For Your Eyes Only: Lotus Exige Sport 350 in Italy

Lotus Exige Sport 350 header image
Lotus Exige Sport 350 header image

In tribute to the late, great Roger Moore, TG recreates a bit of Bond magic

In 1981, Roger Moore spent a month in Italy filming For Your Eyes Only. He drove a Copper Fire Lotus Esprit Turbo. In homage to Roger, we’re on a Bond pilgrimage of our own.

Words: Ollie Marriage
Photography: Rowan Horncastle

The mounting brackets could have been designed by Q branch. Four sleek, surreptitious vertical fins, each with a bar mounted through it and screw clasps to hold the skis in place. Simple, effective. And now proven up to 115mph.

The skis poke over the Exige’s roof like rocket launchers – maybe if I brake hard enough they’d fly over like winter sport javelins, impaling those errant skiers we saw earlier crossing a road without taking their skis off. Clearly Kristatos’s henchmen. Then I’d have nodded wryly, raised an eyebrow, made some quip like “I think he caught my tip” or “What a waste of a perfectly good Olin MkVI” and driven calmly off.

There’s an outside chance I might be living this fantasy a bit too vividly.

There’s an outside chance I might be living this fantasy a bit too vividly. Roger Moore was ‘my’ James Bond, and For Your Eyes Only was my first Bond film. It had the 2CV, the Esprit, skiing and Carole Bouquet. Ahh, Carole Bouquet.

I don’t have Carole Bouquet. This is a great shame. I have Rowan Horncastle, and we’ve spent many hours driving from the UK crammed cheek by jowl in an Exige that’s trying hard to look like that Esprit Turbo, but somehow just isn’t as suave. I’m blaming the lack of Roger Moore for this.

The plan (as far as it goes) is, in true TG style, utterly unimaginative. We’ve come to Cortina d’Ampezzo to follow in the film’s footsteps in a red Lotus that has skis on the roof. Even I think this is tenuous. But you can’t account for magic. I can’t tell you why it made my skin tingle to drive the Exige along Località Doneà, or to recreate Roger Moore’s promo shot around the back of the ice rink, but the link between identically trimmed Esprit and Exige didn’t seem tenuous then.

And it doesn’t seem tenuous now, as I pull up at the Miramonti Majestic Grand (a three card trick in hotel name poker, just add Splendido Magnifico for a full house). It’s the kind of place that has porters. Porters understand luggage, but not how to get it out of a boot that only opens a foot. Roger Moore would have left him to it. I am not Roger Moore. I don’t have nearly such a good line in tan slacks, eyebrow contortion or arch one-liners.

I later learn that in the filming they’d used the actual hotel concierge to unload the Esprit. On the first take he opened the boot far too hard, the skis (much longer Olin Comp DH MkVIs back then) hit the roof, springing the boot back down and making him leap back. After the crew had stopped laughing, Dave Minter (see panel) rigged a coat hanger to stop the boot opening too far for take two, but our strong friend easily overcame that. It was on take six that he finally managed to unload the Esprit with suitable decorum, only for the scene to end up on the cutting room floor.

By that measure, our unloading exploits were a total success. The shorter Head Supershape skis (they have KERS and Graphene for extra F1-related brownie points) give us a bit more opening angle, and the mountings allow the skis to pivot. Lotus’s Q branch does exist, by the way. It’s called Lotus Exclusive – this car is their handiwork, and if you have a Lotus, new or old, they can tailor it to your tastes. The ski rack? A one-off for this car, unfortunately. I’d be tempted to ask nicely, though – a ski-carrying Exige is just too cool to pass up on.

Both Roger Moore and James Bond stayed at the Miramonti independently, if that makes sense. The hotel is proud of the association and shows us the presidential suite (where Moore stayed), and room 300 (where Bond stayed, alhough in reality it’s actually room 216). Long journey to work for Roger that day. The hotel is huge and disarmingly old-fashioned, a throwback to Cortina’s glamorous heyday in the Fifties and Sixties when the likes of Peter Sellers, Sophia Loren and Clark Gable were guests.

The Winter Olympics were held in Cortina in 1956, providing the Bond film crew with a host of locations within spitting distance of each other. The ski jump was built in 1955, but hasn’t been used in years now – techniques and technology have moved on, meaning that any jumper who attempted it would out-fly the hill, landing on the flat at the bottom, which is now a football pitch. A suitably Bond way to go.

The road up to it is a snowy woodland track, and the Exige is superb on it. Equipped with Pirelli Sotto Zero tyres, it outgrips our local guide’s VW Golf on the ice, and proves as nimble and playful on the slippery stuff as Bibi Dahl.

The jump itself is something else. I can so clearly remember the ringing music in the film as the camera pans down the towering heel, and Bond’s almost fearful expression when faced with the reality of having to make the jump from it. I can’t imagine Moore had to contort his features much for that scene. Massive and silent, the jump is magnificently eerie these days; the Exige, a welcome ray of brightness in the clearing.

It’s worth point out that OPW 678W didn’t have much of a role in For Your Eyes Only. After the Esprit’s stunning submarine debut in The Spy Who Loved Me, it seems a waste that it did little more than drive around Cortina with skis on the roof, looking cool, but deploying precisely zero gadgets.

In a pure example of life imitating art, we’re doing exactly the same – the Exige is a bit short of Q toys, too. On the trip down, I found that dropping my beanie into the small of my back was a very effective lumbar support and that the wide sill doubles as a handy storage shelf – until you come to a corner. It was better to do distance in than I thought – the ride is positive, the damping exceptional, but the headlights rubbish and the washer/wiper combo useless.

Mountains, when they hoved into view, were a chance to test the Sport 350’s best gadget – the new open-gate six-speed manual gearlever.

The ski rack is better engineered – it had been tested to 100mph at Hethel, but on the autobahn I hit the limiter in third, and was into fourth, supercharger yowling, at 115mph, before I remembered the speed advisory. You’d imagine I’d have felt lift as the wind was channelled under the skis, but no, it was stable. Can’t say I’ve seen bug splats on skis tips before, though.

Mountains, when they hoved into view, were a chance to test the Sport 350’s best gadget – the new open-gate six-speed manual gearlever. But watching the metal levers and rods clicking and clacking back and forth isn’t just a thrill on the mountain passes. As we amble into Cortina and park up to ride the Tofana cable car, each shift feels Walther PPK-ish. If you’re used to those slack cables and waggling sticks of previous Lotuses, this will come as a delight.

We ride the cable car up over the now-defunct bobsleigh track (apparently that scene called for stunt skier Willy Bogner, Jr to ski while tied to the back of the speeding bobsleigh to keep the gap consistent – the mind boggles), to the balcony where Bond meets up with his contact Luigi Ferrara; then descend to the ice rink, where, in the only bit of dramatic action to feature the Esprit, Luigi falls, murdered, out of the car.

Rowan and I haven’t reached strangulation point with each other, but we’re disappointed we can’t park the Exige exactly in the tyre tracks of the Esprit. A wall has sprung up in the intervening years, and the gritting trucks aren’t exactly prettifying the backdrop. Aside from this, what strikes me is how little things have changed around here. The ice rink is still wood-panelled; the jump is less well tended but otherwise unchanged; the hotel facade, even the lights along the drive, are identical; and when we track down the road along which Bond drives as he arrives in Cortina d’Ampezzo, the trees have barely grown at all.

It’s almost overly familiar, and that, at a distance of 35 years, is a bit strange, as if time has passed Cortina by. It does feel a bit like that here, that it’s not quite kept pace, that it’s still trying to hark back to the glory days of Olympic games and high-profile movie-making. For our purposes, that’s great – I feel closer to the film than I’d ever expected, and half the reason we get access to these places is that people here still remember the month when Bond came to town and the red Esprit was a common sight in the streets.

So the Exige is welcomed with open arms wherever we go. People admire the ski racks, peer inside, ask what gadgets it has, say “Low-tuus” and call me “Roh-jer”. For a day, I feel like movie royalty.

The next day, feeling a little claustrophobic, we head up to the Valparola Pass that leads to Val Gardena. They didn’t film up here, as far as I’m aware, but they should have done. The road is sensational, the weather clear and the Exige bursts into life like the first blossom of spring.

Through the fast stuff, it’s blissful, absolutely wonderful, carving through turns as adroitly as the skis it carries on its back. Get into hairpins, and the extra angle weights the steering up, making it feel blunter, and at the crest, 2,175 metres above sea level, air starvation restricts the supercharger. But aside from those niggles, I can’t believe how well adapted the Sport 350 feels to this environment. We think of it as a track special, but it’s so much more. Crisp brakes, instant torque, gearlever flicking easily between second, third and fourth, plus a chance to indulge the tingling, feelsome steering every few seconds? Yes, please.

How good would it have been for the Esprit to have been able to strut its stuff, to have a more active role in For Your Eyes Only than the one chosen for it? It could have had a snowplough battering ram, or an avalanche-triggering device, maybe caterpillar tracks to drag it up a sheer slope. They passed up the opportunity to have Roger in his skis on the roof, leaping off when the car braked, through a crowd of Kristatos’s henchmen, impaling them on his Olins as he went. Thirty-five years on, I’m still living the fantasy.

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Lotus Exige Sport 350 Italy