Back to the Future
Words: Des Brown Illustration: Thubelihle Hlela
You’re a world-famous maverick billionaire. Actually, make that a multi-billionaire.
You’re also the guy who, insiders say, was the inspiration for the larger-than-life Tony Stark movie persona. Your resume is stuffed with acts of epic adventure, like being one of the first people to send a privatized manned rocket into space. You’ve also designed a hand gesture controlled holographic design device, and a mass-transit system that will hurtle passengers halfway around the world in a vacuum tube at the speed of sound.
Oh, and perhaps we should also mention that your dead-serious plan to put 80,000 settlers on the surface of Mars in the next ten years is being reviewed by the Royal Aeronautical Society. So then, we have to ask, what on earth does a man like you spend your pocket money on?
The answer: an awesome childhood memory.
Elon Musk, entrepreneur extraordinaire, space explorer, and CEO of Tesla Motor Corporation, leans back in the walnut and leather command post he calls a chair, and laughs delightedly. “I was a wide-eyed little kid in South Africa back in the 1980’s,” he says, the grown-up billionaire persona momentarily falling away to reveal a startling, wistful innocence. “There was one particularly beautiful Friday afternoon after school, one of those eternally magical days where the sun is shining brightly outside and everyone is happy – and we were at the movies.”
The movie in question was The Spy Who Loved Me, starring Roger Moore as James Bond. And, in a moment that would cement itself in one impressionable adolescent’s mind forever, there is a heart stopping chase scene where Bond spectacularly ramps his beautiful white Lotus Esprit S1 off a pier and into the ocean. The hero deftly pushes a few buttons, and the car transmogrifies into… a submarine. Not only that, but a submarine with an impossibly sexy Barbara Bach wriggling around in the passenger seat, while pouting suggestively at millions of fourteen-year-olds around the world.
No wonder The Spy Who Loved Me is still the highest-ever grossing Bond movie in history.
Fast forward to 2013, to a world where spying has become a game of Internet eavesdropping and email interceptions. The glamour and chivalry of the old days has faded, and you can’t tell the good Snowdens from the bad ones anymore.
Meanwhile, somewhere in Holbrook, New York, a little-known storage company has a glut of decades-old containers in its yard. It’s time to clean house, and get rid of all the delinquent stock. The containers are put out, and passers-by are invited to buy them “blind”. A Long Island contractor and his brother decide to take a gamble, and put $100 on a random container. Upon opening it, they see a pile of blankets, and under it… an odd looking car, with no wheels.
The rest, of course, is going to become history. Because that funny flat little car with no wheels had been missing for a long, long time, and had been waiting very patiently to find its new owners.
And, once they realized what they had found, the next logical step was to find out if anyone else was interested in this iconic piece of movie memorabilia. The car attracted immense attention, and was sold in September 2013 at auction for a staggering $866,000.
The buyer? A man who remembers the wonder-struck little boy he once was, and who is also quietly revolutionizing the universe as we know it. A man with his sights set on the conquest of space… and, on weekends, turning a classic movie icon into an actual submarine.
“Why not?” says Musk, with an engaging smile that says just watch me. “I’m going to fit in a Tesla electric engine and drivetrain, and then have some fun engineering it for underwater travel .”
Of course, the original couldn’t really swim, and was actually a mock-up shell piloted by a Navy SEAL wearing scuba gear. It sported rocket launchers, an oversized external rear view mirror swiped from a US Army tank, and an awesome trail of underwater bubbles that was created by tying a huge bundle of Alka-Seltzer tablets to the tailpipe!
The actual road going version was no slouch, of course, although perhaps just a little staid by today’s standards, with a top speed touching 200km/h, and the ability to rattle up to 100km/h in about seven seconds. Performance wasn’t the only issue, though: in fact, it was the sheer sexiness of the car that set it apart from its competitors. Avant-garde designer Giorgetto Giugiaro based his visualization on the origami-like effect of a folded polygon, creating the awesome illusion that the Esprit was made of a single sheet of alchemically creased metal plate. Battlestar Galactica on wheels.
And then, for more than three decades, the Lotus brand, just like 007’s submarine, looked as if it was going to sink into historical obscurity.
But of course, as any decent spy will tell you, appearances can be deceiving. Almost as if prompted by the frenzy surrounding the rediscovery of the Bond car, Lotus has just announced the pending release of the eye-wateringly beautiful 2014 Esprit Supercar, a monstrously powerful challenger to modern icons like the Audi R8 and the BMW 18 concept racer just unveiled in Geneva. For those who can afford the $150,000 price tag, the latest pony from the Lotus stable will catapult you from zero to 100km/h in 3.4 seconds, with a governed top speed of 330km/h, and will shred rubber for fun with an astounding 720Nm of torque nearly all the way through.
Which, of course, begs the question: is Elon Musk going to be buying one? He’s not saying anything.
So, if you happen to live in Bel Aire, and you spot a white origami UFO buzzing along unperturbed in the shallows of the Pacific Ocean – with or without a trailing stream of fizzy bubbles – chances are that you’ve just seen an iconic piece of history with your very own eyes.
Oh, and of course, the car that he’s so lovingly restoring to its former glory.