A very British supercar
When the Esprit burst onto the scene in October 1975, it had a similar effect on fans of the marque as that fateful storm had on the gardens of countless homeowners in 1987. Designed as the flagship of a triumvirate of cars, which also included the Elite and Éclat and was to shed Lotus of its long-held ‘kit car’ image, the Esprit became one of the most iconic British sports cars of the 1970s.
Based on a design penned by Giorgetto Giugiaro of Ital Design, which we’d seen three years before at the Geneva Motor Show, the mid-engined Esprit was a dramatic wedge-shaped masterpiece. Its styling was equally as controversial as anything produced by Lamborghini or Ferrari at the time, and the only thing the Esprit was missing to deny it true stardom was a V8 or V12 powerplant under its engine cover.
However, as we were still reeling from the effects of the 1973/74 Energy Crisis, the prospect of a 140mph ‘supercar’ that could return up to 30mpg was no bad thing at all.
Despite early glitches, a hefty price tag and disappointing performance (when compared with Lotus’ original claims), the Esprit soon became a sales success – thanks partly to the starring appearance of a submergible version in a certain 1977 spy film. The car set new standards of roadholding – and, although performance was a little behind price rivals such as the Ferrari 308 or Maserati Merak, the overall performance-to-economy ratio was leagues ahead.
Lotus didn’t rest on its laurels, though – and, in 1978, the Series 2 was introduced. Styling-wise the addition of Rover SD1 rear lamp clusters to add to the Marina door handles, ensured even more inherent class – and performance was boosted. A couple of years later, the Esprit received the 2.2-litre version of the 16V slant-four that debuted in the Talbot Sunbeam Lotus.
The big news later that year was the introduction of the Esprit Turbo – initially in special edition Essex Edition form. Fitted with a Garrett blower, and resulting in a power output of 210bhp, the Esprit was now a genuine 150mph car – the ‘go’ now matched the ‘show’ and, despite the fact that most turbocharged cars up to that point were laggy and demanding to drive, Lotus had actually managed to produce a civilised car to drive with few of the traditional foibles.
The following year saw the arrival of the S3 models – and the marketing emphasis was shifted firmly to the turbo version, allowing Lotus to drop the prices of its normally aspirated stablemate. With improvements including a galvanised chassis and stronger brakes, the Esprit S3 was a seriously impressive piece of kit, even though the years were beginning to take their toll.
Back to the future
Following the death of Lotus founder, Colin Chapman, Lotus began to struggle. It had been involved in the collapse of the DeLorean project, and finances weren’t on their strongest footing. New ownership for the firm was split between Chapman’s family, investors British Car Auctions (BCA) who took the controlling stake, and Toyota. In 1984, JCB then took an 11 per cent stake, followed by Toyota upping its share to 20 per cent – with the company being run ably by long-time Lotus man, Mike Kimberley.
Development on ambitious projects such as a new-generation Elan (Project M100), a V8-engined Esprit (Project M71) and productionisation of the glorious Giugiaro-penned Etna prototype of 1984 were a luxury the company couldn’t afford at the time.
That left further development of the Esprit as the only viable option for the medium term and, although it was clear that chassis dynamics were still pretty much beyond reproach, the styling – no matter how devastating back in 1975 – needed a serious update. After three years of uncertainty, General Motors bought out Lotus in January 1986 – meaning Project M100 was back on line, and a thoroughly updated Esprit (known as Project X180) could happen more quickly.
Peter Stevens, a long-established industry designer (who once self-deprecatingly owned up to being responsible for the headlamp design of the Ford Capri II), was deeply involved in the Lotus Design Studio at the time. Having already seen Oliver Winterbottom turn the Eclat into the Excel, Peter Stevens’ team turned would then turn its attention to the Esprit – with the initial design brief being to keep costs down while giving the car a whole new look.
The brief for the re-skin was passed to Stevens – and preliminary sketches had been produced in October 1985. The project was kept very much on the sidelines, and most of Lotus’ senior personnel only found out about the new Esprit when the glass fibre mock-up was presented to them in February 1986, just after the GM takeover.
Julian Thomson (much later the stylist of the Range Rover Evoque), also worked on the original car, smoothing off the sharp edges of the original wedge, and heralding in a more organic look. The rear end now featured flying buttresses to replace the previously tailgated rear, and the rest of the car was treated to wrap around moulded bumpers and a more curvaceous windscreen glass. Rearwards visibility was not only improved by the revised rear window arrangement, but also because of the fitment of those elegant-looking Citroen CX door mirrors (…Stevens would use them again later on more than one occasion).
Under the skin, the chassis set-up remained unchanged. The stiffer body shell meant suspension could be made more compliant and uprated brakes and gearbox (finally seeing the end of the Citroen SM five-speeder used since launch) completed the engineering story.
The turbocharged engine received a further 5bhp, boosting power to 215bhp – and performance was perked up. With a top speed knocking on the door of 160mph, and a 0-60mph time of just over five seconds, the Lotus Esprit Turbo was more than a match for rivals from Porsche and Ferrari. The four-cylinder engine may well have sounded a little ordinary in comparison to its symphonic rivals, but there was no mistaking the results…
Inside, the dashboard remained largely unchanged – save for a few more tweaks, and the addition of Austin Maestro switchgear. Stevens wanted more, of course, and had it been up to the accountants, the original interior would have been carried over unchanged.
The new look went down a treat with buyers – as well as critics in the press – proving that Lotus was still adept at producing sports cars with panache and added value.
However, as the ’90s beckoned, it was clear that turbocharged 16V engine were no longer the preserve of the exotic, and plenty of rivals were churning out mass-produced alternatives with similar amounts of power, at a lower cost. The V8 idea never really went away, but with the development team now clearly focusing on the upcoming front-wheel-drive Elan, this was not going to happen for some time to come. What was needed, therefore, was further expansion of the slant-four engine.
New pistons, induction system, a charge air-cooler, direct ignition system and new Delco engine management were added, breathing life into the existing four-cylinder power unit – which its maker claimed to be the most powerful 16-valve engine in the world. This bevy of changes upped the power output to a highly impressive 264bhp – and it seemed fitting to give the new supercar slayer from Lotus the ‘SE’ tag.
Despite the fact that previous generations of Esprit had supercar looks and go, they remained in the First Division, rather than the Premier League. The introduction of the Turbo SE meant the Esprit could now scorch from 0-60mph in 4.7 seconds and crack 160mph with ease. Nothing at that price point came close in terms of sheer unadulterated driving pleasure – here was a car built for one thing only: to get from A to B via C as quickly as possible…
In 1991, the non-turbo version was dropped from the range – its appeal had been rapidly waning, anyway – and this left the company to concentrate on building ever-quicker and more focused versions of the Esprit. Fans would not be disappointed.
Despite being in the autumn of its life, the Esprit’s day was a long way from being over during the 1990s. In 1993, the S4-series was launched (although it should have logically been called the S5). The exterior styling received the subtlest of tweaks – because, let’s face it, there was little wrong with the Peter Stevens makeover. You’d need to look closely for the re-profiled bumpers and smaller spoiler on the outside – although another giveaway was the replacement of those Marina door handles with those from the Vauxhall Cavalier MkIII.
The interior was made-over more radically than usual – receiving a fair portion of chunky Vauxhall-derived switchgear as well as a re-profiled instrument binnacle. More importantly, for the first time ever in an Esprit, power steering was fitted, delivering more agility through the improved suspension set-up.
The competitive list price and sweet exterior styling allowed the Esprit to punch above its weight, although they were nothing compared with the thrilling dynamics and performance of the car. Yes, the cracks were beginning to show in interior department, but if you were focused purely on excitement, few experiences came close to that of wringing the neck of an Esprit on a racing circuit.
Despite the Esprit’s new lease of life, Lotus found itself in the wars again thanks to parent company General Motors’ financial traumas of the early Nineties and that saw Lotus fall into the hands of an unexpected new owner – Bugatti. Italian investor Romano Artioli, had bought the rights to the defunct French marque in 1990, and turned it into a short-lived supercar builder (before Volkswagen-Audi took over and did the job more effectively – and pointlessly), and took on Lotus as well on the back of the company’s legendary research and development capability.
That saw a fresh injection of cash that would ultimately lead to the creation and introduction of the Elise – and the V8-powered Esprit.
And to the end…
Bugatti didn’t stay on board long – by 1996, it was bankrupt, and Lotus had been sold to the Malaysian company, Proton. The V8, unveiled at that year’s Geneva Motor Show, was the Italian company’s parting gift for the Esprit range, and became a final, late flowering of the timeless design.
The 3.5-litre twin-turbo V8 produced 350bhp, delivered a 0-60mph time of 4.5 seconds and a top speed of 171mph – performance and handling were typically brilliant, although the cabin architecture was now becoming something of an unfunny joke. Its styling still had that wow factor that set the Esprit apart as a true supercar – and now with an engine to match there was nothing to stop it from achieving immortality.
It was in this form that the Esprit pretty much finished out its days – production of the Elise and the Vauxhall VX220 was keeping Lotus busy, and the Esprit became very much a fringe activity for the company. A couple of years later, the V8 model range was expanded to incorporate GT and SE specifications – and, a year later, the most exclusive model of them all, the Sport 350, was unveiled. So called because it developed a cool 350bhp, only the very fastest cars available could see it off…
In 2002, the Esprit received its final facelift, gaining new rear lights and a few other cosmetic adjustments – it was in this form that the car finally went out of production in 2004, on the eve of its 30th birthday. It truly was a classic you could buy new.
Although the introduction of the Peter Stevens-designed Esprit had been a major landmark in the car’s long life, it’s sometimes hard to believe that it was only a third of a way through the production cycle of this iconic sportscar. Although most classic car fans still associate the name ‘Esprit’ with James Bond’s wedge, perhaps it’s now time to re-evaluate the situation, and conclude that the real storm happened in 1987, and it was actually orchestrated by Peter Stevens.