When the Lotus 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.
Lotus Esprit: a very British supercar
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 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 these unpromising beginnings, greatness would head Hethel’s way. The Esprit became Lotus’s first road-car to rival those of its long-time F1 rival, Ferrari. The screaming sports car became a supercar and, once the Esprit Turbo had first made its mark in 1980, Lotus’s claim to be a quality carmaker started to ring more true.
Lotus continues to be a firm well used to crises, and the Esprit was launched in the midst of its most difficult-ever period. In the early 1970s, Chairman Colin Chapman decided the only way the small company would survive — let alone prosper — was to move upmarket, for he knew that expensive cars were less susceptible to economic uncertainties than cheap ones.
How to reinvent Lotus – take it upmarket
A firm with Lotus’s engineering excellence was capable, figured Chapman, of building a genuine British alternative to a Porsche or Ferrari. It was part pragmatism, part pride, and the consequence was that the type of car on which Lotus’s reputation had rested for 15 years was ditched. Out went the Elan, out went the Europa. Instead of chasing people who aspired to a Porsche but couldn’t afford one, Lotus went after people who could.
The young, fast driving set which had formed the majority of Elan/Europa owners was ignored, and older, wealthier buyers were sought. The first stage was the four-seater Elite, launched in 1974. Thanks to its hefty price and the Energy Crisis, the Elite was never a great showroom success.
The company’s difficulties were made worse by the fact that, at that point, Lotus was only a one-product company, awaiting the launch of the Esprit, and the poor sales forced a decision to slash both production and workforce (the latter down from 830 in early 1974 to less than 400 in 1975). The changeover from being the maker of cheap sports cars to makers of prestige cars was never going to be easy but in reality it was more difficult than Chapman ever imagined.
He knew the Esprit would help. The car was to be a spiritual successor to the Europa Twin-Cam, even though both its price and equipment levels were to be higher, but this was because the Esprit was really intended to be the car to lift Lotus into the Ferrari league. Codenamed M70, the mid-engined sports car had first featured in Lotus’s long range plans drawn up in 1970.
The idea was to use as many parts from the yet-to-be-released Elite as possible, including the 16-valve four-cylinder engine then being developed, and a futuristic wedge-shaped body. Chapman must have been wondering who was the best person to design that futuristic body for the M70 when, at the 1971 Geneva Motor Show, he was approached by Giorgetto Giugiaro.
The master Italian stylist told Chapman that he wanted to do a showcar design based on a Lotus. With a background that included work for Bertone and Ghia — frequently on two-seater supercars — Giugiaro’s qualifications were beyond dispute. Chapman agreed, and the Esprit’s modern but simple lines took form.
A cut and shut Europa chassis of intended M70 dimensions was delivered to Giugiaro’s Turin Design Studio to be clothed and, in November 1972, a prototype (above) was shown to the world at the Turin Show, a very angular wedge-shaped design with an extraordinarily steeply raked windscreen. Lotus was enthusiastic about the shape, but also bemused by what would be its inherent production problems.
The Esprit theme had been set, but the productionising of the car had yet to begin. Chapman was also suspicious of the car’s aerodynamics, and soon asked for a second prototype to be made complete with interior and more resolved aerodynamics. He wanted a car capable of being produced in glassfibre (in line with Lotus tradition) rather than one merely to be ogled at.
The second prototype called IDGG 01 and known internally as ‘the red car’ would be built in glassfibre, the first time Giugiaro had worked with this material. Long hours and late nights followed. Some of the important Lotus executives moved to Turin to work close to Giugiaro, including stylist Oliver Winterbottom, who supervised the construction of the Esprit and who also designed the 1974 Elite. Others, including Chapman and Mike Kimberley (later to become Chief Engineer and Managing Director), made frequent private aircraft flights from Norfolk to Italy.
Giugiaro’s work is improved by the Brits
A quarter-scale model of the original Giugiaro prototype was made and then taken to the MIRA wind tunnel in England. Tests there confirmed what Chapman had suspected – there were bad lift problems, which were undesirable in a high-speed sports car. The changes during this period of development included decreasing the rake of the windscreen by three degrees to comply with US rollover strength legislation and reducing the size of the rear opening door, which had been a full-length hatchback on early designs.
There were also numerous subtle styling differences, both to help Lotus build the body and to enable the car to penetrate the air with less drag and lift. The second prototype (below) was finished in 1973.
Running gear – tried and tested (elsewhere)
Two years before the Esprit was due to be launched, the new four-cylinder 16-valve engine intended for it made was introduced. The Type 907 engine had been designed by former BRM Engineer Tony Rudd, who had joined Lotus in 1969. This engine produced 140bhp from 1973cc in standard form, and was the first all-Lotus-designed production power unit.
Surprisingly, it had been used first in the Jensen-Healey sports car, a move which cynics said allowed the bugs to be ironed out before it found its way under the bonnet of a Lotus. The high-revving and powerful all-alloy unit soon earned a reputation for a terrible thirst for oil – a trait that went down well neither with Jensen nor its customers – and it took Lotus some time to sort out this problem.
Furthermore, the engine was inordinately harsh at high revs, the result of an inadequately stiff crankcase, and Lotus also had to do a lot of work on the motor’s emission levels to make it acceptable in America, Japan and Australia.
Looking to the French for a gearbox
The Engineers had always anticipated that one of the most difficult problems with its new mid-engined car would be where to locate the rear-mounted transaxle. Lotus found an unlikely saviour: Citroën was about to discontinue production of its magnificent SM flagship, but was able to guarantee long-term supplies of its five-speed gearbox to Lotus.
Fitting the transaxle was not an easy task – it was mated to the engine via a Lotus-designed bellhousing which joined the centre-line of the differential. Selection was via a mix of rods and cables, which ‘broke every engineering law’ according to one Lotus Engineer. Nevertheless, it worked.
One of the priorities had been to give the Esprit a good gearchange, particularly after the atrocious cog-selection problems which had blighted the Europa fitted with its Renault gearbox. With the Citroën SM gearbox and Lotus bellhousing, the company managed it.
Working against an impossible deadline
In between trying to get the new Elite ready for production and curing the problems inherent with the 16-valve engine, Lotus toiled to get the Esprit developed for Chapman’s Christmas deadline. Tony Rudd took overall responsibility, including specific engine and suspension work, Colin Spooner was responsible for the chassis and body and his brother Brian concentrated on adapting the Citroën gearbox.
On Christmas Eve, one day ahead of the deadline, the team had a car to show the boss, although it was not a runner. The Esprit prototype’s first real test in front of the boss was early in 1975, when Tony Rudd surprised Chapman by arriving to collect him in it at Heathrow Airport, after the first Grand Prix of the year. Chapman drove it part of the way back to Hethel before a hub carrier broke.
By early 1975, it really had to be a success: the Elan and Europa had ceased production and Lotus’ only model was the new Elite, which was selling just 20-25 cars per month. This would prove to be just enough to see Lotus through to the launch of the new Esprit at the Paris Motor Show in 1975. That was when, according to Motor Sport magazine, ‘the most exciting, attractive, series-production British sports car since the Jaguar E-type‘ was unveiled.
Lotus Esprit – state of the art in 1976
The Lotus twin-cam 2.0-litre engine, mounted longitudinally at 45 degrees to the horizontal, now developed 155bhp at 6580rpm in the Series 1 Esprit, and 140lb ft of torque at 4800rpm, breathing through twin Dellorto carburettors. The car’s glassfibre reinforced plastic body was made in two halves and then bonded together at the prominent waistline, riding on a steel backbone tubular frame, partly sheet-braced.
The front suspension used Vauxhall Cavalier Mk1 double wishbones with integrated coil spring/damper units, and a Cavalier anti-roll bar. Cavalier front discs were also borrowed, and the steering rack was from the Elite.
At the back, the suspension was simple, unusual and flawed. The Esprit used its fixed-length driveshafts to form what was, in effect, its upper suspension links (Elite driveshafts and hubs were used). There were also box-framed trailing arms, a lower lateral link and integral coil spring/damper units. The rear discs were inboard.
Interior and quality disappointments
Inside, the Esprit was a mixture of good news and bad. The dash consisted of a futuristic wraparound facia which contained the main gauges (which were hard to read) and the switchgear while, in between this and the driver, was a cheap plastic two-spoke steering wheel.
The interior ventilation was terrible and rear three-quarter vision was almost non-existent, but all these problems notwithstanding, the Esprit received a great reception at its world debut and, when it went on sale in June 1976, it looked like Lotus had built a winner. Its success came not a moment too soon.
Series 2 only partially fixes the problems
The Series 1 was in production for two years before being superseded by the Series 2 in May 1978. Some of the S1 problems were solved with the new S2; many were not. Lotus already knew its rear suspension layout was inadequate for a car of this performance (even though it had worked well on the Elite), and knew that the chassis had to be made stiffer. It reworked neither, however, for the S2.
What they did do was improve the 16-valve engine and give it more mid-range pull (an improvement effected on some late S1 models, too) and better economy. New alloy wheels, made specially for Lotus by the Italian makers Speedline, replaced the off-the-shelf Wolfrace wheels which had looked so prosaic on the S1. A front wraparound spoiler was used, as were wider Rover SD1 tail lamps (subsequently used on all Lotuses).
The Veglia instruments were replaced by Smiths ones, and the standard of interior trim was massively improved. Mind you, the trim should have been revised, for with the launch of the S2, the price of the Esprit had rocketed to £11,124. The one-time kit car maker was now selling, truly, a Porsche-priced car, but it still wasn’t building its cars as well as Porsche.
The S1 had had many teething problems, and Tony Rudd later said, ‘I reckon we solved 90% of the problems before manufacture, but there were others who reckoned I solved 10% and they did the rest trying to put it into production.’
Lotus Esprit Turbo breezes in
In 1980, the Esprit Turbo was launched in limited edition Essex Turbo form. It marked the long-awaited turning point for Lotus. At last, here was a car that was potentially good enough to take on – and beat – a Ferrari 308 GTB. The high-speed Esprit variant had originally been scheduled to have a V8 engine, rather than a turbo four-cylinder. The chassis engine cradle was given room for an engine with two banks of four cylinders. Nonetheless, Powertrain Engineering Manager Graham Atkin favoured the idea of a turbo four, largely on the grounds of cost, and his voice eventually won through.
Such engines were starting to gain favour then thanks to the work of companies like Porsche and Saab. In typical Lotus fashion, the turbo transformation was clever. The design of the Esprit Turbo involved a massive upgrade to the S2 specification. To make it look more aggressive and increase the downforce, Giugiaro was asked to design a new bodykit with aerodynamic upgrades, and replied by designing wraparound bumpers, large front and rear spoilers and deep skirts under the door sills.
The changes to the engine were far more extensive. A longer-stroke crankshaft increased its capacity from 1973cc to 2174cc and a Garrett AiResearch T3 turbo force-fed pressurised air into the two twin-barrel Dellorto carburettors. The compression ratio was lowered and the engine was strengthened to take the greater internal pressures. The power went up by 35% to 210bhp at 6500rpm, and torque rose by 43% to 200lb ft at 4000-4500rpm. The clutch diameter was increased by an inch (2.4 cm), although the gearbox and final drive remained unchanged.
Chassis improvements revolutionise the Turbo
The chassis and suspension were also extensively altered. The chassis was new with Lotus-designed and built upper wishbone/lower transverse link front suspension (replacing the GM-derived original) attached to a new front box section. At the rear, where there had always been a handling problem on the S1 and S2, short top suspension links were added to take the loads imposed on the driveshafts. The trouble with the old system had been that, to a large extent, the engine mounts’ compliance had determined the handling.
If good roadholding was to be maintained the result was excessive engine noise and vibration. The new chassis also had 50% better torsional rigidity than the S1/S2, which also helped to explain the more faithful handling of the Turbo when compared with earlier models.
Wider 60-profile tyres were fitted front and rear, the interior was leather-trimmed, air conditioning was standard and a better steering wheel was fitted. Top speed was 152mph compared with the S2’s 135mph, with 0-60mph in 5.5 seconds.
Turbo goes mainstream and S3 is launched
In April 1981 the mechanically identical but less luxuriously equipped series production Esprit Turbo was launched to replace the colourfully adorned Essex Turbo version. At less than £17,000 – compared with £21,000 for the Essex – it was a far more sensibly priced.
Numerous road tests soon verified that the Turbo was one of Europe’s most competent supercars. Its beautifully-engineered turbocharged engine gave strong performance, it had razor-sharp handling and prodigious roadholding, although it still didn’t have the ultimate badge kudos of its Porsche and Ferrari rivals, but as a driver’s car, it probably had the measure of the 308GTBi, which had its wings clipped in 1981 due to a power drop that marked the arrival of fuel injection.
The Esprit Turbo’s upgrades also helped produce a better naturally-aspirated car. First, as the Series 2.2, which was launched not long after the Turbo in April 1980, and then as the altogether more superior S3 in 1981, which received all of the chassis and suspension upgrades from the Turbo. The exterior was tidied up over the S2.2, with none of its obtrusive matt black paint finish, and the quality control was noticeably improved.
Lotus’ standards steadily improved throughout the 1980s, while the under-the-skin development meant that dynamics seriously moved on, too. It was all looking good for Lotus and the Esprit especially as it sauntered through 1981 and into 1982.
Back to the future
Colin Chapman, Lotus founder and inspirational driving force behind the company, suddenly died in December 1982. The company was already beginning to struggle at that point. It had been involved in the collapse of the DeLorean DMC-12 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) which took the controlling stake, and Toyota. In 1984, JCB then took an 11% stake, followed by Toyota upping its share to 20% – 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 (above) 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.
Lotus styling entrusted to Peter Stevens
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 then turned 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 and Design Director of Jaguar from July 2019), 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 Citroën CX door mirrors (Stevens would use them again later on more than one occasion).
Fewer changes underneath
Under the skin, the chassis set-up remained unchanged. The stiffer bodyshell meant suspension could be made more compliant and uprated brakes and gearbox (finally seeing the end of the Citroën 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 16-valve 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 (below).
The charge-cooled SE arrives
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 Mk3.
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 sports car. 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 into something considerably more enduring.
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Is the Editor of the Parkers website and price guide, formerly editor of Classic Car Weekly, and launch editor/creator of Modern Classics magazine. Has contributed to various motoring titles including Octane, Practical Classics, Evo, Honest John, CAR magazine, Autocar, Pistonheads, Diesel Car, Practical Performance Car, Performance French Car, Car Mechanics, Jaguar World Monthly, MG Enthusiast, Modern MINI, Practical Classics, Fifth Gear Website, Radio 4, and the the Motoring Independent...
Likes 'conditionally challenged' motors and taking them on unfeasible adventures all across Europe.
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