Richard Rackham with chassis

My Other Design is a Lotus

Lotus's (sic) reputation as car manufacturer underwrites the engineering consulting that makes up around 70 percent of its business. Charles Darwent meets the design-engineering duo behind its latest publicity machine, the Lotus Elise.

Peer innocently into the new Lotus Elise and you may find yourself staggering backwards in the way normally reserved for that moment when you first notice shards of glass on your passenger seat and a hole in the dashboard where your radio used to be. It is not just the Elise's radio that has gone: the buggers have had the dashboard as well. While about it, they've taken the walnut trim, leather seats, air conditioning and nifty chromium doodahs you have come to expect in a car that gives you a bare handful of change Out Of 122,000. Julian Thomson beams happily at your amazement. 'We wanted the Elise to be as much like a motorbike as possible,' explains Lotus's head of design, and one of the men responsible for this rapine. Short of leaving off the doors and a couple of wheels, it is difficult to think what more Thomson could have done.

Remark that the Elise's ultra-light, 15olb chassis means that the car as a whole weighs in at around 175 a pound, and you might imagine that the likeliest results of Thomson's motorcycle-impersonating talents would be to steer Lotus Cars Limited to the bankruptcy courts. Ali, but how naive. In fact, the skeletal nature of the Elise's frame has been the cause of the car's runaway (and unforeseen) success.

Made of extruded aluminium parts glued together with polymer resin, the Elise's chassis is as radical a piece of engineering to come out of British motor making since World War 11 that you will find. While its revolutionary monocoque structure - the kind of one-piece technology more usually seen on aeroplanes - sets tekkies drooling and offers boy-racers the speed gains of a car weighing rather less than the average racehorse, the chassis' attractions to Lotus as a small, independent manufacturer have been of a more earthy kind. 'We simply could not afford the kind of massive investments in tooling that mainstream manufacturers have to make,' admits Lotus's chief engineer, Richard Rackham. 'The simplicity of the Elise's chassis means that production costs are cut to the bone.'

It is not only the car's costs that have been stripped down. If the Elise's external bodywork is stylish in a believable, Ferrari-ish kind of way, it is the car's interior that really sets the pulse racing. The chrome nobs, hide seats and other missing etceteras have not actually been half-inched - merely discarded so that its radical skeleton can show through in the form of (for example) door sills. 'We've allowed the chassis to create the inside of the car,' notes Rackham. 'There's no trim to speak of, which is unusual.'

So has been the response to this automotive striptease. If the Elise's exposed chassis has made the British motoring world gasp, its sales figures have left it positively breathless - and nowhere more so than at Lotus Cars. When the company took a stab at how many Elises would be sold in the car's first year of production (1996), they hit on a figure Of 400. They sold ijoo. The 8oo planned for 1997 turned into 2,500. Such has been the Elise's popularity that there is a two-year waiting list and - despite f 17 million earmarked for investment in new plant in 1998 - Lotus shows no immediate sign of catching up with demand.

By now a question may be occurring to you: why?

Julian Thomson's own answer is that the Elise has captured that same millennial mood which induces those purportedly in the know to pay architects to design them flats with no walls, doors or furniture. 'We'd seen all sports cars going down the route of becoming more and more civilised,' says Thomson, 'and that included our own products. By producing things that were like normal cars, Lotus had lost sight of what it had always been about. We wanted to get back to that with the Elise, to return to something more raw, more basic, less convenient and less comfortable.' In Thomson's reading of things, this rawness would appeal primarily to those 'sports car nuts' to whom the Lotus marque still conjured up images of its creator, Colin Chapman, hurling radically aerodynamicised wisps of metal around Formula One racetracks, pausing only grudgingly to design money-making road cars (a species for which he felt undisguised contempt) - most famously the Lotus Elan - for the likes of Emma Peel. 'There are too many manufacturers now, which means there has to be a return to brand values, says Thomson. 'For VW to sell a new model, it has to be more VW than the VW before it. It was the same for us.'

Given that anyone who can still recall the frisson of driving a pre-luxe Lotus must be approaching an age where a Bath chair might seem a more apposite mode of transport, though, Richard Rackham's may be a snappier explanation for the Elise's success. 'The Elise,' says Rackham, , is not about transport or function. It's gone the way cameras have gone. It's a little fashion accessory.’

Whichever version you choose, the Elise Experience has provided useful lessons at Lotus's Hethel workshops. According to Thomson (who, in a more mundane life, worked as a designer for Ford), new cars have traditionally come into being via the rivalry between design and engineering departments.

'We'd come up with a design, lob it over a fence to the engineers who would ruin it and lob it back,' says Lotus's chief designer. Rackham, for his part, maintains that engineers were always the ones with the real taste for elegant solutions. 'The fact is that the most efficient form of clothing is the uniform and the most efficient colour for that uniform is grey,' says a deadpan Rackham. 'Understanding this has meant that engineers have traditionally been given the stiff parts of cars to do, while designers have been allowed to stick on the plastic styling.'

That this has patently not been the case with the Elise can be confirmed by a quick glance through the car's windscreen. Where skin has been the usual focus of automotive voyeurism, it is the Elise's revolutionary bones that are left to catch the eye - an inversion that suggests that Lotus's engineering-design equation has also been turned inside-out.

That this transformation also handily turns the Elise into a four-wheeled advertisement for Lotus's engineering skills is of vast importance. Even if sales of the car continue to defy predictions, they are still unlikely to account for more than 30 per cent of Lotus's annual turnover. By far the larger part will come from licensing out Lotus's in-house engineering skills to other car-makers, Vauxhall and General Motors among them.

The obvious blurring of the line between engineering and design in the Elise has caught the eye of more than just the 6,ooo or so sporties who have so far bought the car. Last year, a f 31 million, 8o per cent stake in the company was acquired by the Malaysian Hicon Group: manufacturers of possibly the world's most prosaic family saloon, the Proton. Without it, the days of Lotus Cars would probably have been numbered.

In Chapman's time, the inconvenient truth was that Lotus had to make road cars to underwrite the company's Formula One machines. Post mortem, his company has to style Protons in order to keep making its own road cars. Something of a come-down? Not really. 'I'd say that a majority of the designers and engineers here live to make our own product,' says Julian Thomson. 'They think that the Lotus is the most exciting thing on the road. It may be unfortunate that they have to spend most of their time doing mundane work in order to be able to do so. But it's certainly better than the alternative.'