1980 SIMCA/TALBOT SUNBEAM LOTUS
LEFT HAND DRIVE
"What happens when two visionary mavericks and innovators meet?
In July 1979, hot on the heels of Margaret Thatcher's May 3rd election victory, when the country was wondering how innovation and entrepreneurship would mould, change, destroy, and create the old into the new - for good or bad - a radical American called David Thieme turned up at Silverstone and asked how he could flag his motorsport interests around the track. And he was told, in no uncertain terms, that he couldn't "flag" them. Because all the flags were taken by the big boys already - but he could have a chat with the guys who sold the balloons - 10 foot diameter spherical balloons and blimps that could be erratic in Silverstone's notoriously windy climate.
Undeterred - Thieme was a man who, after all, had turned a design business specialising in jet interiors into a $300 million dollar fortune in just a few short years of networking with his powerful Middle Eastern clients - Essex Motorsport secured its presence just in time for the race. A race which occurred in unheard of glorious windless sunshine, flags drooping with a malaise of ego succumbing to a lesson in humility whilst the proud balloons floated firm and steady, emblazoned in the Essex Motorsport colours of blue, red and NASA space silver - so beloved of the Watkins Jackets of the late '70s - securing a PR coup for the brash newcomer.
The stage was set - Thieme enquired how he could fund a team rather than just a one-off event, and after discussions with Colin Chapman, our other visionary of this tale, Lotus Team Essex was born.
Today F1 hospitality - the Paddock Club in particular - is seen as an obligatory and commonplace part of high-level networking, or even a corporate reward for particularly diligent over-achievers. But until Essex Motorsport arrived on the scene, there was no strategic, consistent, and outcome-based structure to utilising the spectacle and thrills of F1 GPs to provide a backdrop to high-level entertaining. Most teams had some form of standard American motorhome for the drivers to use, Essex commissioned a triple decker with showers, a bar, and a briefing room - all firsts - and dining space for over 130, including the panoramic open-air top deck, during the races. And, if Bernie agreed a little extra space was available (not always a certainty!) - extra dining for several hundred more at trackside.
No team before had their own season-long 3 Star Michelin Chef, Roger Vergé, who not only has the honour of being one of the joint creators of nouvelle cuisine before his adventures in F1, there was such mutual trust and respect between Vergé and Thieme that when the first hospitality manager was let go, Thieme entirely followed Vergé's advice in installing Julian Rivett - of aforementioned big balloon fame - in his place. Julian - who had inherited the family clothing business in Norfolk, grew it substantially via his associations with designers like Jeff Banks, but, having interests and ambitions to diverge further afield, became a charter-yacht operator in Portugal - given such a vote of confidence by the hugely respected Vergé, then proceeded to run the hospitality side on an almost 7 day a week basis, based in the Hotel de Paris in Monte Carlo when only a few months previous his bed had been a Portuguese beach with only the stars overhead as company.
The team quickly made a name as the hospitality and networking experts, with their specially commissioned Neoplan 3-tier bus emblazoned in team colours ensuring a highly visible presence on the circuits, and all that was needed was an authentic Lotus Team Essex VIP car to ferry the drivers from the airports to the tracks (Nigel Mansell, Mario Andretti, Elio de Angelis, Carlos Reutemann - all have graced our car) and the VIPs to the events.
So you can see, this "little 140 mile per hour shopping car" (as the team affectionately called her) , has a life history a little like that of Terence Rattigan's delightful 1964 film "The Yellow Rolls-Royce" - the car is special enough, but the history of her associations with we squidgy things called humans makes her even more charming - from heroic and sadly tragic Elio de Angelis, even to the Mark Thatchers of our world. One passes not judgment - one merely observes and applauds our little car's full life.
Built to Italian specifications to fit in with life in Monte Carlo, plucked from the production line to be "Essexed" before being re-inserted and completed, then picked up by Julian Rivett on export plates from a wet and cold Hethel in 1980, the sheer power and lightness of the car led her into numerous entertaining twitches and spins on her maiden journey to the South of France - and he didn't let her go for over 30 years so in love did he become, even though his own F1 foray concluded the same time as Team Essex's, 1982, amid rumours of skulduggery by Swiss bankers towards the ingenious, inventive, risk-taking and ultimately unlucky David Thieme*.
So, to answer our opening question - what does happen when two visionary mavericks and innovators meet?
Well, history groans and creaks a low, rumbling applause. And then she turns completely to her next chosen ones.
We are all in the gutter it is true, but some of us are wearing silver Watkins Jackets and looking at the stars.
*For an even greater insight into David Thieme, please consult "The Risk Takers" by Jeffrey Robinson.
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