The 007 Lotus Esprit Submarine Car from The Spy Who Loved Me commonly tops the polls when movie fans are asked to pick their favorite film cars of all time.
Like all the best Bond cars, the Lotus was a veritable war chest of weaponry and gadgetry that was designed to fox and foil the enemy whilst also helping Bond to another hard-won victory for Queen and country.
Giorgetto Giugiaro’s Italdesign unveiled a concept car at the Turin Motor Show in 1972 that was based upon a stretched Lotus Europa chassis. It was amongst the first of designer Giugiaro’s polygonal “folded paper", or wedge-shaped, conceptions, and it caused a sensation in the automotive press. Lotus ultimately developed its Lotus Esprit using this design, and remarkably, little changed from the show car. The Esprit was launched in October 1975 at the Paris Auto Show, and it went into production in June 1976, replacing the Europa in the Lotus model line-up. With its lightweight chassis, mid-engine configuration, and fibreglass body shell, it furthered the reputation for class-beating handling long enjoyed by Lotus. At the time of its introduction, it was indisputably Britain’s most advanced sports car.
The Lotus not only impressed the automotive world, but it also impressed film producer Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli, who one day found a pre-production model parked directly in front of his office at Pinewood Studios outside London. The car had been conspicuously positioned there, without identifying badges, by Lotus PR Manager Don McLauchlan. McLauchlan had learned that preparations had begun for a fresh 007 adventure, and he wanted to make their extraordinary new car available for the picture. Experience with the vehicles from other films, particularly Aston Martins in prior Bond movies, had proven that the publicity and sales impact could be enormous. So a deal was struck, and Lotus delivered two production vehicles; each of these were equipped with an additional piece of sheet metal beneath the radiator to protect the cars from the rough streets of the Costa Smeralda, in Sardinia, where the surface sequences of the famous chase was to be filmed. Additionally, seven more body shells were supplied, with one of which being sealed all around for underwater scenes and converted into a submarine.
No Bond car has ever done anything as outrageous on screen as transform itself into a submarine; none except for this Lotus in the epic The Spy Who Loved Me. Breaking with tradition, Q is never given the opportunity to explain the car’s features to 007. So, when the Lotus is fired (literally! – see sidebar) off a jetty into the sea, the audience was stunned, and captivated. Watch it in action, in this scene from The Spy Who Loved Me below:
The specially prepared body shell was shipped to Perry Oceanographics, a marine engineering and construction firm based in Riviera Beach, Florida. Perry was known for their ingenuity in building all manner of submersible vehicles (including the Reef Ranger, also seen in the underwater battle), and they are world-renowned for their unique capabilities.
With guidance from Special Visual Effects Supervisor Derek Meddings, Perry re-envisioned the Lotus as a “wet” submarine (connoting that it is full of water as it travels beneath the surface). It 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. It was said to have cost over $100,000 to construct (nearly half a million dollars today).
Its driver was Don Griffin, a retired U.S. Navy SEAL who was employed as a technician and test pilot for Perry. As such, he was the obvious candidate to operate the Lotus on location, with the underwater sequences being filmed nearby in the Bahamas.
And Don Griffin was indeed the driver (in full scuba gear with auxiliary oxygen), and in so doing, he assumed one of the greatest anonymous roles in movie history. As the one and only fully functioning Submarine Car especially designed and built for the spectacular underwater sequences, the Lotus appears in the film for the lion’s share of the screen time beneath the surface.
Dubbed “Wet Nellie” on the set, the Lotus was used to incredible effect in the film. It was fitted with mechanically operated enclosures that reveal the missile launchers in the front, a smoke screen exhaust in the rear, and a mine hatch on the bottom. When Griffin voiced the need for rearward vision, a prismatic mirror was mounted on the roof, which was sourced from Army surplus and came off of a tank. The stream of air bubbles following the vehicle was actually generated by utilizing a giant cache of Alka-Seltzer tablets!
The Spy Who Loved Me was the 10th film in the Bond franchise, and the third to star Roger Moore. At a pivotal moment in the celebrated progression of 007 films, Eon Productions needed a hit after the disappointing box office performance of The Man With The Golden Gun (1974). So, this time they pulled out all the stops by doubling the budget, bringing back Lewis Gilbert (You Only Live Twice) to direct, and giving Production Designer Ken (later Sir Ken) Adam appropriate latitude to create the phantasmagorical and futuristic sets for which he was famous. And then there was the Submarine Car, which was conceived by Adam, a Lotus owner and an admirer of the Esprit’s streamlined shape. So, the fuse was lit and the fires of 14-year-old imaginations around the world were re-ignited: the secret agent as super hero (with a little technological assistance)! As a result of this renewed commitment, The Spy Who Loved Me became the highest-grossing Bond film to date, firmly re-establishing the 007 character as a contemporary action hero.
Along with supervision on location by Meddings, underwater cameraman Lamar Boren, himself a veteran of the underwater crew from Thunderball and You Only Live Twice, was also re-enlisted for the filming of Wet Nellie in the Bahamas. So, yet again in a James Bond film, the car was the star, and moviegoers couldn’t stop talking about the Lotus.
In conjunction with the 1977 release of The Spy Who Loved Me, U.S. Lotus (Lotus East) executive distributor Fred Stevenson procured Wet Nellie for display at auto shows, according to correspondence between Stevenson and the location manager for Eon in the Bahamas. Stevenson remembers the Lotus was full of sand and seaweed upon delivery in New York and there was no time to clean it prior to its first public debut at the New York Auto Show! This was followed by appearances at shows in Cleveland, Chicago, Denver, and Los Angeles, by which time its custodianship was taken over by Lotus West. Stevenson relates having great fun with the Lotus, discussing its unique features with dignitaries and celebrities who enjoyed having their photographs taken with Wet Nellie.
Eventually, Wet Nellie was shipped to Long Island, New York, where it was kept in an unassuming storage unit in Holbrook, New York. The lease was reportedly for a 10-year rental, paid in advance. Fate later intervened when, in 1989, the rent delinquent unit was put up “blind” at public auction. A modest winning bid from an area couple brought surprise and wonder when the blankets were removed to reveal the iconic 007 Submarine Car. The roof had been damaged, but it was otherwise wholly intact. It’s new (and current) owners recount that, whilst towing it home, the CB radios of highway truckers were all abuzz about the sighting of the famed Lotus. After positive authentication, Wet Nellie was cosmetically restored and fitted to a custom-designed display trailer and exhibited occasionally, including a stint at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, but it was mostly kept closely under wraps…until now.
“Of all the Bonds I made”, remembers Roger Moore, “The Spy Who Loved Me is the one I like best. The locations were right; the costumes were right; everything on that movie went together."
Sadly, Ian Fleming, the creator of the James Bond character and originator of the first 007 gadget car on paper, is no longer with us. However, Raymond Benson, author of seven “official” posthumous Bond books, had this to say: “I never used an underwater car in any of my Bond novels, but the Lotus in the film is one of my favorite vehicles in the 007 universe!”
Today, Wet Nellie is presented with its restored, museum display quality exterior, whilst inside, the full operational equipment appears to be complete and original. This first-time-ever public offering of the Lotus is accompanied by copies of numerous period photos, rare movie stills, correspondence between Lotus East and the film production team, auto show memorabilia, and authentication documents.
The 007 Lotus Esprit Submarine Car is one of the most inspired creations in the history of filmmaking. As such, we wouldn’t want it to fall into enemy hands, so we invite those who can enthusiastically appreciate its technology, ingenious deployment, and legendary screen appearance to attentively consider this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to acquire Wet Nellie, one of the most fascinating and entertaining movie vehicles of all time.
It is believed that Lotus provided two production “road cars”, plus seven Esprit fibreglass body shells, to the filmmakers. One of those shells was reported to have been split in half to film Roger Moore and Barbara Bach in their separate seats. The remaining six body shells, delivered bare, were used to initiate and consummate filming the underwater scenes. Each of these shells was modified to perform specific functions in the movie. Here is the evolution of Wet Nellie on the screen:
1. Used for the tire retraction sequence.
2. Used to portray the side fins protruding from the wheel arches whilst the periscope extends.
3. Featured in the below-surface-to-air missile sequence from the rear hatch.
4. Tethered to a powerful air cannon and jettisoned off the pier and into the water below.
5. The spare unit for the above.
6. The one and only fully enclosed shell used to film the functional Submarine Car.
Once filming was complete, the tire shell (1) and the missile shell (3) were left behind in the Bahamas and given as souvenirs to Roberts Scrap Metal Company, who assisted with the heavy equipment for the shoot. The tire shell exists today in poor condition in a Florida museum. The fin shell (2) has seemingly disappeared (with its whereabouts unknown), whilst the missile shell (3) is owned by the Ian Fleming Foundation and is proudly on display as part of the on-going 50th Anniversary of James Bond Exhibit at the Beaulieu National Motor Museum. The first of the pier shells (4) was damaged by the air cannon during filming in Sardinia, and it is presumed to have been discarded. The other pier shell (5) may have been unused or used more lightly; in any event, it was later unofficially retrofitted with mock up gadgets and sold in the late 1980s.
Source: RM Auctions Press