Meet Julian Thomson’s Dino, The Ferrari That Inspired The Original Lotus Elise
Photography by Nat Twiss
It’s a warm August evening, and I’m looking out over the rolling hills of the English countryside. I’m waiting in this idyllic spot for Julian Thomson to arrive, the Director of Advanced Design at Jaguar Land Rover, and previous Head of Design at Lotus. He’s an artist of many talents, and the man responsible for perhaps one of the greatest lightweight sports cars ever made, a car that really needs no introduction: the Lotus Elise.
It’s not long before the thrum of a certain V6 heralds his arrival, and the sleek Dino 246 saunters down the country lane to park next to my hatchback. I feel sorely outmatched in the car department, but with Julian having the best part of a three-decade head start in the industry, I can’t feel too disappointed in myself! As his family arrives in another car and we make our introductions, it’s clear he’s a supremely warm and personable chap, not simply making nice for the sake of it. We’re here to have a little chat about his design influences, and the lasting legacy of the Ferrari parked before us.
Nat Twiss: Let’s start long before the Elise; what was your first car?
Julian Thomson: It was an Alfasud ti, which obviously rusted to bits. Then a Fiat 126. It went downhill too, so I bought a Ford Fiesta XR2, and then redeemed my Italian credit a bit with a Fiat 131 Mirafiori. After that came a Fiat 124 Spider, then a Golf GTi. I never wanted British cars, always Italian. I love Fiats. They were cheap compared to comparable British cars, and that’s why nobody I knew bought British cars. Everyone around me was driving a Renault, or an Alfa, or something else interesting. People never really bought Ford Capris or Opel Mantas.
NT: My dad had both!
JT: [Laughs] I think my parents were a bit hippy-like; they were never into British cars. They always had Renaults and things like that. I was influenced by the cars I grew up in, but I always had a strong interest in Italian cars. I grew up in love with the Miura, because of the one featured in the beginning of The Italian Job.
NT: What other media inspired you when you were growing up?
JT: I remember there was a book called Automobile Year. It’s a big annual covering motorsport, concept cars, and show cars. Pininfarina adverts would be in there for instance, offering their services, and it’s probably a big part of what made me want to be a car designer. Every Christmas we used to get this book, and it was like getting all the year’s interesting cars in one single collection. Pages and pages of mid-engined cars, great imagery and illustration, and quirky design. I loved the GT40 and stunning designs of that type; I looked forward to these books yearly, always very excited to get the new editions.
NT: Those books sound like they’d make great pieces for a collection.
JT: I bought a load of them online recently because they had all the good stuff in there, page after page. Back then GM and everyone else were putting out these crazy space age concepts, there were these obscure show cars from Japan, and other designs which never really made it to the normal British press. Really avant-garde stuff.
NT: I always think if the Stratos-esque Dome Zero when I think of great Japanese concept cars.
JT: Right. Cars like that; that was a very cool concept. Anyways, I was always into cars in one way or another growing up, not just from the design perspective either. We used to go to stage rallies a lot, back when people like Hannu Mikkola were still racing. I got a job working in a Ferrari garage when I was about 17 too, and that made me love the brand and want to buy one of their cars some day.
NT: That’s a great segue to start discussing your Dino, what’s the story with this car?
JT: My first real opportunity to buy something special was shortly after I started at Ford, about a year after I left the Royal College of Art. I looked at a Porsche 911 RS, a BMW CSL, cars like those, but what I really wanted was a Dino. So, I bought this one from a doctor up north. Have you heard of the story of Lord Brocket?
NT: No. Do tell. Please.
JT: It’s an amazing story. Lord Brocket went to prison after he committed insurance fraud with classic cars. He was a collector of Ferraris before it was really fashionable to do that, and he had a huge collection. Loads of special Ferraris, ex-Carrera Panamericana cars and things like that. When he was short on money he dismantled some of his cars and claimed they were stolen. I knew his brother—we used to share a house at the time—and I would go up on weekends sometimes to see these cars. He did some really weird stuff during this insurance fraud era: I think he chopped up a Maserati Birdcage and put it in his pond when he got desperate!
Anyway, I wasn’t aware he was doing all that at the time obviously, and I became good friends with his full-time mechanic. It was him that took me up to Manchester to get the Dino, brought it down, and did some work on it for me. I haven’t put that many miles on it since then besides a few trips on weekends; I’ve never really had a lot of money to throw at it, and typically I use our local village mechanics to work on it! Recently though it’s had a big rebuild job from a local specialist so that should keep it tidy for a while.
NT: So what year did you buy this car?
JT: In 1985. I’d just graduated from college and I bought it the following year. It wasn’t expensive at the time, this was 1985, not today. I remember I was working at Ford then, and it was the same price as a their Sierra XR4x4, which I actually considered buying too. That means the Dino would be roughly what a Mondeo costs now. They just weren’t in demand back then.
NT: Safe to say you made the right choice!
JT: I agree, and it’s the only Ferrari I’ve ever owned. My son even learned to drive in it a few years back!
NT: Has it followed you around throughout your career beyond just a mode of transportation?
JT: I took it to work at Ford every now and then, and when I moved to Lotus I took it with me. When we started doing the Elise the first time round, at one point the car was going to be front-engined but I always wanted to do a mid-engined car because I think they’re simply better to drive, that’s why people revere the layout so much. It offers new possibilities in terms of design too, and one thing I always wanted to reference in my work that GT40s, the Miura, and the Dino all have in common is the centrally-located cabin.
I guess when we did the Elise it was when the retro design movement was becoming quite fashionable, and we were seeing designs like the New Beetle, the Plymouth Prowler, the Ford Thunderbird, all happening around the turn of the century. The last generation Mazda RX-7 was a big influence as well. We wanted to take elements of that trend, but go our own way with it.
NT: How did you go about doing that?
JT: We were doing various studies when making the Elise, obviously we wanted it to handle well, but still be satisfying to be inside. Some books out there include a few images of my Dino in the studio when we weren’t making exact measurements yet, at the stage where we were still getting a feel for the packaging. For the relative size of the car, it has an enormous cabin. The Dino has a perfect driving position in terms of cowl height, and you position it using the front arches as reference points; those were elements I wanted for the first Elise. So that’s what I helped to influence and push through to the final design. If you go in the Europa for instance, it has a horrible driving position, and I felt we needed to move towards a more satisfying seating position like that of the Dino.
After the Elan that preceded this car in a sense, I really wanted something with perfect proportions. I think subliminally I copied the Dino. Actually, the other day I had some neighbor kids around looking at the car while it was parked next to my Elise, and I noticed some remarkable similarities from certain angles, especially the curved windscreen, it’s very strange! That was quite an interesting thing to do at the time, a big curved piece of glass, a real challenge in manufacturing.
I’ve got a photograph of the Elise and the Dino as silhouettes, and the two look really close, like distant family members.You know, we didn’t take any measurements, but the Dino was clearly on my mind at the time, and it’s always been a car I’ve admired.
NT: I guess it’s inevitable that the things we admire influence the things we create. You’ve certainly inspired plenty of people with the Elise. Thank you for sharing your story with us Julian, I appreciate it!
JT: You’re welcome!