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Lotus Esprit S1-S3

Lotus Esprit S1-S3 Published: 12th Sep 2019 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

Lotus Esprit S1-S3
Lotus Esprit S1-S3
Lotus Esprit S1-S3
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This 70’s Lotus is increasingly floating folk’s boats but be in no doubt that you’re in at the deep end when buying one

Esprit was Lotus’s first genuine supercar that has recently become a blue chip classic even though the S1 is the worst model out of the entire range. That’s down to its claim to 007 fame when it magically tuned into a submarine. Don’t make buying one become a sink or swim exercise though…


1971 Giorgetto Giugiaro approaches Colin Chapman, at the Geneva motor show, suggesting a collaboration between Lotus and Italdesign. By October, the fi rst non-running prototype is built, based on a stretched Europa chassis with a prototype running by 1974.

1975 Announced that October, the first customer cars are delivered the following June, powered by Lotus’s own 160bhp 1973cc aluminium engine that Jensen unwittingly helped develop… bolted directly to the Europa-based chassis using first generation RWD Vauxhall Cavalier double- wishbone coil springs and telescopic dampers set up.

1978 Too many shortcomings sees the S2 launched ushering in an improved interior (both in looks and stamina), Speedline wheels and Rover SD1 tail lights – 1060 are built. Power remains at 160bhp and to commemorate American Mario Andretti becoming F1 World Champion, 147 JPS black and gold special editions are built.

1980 The twin-cam engine is stroked to 2174cc in the transformation from S2 to S2.2. Power remains at 160bhp, but there’s welcome more torque plus a new high-power Esprit; the Turbo. The first cars are badged Essex (in deference to the Essex Petroleum company sponsoring the F1 team) and feature 210bhp; 100 cars are planned but just 57 are built. Curiously, the excellent Vauxhall suspension is ditched for old Triumph hardware Lotus had used before!

1981 Normal Esprit becomes the S3, after just 88 S2.2s have rolled off the production line. The S3 features the same chassis and suspension as the Turbo; 767 are made. At the same time, the Turbo becomes a regular production model with a reduced trim specification. Dry-sump lubrication is a feature until 1983 – a carry over from the Essex. 1608 are produced. 1986 Final version of the Giugiaro Esprit; the 215bhp Turbo HC (High Compression). It’s stronger, faster and better built than its predecessors, but production lasted just one year.


As the Esprit is based upon the Europa platform, it’s no surprise that it handles equally as well (so long as the chassis and its geometry is properly set up – many aren’t) although being larger, fatter and lardier than the earlier car it’s not so agile. But we’re splitting hairs here because even 40 odd years on, few sporting moderns can keep up with a well driven, well maintained Esprit cross country. Fast but not furious best sums up the car’s straight line pace though. In standard 160bhp tune a hot repmobile would embarrass the owner unlike the Ferrari fast turbos.

Refinement was always lacking – S1s are by far the worst – while even later Esprits with their plusher cabins can’t disguise the car’s cheap build origins. There’s a fair cabin space for two to endure the surprising noise and harshness filtering through however.

Best models

As with most Lotus cars, later Esprits are far better developed yet the S1 is the car collectors go for, and prices reflect this. For the more level-headed, the S2 and especially the S3 are better bets – certainly the 2.2-litre engine and improved refinement are worth having.


The past couple of years has seen prices shoot up. Says Esprit Engineering’s Geoff Downhill: “All prices are rising fast, especially those for the S1”, which for years was the Esprit that nobody wanted! The survival rate for these isn’t that great so you might have to be prepared to wait for the right car to come along.

Leading Lotus light Paul Matty, on the other hand, can visualise six figure sums [for the S1] in the not too distant future. “And deservedly so” he quickly adds, reasoning it’s a cut-price super car compared to a Ferrari. But the sad fact is many Esprits languish in a poor state due to their, until recently, lowly values. Superb S1s can now change hands for more than 60 grand or nice ones around £40,000 which also buys the best S2 making them better value. S3s can be even cheaper, although by not much. Go for condition not year or spec is our advice.


Life in Lotus land is rarely easy. Esprits are having their day in the sun but you still have to think carefully before buying one as a DIY labour of love, as many jobs are still best left to the experts. This means costs can be steep but the rewards will provide an ample payback.

I bought one

Mike Merry is a happy enough Esprit owner, having previously run a JPS Europa at the age of 20 before buying this rare coloured S3 Turbo more than 15 years ago. Well versed in the highs and lows of Lotus ownership, it wasn’t in this great condition and has undergone an intense renovation. Happily, escalating values mean he’s in the money should he decide to sell – but only when the well built Kent enthusiast can’t get in and out of it anymore he says!

Top 5 faults


Biggest problem with any Esprit is historic lack of care due to lowly values until recently. These cars still demand expert tlc, no more so than the rear suspension geometry; drive several as the standards will greatly vary. A check on the tyres will say a lot, not just their condition but also the make because cheap rubber points to penny pinching elsewhere.


Esprit’s fibreglass is strong, durable and heavy thanks to Lotus’s Vacuum Assisted Resin Injection (VARI) process. Cracking and crazing rarely occurs, but there is the possibility of accident damage. The chassis is also durable. From the S2 galvanised frames were fitted but the only way of making sure a chassis isn’t rotten is to put it on ramps.


Although the unit has a reputation for unreliability, failings are usually down to poor maintenance. The cam belt should be changed every 24,000 miles or two years; if it goes, a £4000-£5000 bill looms. Look for healthy oil pressure, no smoking and not too many lube leaks. On turbos, look for wear and tiredness as well as wastegate seizure.


Bonded screens were cutting-edge when new, but don’t age well. Check if the screen has been resealed; if it hasn’t, it’ll be due pretty soon. Resealing costs £150 or so, but screen often cracks when it’s being removed, quadrupling the cost. It’s normal to find cars with shabby cabins – costly to remedy; look and smell for leaks and general decay.

Running gear

While accelerating and decelerating, listen for clonks. The rear suspension of S1s and S2s can be problematic as the universal joints and wheel bearings tend to disintegrate. From the Esprit S3, a better rear end was fitted. Front suspension of post-’85 cars is Toyota and the most reliable. Citroën XM transaxle is quite ok but sourcing parts isn’t.

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