James Bond’s iconic Lotus Esprit submarine splashed onto the big screen 41 years ago
August 3 is a historic day for submersibles. On this date in 1958, the U.S. nuclear submarine Nautilus accomplished the first undersea voyage to the North Pole, traveling nearly 1000 miles under the Arctic ice cap to reach the top of the world.
James Bond fans will tell you that’s nothing compared to what happened 19 years later, when The Spy Who Loved Me opened in theatres on August 3, 1977. That was the day the world was introduced to one of the most memorable Bond cars of all time: a white, wedge-shaped, 1976 Lotus Esprit sports car that doubled as a submarine—a vehicle worthy of the greatest British spy in (fictional) history. The fiberglass-bodied Esprit is also forever tied to the actor who played Agent 007 in the film, Roger Moore.
Lotus unveiled the Esprit at the 1975 Paris Motor Show and launched production the following year. Designed by Giorgetto Giugiaro of Italdesign, the car received almost universal praise for its lightweight frame, superior steering feel, and handling. It was criticized, on the other hand, for a lack of power and for abundance of noise in the interior.
The Esprit’s 2.0-liter twin-cam four-cylinder engine was mounted behind the seats and ahead of the rear axle, so it also proved problematic for the Bond film’s stunt drivers, who were unaccustomed to a mid-engine car. Lotus drivers were tapped to help out.
Two different Esprits were used during production, including the modified underwater model nicknamed “Wet Nellie.” That fully enclosed and functional submarine car sold for nearly $1 million at RM Auctions’ 2013 London sale.
According to RM’s auction catalog, the special-bodied Esprit was shipped to Perry Oceanographics, a marine engineering and construction firm in Florida, which transformed the vehicle into a submarine at a cost of more than $100,000 (almost $450,000 in today’s dollars). The Esprit’s underwater driver was Don Griffin, a retired U.S. Navy SEAL. The submarine “moves forward via a bank of four propellers, with their electric motors being driven by batteries housed in a water-tight compartment. The articulated fins are adjusted with mechanical levers that are operated by its driver. Underwater, the Lotus has a turning circle of around 20 feet. Its dive and climb performance is regulated by ballast tanks, and it has been described as ‘crisply argonautic.’ Contrary to what movie magic suggests, there is no semblance of a road car interior in this Lotus; instead, inside one will find its underwater motors, batteries, levers, and other control apparatus, with only a platform seat for its driver.”
About a month after the auction, it was revealed that the buyer of the Esprit submarine was none other than billionaire tech entrepreneur and Tesla co-founder Elon Musk.
“It was amazing as a little kid in South Africa to watch James Bond in The Spy Who Loved Me drive his Lotus Esprit off a pier, press a button, and have it transform into a submarine underwater,” Musk said in a statement in October 2013. “I was disappointed to learn that it can’t actually transform. What I’m going to do is upgrade it with a Tesla electric powertrain and try to make it transform for real.”
Musk was joking, of course. But since he is, after all, Elon Musk, he couldn’t just leave the Esprit as a museum piece. Three years ago, jalopnik.com reported that Musk was planning to turn the “car” into a fully functional submersible. Although we haven’t seen any updates, we have no reason to doubt that Musk followed through with his plan and has taken the iconic Esprit for a swim or two. James Bond wouldn’t have it any other way.