The Excellent Adventure of an Art Reviewer in Lotus Land
Send a book and art reviewer who does not know a crankshaft from an alternator to "review" an auto showroom and classic car garage surely you jest.
Consider, too, that the reviewer is even more ignorant on the subject of sports cars than he is about the standard product. Not only would he not know a Mazda from an Acura Integra, he wouldn't know an Aston Martin from a Ferrari or a Jaguar if it bit him.
Can this automotively challenged individual find aesthetic excitement in so alien a venue? Of course if the "museum" in question is Robert Burt's Lotus dealership at 49 East Broad Street in Hopewell, which shares a newly restored building with Steel Wings, the atelier of repair and restoration artist Lance Evans.
The dictionary describes lotus land as "a place inducing contentment esp. through offering an idyllic living situation." A land of dreams, in other words. The building at the sign of the Lotus in Hopewell is, in fact, a dream dreamed three decades ago by a young man with a passion for exotic cars who had come to the States from England and settled with his family in the Princeton area. In 1974, Robert Burt opened a four-bay garage in Trenton called Sports and Specialist Cars. The dream he dreamed back then, of a state-of-the-art showroom and a garage with an automotive artist in residence, has come true, appropriately enough, in a place called Hopewell. Helped by an investment of faith and funding from his father, Burt's business flourished, and he eventually acquired the Saab and Honda dealerships on Route 206. As success followed success, he never forgot his dream and now he can visit it every day, and you can tell from the light in his eyes when he talks about it that the dream has lost none of its glow.
Probably Burt's most important stop on the way to Hopewell was at Lime Rock, a Connecticut race track where he met Lance Evans at an Aston Martin event. Kindred spirits with an enlightened appreciation of the car James Bond made famous Burt raced Aston Martins and Evans repaired and restored them they soon found themselves beginning an informal partnership roughly comparable to that of art dealer and art restorer, except that the works of art were marketed by the restorer. Admitted, it's a shaky analogy. You can look at a Picasso but you can't climb inside and drive off in it. One thing high art and high-end cars have in common, however, is cost. These paintings on wheels are not cheap. At Steel Wings, the cars Evans works on can be worth millions and can cost as much as a quarter of a million to restore. They can also consume thousands of hours in the workshop.
What makes the Aston Martin so charismatic is the combination of beauty and power. Burt has a connoisseur's appreciation of the formal beauty and a race car driver's first-hand experience of the power. The wonders Evans could work were first revealed to him when he put a newly purchased Aston Martin that had not been performing well in his friend's care. When he got the car back and drove it, he immediately knew it had been in the hands of a master, and the relationship was launched. All these years later, another Aston Martin belonging to Burt is in his friend's hands, this one (as a book reviewer might phrase it) the equivalent of a rare 1951 first edition, being the first Aston Martin shipped to North America. This time there is more to the job than ironing out a flaw in the performance. This time the car has been reduced to its essence so that Evans can rebuild it from scratch. He's been working on it for a year and wants to have it ready in time for Burt to race it at LeMans in 2006. A dream within a dream, this work-in-progress is taking place in the room behind the garage at 49 East Broad Street.
As for the showroom itself, the museum analogy is not really that much of a stretch. The light coming through the big windows (among them a stained glass panel) would be the envy of any gallery. An icon of early American automobile life is on view in the form of a "Dino Supreme" Sinclair pump. Framed photographs and graphics are displayed on the walls, including sketches of racetrack imagery ("Le Mans 1969") and a museum case of immaculate parts. One of the objects in the case is an oil filter like none you've ever seen because it was invented in the adjoining workshop; when an Aston Martin part can't be found, the Steel Wings crew, led by Jon Clerk, who is in line to take over when Evans retires, simply build one. Taking up most of one wall in the garage is an immense Grand Prix Martini poster, an original Burt was going to sell to an art dealer until the Hopewell dream offered the perfect place for it. The floor in the garage is a smooth, glossy battleship gray that picks up the light and sets off the colors of the cars being worked on. There is even a showroom library in a long tasteful expanse of shelving filled with what looks to be complete runs of publications like Autosport, Road and Track, and Motor Sport. Another nice touch in the showroom is lighting, two silver wands, the larger one as stylishly curved in its way as the Lotuses below it.
The essential function of the showroom, of course, is just that, to show off four-wheeled masterworks. This reviewer has been to photorealism group shows where there is usually at least one artist whose work explores the contours and colors of some sublimely photogenic automobile. Here you can bypass the photography and see the art firsthand. Here's the magnificent, gleaming green Team Lotus racing car overflowing with such a swarm of reflections, it seems to be in motion even when it's standing still. You can't touch it without permission, anyway but then you can't touch the Cézannes at the Museum of Modern Art either. And over here is the 1954 Jaguar XK 120 roadster (yours for a mere $79,500) that makes you feel that you've never seen the true redness of red before. Gaze at it long enough and when you go outside, the world looks brighter. Anyone who has come out of MOMA or any exhibit worth looking at has experienced a similar sharpening of perception.
Finally, what about the Lotus? This is a Lotus dealership, after all, with the yellow Lotus logo on the sign outside. Seen head-on, these beauties seem to grin at you like snazzy Cheshire Cats. But think of the name how classy, a sports car named for a flower. Automobile manufacturers outdo themselves inventing catchy names for this or that model, running the gamut from the macho to the lofty poetical to names that sound more like expensive watches than cars. As far as I know, flowers have not crashed that party yet. No Gentians or Orchids or Marigolds. But the Lotus is something else. For one thing the shape of the flower can be seen in the shape of the hood. Beyond that, lotus suggests exotic lands, not merely the lotus land as defined by Webster but India and, in particular, Hindu mythology. That Lotus hood shape is also a version of the lotus that Brahma sits on. Indian divinities wear garlands of lotus flowers. There are lotus sculptures and a lotus on top of the Holy Mountain on the Hindu mandala. And George Harrison, the Beatle who did as much as anyone to wake the world to the lure of India, drove a Lotus. No wonder. How could he resist so neatly combining his love of racing with his love of India? George was driving around London in a Lotus Elan when the Beatles were making Sgt. Pepper. In his autobiography, I Me Mine, there's a picture of him driving Stirling Moss's Lotus 18, winner of the 1960 Monte Carlo Grand Prix. It also figures that his passion for the Lotus inspired his racing song, "Faster."
You can't beat that for celebrity magic. Aston Martin has James Bond, Lotus has George Harrison.
Speaking of celebrities, Robert Burt has another dream, a Hopewell dream, in which Jay Leno, or maybe British actor/comedian and racing enthusiast Rowan Atkinson, will be driving through town on Broad Street and put their necks out of joint at the resplendent vision shining forth at No, 49. The cars screech to a stop. How can they resist Lotus Land? Or you could take the fantasy even farther and imagine James Bond in his Aston Martin making an emergency pit stop to take advantage of the real-life Lance Evans, who, by the way, was a protégé of Rex Woodgate, Aston Martin's top racing mechanic in the 1950s.
One last, important element in Robert Burt's story is that it might never have turned out as it has except for the faith and patience of the father who encouraged his son to follow his dream and set the journey to it in motion by helping finance that first four-bay garage in Trenton.