Opinion : Chrysler’s Esprit – do you know more?

Lotus was working with Chrysler in the mid-1980s/early 1990s on a number of programmes. The only one to make it to production was the DOHC cylinder head for Chrysler’s 2.2-litre inline four. Best known for its appearance under the bonnet of the Dodge Spirit R/T (below), the combination of the free-breathing head, Garrett turbocharger, and intercooler helped the balance-shafted engine produce 224bhp and 218lb ft. of torque. It was mated to a five-speed Getrag transaxle, and made the Spirit the fastest volume-produced four-door saloon available in the USA upon its debut in 1991. It also was all that was left of plans to have Lotus build a Chrysler Esprit.

What most people don’t know is that Lotus was doing a lot of work for Chrysler at the time. In 1985, Lotus was tasked with designing a DOHC version of the 2.5-litre four, which produced approximately 150bhp and had a 7500rpm redline. It was one of the motors that was to be offered in the Dodge Daytona, with the turbo from the Spirit R/T planned as the only engine for the all-wheel drive Daytona.

Audi’s Coupe Quattro was the target for that vehicle, and John Miles was the chassis development lead for Lotus on that car. Word was the car was quite close to its target, and that Miles worked closely with Roger Becker on this and other Chrysler vehicle dynamics projects. Unfortunately, the AWD Daytona was cancelled in late 1987 after Chrysler joined forces with Mitsubishi to produce what became know as the ‘Diamond Star cars’ (Plymouth Laser, Mitsubishi Eclipse, and Eagle Talon) built at the Diamond Star plant in Bloomington-Normal, Illinois from early 1989. Dodge was scheduled to get is own version of the car, but it was shifted over to the Eagle division to give it a vehicle that would increase showroom traffic.

Dodge Spirit R/T was famously powered by a Lotus-developed engine

Building a Chrysler halo car out of Lotus

Money was tight at Chrysler, and the lifeline from Mitsubishi allowed it to upgrade and update its lineup with what effectively was other people’s money. Sadly, however, no attempt was made to revive another project that had succumbed to the budget man’s axe, the Chrysler version of the Lotus Esprit.

Lee Iacocca was nothing if not a salesman, and knew the effect a halo car like the Esprit would have on the Chrysler/Dodge/Plymouth/Eagle lineups. Lotus, struggling with budget crises of its own, also knew the effect a deal like this would have on its bottom line. The transverse powertrain found in the Spirit R/T was originally created for this car, where it would be placed in a new, purpose-designed chassis, and clothed it in modified Esprit bodywork. The change in engine orientation reportedly liberated five inches of interior room, some of which was used to increase seat travel, while the rest was commandeered for a padded, leather-covered luggage tray.

There were even plans to develop small jump seats to give the car 2+2 capability, but it’s unclear how far, if at all, this proposal progressed. There also was room for a cargo container behind the engine and gearbox. Either this box or the interior luggage tray was said to be capable of holding a pair of golf bags. Reportedly, an engineering prototype of the ‘Chrysler Esprit’ was made, but it’s unclear what happened to it upon cancellation of the programme.

So, does anyone have a picture or more details? We’d really love to hear from you!

Christopher Sawyer

Latest posts by Christopher Sawyer (see all)

13 Comments

  1. Was not the time Chrysler owned Lamborghini and Lotus F1 team were using a Lambo F1 engine. Is it possible that some Lotus tech flowed to Lamborghini, if not Chrysler missed an opportunity.

  2. So Chrysler was having money troubles despite the success of the k car and minivan bringing them back from the brink earlier that decade. Whithering away money on frivolous and dead end projects like buying Lamborghini (dodge viper V10), partnering up with maserati (Chrysler TC maserati) and lotus (despite being owned by GM) and American motors (which turned out to be their saviour in the 90s) meant that they didn’t reinvest in their core product line just as MG rover did

    • Chrysler introduced new minivans, the modern Ram truck, and actually paid to develop and tool the Grand Cherokee, in addition to paying for. AMC. Chrysler simultaneously transformed the loser R25 based AMC sedan into the cab forward big cars then introduced two ranges of smaller cars. There was no shortage of actual investment in product. The only two missteps were the K car based 1988 big cars and the 1987 Sebring coupe. The 1988 big cars were duds because they were bad ideas, not lack of investment. The Sebring went into a dying market for big coupes.

  3. Chrysler was in as much a mess as British Leyland was 40 years ago, they had to pull out of Europe as they were losing too much money, their market share was falling in America, and models like the Dodge Aspen wrre duds and they had too many outmoded gas guzzlers. Fotunately, government loans, a reduction in the non core business and heavy job cuts, and the K cars saved the company in the eighties, Also the Plymouth Horizon sub compact( similar to the European model, but with different engines) proved to be a decent seller during the eighties and was popular as a second car.

      • Iacocca was responsible for a lot of the late 80s decisions that other posters say were dumb. He was responsible for the 1988 big cars, and a lot of the diversified projects. The Maserati deal was with Iacocca’s buddy DeTomaso.

      • They were a dying company in 1979 and needed someone like Iacocca to save them. The K car was a masterstroke, nearly as big as a full size car inside, but offering subcompact fuel economy. Also aggressive pricing, a long warranty and a range of models made it a success. Then there was the Horizon, which gained more sales due to the recession and rising fuel prices at the start if the eighties.

        • The Horizon completely preceded Iacocca. The K cars were in the pipeline when Iacocca arrived.

          Iacocca’s business contribution was selling the federal loan guarantees to get the K cars to market in 1980. Iacocca’s major product decision was the minivan.

          • Not to rain on Iacocca’s life-saving contribution to Chrysler, but product credit for the minivan — and the K-Car –and, some say, going back to Ford days, the Mustang — really belongs to Hal Sperlich, not Iaccoca. And let’s not forget what Bob Lutz did for Chrysler later — The LH cars, Viper and others.
            An interesting conjecture: What if Lutz rather than Eaton (Iacocca’s choice) had taken over the helm at Chrysler? The so-called merger with Daimler almost certainly would not have happened, the 10 billion (and growing) war-chest that Chrysler had accumulated would not have disappeared into Stuttgart’s coffers, and Chrysler could well have been well-positioned to survive the 2009 recession instead being declining into bankruptcy.

  4. Funnily 10 years afterwards GM did exactly the same thing that Chrysler had been planning, and introduced the Vauxhall VX220/Opel Speedster as a Lotus based halo model!

    Even more weirdly, Vauxhall/Opel will soon be sister “brands” to Chrysler…

  5. After the Moon landings, Neil Armstrong became a product ambassador to Chrysler in the US and appeared in advertising promos. Although that Dodge R/T looks bland I rather like the color coding on it.

    In the late 70s I remember Dodge marketed a version of the Mitsubishi Sapporo – can’t quite remember its name

  6. From the low front quarter view the centre section of that Dodge Spirit R/T looks rather line a Honda Ballade / Rover 213 of similar vintage. But rather larger I’m guessing…

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