Wheels, suspension, aero. Intake, exhaust, and a tune. Rinse, repeat. There’s nothing wrong with this, but some people like to go further.
Eric is one of those people, and after modifying mostly Japanese cars over the previous 15 years, he says he “took a step back to assess the path [he's] been following. The way I try to modify and upgrade cars has always been the same, meaning I try to make them more distilled and more race-inspired. Nothing is more important than the foundation, so why not start with a car that’s already built to be like a street-going race car?”
After graduating from his highly-tuned AE86 and his LS-swapped FD3S, both of which were modified through and through, Eric stepped up to a Lotus Exige S.
When I heard the news I was a little disappointed, in the sense that I wasn’t sure how far he would be able to take this car. Sure, I’ve seen plenty of big-budget Lotus builds for the track, however, when you look at Eric’s previous cars I didn’t think he would able to crank this one up in the same clean and cohesive way for the street.
Sometimes, it’s nice when your wrong.
Eric built on his foundation of modifying Japanese street cars and carried the same ethos over to this British coupe. Everything has been torn down, replaced, or made better. Extremely well-engineered factory components have been replaced for even more impressive aftermarket ones, and while the car has become more aggressive looking through the process, it isn’t overly so.
Like his Mazda and Toyota I shot previously and featured here in 2017 and 2018, Eric’s Exige S retains its fantastic factory body lines. No gaudy wide-body, no ridiculous aero, and a lower but sensible ride height.
Still, form follows function close behind, and the package as a whole is simply an elevated version of the factory car. They’ve all looked phenomenal, and the spirit of the car is still there behind the wheel, despite all of the aftermarket parts.
Considering a stock Exige, I’ve always thought of them as leaning toward the exotic side of things despite carrying a price tag similar to cars that, while nice, are very mundane. Eric, like myself, says his “pragmatic side has always kept [him] away from new-age luxury cars and supercars due to their complexities and electronics.”
He continues, “but I fell in love with the interesting blend of features the Exige has: very raw, an almost unfathomable 2,000lb curb weight, mid-engined, exotic looks… and actually quite practical. I like to be able to know how to work on and maintain my cars myself, and it doesn’t get more simple than the Toyota powertrain and underrated supercharged 2ZZ.”
Like Eric’s other cars, this Exige has been a home-brewed affair, built entirely in personal garages. However, usually when I think Lotus, I think sterile. Proper British engineering (if there is such a thing), owned by likewise proper businessmen or well-to-do track day enthusiasts.
In other words, these aren’t cars that seem synonymous with wrenching in a garage late at night, waiting on parts from Japan, performing your own suspension setup, carefully fitting carbon fiber trim yourself, and so on.
And yet, here we are.Late Nights
Precisely, this time around we’re in Ezekiel Lee’s home garage where the suspension and exhaust were getting overhauled. The vibe here is what I think Speedhunters is all about; just a couple of guys, wrenching away on a Toyota engine, hands dirty, sticker-bombed toolbox, just having a good time despite the setbacks and frustrations that come from any project like this.
It just so happens that the Toyota four-banger in this case is supercharged, and bolted to a British go kart. Otherwise the sentiment and the process have been the same as Eric’s other cars.
When we hung out while the Lotus was under the knife, Ezekiel still had a day job and was just rebuilding gearboxes and doing other service for friends (and friends of friends) during his spare time at night or on the weekends. Ezekiel has since graduated to a shop in Fremont, California – CM Autohaus – where he has been able to scale up his operation.
We met up nearly two years ago, in fact, and it’s been really inspiring to see Ezekiel’s progress since that time. Ezekiel embodies the Speedhunters-type hustle that so many of our readers have, and he has moved from this being a hobby, to a job, and into a growing career.
Some of the most well-executed cars come from the most unlikely places, and this small garage in San Jose was where Eric’s very special Lotus got a few steps closer to completion. Of course, there were tons of other nights after work and long weekends that Eric and Ezekiel spent together, as well as plenty Eric spent on his own with the car in his own garage.
I’m sure this resonates with many of you, as well as many of us here on the team, who don’t have a ‘professional’ space or all the tools that we wish we had. And yet, Eric shows us again just how far you can take things with limited or no help from a full-scale shop. This leaves more money for parts, and as with his AE86, Eric seems to have spent all of it.Parts, Parts, Parts, & More Parts
The mod list on this car is a mile long, and far exceeds the level to which I thought anyone would take a street-driven Exige. The nice thing is, unlike many of this car’s track-going equivalents, great measures have been taken to ensure the car still works through a crowded downtown and also to retain the factory charm and aesthetic.
These cars are fairly stripped down and somewhat brutal from the factory, with their firm ProBax bucket seats, exposed aluminum tub, and few amenities. In Eric’s usual fashion, he’s taken this and simply enhanced it.
There’s a sound system with JL Audio speakers and a subwoofer built into a custom enclosure between the carbon fiber Tillet bucket seats, an Android-powered in-dash receiver, GRP carbon fiber components including extended door sills, console trim, and switchgear surrounds, a carbon fiber rear-view mirror, and an impressive InoKinetic shiftR111 shifter that also included replacement linkage and cables. The door panels, portions of the dashboard, and headliner have been covered in Alcantara, and parts like the satin handbrake lever and aluminum cupholder were poached from a newer Lotus.
Gone is the somewhat cheap, plasticky interior experience that is delivered from the factory. Needless to say, it’s now a function-first cockpit that happens to also look fantastic thanks to the high-end components and thoughtful combination of parts from various catalogs.
Outside, you have a Benetec dry-carbon rear wing and three-element diffuser that sort out the rear end and are balanced by more carbon fiber components including Shine Auto side skirts and a front lip. Beyond the rear wing these are relatively subtle parts, but there’s no way the awkward factory deck lid wing would look at home here.
Another nice touch are the updated version of GRP’s LED taillights, which are plenty bright while maintaining a soft, consistent look. I’ve met Greg from Greg’s Racing Parts at the track before, and it’s cool to see so many of his parts ending up on this street build.
Another interesting move that furthers the factory aesthetic is that OEM wheels and brakes are retained. The Lotus Sport 240R Cup wheels leave nothing to be desired, and the same can be said of the AP Racing front calipers that were taken from an ’08 model. Two-piece AP Racing rotors from EliseParts have also been added at each corner, along with G-LOC R8 front and InoKinetic rear brake pads.
At the core of the suspension is a set of Quantum Racing One.Zero coilovers, which were going in when I visited Eric and Ezekiel in the garage way back when. These are paired with Quantum Q2 damper mounts, and billet front and rear uprights were purchased from EliseParts. Billet knuckles also replace a weak link in the factory suspension assembly, and many more intermediate parts have been thrown at the car to make it all work.
Under the rear deck lid, the factory-supercharged 2ZZ-GE has been enhanced with a ReallyLightStuff intercooler, which is paired with dual SPAL fans. ARP hardware was used where possible, silicone radiator hoses replace factory pieces, a DeatschWerks fuel pump feeds Bosch EV-14 injectors, an ITG cold-air intake has been installed, and a Fidanza aluminum flywheel is utilized.
I’m just naming a few things here so you can get the gist; because covering it all just wouldn’t make sense.
What I do want to focus on when it comes to the powertrain is the titanium ARQRAY exhaust that had arrived from Japan when I visited Ezekiel’s. Eric is holding the muffler up above at the beginning of the article and it’s amazing just how much lighter it is than the factory exhaust.
Titanium is a wonderful thing, and paired with a DMZ Ultimate exhaust header, the four-cylinder sounds solid. Have a listen for yourself.
As extensive as that list was, it’s truly just scratching the surface.The Experience
What matters in the end is how the car actually drives. Has this plethora of parts actually improved the experience? Has the big budget made the car more fun to drive? Does it look demonstrably better than when assembly was completed near Hethel airfield in Norfolk, England?
Yes, yes, and yes.
The lower ride height is not such that the car is unusable, but in the already great chassis you can truly feel every last thing it’s doing. With the engine riding along right behind you, the car has insane balance. It’s the type of experience you can only feel, and words won’t do it justice.
It’s also hard to sum up a build like this, where so many incremental improvements have been made all around. Still, Eric gave it a shot: “As good as the Exige is from the factory, it was still just a starting point for me as there are a few easily identifiable areas where Lotus had to cut corners for costs. My plan was to address all these ‘shortcomings’ and realize a higher-spec Exige that could have came from the factory if Lotus was willing to sell the cars new at a higher price point.”
And that’s the interesting thing about any stock car. There’s a certain balance that manufacturers need to strike between many factors; cost, safety, fuel consumption, compliance, comfort, and other such checkboxes. It’s pretty impressive what can be added to and taken away from an engineered car by an individual in their own – or a friend’s – garage.
I had to ask Eric if, all said and done and after several build over the last few years, the Lotus suffices. He answered, “it has a fighter jet-like driving experience that further adds to its allure, which is something my previous cars lacked. They just felt like cars at the end of the day.”
As satisfied as Eric was in this Exige, I could tell when we shot that he already had the itch to do it all over again. Still, Eric kept the car longer than any of his others before making another jump into one of his dream cars: a Porsche 993.
This time around, he says he’s adjusting the strategy, and is quite happy with the car right out of the box. I’m sure he’ll eventually go down the inevitable rabbit hole and starting making some more serious changes, but time will tell.
Through all of these builds, though, one thing is clear: if something is worth doing, it’s worth doing right.