The Lotus Seven and a lightness of spirit

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Brendan McAleer

On October 28, 2017, David Ellis went out for one last drive in his 1969 Lotus Seven. It was late fall; the leaves crackled under the tires and whirled up in the slipstream. The sun shone down on the curves of the Sea-to-Sky highway just North of Vancouver, British Columbia. The light offered little in the way of heat, but sparkled off the water and off the chrome and paint of the tiny yellow car. The Ford crossflow engine purred away, faithful for once, an old horse knowing that today was too important a day to stumble. There and back again, one last time.

On November 2, surrounded by friends and family, David raised a last pint in a toast to a life well lived.

He died the next day.

Brendan McAleer

“David was his Seven and his Seven was David; he had owned it for 13 years, and as far as I am concerned he is still sitting in the passenger seat,” says Rory Banks, the current owner of the Lotus Seven—though he wouldn’t call himself the owner. “I know one day, after a few years, it will feel more like my car, but as David said, ‘I am only the custodian.’ I have to agree. That’s why I put the plaque there (on the dash). David is still there in spirit.”

David Ellis was a slight man only in physical size. A longtime member of the Vancouver Rowing Club, he was an experienced cox, and his word was law on the water. He was passionate about his family, about rugby, about barbershop chorus, and was a committed fan of the Minnesota Vikings. He was energetic and cheerful and determined, and he faced down a terminal cancer diagnosis with a quiet courage that is at once inspiring and humbling.

Brendan McAleer

As I stand here in Rory’s driveway, looking down on the bright yellow Lotus, the car and the man still seem inextricably linked. Both small, almost birdlike in their quickness. Both good-natured. Both quintessentially English in manner, chipper and uncomplaining, a friendly face belying hidden steel.

I first met David as part of the Hagerty Spring Thaw, a budget-friendly classic car touring event that runs along British Columbia’s backroads. The weather that year was deeply uncooperative, with torrential rain and even a flake or two of snow. My dad and I kept the roof up on our ’67 MGB. David’s Lotus didn’t even have a roof.

Brendan McAleer

“By the end of day one, David would know all the new people, how they heard about the event, and would have already made sure they were having the time of their lives,” says Dave Hord, the event’s organizer. “Rain today? It wouldn’t matter. David would arrive at the hotel, jump out of the Lotus and drain the water from his pant legs. The entire time he’d have an ear-to-ear smile you couldn’t wipe off his face. Rain, snow, closed mountain pass due to avalanche? David was simply unfazed.

“He didn’t count the days, he made the days count.”

Brendan McAleer

You got used to seeing that little yellow car in your windshield, hurtling through the mountain passes, and taking the long way ’round alongside the lakes. It looked like such endless fun, and certainly David’s attitude was part of the charm. His passengers couldn’t help but join in his irrepressible spirit of adventure, whether it was his younger brother Robert, a vintage Frazer-Nash enthusiast, or his son Toby.

Toby and David made quite the pairing. The son stood nearly a head taller than his father and barely shoehorned into the Lotus, sitting well above where the windshield ended.

David Ellis and his 1969 Lotus Seven. Brendan McAleer

“We didn’t always agree about everything,” Toby says, “but when we squeezed into ‘Lotie’ for a driving adventure together, all was about to be fantastic in our world.

“Of course, things didn’t always run smoothly, or go according to plan. For instance, the Seven’s exhaust fell off during a rainstorm near Hope and went clattering into a soggy ditch, to be lashed to the trunk for the remainder of the trip. Or when I insisted on taking the window panels off during the Washington Cascadia rally, and we ended up getting covered in horse manure.

“That little Super Seven provided many superb memories between a father and his son. I miss you, Dad.”

Brendan McAleer

I drove David’s car a few times, comparing it to a modern Evora for an article, or just itching to have a go behind the wheel of something so pure. He was more than happy to share his passion for the car and always showed up with a co-conspiratorial air. Once, he arrived having painstakingly copied out a route map for a mountain trip through Washington State.

“You simply have to try this out,” he said, excitedly. “Fantastic roads. Just fantastic.”

Last time we were out together, we drove that same Sea-to-Sky route that would be his final drive. If you can fold yourself into a Lotus Seven, or perhaps a Caterham, jot the experience on your bucket list. They are perhaps the most experiential cars on the planet, the thinnest of membranes between you and the road.

The wind gusted through the cockpit, compact cars looming like heavy mining equipment, the steering wheel chattering away with texture. There was essentially no inertia holding anything back. My left foot braced on a couple of tiny screws protruding through the bodywork, dipping down to the clutch for a quick gearchange of that stubby shifter. The bodywork rippled against the headwind, the willing four-cylinder engine snorting away on downshifts.

Brendan McAleer

Everything felt intensely alive, so in the moment. There was so much buffeting in the cockpit you couldn’t possibly hold a conversation, so David and I just grinned at each other like idiots. We both knew.

It’s common for people to say that someone has lost their battle with cancer. That’s not right at all. Life is not a battle, it is a race. Each of us have our own finish line. Sometimes you see the line, and sometimes you don’t.

David Ellis didn’t lose his battle. He simply lived in the time he was allotted, 77 years, each one of them experienced with the same earnestness and intensity of his little yellow Lotus.

Brendan McAleer

And what remains? One, the living memories carried by everyone who met him. Two, the Spirit of the Thaw award, given annually in his name to the person who most exemplifies an enthusiasm for adventure. Lastly, a small silver plaque on the dashboard of a Lotus Seven, honoring one man’s legacy.

Simplify, and add lightness—the old Lotus catchphrase. Live simply. Live well. Make the days count. Share your passions. Be generous of spirit.

Simplify. Add lightness.

Leave nothing behind. Nothing but light in the hearts of those who knew you.

Brendan McAleer
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