Arnie Johnson, the former CEO of Lotus Cars USA, passed away on August 26. Revered in the Lotus community, Arnie was known for his love of the brand as well as his willingness to do whatever it took to make sure it survived, and thrived, in America.
Arnie helped convince the execs in England to keep the Esprit in production so there would still be a new Lotus for sale in the U.S. But his biggest move was one that ensured the future of the brand and likely led to the point that Lotus is at now, even if that move broke ranks and could've gotten him in hot water.
While Lotus was only selling the Esprit in the U.S., abroad the Elise was leading a resurgence for the company. The lightweight roadster was a little revelation, a return to form that was wonderful to drive and had innovative manufacturing processes. The issue for America was the engine. The Rover K-Series did a fine job, but it wasn't certified for U.S. emissions standards, so the car couldn't be imported.
With the Esprit coming up on its 25th birthday and the U.S. still unable to get the Elise, Arnie hatched a plan. Dave Simkin, Lotus Cars USA's National Field Service Engineer and a close friend of Arnie's, related this story in the latest issue of Lotus Remarque (the Lotus LTD newsletter):
Arnie was instrumental in extended the Esprit production run so we could continue to have cars to sell in the USA, and along with Roger Becker he was the driving force to get the Elise into the USA. Arnie purchased a Toyota Celica GT-S through Lotus Cars USA (LCU) and shipped it over to Hethel (he almost got into trouble for it, but decided to ask for forgiveness instead of permission) so work could begin on producing a federalized Elise. Roger secured the powertrain through Toyota and the rest is history.
Imagine expensing a whole car and shipping it overseas so your company can start working on a car without even knowing if execs will approve it or if Toyota would sell the engines. Talk about a rogue move.
And a forward-thinking one. The Toyota-powered Elise went on sale in the U.S. for the 2005 model year and was an instant hit, propelling the brand to a place it hadn't been in years. That made more models possible, with the Exige and Evora coming to the U.S. soon after. It also led to the long-standing partnership with Toyota, which will continue when the Emira goes into production next year.
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