Driving a Lotus Elise from the UK to the South of France and back again may seem like a recipe for back ache, badly creased shirts and a numb backside. In fact, the Lotus Elise is the perfect road trip car if you take a little time to prepare. Professional car photographer Tim Andrew has travelled across Europe in many different cars over the years. Here’s his road trip story in his beloved Lotus Elise S2 from the UK to the South of France, via Paris and then back again.
HR. You’re a professional car photographer and see a great many supercars each year. What was it about the Lotus Elise that made you want to own one?
Tim. I shot the original Elise S1 for Autocar when it was first launched, thought it was cute, but a bit too “retro-frogeye” for my taste. A few years later I shot the S2, Toyota engined version against it’s competitors ( Porsche Boxster, Honda S2000, BMW Z4) for CAR magazine, and was blown away by the performance and sheer fun of the car and it looked like a mini Ferrari. I’ve wanted one ever since, and now that the kids have left home….
HR. So driving the Elise from the UK to The South of France. What made you want to do it and how comfortable was something like the Lotus for a long road trip like that?
Tim. We’ve done this trip many times in people carriers, loaded up with the kids, our mountain bikes and tons of other stuff. It just seemed like a nice idea to do it the minimalist way, in a car that’s fun to drive with a chance to really get to know it.
Once we’d got off my local pot-holed country roads the ride was good. That well-known Colin Chapman obsession with lightness and suspension compliance means a floaty but controlled ride. Let’s just forget about the nasty concrete part of the M25 and the Paris cobbled streets that would be bad in any car!
I did make a small back bolster out of a small bit of folded carpet. Moving that around together with the seat-back lumbar-support pump, I had less numb-bum and back-ache then on previous trips. There’s definitely a penalty to pay with road roar and wind noise, though. The car designers had to skimp on sound proofing and carpeting to keep the car light.
HR. What route did you take and where did you stay?
Tim The UK part of the trip was the usual M40, M25, M20 dullness to Dover for a ferry crossing. Then the equally boring run down the autoroute to Paris. Arriving at the infamously packed Paris periphérique we decided to risk going through town. It was a painfully slow drive, but at least we got to see some landmarks and avoided the stifling ring road tunnels. We stayed with family near Austerlitz, with the Lotus safely locked up two storeys down in an underground garage.
After 24hrs we took the A6 autoroute out of Paris but forked onto the A77 after Nemours, the idea being that we would mostly avoid motorway tolls, and try a different route to the usual Orléans>Bourges>Clermont-Ferrand route. There were good sections of dual-carriageways, 3-laners and wide forest or country roads, interspersed with slow village and urban sections. This added significantly to the journey time.
When we started seeing signs for Magny Cours, I realised that I had done this route before to photograph a journalist having a go in a racing car at the circuit back in the ’80s. So long ago, I’m struggling to remember what it was, but shot for Performance Car magazine. Lunch was a picnic in a quiet country lane, but I couldn’t tell you where. When we set off we ended up on a cobbled lane which turned into a muddy track – a classic satnav goof; you can’t always trust TomTom, which recommended it as a shortcut back onto the main road.
At lunch we set ourselves the target of getting to Vichy; a town we’d never visited, but one whose name is deeply significant with the WW2 history of France. We breezed into town without a hotel booking, but found one in the town centre with off-street, gated parking and reasonable pricing (Hôtel-Restaurant Le Derby’s-Midland). The town seemed pretty empty and our only chance of getting dinner was at a local crêperie. Vichy the next morning was a delight; imposing belle-époque thermal bath-houses surrounded by classy shopping – imagine Bath but with extensive covered promenades shaded by large plane trees.
Leaving Vichy we headed back to the usual A75 autoroute. From Clermont-Ferrand down to the coast it is largely toll free, a deliberate transport policy to attract people to the area and take pressure off the over-crowded “Autoroute du Soleil” that passes through Lyon. The Millau viaduct is a most impressive sight that you get glimpses of miles before crossing. Accelerating away from the bridge toll booth, after 30 kilometres of torrential rain , an engine warning light came on, so we stopped at the bridge viewing area, not to look at the view but check out the engine. All seemed fine, and a couple of days later the light went off, so I’m assuming some moisture got to a sensor or its wire. It has never come back on and was the only moment of doubt on an otherwise faultless drive. We arrived at our destination in the Cévennes an hour later and relaxed for a few days.
The return journey was up the good old A7 Autoroute as a visit to relatives in Nîmes meant going home via Millau didn’t make sense. It was a much faster trip and we made it back to Paris for dinner. The only hiccup; a puncture in Paris. A builders site screw embedded itself in a rear tyre. The Lotus has no spare, just a can of Holts Tyre-Weld. You spray it into the tyre valve and then drive a few miles to spread the goop around. As Paris was gridlocked, this didn’t happen and in the morning the tyre was flat. I limped 500m to a convenient tyre shop and they eventually sourced and fitted the only tyre they could find that was the correct size. The last french leg of the trip was up the A1 autoroute for an overnight stay with another relative in Lille. We then left the beautiful medieval town centre, ring-roaded it round the shabbier suburbs and headed for Calais via the toll-free Dunkirk A25 autoroute.
HR. Which places did you pass that you’d like to go back and investigate more deeply?
Tim I’d love to investigate more of the Aveyron and Cantal departments south of Clermont-Ferrand and I have fond memories of an epic drive from Cahors to the Cévennes via Albi and Saint-Affrique.
HR. Which was your favourite road of the drive?
Tim Undoubtedly a drive from Le Vigan up to Mont Aiguoal on the D48. Unfortunately the road was blocked because of land-slide repairs 2/3rds of the way up. Paradoxically, this meant zero traffic and a chance to really let loose on some beautifully twisty mountain roads. These are not the slow hairpins of a mountain pass but nice flowy corners, not necessarily that fast, but you can get into a great rhythm a bit like skiing or snowboarding. Much of the roads in this area are similar if you avoid the tiny ones.
France has changed. Where once it was a chance to relax and let your hair down a bit, most drivers are courteous and respect speed limits. Best beware that I have never seen so many speed cameras. They are mostly as you’d expect on the busy inter-city Routes Nationales and Autoroutes and with good reason in many places, so seek out the quiet but well-maintained country roads for the best driving experience. Also, speed limits on most non-motorway roads have been reduced from 90kph down to 80kph. A regrettable move.
Out of curiosity, I recorded the mileage and fuel consumption for the trip: 1700 miles and 34mpg which seems reasonable for such a quick sportscar.
Tim Andrew is one of the UK’s leading automotive photographers. His work appears across international magazine covers and many car manufacturer’s advertising materials.
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