Power Players

Couple paid $100 for abandoned car they found in a storage unit—Elon Musk bought it from them for nearly $1 million

Elon Musk, chief executive officer of Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) and Tesla Inc., speaks during an event at the SpaceX launch facility in Cameron County, Texas, U.S., on Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019. Musk gave space fans an update Saturday evening on the status of "Starship," the next-generation vehicle his SpaceX plans to use to eventually take humans to Mars. Photographer: Bronte Wittpenn/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Bronte Wittpenn | Bloomberg | Getty Images

In 1989, a couple from Long Island, New York paid roughly $100 for an unclaimed storage unit. It was a blind auction, meaning neither they nor the seller had any idea what was inside.

When the couple opened the unit, they were in for what would likely be the surprise of their lives: Buried under some old blankets sat a 1976 Lotus Esprit sports car used in the filming of the 1977 James Bond film "The Spy Who Loved Me." In the movie, the sports car famously transforms into a submarine and fires missiles while underwater.

Years later, none other than Elon Musk bought their find for nearly $1 million.

They'd never seen a Bond film

The sports car — one of eight used in the filming of the Roger Moore Bond movie, but the only one that operated in underwater scenes — had been put in the storage unit after filming and remained there, forgotten for more than a decade until the New York couple (who have remained anonymous) came along.

At first, "they really didn't know what it was," Doug Redenius, co-founder of the Ian Fleming Foundation, which authenticated the car, told NBC News in 2013 of the couple, who ran a business renting construction tools. They had never even seen a Bond film.

"They had no idea how valuable their discovery was."

Actors Barbara Bach and Roger Moore, stars of the James Bond film "The Spy Who Loved Me," sit on the 1976 Lotus Esprit.
Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The husband had planned on fixing the sports car's dented roof and making other improvements. But after they loaded the car onto a truck and set off for home, truckers contacted them via CB radio to let them know they were hauling a James Bond car, according to Redenius.

The husband later "went out and rented the movie on VHS and saw what he had," Redenius told NBC.

Snapped up by Musk

After the couple "cosmetically restored" the vehicle, they displayed it in occasional exhibits over the next two decades before deciding to put it up for auction in 2013.

Redenius added in the 2013 interview that he had heard about the car's existence years after the couple started exhibiting it, and he sought them out. He authenticated the car with the original builders and put the couple in touch with RM Sotheby's, telling the couple before the auction that "'if [the car] sells for what we're hoping, that money will give you an opportunity to live very comfortably for the rest of your life.'"

Enter Elon Musk.

The Lotus sold at auction at RM Sotheby's in 2013 to a secret buyer. It was later revealed that the new owner was Musk, and he reportedly paid $997,000 for the car.

National Motor Museum | Heritage Images | Getty Images

Musk said he'd grown up watching the Bond movie.

"It was amazing as a little kid in South Africa to watch James Bond in 'The Spy Who Loved Me' drive his Lotus Esprit off a pier, press a button and have it transform into a submarine underwater.

"I was disappointed to learn that it can't actually transform. What I'm going to do is upgrade it with a Tesla electric powertrain and try to make it transform for real," Musk told the auto blog Jalopnik in a statement in 2013.

To originally equip the Lotus for the movie, a marine engineering firm converted it into a functional submarine at a cost of more than $100,000 (the equivalent of nearly $425,000 today).

Nicknamed "Wet Nellie," the car was used for underwater scenes, so when it sold in 2013 it had no wheels, only "articulated fins." It also couldn't drive on land, but it did actually work as a submarine, with ballast tanks to make diving possible. The car also featured "a bank of four propellers" in the back of the vehicle that let it move underwater while being powered by electric motors in a water-tight compartment.

The 1976 Lotus Esprit, known as "Wet Nellie," that was used in the James Bond film "The Spy Who Loved Me."
Leon Neal | AFP via Getty Images

During filming, the underwater scenes were performed by a retired U.S. Navy SEAL wearing full scuba gear with an oxygen tank, as the car's interior was filled with water, according to Sotheby's.

Recently, Musk said that the car served as part of the inspiration for Tesla's new Cybertruck.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk unveils the Cybertruck at the TeslaDesign Studio in Hawthorne, Calif. The cracked window glass occurred during a demonstration on the strength of the glass.
Robert Hanashiro | USA TODAY | Reuters

The 1976 Lotus Esprit submarine is not even the most expensive car from a James Bond film to ever go up for auction. In August, an Aston Martin DB5 that was used to promote the 1965 Bond film "Thunderball" sold at auction for $6.4 million to an anonymous buyer.

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