It is no secret that Elon Musk is a pretty eclectic sort of fella and a considerably wealthy one at that. For a man that once began manufacturing flamethrowers as a joke, then sold all 20,000 of them in less than a day, you can imagine the kind of shenanigans he’d get up to with his hands on some James Bond equipment. Back in 2013, an eager Elon Musk did exactly that after purchasing the 1976 Lotus Espirit featured in The Spy Who Loved Me.
It’s a bonafide classic. You know it. You love it. The sports car turns into a submarine and fires missiles while underwater. It’s one of many instantly recognisable entries in the ever-expanding catalogue of 007 vehicles. That is, of course, to everyone except a couple from Long Island, New York who ended up buying it back in 1989.
In an auction where neither the seller nor the buyers knew what was being sold, the couple purchased an unclaimed storage unit for around US$100 (AU$136). Together, the couple ran a business renting construction tools and had apparently never seen a single second of Bond film. Upon opening the unit, they found this artifact of film history buried under some old blankets and had no idea what they had on their hands.
“They really didn’t know what it was,” says Doug Redenius, co-founder of the Ian Fleming Foundation, the company responsible for authenticating the car in 2013.
“They had no idea how valuable their discovery was.”
The car in question was one of eight used during the production of the film, but the only one that was ever operated in the underwater scenes. After filming was completed, the car spent the next 12 years collecting dust in that storage unit until this unbelievable three-figure purchase.
To originally equip the Lotus for the movie, a marine engineering firm converted it into a functional submarine at a cost of more than US$100,000 (AU$136,780), which is the equivalent of nearly US$425,000 (AU$581,315) today. During filming, the underwater scenes were performed by a retired US Navy SEAL wearing full scuba gear with an oxygen tank.
Nicknamed “Wet Nellie,” the car was used for underwater scenes, so when it sold in 2013 it had no wheels, only “articulated fins.” It also couldn’t drive on land, but it did actually work as a submarine, with ballast tanks to make diving possible. The car also featured “a bank of four propellers” in the back of the vehicle that let it move underwater while being powered by electric motors in a water-tight compartment.
According to Redenius, it was on the drive home that they realised what they were dealing with. They loaded the car onto a ute and set off for home, only to be contacted by fellow drivers via CB radio letting them know about the Moore-era classic they had on the back. This prompted the husband to decide that they should probably rent the 1977 film on VHS that night. The underwater scene with the Lotus Espirit blew us all away the first time we saw it… but just imagine having it sitting in the driveway when you did.
Originally the husband had only planned to fix the car’s dented roof and make some small other improvements. Not after that night. The couple “cosmetically restored” the vehicle, and went on to display it in occasional exhibits over the next two decades before deciding to put it up for auction in 2013.
That’s where our guy Elon comes in.
After hearing about the car’s existence from the couple’s exhibitions, he sought them out. As previously mentioned, he tasked the original builders of the car with its authentication, then put them in touch with RM Sotheby’s. At the time, Redenius apparently told the couple that ”if it sells for what we’re hoping, that money will give you an opportunity to live very comfortably for the rest of your life.”
Sure enough, the Lotus sold at auction at RM Sotheby’s in 2013 to a then-secret buyer for US$997,000 (AU$1.36 million). For a price that was 9,970 times greater than the one in 1989, there was absolutely no mistaking it this time around. Elon Musk had apparently been eyeing this particular Lotus since childhood.
“It was amazing as a little kid in South Africa to watch James Bond in The Spy Who Loved Me drive his Lotus Esprit off a pier, press a button, and have it transform into a submarine underwater,” says Musk.
“I was disappointed to learn that it can’t actually transform. What I’m going to do is upgrade it with a Tesla electric powertrain and try to make it transform for real.”
And Elon Musk is really not one to mince words. The billionaire has since revealed the car served as part of the inspiration for Tesla’s Cybertruck design. At several points, Elon Musk has even suggested that the Cybertruck will be taking more cues from the Lotus than one when he tweeted that the vehicle “will even float for awhile” after fielding a question about how it’ll handle through shallow water.