Arnie Johnson Tribute No. 32: Here’s to the best leader and mentor a young man could ever want!
By Clyde Shepherd
When I heard that Arnie had passed my heart sank, and I felt great disbelief and sadness as I know all that are here at LOG did when the news broke. For those who knew Arnie, he had a heart of gold and was a true gentleman. He was always wore a suit and tie in the office and around customers. That suit never got in the way of his passion for working on cars and he was notoriously known for working on engines in the back of the boot of an Esprit in the same suit and tie often smoking a camel and holding a topped off coffee in a styrofoam cup.
I first met AJ (which those of us close to him call him) as I when I was given an opportunity to work a few weeks for an inventory at LCUSA. At the end of the inventory audit and on my last day, a Friday, AJ had just returned from the UK and stopped by to thank me. He asked me what I thought of the Esprit and of Lotus. After a brief conversation and what I was anticipating as a goodbye, AJ handed me the keys to a Yellow New Eli se Sport 190 and told me to “take it around the block a couple of times and to see what I think”. When I returned awestruck and with a “grin that a jackhammer couldn ‘t take off” (an Arnie-ism), he asked me for my feedback and then told me if I was interested, I could take the car to Road Atlanta in the morning at 5 AM to help show it. I told him that I did not know enough about the car to rea lly do that. He commented, “RTFM, Read the F_cking Manual” in his typical Arnie way and went on to say he knew I
would sort it out.
At the end of the weekend at, late on Sunday evening and I donning a fresh sunburn, Arnie walked up in his fitted Lotus green polo again with that signature camel in hand to thank me. He told me to follow them back to LCUSA with the line of Lotus cars. As we were clo sing the shop and putting away the cars and promotional items from the weekend, Arnie asked me if I wanted to come work for Lotus. Immediately I had a million things raced through my mind. Everything from James Bond and Jim Clark. Of course, I said yes. And just like that, he told me to be there at 8:30 the next morning!
Looking back on it, I re alized I never asked what I would be doing or what I would be paid. I was too excited by what had just occurred. It was a truly magical opportunity he gave me not just to work for a great company, but more importantly, work for a man and mentor that truly impacted the rest of my life. I think that is what I admired most about Arnie. He believed in me, at a time in my life when I didn’t believe in myse lf. He gave me an opportunity which became a blessing that I will never be able to pay back.
As for pranks, there isn’t enough time to mention them all, nor enough gin and tonic for all of us to reminisce. There was one time, during the .LA auto show, that we went out to have dinner down in Marina del Ray. On the return trip back to the hotel, I remember driving through an intersection as AJ turned the ignition off on the rental car. I struggled to recover before the transit bus in the rear-view mirror was about to make quick work of us. He and Dave Simkin laughed and commented I needed to work on my driving skills. I tried to get him back for that sometime later. One morning I was driving a rental car carrying Roger Becker, Arnie and Sue from LCUSA to the LA Auto show in typical Southern California traffic. I proceeded to drive with one foot down on the accelerator and other firm on the brakes. Plumes of black smoke entered the car as we rolled through two stop lights and limped into the parking garage. Roger bestowed me with the title ‘brake gorilla’. As we got out ofthe car, AJ was cough ing pretty badly from the smoke and belted out a “you BAAS-tard’ and laughed at the incident. He knew it was payback for the ignition stunt he had pulled on me earlier. I think that was one of the great things about Arnie. He could be a mentor and even a father figure and yet a prankster at the same time. It was the sort of thing that can real ly impact a person as it did me.
I’ll close with the one last story about AJ as I think it helps to contextualize my experience. AJ once told me of a time long ago when he saw a short man looking over his prized car in a funny hat. The two men approached one another and began conversing, discussing the car in more depth. This ‘short man’ was none other than Colin Chapman. At the end of the conversation, Colin invited AJ back to what became Lotus East to see ‘his cars’. Colin saw something in AJ and it reminds me of the way that AJ saw something in me. You never worked for AJ, you worked with him. That the definition of what true leadership is. He saw the best and the potential in the people he hired just as Colin saw that in him. Colin’s decision to hire AJ ended up drastically impacting the lives of literally thousands of people stretching far beyond the employees of LCUSA but out to the owners and enthusiasts here in the US. In many ways, it was like he passed the baton to AJ. Arnie who fought tirelessly for Lotus in this market. Some would say his career culminated launching in the Final Edition Esprit and bringing the Elise to the USA and I agree. But that was his professional achievement. What truly mattered was the legacy that will live on in the hearts of the individuals who he touched, one person and customer at a time, genuinely caring not just for the marquee, but our customers and his team.