The Lotus Elise Was Named After Her, And She’s Owned One Since She Was A Toddler
Photography by Andrea Casano
The Lotus Elise is often lauded as the modern torch-carrier for what made British sports cars so popular in the post-war period of Austin-Healey, MG, and Triumph roadsters, and it’s a fair opinion. The Elise is a modernized and much higher performance version of those small, fun-to-drive cars that mirrored the Beatles’ rise to international popularity, but the roots of the Elise, despite being of British origin, can arguably be attributed to Italy, to the commitment of a man who believed in what he did and did it with passion.
Romano Artioli, president and founder of Bugatti Automobili di Campogalliano (Bugatti’s “Italian period,” if you will), is best known for bringing Ettore Bugatti’s brand into a new era of excellence, specifically through the quad-turbocharged EB110 supercar that Artioli and his team dreamed up and built at a state of the art production and testing facility in a matter of just a few years. But the personable entrepreneur was not limited to just one pursuit.
After becoming the chairman of Lotus in August 1993, Artioli decided the best way to revive the manufacturer was with an innovative sports car, not just another version of the aging Esprit. This is how the Elise project was born. A light, minimalistic sports car that stayed faithful to the principles of Colin Chapman. The lightweight, innovative construction of the chassis was paired with friendly yet exotic styling, and the Elise proved to be an immediate staple of the Lotus lineup. In fact, if you ask anyone these days which car comes to mind when they hear the word “Lotus,” you’re probably more likely to hear about the Elise than the Seven.
The success of the Elise was in its dual abilities to both hark back to the “light is right” ethos of Chapman’s era, while clearly looking forward to the next generation. This wasn’t a retro kit car or licensed replica. The Elise was a name that redefined the small sports car market, but more so, it was a name that revitalized a legendary manufacturer without losing sight of the founding principles. And Romano Artioli named it after his granddaughter, Elisa.
I had the opportunity to visit with the family last year thanks to Enrico and Ezio Pavesi— the caretakers of the beautiful facilities that once housed the EB110 production and testing operations, two friends whom I will never thank enough—in Campogalliano. It was there that I met the namesake of the iconic car, as well as the example that she’s owned since she was four years old.
We planned to do the shoot in the Campogalliano Bugatti factory that her grandfather once presided over, as a way to link the past with the present. In less dramatic terms, I will also just take any opportunity to revisit this special place whenever possible. To walk around this beautiful, somewhat eerie architecture is to be an automotive archaeologist, exploring the past in ways infinitely more visceral and real than reading about what happened on the internet or flipping through old magazines. I still dedicate many hours of my days to doing those things as well, but you get my point.
Romano Artioli didn’t end up running Bugatti or Lotus for all that many years, but his impacts have been proven timeless so far. The EB110 was a remarkably high-tech supercar for its time, but it has also proven to be a seminal project for the modern day Bugatti brand, for it’s easy to see the flow from the EB110 into the Veyron and beyond. And in the case of Lotus, the Elise has proven to be the company’s modern mainstay, a car even more iconic to today’s enthusiasts than the old(er) guard; the Seven, the Elan, the Esprit.
Some, like Elisa Artioli, have all but grown up with the Elise. In her case it’s a bit more literal, though. When I ask her when she first met the car that was named after her, she told me “I received it in ’97, a very first series considering that they began to produce them in ’96. My grandfather ordered and set aside an Elise to thank me for introducing the car! And considering that in 1997 I was only four years old, it remained in the garage until I was old enough, except for some occasions when it was used by my family. I was first able to drive it when I was 19 years old, because in Italy you cannot drive cars over 75hp without a license to, and after taking the test I had to wait another year.”
Elisa was patient, but she’s wasted no time putting on the miles once it was legal to do so, spinning the odometer on road trips around Europe as well as days at the track. Finding ourselves in Campogalliano is something that excites us both, but for her I must imagine it is even more emotional. Coming back here always has a certain effect on Elisa, she tells me. She was very young during that period of her grandfather’s Bugatti and Lotus activity, but it represents more than just memories. It’s part of her relationship with her beloved grandfather, something to connect her to not only his past, but to who he still is; talented, driven, and loving.
She says her car is “like a sister,” and as we explore different rooms and hunt down the light through the old windows, it takes only a moment or two to for me to realize she views the Elise as something much more than a fun car or an interesting story from her childhood. It’s like the two have known each other forever, and that’s not far off the mark in literal terms either, as Elisa recalls.
Between one conversation and another, Elise tells me about the Frankfurt Motor Show in 1995. “My grandfather had thought not only to call the car by my name, but also to put me in the driver’s seat for the presentation so that people would wonder why I, a little child, was in the car. It attracted a great deal of attention from the media, and I remember my mother was worried that I would start to cry and ruin the moment! But I had been trained, and I did my job well!
“Because in the weeks before the presentation, with my mother, as a game, we hid under a blanket and I would repeat ‘I am Elise,’” she says in between laughs, “And I also remember at the kindergarten when they asked what my name was, I answered proudly, ‘I am Lotus Elise!’”
We continue to talk and shoot around the interior, but before we part ways we move outside for some shots in motion on none other than the purpose-built testing circuit that wraps around the facilities in Campogalliano.
She drives with intent, following the racing line and clipping the apexes despite us traveling at downtown traffic speeds for much of the photos. When we are done with the chase-and-follow game of car-to-car photography, she takes a few faster laps—a true driver.
Elisa enjoys going to circuits with her Lotus, but for her the best part of ownership is being part of the community, as she tells me. “I have had the opportunity to join and become part of a growing community of Lotus Elise drivers, and that is something unique that you can’t get with just driving by yourself. And traveling with my Elise with them is important to me. Traveling and meeting new people, discovering new places with this car is priceless. The fact that my grandfather made it all happen is even better, of course, but even besides that, there is no comparable emotion to becoming more connected with people and places through a car that you truly love.”