked away from my tour with a renewed affection and respect for Lotus and its products. The production process isn’t old-fashioned and it isn’t deliberately quaint in the manner of certain rebooted English luxury makes and their showcase factories. It’s simply the natural product of the Lotus obsession with lightness, simplicity, and focus on the owner’s individual desires. Stop on by, even if you’re not planning on ordering a handcrafted sports car any time soon. Say hello to The Robot while you’re there.