Arnie Johnson Tribute No. 2: GETTING TO KNOW ARNIE…
By Mike Kimberly
I first met Arnie in 1974 when I f lew to the US to sort out a wheel shake problem on the Europa’s, especially the Twin Cam which I was responsible for as project manager. I was picked up by Pete Pulver from Boston’s Logan Airport and driven to Millerton, NY state and met his partner, Newt Davies and wife at their home, followed by a visit to their Lotus East Importer and Distributor premises where Pete was anxious that I meet with their top guy who took care of the cars and any problems.
We approached a rather run down tiny shed/booth from which a figure in well -worn overalls emerged, covered in red and gold paint and wearing a very basic face mask. That was my first introduction to Arnie Johnson! (He was in the process of respraying a Gold Leaf red and gold accident damaged Elan and was himself well painted!).
Pete Pulver told Arnie that he was to accompany me on road testing the Twin Cam Europa which apparently had the problem, using the back roads of the area.
The next morning, after a pleasant evening in a little hotel in Salisbury, Connecticut, Arnie picked me up in the Twin Cam. I took over the driving. As the ‘wheel shake’ only started at 55 mph peaking at 70/75 mph I was driving to generate the problem. Before we had gone 3 miles I was stopped by a State trooper with f lashing lights. After explaining that I was new to the US and had only the day before got in from the UK and we were trying to resolve a problem on the car, the officer after noting helpfully ‘Oh you’re a limey’, allowed us to continue with a warning not to exceed the speed limits.
Unfortunately, not 5 miles later we were again blue lighted and t his t ime subjected to a far more intense interrogation including passport, driving license, etc. as well as explaining the problem. A stern warning was delivered not to overspeed the limits. Well, after another 4 or 5 miles of driving around those beautiful back country roads, keeping the speed down at 25 to 35 mph, I, frustratedly gave the Twin Cam a blip on a clear straight in the middle of nowhere surrounded by woods. Lovely countryside, no houses or traffic whatsoever, but just as reaching 55 mph and starting to ‘feel’ the uniformity problem we were stopped and this time made to get out of the car, spread eagled against the roof whilst being read the riot act in no uncertain terms. (Apparently police business was light that day and our friends were monitoring Lotus’s new car progress through their headquarters!).
At this point, Arnie was bluntly told that if they stopped me again, then he would be prosecuted as an American citizen, I would be shipped back to the UK and the car impounded. Arnie at that point naturally called off our testing and we crawled, (in my mind), at 25 to 35m ph max back to the office, where Arnie insisted that Pete Pulver hire Lime Rock just up the road for our ongoing testing -very sensibly in the circumstances. As an aside, the wheel shake concerned was easily diagnosed and resolved quickly together with Arnie’s relief that we had not finished up in the clink!
I always found Arnie to be very down to earth, extremely knowledgeable and a straight shooter. Over the years working together we became firm friends as well as business colleagues. At one stage we set up our USA operations (Lotus North America In c) out of Costa Mesa in Orange County CA with Steve Ramsden (who was also our Canadian Importer and Distributor) and Arnie again supported us 100% through that very difficult transitional period.
Shortly after the loss of our Importer and Distributor in the USA, (Rolls Royce Inc.) and then the tragic loss of our founder Colin Chapman in December 1982, Wes Fredericks (another of our mutual very close friends) and John Speich took over the Lotus franchise in a very timely manner to ensure that the Esprit continued in an up rated specification form in the US through their company Lotus Performance Cars (LPC). Arnie gave his full support to Wes and the team operating out of Norwood, New Jersey in rebuilding and working with us to develop and introduce the Investor Special Esprits financed by LPC and especially in the rebuilding of dealer and customer confidence.
Arnie was our American foundation stone for all of the technical know-how and service knowledge for Lotus models with their unique powertrains andvehicle structures together with our strengths and weaknesses and would always be able to resolve any concern that occurred due to changes of ownership and/or model phase out and new model phase in He was incredibly calm, stable and extremely well balanced and had the capability of dealing with all levels of the business -top to bottom and bottom to top. He was equally at home stripping and rebuilding engines and transmissions, mediating in a customer /dealer/factory concern or attending our executive and product policy meetings at Hethel during times of extreme pressure and stress.
When GM acquired Group Lotus in 1986, I put Arnie forward for the next President of Lotus Cars USA and he flew to Zurich (GM Europe headquarters) for an interview with the 3 top members of the Corporate Board . Unfortunately his flight schedule was very badly dislocated (in fact shambolic) which left Arnie running from the airport to the interview in Zurich without even being able to shave, shower, change his shirt, rest or in any way to recover from very severe jet lag.
Arnie’s due diligence on the costs of operating an importation and distribution centre in the northeast versus the sun belt (which our competitors like Porsche were ta king advantage of) clearly showed massive company savings in Atlanta, Georgia, not only from tax liabilities but also from labour costs and property values. We took the decision to move Lotus to Atlanta. This gave us a very presentable high brand image faci lity of three t imes the floor area and cut projected overall costs by 57%.
As an aside, Arnie told me “The move to Atlanta was marvellous, I sold a small bungalow on a tiny quarter acre plot in New Jersey for $250,000 and moved here to Atlanta and for the same money bought a big 5 bed roomed house with acres of garden and woodland yet with utility costs lower than New Jersey!”. He was very happy for his family to be living in a much improved property and garden environment. Lotus had a high brand image facility at a major air transport hub with excellent hard working diligent staff in preparation for the planned future.
Getting more personal, I can clearly remember Arnie and I being on a West coast business trip just prior to Christmas when we, unusually and very rarely, had a spare evening! Arnie suggested we go to a movie to see a film called “Platoon”. He had previously and only occasionally alluded to his time in the military and being in Vietnam. After the film, Arnie was overcome with emotion and we spent the whole of that night putting the world to rights, both being rather the worse for wear the following morning! That was the only time I have ever known my good friend to really let his hair down.
Arnie was the backbone of our operations in the USA- he was totally at ease with all of the many and difficult situations that arose, whether they be related to the customer, dealer, the factory or just purely the product. He was able to forge everlasting relationships based on mutual respect and trust that enabled him to expedite and resolve most problems without recourse to ‘legal eagles’ or conflict in any way. He was direct but diplomatic, always honest and straight forward-which everyone I knew fully, understood and appreciated. He had a dry sense of humour and a ready smile which once you had met him you never forgot.
When I left Lotus end ’91 and joined GMOC I kept in touch with Arnie and we still continued to phone each other (he never liked writing e-mai!s!! !) up until the time I returned to Lotus in 2005 to 2009.
After being parachuted into Group Lotus by the shareholders in 2005 and in reviewing the US market in order to advise the stakeholders on how to proceed, Arnie provided me with real facts and information that enabled me to be totally confident that we collectively could clean up and rebuild the market, even though it would take time and significant resources to clear the massive backlog of US cars in the pipeline. Lotus could not have wished for a better Brand Ambassador in the USA.
Arnie as Director of Operations was the key executive driving the clean-up and re-building of the market for Lotus. He provided a significant and vital American market input into my new Eagle project with Roger Becker as its Director (the old Chapman Lotus DNA crew back together again) and the “team” designed, developed and launched the first new Lotus for 13 years, being the Evora, in parallel with clearing up the US market, with a new VlO Esprit to follow in 2012. Re gretfully, due to a broken back and changing managements that had different agendas, the best laid plans of mice and men were not followed thro.ugh.
We kept in touch by phone and talked very many times about all matters but mainly Lotus!) which over the next 7 to 8 years increasingly reflected Arnie’s desire to retire and do the things that he enjoyed most. His buying and moving to his sma ll farm was a big milestone which he loved.
I last met Arnie at Park Farm on the sad occasion of Roger Becker’s passing and where Arnie signed one of his $5 bills for me as a keepsake and a mutual bet that we would meet again shortly either in Atlanta or Norfolk UK.
Arnie was our totally consistent steadfast Mr Lotus in the USA for the 47 years that I knew him and was a wealth of know-how, common sense and was a totally dependable, straight forward guy- what you saw was what you got-no buffalo dust!
Rest in peace my good friend-thank you for all that you have done to help support and guide Lotus and myself through some very difficult and critical times and for being a steady, unwavering and truly honest friend.
Ex- Chief Engineer, MD of Lotus Cars Ltd and CEO of Group Lotus
17th August 2022