Blog : Whatever happened to the Lotus Excel?

Lotus Eclat Excel

I enjoyed reading the excellent news that Lotus’s production has bounced back to 2200 cars in the first half of 2023 after a particularly rough few years. This is exactly the kind of good news that UK PLC needs right now – hopefully, this will put Lotus on course to survive and prosper in the post-2030 world.

Yes, the launch of the Eletre electric SUV has been greeted with much wailing and gnashing of teeth from enthusiasts second guessing what Colin Chapman might have thought – despite the world from which he departed in 1982 being a rather different place to what it is now. But the reality is that this behemoth could well do the same for Lotus’s fortunes as the Cayenne SUV did for Porsche’s.

Much of Lotus’s turnaround seems be at the hands of the recently-launched UK-built Emira (below). This is a rival for the Alpine A110 and Porsche 718 Cayman – what, in the old days, we’d have called a ‘junior supercar’ and exactly where the original Lotus Esprit was pitched back in 1976. This fabulous car was part of a triumvirate that included the Elite and Eclat, and, together, they were what kept Hethel afloat in the crisis-riddled 1970s.

Lotus Emira

Fast forward a decade, and the Elite was gone, the Esprit had been through a couple of facelifts and the Eclat (below) had been transformed into the Lotus Excel – another car which did a great deal to keep the firm’s head above water in the wake of Colin Chapman’s death and several changes in ownership.

Right now, this excellent car is rather overlooked in the annals of Lotus history. It may have made a cameo appearance at the launch of the Eletre in 2022, but generally, it’s one that’s forgotten by all but the most hardened enthusiasts. And yet, that’s a shame, because it was an excellent 1980s reimagining of a 1970s sports car – with many of the bugs ironed out.

Launched in October 1982, this was actually the last Lotus to be launched during Colin Chapman’s lifetime, and at the end of a period of financial hardship for the company. Initially marketed as the Eclat Excel, its origins were very clear: it was a clever facelift of the 1975 Eclat.

Lotus Eclat

The Excel, in true 1980s style, added an aggressive-looking bodykit, a new interior and the latest iteration of the excellent Type 912 slant-four 16-valve twin-cam shared with the Esprit S3. Thankfully, it retained the original’s svelte profile and Rover SD1 rear light clusters, and had a reduced aerodynamic drag co-efficient of 0.32.

However, it was the first Hethel-produced sport car that benefited from significant input from Toyota. Yes, that’s right, in the firm’s long and distinguished history, Toyota’s brief involvement as a major shareholder is often forgotten. The Excel was a nice quid pro quo for the work Lotus did on the Supra to turn that six-cylinder cruiser into a half-decent driver’s car.

I reckon Lotus ended up with the better end of the deal, because dipping into Toyota’s parts bin really lifted the Excel. It gained a Toyota five-speed gearbox, along with its differential, driveshafts, and disc brakes. At the same time, the rear suspension was modified to incorporate the Esprit’s top link and lower wishbone layout. These engineering changes really made a difference, perfecting the dynamic balance and turning it into one of the era’s best-handling cars.

How good? In the March 1983 CAR magazine group test between the Lotus Excel, Colt Starion and Porsche 944, it said, ‘All three cars are great fun to drive, but it’s the Lotus that stands out as the ace of the trio for sheer driver appeal. Apart from outstanding handling and roadholding, it also has the best gearchange – light, quick and positive and, just as important, finely honed clutch and throttle actions. Even in unskilled hands, the Lotus is a very easy car to drive fluidly, with feathered transitions between acceleration and braking, straight-tracking and cornering.’

Lotus Excel

And in conclusion, the Excel beat the much-vaunted Porsche. ‘The Lotus, then, takes first place over the Porsche, but by a head rather than a length. A census in the CAR office confirmed the Excel’s victory at the same time as raising questions over the car’s ‘completeness’. So, our congratulations to the Norfolk firm and a warning too; take care of those niggling problems or next time the Porsche may be the one leading the pack.’

As the 1980s progressed, Lotus continually improved the Excel – and it would beat its German rival in twin tests time after time. Yes, the Porsche was better made, had a more solid interior, and was more usable, but the Lotus continued to deliver tactility, delicacy and balance in a way that the admittedly excellent 944 couldn’t.

When it bowed out after multiple detail improvements and upgrades in 1992, it had been in production for a decade and was still highly regarded by keen drivers, even if not so many bought it. The Excel wouldn’t be directly replaced as a 2+2 Lotus until the arrival of the short-lived Europa S in 2006, and more properly, the Evora in 2009.

The Excel’s production run of 2075 was a drop in the ocean compared with the Porsche 944, but that merely adds to its special, bespoke appeal.

One hopes the Excel’s star will rise now and help to establish its place in the company’s history alongside groundbreaking new diversions like the new Eletre. When one considers that just six months output from Hethel now bests the entire production run of the Excel, the Toyota/Hethel hybrid should really be judged by its longevity and dynamic greatness rather than merely by the number of units which were sold.

Either way, it’s good news for one of the most emotive manufacturers in the UK right now.

Lotus Excel

Keith Adams

6 Comments

  1. A car I nearly bought many years ago, until my sensible side took over! They drive fab and look good (better than the Elcat in my opinion).

  2. Not that much UK or PLC about Lotus these days,it’s owned by Geely these days,before that Proton it hasn’t had a UK based owner since 1986.Can’t understand why the company is having a new SUV the Eletre being built by Geely in China not much British about that is there?

  3. Modern sports cars do seem quite “conservative” looking now. The Emira is nice looking, but it’s very much a continuation of the 1990s Elise styling wise. Similarly Ferraris look like Ferraris, Porsches all look like 911s, McLaren’s all look like progressions of the MP4-12C etc

    The 1970s seems to be the last time when sports cars were styled to look completely new, rather than trying to imitate a historic model. These days we would never get cars like the Elite/Eclat, 928, XJS, TR7, X1/9, 308 GT4 etc

  4. Those involved in the development of the Elan M100 even to this day do not regret making it FWD nor effectively excluding Oliver Winterbottom from the design competition, only that Mike Kimberley did not better utilise his established contacts in Japan during the M100’s development to better prepare for the MX5 and adequately reduce costs beforehand from further raiding the GM parts bin.

    An unofficial low-cost Elan M100 was belatedly attempted to demonstrate how it could have been reduced via the Elan coupe prototype with fixed Calibra headlamps and revealed to some GM people, however it was undermined by internal politicking within the company by individuals who did not think continuing with the FWD Elan was in their best interests. The low-cost aspects of the Elan coupe prototype would be carried over to the Elan M200 concept.

    Although Lotus did look at the preceding RWD Elan M90 prototype before the switch from Toyota to GM undermined it, cannot help but think they should have developed the Eclat based 2-seater M80 prototype from the beginning instead of retreating from the segment since it could have have easily been updated into an Excel based 2-seater (possibly with a NA version of the 920 Series unit).

  5. I had an Eclat for a few years. The carbs went out of tune quickly but the biggest problem was no reverse. Had to hold the lever hard into reverse position and lived with that for 4 years. My mechanic brother couldn’t fix it. The new owner had it for 2 weeks and found the reversing light switch was incorrectly positioned and it was fixed. I swore a lot the day o found out it was such a simple fix. Backing up in a snow covered car park up a hill swearing and holding the stick with force backwards was a particular memory!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


*


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.