Arnie Johnson Tribute No. 7: The Arnie Johnson I had the privilege to know over the years
By Roy Collins
I met Arnie Johnson almost 10 years before I joined Lotus Limited . As you might guess meeting Arnie included a Lotus. It was 1985 and I purchased a 1983 Investor Special Edition Turbo Esprit that was stored at LCU when they were in New Jersey. The full details of how that purchased happen is a story in its self I will not get into, but meeting Arnie at LCU was an event that proved to be a very special day in my life because it was the start of a dear friendship. It also ensured that for nearly 3 decades there was always at least one Lotus Turbo Esprit in our garage.
I spoke with Arnie by phone before my wife and I flew in to pick the car up in New Jersey and drive back to Ohio. There were no Lotus dealers in my area like so much of the USA. He assured me the car that had been sitting for 2 years would be no problem to drive home. When my wife Debbie and I got to LCU Arnie greeted us and gave us the nickel tour of LCU that lasted a couple hours. It including the Tech training area before making our way to the back of the warehouse past all the new cars where my car was parked. I left with a few spare parts that were just lying around thrown in the truck by Arnie. He said “we’ve had some issues with some of these you might need this” plus a set of shop manuals. By this time it was late in the day and we had planned on driving straight though to home in Ohio. I was still concerned if we had car trouble on the way home. Arnie said just call him. Arnie pulled out his business card and wrote his home phone number on the back. “Call me anytime” he said.
The trip home was uneventful. A few days later I called Arnie to thank him for everything and he repeated If I ever had any problems, to call him. Over the next few years we ta lked occasionally if I had a question since I was doing my own service. I always called him at LCU, never at home. If he had time to talk, we talked, if not I left a message and I would hear back when he had time. Our friendship grew in those conversations as we shared details about family, and other interest. I always respected his personal time with fami ly and never called him at home.
LCU moved to Atlanta and I changed cars a few times. Our conversation became more general Lotus news and about family. I heard aboutJen’s new horses and his wife Cathy’s trips to the barn with Jen plus Lotus news. I heard about Motorcycles and John Deere tractors. Growing tomatoes in his garden and giving them away. His dogs, the neighbors’ dogs, the neighbor kids. Arnie never met a dog or a kid he didn’t like and they always liked him. Arnie and I both looked forward to LOG as a chance to see each
other. I would get a phone call as the date for LOG grew close to confirm I was going to be there. We always had fun at LOG together with the other LCU employees who were in attendance. Uwe and Helen Linder, the Shepard brothers, Joe Zoderazny, and of course Dave Simkin.
One LOG buying drinks at the hotel bar, we somehow got started giving the waitress Arnie’s room number for the tab. As you might guess we got very generous buying drinks for everyone who was near. I’m not sure who started that, but I think it might have been Dave. My room number got used a few t imes too. At check out my final bill was a bit more than a normal LOG bill. Debbie thought sure there was a mistake in the bill. I explained how it got that high and she just shook her head. Talking to Arnie the following month and laughing about it he told me Cathy was not too happy when his American express bill came for that month too. My bill was bad, but his was much worse. After that LOG Arnie was careful to keep his room number secret.
After flying to Florida to buy a different Esprit we stopped at LCU. The car needed new tires and 4 wheel alignment. Arnie arranged it at LCU’s preferred tire vendor. Lotus was owned by Bugatti at the time and I got to see the new EB110 that was at LCU for a US tour. Dinner with Arnie and Cathy at one of their favorite restaurants capped off the day.
Arnie was let go by Lotus and Duke Hale and John En glish era arrived at LCU the same time I became President of Lotus Limited. I was heartbroken because I was looking forward to strengthening the ties of the club with Lotus through Arne for both of our benefit.
I stayed in touch with Arnie at his home during his time away from Lotus. It was now time for LOG in Birmingham which meant another opportunity to visit with Arnie and family. The new Esprit 2002 I purchased was going to be due for its first service about the time I hit Atlanta on the way to LOG in Birmingham. A lay over for service at Eric Gregory’s Lotus of Atlanta and a day with Arnie and family was planned. It was pollen season in Atlanta so everything had a green ting. Even the concrete looked green. When we pulled into Arnie’s driveway our yellow Esprit looked almost krypton green. We were greeted by Arnie with a big smile and “your car needs washed”. Immediately-the hose and bucket came out and Arnie insisted on wash ing my car. I’ ll never forget the look of the river of green pollen that ran down the driveway. Although we had met before, this was the first time Debbie and I had a chance to really spend time with the Johnson family. While Debbie and Cathy shared stories about us guys, Arnie and I went to fill up my car with gas for the morning drive to Birmingham. As we walked out to the car I tossed the keys to Arnie and said “you drive”. As we drove to the gas station he looked over at me and said “she feels nice” with the biggest smile on his face like a kid who had just gotten his best Christmas present ever.
Another Collins car buying trip south, this time not a Lotus, saw us stop for another visit with the Johnson family on the way home a year later. Debbie, Cathy and Jen went shopping while Arnie took me over to drive the YES car that he was being asked as a consultant to evaluate for US import and sales. The day ended with Debbie and I joining the whole Johnson family out for dinner.
Lotus saw the error of their ways and brought Arnie back to work for them until he chose to retired rather than relocate to Detroit with Lotus.
We stayed in touch talking every month or so. We didn’t talk as much about Lotus anymore. It was how the tomatoes were growing, building fences, horse stalls, and family. I heard about Arnie’s family growing up. We spoke often while Cathy was ill before she passed. Family was very important to Arnie.
I was lucky enough to speak with Arnie one last time the day he passed. I had no idea at the time that would be the last time we spoke. I wish I could have that conversation to tell him again how much his friendship meant to me over the years. I miss my conversations with Arnie.
Most of you saw Arnie as a devoted loyal supporter of Lotus and the Lotus enthusiast at LOGs. He was always that. Arnie told me “Colin Chapman told me to take care of his cars over here for him”. Arnie promised he would and I think he kept his word to ACBC. Arnie was much more than the loyal Lotus figure you saw at LOG. He was a family man first and foremost. Family was the most important thing in Arnie’s life. I was fortunate enough to know both sides of Arnie. Circumstances prevent me from attending LOG this year to convey my deepest sympathy in person to all of you in his family for your loss.
(I miss my updates from Arnie on how all of you, in his family are doing. How is Heidi? I hope well.)