"I’ve always enjoyed cars—and I enjoy being in love with my car,” journaled Jim Henson, father of the Muppets, in 1978. He was remarking on his new 1978 Lotus Éclat, which had Kermit the Frog eyes and bright green paint. But while the Lotus is a well-known celebrity curio, its real story is less so. For example, it's paint wasn't actually matched to Kermit's particular hue. That’s one of many truths we discovered while compiling the car’s untold history, with help from none other than Jim’s son Brian Henson.
Like his career as a puppeteer and filmmaker, Brian inherited an interest in cars from his father. Jim Henson famously attended his college graduation in a Rolls-Royce, took interest in Porsches ahead of the curve, and also strayed into Jaguar territory. His single best-known car however may have been his Lotus, whose history Brian recounted for us, sharing unheard stories from his father’s ownership as well as what the car meant to him personally.
Predating the Muppets’ peak popularity, Car-mit (as some have called it) ironically came about not due to the Muppets’ success, but because of how hard it had been to get them on the air. Speaking to The Drive, Brian Henson recalled his father’s struggles getting U.S. TV networks to take the Muppets seriously. They’d been hits on children’s programming and the inaugural 1975 run of “Saturday Night Live,” but American networks just wouldn’t bite on the 1974 or 1975 pilot episodes for “The Muppet Show.” That’s where Lord Lew Grade stepped in.
The British media mogul, known best for “Thunderbirds” and “The Prisoner,” invited Henson to produce his show in England, and the rest is history. In late 1976, “The Muppet Show” kicked itself a foothold on both sides of the Atlantic en route to winning multiple Emmy Awards, and establishing its characters as pop cultural icons to people of all ages. Lord Grade was instrumental in helping Henson’s Muppets make their first steps, and it was thanks to him that Car-mit came into existence.
Henson’s Lotus was a spec’d-up Éclat, basically a fastback version of the Elite. It had a 2.0-liter inline four, a three-speed automatic transmission, and of course, Kermit-green paint. Or at least, as close as Lotus could get.
“Lew had contacted Lotus and said, ‘you have to mix up a special color, and it has to be Kermit green,’” Brian Henson told us. But while most sources claim the car ended up paint-to-sample Kermit-green, that isn’t true. According to Lotus archivists, Henson’s Éclat was painted regular Mint Green. Still a rare color, but not the unique touch it’s often claimed to be. Instead, the personal detail was added later: those Kermit pupils on its pop-up headlights. Brian speculates they were the idea of one of the London Muppet workshop techs, either Bonnie Erickson or Amy Van Gilder.
“Amy is the type that just makes everything into a puppet,” Brian recalled. “The eyes open up with the headlights. So, yeah, for a little while they had the pupils in there, but I don't think it was legal to keep those pupils covering your headlights. So I don't think he kept them there.”
Visibility was important, as the Éclat was Henson’s daily driver while in Britain—despite almost being too small for him. Brian recalled how “it was a pretty tight fit for my dad in a Lotus.” Because Brian was in the U.K. somewhat often, he has many memories of riding in the Éclat on summer break, as well as how the car enabled his dad’s need for speed.
“The backseats were kid-size,” Brian remembered. “I could fit in the backseat really easily. But I do remember once watching an adult trying to get in the backseat and it was pretty tough.”
“There are width restrictions on the fastest route to Elstree [Studios where The Muppet Show was filmed,]” Brian said. “It's got big steel bars that are six-foot-six-inches across, and I remember my dad could clear it with not an inch and a half on either mirror. So, he would just keep trying to do it faster, and faster, and faster. And he got to the point where he could pretty much go through those [at] maybe 30, 35 miles an hour, which is pretty impressive.”
“I would pretty much go to work with my dad every morning. They would do read-through and rehearsals on Sundays, pre-records on Mondays, shooting Tuesday, Wednesday, and maybe a little bit of Thursday. But I would pretty much always go to work. That's what I liked to do, was hang out at the studio and with the puppet builders and the puppeteers.”
But more important than the car itself was what it signified, something every kid with a distant parent can understand: Dad’s home.
“The great thing about that car is you knew if my dad was home,” Henson said. “When it was there, it meant dad was home, which was a big deal. Because even when he wasn't shooting, he was off and about. He was quite the workaholic.”
Alas, what Jim Henson did with the Éclat, Brian doesn’t know. He suspects the Lotus had become too much of a pain to use on a regular basis; it was a wide, low car that was hard to maneuver along tight British roads, hard to get into the shop—where it spent a lot of time, being a ‘70s British car. Henson also remembers the Lotus vapor-locking frequently, making it unreliable even when it wasn’t technically breaking.
“I do remember once trying to bring it into a service station,” Brian said. “The driveway went up into the garage, and then it flattened out and the clearance under the Lotus was not high enough. So it basically got up and it just got stuck, right in the entrance of the service station. They did get it in, but I think they had to first push it off, bring it down, then reverse it, reverse it up, and the moment it started to get caught, they had to push up.”
“It was fraught with issues. And I think the fact that it couldn't even get into the service station, the garage, was funny.”
Henson speculates reliability might’ve been the Lotus’s undoing, as while the Éclat was stolen at one point—Hagerty reports it was used in a bank heist—the unique Lotus was quickly recovered. When that happened isn’t clear, but the Lotus didn’t stay Henson’s sweetheart for long. Britain’s Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency recorded the Lotus changing hands in June 1981, by which time it had been repainted red. Its registration expired in 1989, meaning the car is probably long gone.
What we know is that Jim moved on to a more practical daily, a VW Rabbit, but kept a BMW 630CSi and Mercedes-Benz 560SL around for special occasions. As for the appeal of temperamental British performance cars, it stuck with Brian, who went on to own a TVR Chimaera. But his main squeeze has always been the BMW 2002 that his dad bought him in his youth.
“When I graduated from high school, he gave me a five-year-old, [maybe] six-year-old BMW 2002 that was British Racing Green,” Brian said. “And I still have it, and it's in perfect condition. I keep it in a special place in New York.”
“You never had to lift the engine. Everything was accessible. So my dad gave me the car with a service manual this big, and it was fantastic because I could do everything myself.”
Being hands-on has always been Brian’s style, though, from working on “The Muppet Show” as a teen to his career as a puppeteer and Emmy award-winning producer. And in some respects, cars are like puppets and movies. They can be enjoyed from afar, and you can tell when they’re under the control of someone who really knows what they’re doing. But there’s something special about being the one in control, whether that’s behind the wheel or the curtain.
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