Practical Classics – December 2003
by Nigel Boothman
Photography by John Colley
The Lotus Esprit
was dismissed as a wacky-looking concept when it first appeared
at the Turin Show in 1972
But from '76 to '87 that first wedge-tastic shape started to turn
heads all over the world. So what are they like today?
the first thing you think when you see an Esprit, especially when
it's tucked between bits of modern traffic. These days, Minis have
the same wheelbase as Range Rovers and most hatchbacks are a tall
as people carriers, so at only 37.5 inches tall, the early Esprit
models seem about hip-high.
doubt about the visual impact of that angular shape, though. Giorgetto
Giugiaro's folded paper styling is a beautifully organised meeting
of various flat surfaces, and is still a real head turner in 2003.
The car's impact in the mid-Seventies, scything through herds of
coke bottle-waisted family saloons, was even more extreme.
genesis was actually earlier still, origination in Giugiaro's first
attempt at clothing the four and eight cylinder Europa replacement
projects, codenamed M70 and M71. A non-running prototype bearing
all the main features of what was to become the Esprit appeared
on Ital Design's stand at the Turin Show in 1972, and drew much
praise. Colin Chapman said he wanted to get the car into production
in the following 18 months using new 2-litre twin cam 907 engine,
recently unveiled in the Jensen Healey.
out to be a little ambitious, what with the Arab-Israeli war putting
paid to any V8-engined version the strife over the supply of engines
for the Jensen Healey project, and it was January 1975 before a
running prototype was ready to test. Another nine months of intense
development saw the car ready for the Paris Show launch on October
flashbulbs popped and orders were taken by the fistful, not least
from on Albert R 'Cubby' Broccoli, producer of the James Bond films.
Lotus worked for a year on the various road cars and mock-ups for
The Spy Who Loved Me, but it was all worth it when the dashing Roger
Moore implanted the armed and amphibious Esprit into the national
Back in the
real world, things weren't going so swimmingly for the new car.
Everyone was impressed with the looks, but early road tests found
some design flaws and dynamic shortcomings that didn't sit well
with the purchase price – around £8,000 when launched,
compared to £7,500 for a TVR Taimar Turbo or £9,900
for a Porsche 911, both of which were a good deal quicker. Unhappily,
the Esprit was never quite as fast as Lotus said it was, and supercar
looks like these really needed more power to back them up. But the
extra oomph didn't arrive until the Eighties.
What were the
early cars really like to drive? Not an easy question to answer
these days, as so few unmolested Series 1 cars have survived. Luckily,
we have Kevin Kinsella's ultra-original 1976 car to play with today.
From the first
few months of production, this bright-yellow wedge still has its
tartan seats (a feature of the Giugiaro prototype) and Wolfrace
slot mag wheels, and it looks absolutely fantastic. Cocooned instorage
for 18 years, it's barely run in with 36,000 miles on the clock.
Apart from the odd bit of sun-fading on the upper interior surfaces
and the add-on pod for the radio, it could be two years old.
So how do you
actually get in? Kevin's got it figured out but it doesn't look
exactly graceful. As I fold, curl and wriggle my way into the driver's
seat, I remind myself than Mike Kimberly, the man who was to become
MD of Lotus, make sure he could fit his 6ft 5in frame into the new
car at the design stage. My head is clear of the roof, my feet fit
the pedals, but my left knee is tight between the steering wheel
and the chassis tunnel, the huge box-backbone that gives the car
its strength. Still, better than expected.
time spent in storage is a little more noticeable behind the wheel,
where the heavy and uncooperative gear change and stiff throttle
makes slick progress a little more difficult than you'd hope. The
engine has a pair of aftermarket filters on the carbs and the 2-litre
four has a marvellous intake roar as you wind up to 6000rpm to wring
the full 160bhp out of it. The steering is ridiculously accurate,
and around the Curborough sprint course we've chosen for today's
shoot you feel you could thread it between the cones with millimetre
sensation of speed, and acceleration is lively, but the early Esprit
could never be described as a neck-snapper. The brakes haul you
up straight and true, and the little Lotus turns out to be a surprisingly
practical car, as Kevin has proved by pressing it into occasional
daily usage. There's a usable boot behind the in-line engine and
above its Citroën five-speed transaxle, though the front compartment
is more or less full of spare wheel and radiator.
for the Series 2, although cooling and aerodynamic improvements
and different camshafts boosted everyday usability (see item below).
A much bigger step forward was the introduction of the enlarged
2.2-litre 912 engine (just a stroked version of the 2 litre really)
in May 1980. The 'Series 2.2' Esprits were easier to drive quickly
and a lot more responsive, despite producing very similar peak power,
due to a good spread of torque throughout the rev range.
B-road handling and 25mpg don't define a supercar in the bedroom-wall
poster sense of the word. Add spoilers, stripes, a 150mph top speed
and a Turbo badge, and you're getting there. Lotus did just than
in 1980 when the garish Essex Turbo Esprit appeared, soon to be
superseded by the proper Series 3 Esprit Turbo in 1981. After a
brief and rather unnecessary flirtation with dry-sumping, they settled
down with a conventional wet-sumped version of the 2.2-litre engine
augmented with a Garrett turbocharger nestling near the back of
the engine and blowing through a pair of Dell' Orto 45M carburettors.
This gave minimum
turbo lag and a maximum of 210bhp until the final HC version came
along. It was enough to carry the top-of-the-range Lotus through
the first half of the Eighties, as the side skirts and spoilers
remained, with very more luxurious interiors and a wide variety
of paint jobs giving the affluent and supple sports car buyer of
1986 plenty to choose from.
If he or she
had chosen the metallic green Turbo lent to us by UK Sportscars
they wouldn't have been disappointed. There is enough ruched cream
leather inside the car to upholster a Lear jet, and the dash features
controls for air conditioning, electric mirrors, and of course,
a properly mounted stereo, high-spec in its day. There's a glass
sunroof that you can tilt up if the extra seat padding has robbed
you of vital inches of headroom, and an immobiliser serves as a
reminder that this is a valuable and relatively modern supercar.
This car, like
both the others we've tested today, starts first time and continues
to give the lie to the old story of Lotus Of Trouble, Usually Serious.
You're immediately aware that there's something different going
on behind your head; the engine sounds busier and more modern, and
as soon as you plant your foot and hear the turbo whistle, you know
it's a little bit special.
More than a
bit, actually. The lack of Turbo lag or peakiness means that the
car accelerates faster than you think it does, with no sudden whiplash
power delivery or tyre-smoking panic from the back end. Sure, it
picks up significantly when you get to 3500rpm and beyond, but the
feeling is more like being attached to the horizon by a long bungee
cord then it is like being fired out of a gun.
So you wrestle
and stiff and heavy 'box (no improvement here, despite a more direct
linkage than that in the S1 and S2) through the first three or four
gears, and the scenery reverses towards you rather quickly. The
Esprit will settle into a very relaxed lope of nearly 100mph at
4000rpm if you let it, but more legal speeds are advisable in a
car as pointy and noticeable as this one.
tight curvers of Corborough, this Lotus is a bit of a handful. There
is now enough power to deliver you into corners a bit too fast and
to blat you out of them with the back end slithering, although this
may be due to renewed suspension requiring adjustment as the springs
settle in. The car certainly rides a lot higher than the earlier
are superb, though, and the steering is still very precise. Add
this to the whine and whoosh of the turbo and wastegate breathing
at you through the bulkhead vent by your right ear, and you have
a pretty stirring driving experience. It got a little more stirring
for those who opted for the run-out HC (high compression) model
with its 215bhp, standard-fit air conditioning, leather and matching
designer luggage, yours for £31,000 in 1986 and '87, more
than a contemporary Ferrari 308.
By this time,
however, the top brass at Lotus felt than the old shape was a bit
too angular and sharp edged to look right among the 'jelly mould'
fashions of the production car design that took hold in the Eighties,
and the last of the old-shape cars rolled out of the factory at
the end July 1987. The new weapon, the 'Steven's shape' (after designer
Peter Stevens, who also penned the fwd Elan) was a very different
car inside and out, although the basic flashy looks and driving
experience were much of the same ilk.
Which is what
the Esprit is all about, really. The looks and the drive, and never
mind about everything else. They're not badly made cars, but neither
do they inspire confidence. There are a few too many self-tapping
screws and sticky door catches in evidence, with loose trim or carpet
exposing fibreglass matting, things you just wouldn't find on a
to think of Lotus as a kind of Norfolk Alfa Romeo; they might break
down now and then, the build quality is never exactly Teutonic,
but the feeling you get behind the wheel continues to inspire legions
of loyal followers to put up with the shortcomings.
I take home? All three. I love the looks of the Series 1, the driving
experience of the Series 2 and the addictive turbo whoosh of the
Series 3, and I really can't pick between them. Besides, if one
of them misbehaves, I'd have another two to chose from.
The cars' owners; the Lotus Drivers' Club especially Bob who picked
up the keys in yet another Esprit, his immaculate S3 Turbo. The
green car is for sale at UK Sportscars for £12,995. Call 01227
Torque: 140lb ft@4900rpm
Gearbox: 5-speed manual
Top Speed: 124mph
Length: 13ft 9in (3.54m)
Width: 5ft 1in (1.42m)
Weight: 2275lb (1003kg)
Torque: 200lb ft@4000rpm
Gearbox: 5-speed manual
Top Speed: 151mph
Length: 14ft 2in (3.63m)
Width: 5ft 1in (1.42m)
Weight: 2512lb (1148kg)
The Series 2
The Lithe and
lovely silver Series 2 brought to us today by Arthur and Barbara
Clarke of the Lotus Drivers' Club is a good example of how much
Lotus liked to fiddle with the specification to keep interest in
the car turning over. I'm surprised it was necessary really, as
this car is very nearly as much of a head turner as the yellow Series
1, only a couple of years older.
flat profile is the same, still uncluttered by add-ons and sitting
pretty on four slot, Speedline wheels, which are the quickest way
to tell a Series 2 from a Series 1. Arthur's motor has also grown
ears behind the rear side window to aid engine cooling and has familiar-looking
rear light clusters – nicked from the Rover SD1.
the cabin that those detail changes are most obvious. Gone is the
Bay City Rollers lunacy of Kevin's tartan Series 1 (itself only
one of many options), replaced instead with a much more subtle dark
green alcantara-like dash material surrounding dark leather seats.
The radio is tucked in snugly, just in front of the gearstick.
This car has
been in the wars a bit, what with a serious fire and an eye-wateringly
expensive cambelt failure, but Arthur has nursed in back to health
to his own, improved specification. A new camshaft has allowed a
significant power increase, without much loss of tractability, and
wonder of wonders, the gear shift is light and precise. It shows
it can be done with proper adjustment.
the driving experience, as does having the bite point of the brake
pedal set right for nifty heel-and-toeing. You can chuck this car
about with confidence, race through the cogs and get a push in the
back as you plant your right foot. That's exactly what Arthur does.
Last week, the Clarkes were at a track day at this same venue. Bravo!