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Lotus Esprit S1-S3

Lotus Esprit S1-S3 Published: 13th Jul 2017 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

Lotus Esprit S1-S3

Fast Facts

  • Best model: Esprit Turbo
  • Worst model: Esprit S1
  • Budget buy: Esprit S3
  • OK for unleaded?: Yes – but an octane booster is worthwhile
  • Will it fit in the garage? (mm): 4190x1850mm
  • Spares situation: Better than you might think
  • DIY ease?: Generally straightforward
  • Club support: Very good
  • Appreciating asset?: Very much so
  • Good buy or good-bye?: The Norfolk Ferrari that you don’t need a hefty wedge to buy
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The first real supercar Lotus that turned into a sub has also become a blue chip classic. Plenty around, some keenly priced, but standards vary greatly and it’s easy to buy badly. S1 is worst model – yet it’s also the one everybody seems to want…

It’s 40 years ago that the James Bond film The spy who loved me burst onto our screens. For many, the star was Barbara Bach (Ringo’s wife), cast as Russian agent Anya Amasova – but for anybody with petrol flowing through their veins it was the exciting Esprit that stole the show. For most, this was their introduction to the wedgy new Lotus, which just as much became a legend as 007’s DB5 as it drove into the water, changing into a small submarine.

Even without its Bond link (and how did a fish get in the car yet no water?) the Esprit was unbelievably exotic and throughout the seventies and eighties a popular pin up. More than four decades after the Esprit first went on sale, the car is still jaw-dropping, without appearing passé. It still handles brilliantly. And it’s still quick. Even the reliability issues have largely been sorted, which all adds up to a car that gives you more bangs per buck than you can get pretty much anywhere else.

However, prices are rising fast so if you’re hoping for a supercar bargain you’re likely to be disappointed. If you can afford a minter they all make sense – but if you’re on a budget you definitely need to consider very carefully what sort of Esprit you buy or you’ll be like that famous fish in 007’s car – out of water.

History

1971 Giorgetto Giugiaro approaches Colin Chapman in March, at the Geneva motor show, suggesting a collaboration between Lotus and Italdesign. By October, the first non-running prototype is built, based on a stretched Europa chassis (like the end result).

1972 At November’s Turin salon, a mid-engined Esprit concept car débuts on the Giugiaro stand. This prototype is based on a substantially modified Europa Twin Cam platform, but substantially bigged up – with a 96 inch wheelbase (previously 91in) while the track was widened a whopping seven inches. Unlike the 60’s Lotus cars, the new Wedgy ‘70s’ designs were massive and the Esprit’s 6ft 1in width was a world away from previous Chapman classics.

1974 Pre-production Esprit is previewed at the Paris salon in October, but it’s far from production ready.

1976 Announced at the previous London Motor Show, the first customer cars are delivered in June, powered by Lotus’s own 160bhp 1973cc aluminium engine that Jensen unwittingly helped develop, bolted directly to the Europa-based chassis with the driveshafts doubling as suspension arms.

This leads to poor refinement levels and these first cars are badly built too, quickly gaining a reputation for unreliability; getting one to run right is still difficult! The suspension is borrowed from the firstgeneration Vauxhall Cavalier; a thoroughly good double-wishbone set-up comprising of coil springs and telescopic dampers.

1978 The S2 replaces the S1 in June, after 744 of the latter have been produced. The new model brings an improved interior (in looks and toughness), 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 In February 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 (Essex Petroleum sponsored the F1 team) and feature a 210bhp version of the 2.2-litre engine; 100 cars are planned but just 57 are built.

With a revised rear suspension the car is much smoother and quieter, and it looks sensational on its standard split-rim Compomotive alloy wheels. The introduction of the S2.2 and Turbo also bring with them a rust resistant galvanised chassis as standard. Curiously, the excellent Vauxhall suspension is ditched for old Triumph hardware Lotus had used before…

1981 The normally aspirated 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 for greater refinement. 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 The final version of the Giugiaro Esprit surfaces; the 215bhp Turbo HC (High Compression). It’s stronger, faster and better built than all its predecessors, but it’s now hard to find one because of its rarity; production lasted just one year.

1987 A substantially redesigned Esprit goes on sale, after 767 S3s have been built. The X180 redesign has been done by Peter Stevens and it gives the car a completely different, much more modern look that’s carried over to the S4.

Driving and press comments

Car magazine introduced the original Esprit to its readers by comparing an S1 with a Lancia Monte Carlo in 1977. Both cars featured a mid-mounted 2.0-litre twin-cam engine, just two seats and all-independent suspension. With its pop-up headlights the Lotus seemed rather more exotic than its slightly older Italian counterpart and it was certainly rather more costly (£8548 compared with £5927) to opt for.

Driving the two cars back to back it was clear that the Lotus was top dog as it was quicker, quieter, more comfortable, more refined and featured better brakes. But the premium for this extra prowess was steep and on balance the spoils went to the Lancia because it was so much better value, with the Lotus not really far enough ahead to justify its hefty premium.

Four years later the same magazine pitched the Esprit Turbo against a rather more exotic rival – the Ferrari 308 GTBi. At that time you could buy a base-spec Esprit Turbo for £16,928, but if you wanted air-con, a hi-fi, leather trim and metallic paint you’d have to spend £20,900, which took you rather closer to the Ferrari’s lofty £22,810 asking price.

The obvious difference between the two was that the Italian had twice as many cylinders and its displacement was significantly greater too, but it weighed more and didn’t offer any extra power; both cars were rated at 210bhp. Intriguingly, the Lotus was the torquier of the pair, with 200lbft from 2000rpm compared with the 308’s rather meagre 176lbft. As a result, the Lotus was faster, felt more agile, had nicer steering and, in pretty much every objective way, was better than the Ferrari.

Yet the Italian brand had a cachet, a ‘specialness’, that the Brit couldn’t match and in the end Car decided to go with the Ferrari for purely subjective reasons. Compare values of a mint Esprit Turbo with an equivalent 308 GTB and you’ll see these prejudices are still alive and well.

Forty years ago Motor posed the question on its cover Worth the wait? And the verdict was yes with reservations on noise (Esprits registered 81dB at the legal limit, which according to the Noise Abatement Society was loud enough “to cause a harmful mental effect or physical effect on the driver.” Motor said it wouldn’t be so bad if it was nice), refinement and visibility was described as “wretched” and performance was no better than “brisk”.

Autocar summed the improved S2 as a “Noisy thoroughbred” following on with a verdict that had many plus points but “is terribly let down” by aspects “ that should have no part in its price bracket” although two years late in ’81 reckoned the Turbo was the “paragon of the Turbocharged” even if,at £21,900, it was a whopping £3300 dearer than a Porsche 911 SC and almost Ferrari 308 GTBi money. In 1984 Fast Lane concluded that in the dry “it’s just isn’t possible for anyone – who wants to tell the story to his great grandchildren – to reach the limits of adhesion…” It concluded no one bettered Lotus “in their purity of purpose in providing a driving machine”.

Values and marketplace

It was only a matter of time before the market picked up on how under-valued the Esprit has been for years. While contemporaries spiralled in value, the Esprit remained resolutely affordable. But not any more; over the past couple of years prices have shot up, with the market driven by collectors who don’t really care about reliability, driveability or parts availability.

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; reasonable S1s start at £25,000 but asking prices can go as high as £65,000. I’d say that’s a bit high in the current market as I’m pretty sure no car has changed hands for that sort of money yet.

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 this it’s cut-price super car compared to a Ferrari – the sad fact is many in a poor state due to their past lowly values.

Continues Downhill: “The S2 currently represents the best value for money with average cars starting at around £10,000 while £15,000 buys something decent. A non-Turbo S3 will cost a bit more while a good Turbo will cost at least £20,000, or more if it’s really nice. However, unless the car has clearly been really cherished, expect to spend a bit of money getting any Esprit up to a really nice standard as most of the cars out there will benefit from a bit of titivation, even if it’s only minor.

“However, some owners are now spending serious money on their Esprits; it’s not that unusual for a £40,000 restoration to be undertaken now, whereas until recently that was pretty much unheard of”.

Another key point that Geoff makes is that it’s essential that you delve into the service history of any potential purchase. These are specialist cars and they need specialist attention – but they often don’t get it. Be wary of any Esprit that has been maintained on a DIY basis or by a general garage – look for evidence of a respected specialist having done any work.

Improvements

The usual caveat applies here; there are lots of things you can do to upgrade an Esprit, but do your homework before making any changes as there are a lot of sub-standard parts out there. Most buyers want cars that are largely to original spec but there are lots of reversible mods that you can make, which are worthwhile if you’re aiming to use your Esprit on a regular basis.

A good place to start is PNM Engineering (pnmengineering.com), which has developed a raft of upgrades for the Giugiaro-designed Esprit. Among these is a range of big brake set-ups with prices starting at £672 and going up to £1014 depending on spec. Another popular swap is to AVO adjustable dampers at £83.94 apiece.

For a sportier sound and to liberate a few more horses, a stainless steel sports exhaust is a popular fitment that’s available for the S2 and S3, with prices starting at £300. Finally, a very useful upgrade is to fit some new lights as the originals aren’t really up to the job. Some outlets sell 5¾” units but you need six-inch items which aren’t very readily available. PNM has put together a kit with six-inch lights and a new backplate assembly which slots straight into the space left by removing your old lights; the whole lot is available for £336.

We know that we says this many times… but specialist cars need expert care and before any improvements are contemplated get the car fully sorted and serviced as it will transform the vast majority of Esprits, particularly by getting the rear suspension geometry spot on.

Engines can touch almost 300bhp in Turbo tune, says the outfit, and yet remain highly practical and reliable.

What To Look For

General

  • Various trim materials were used including leather, cloth and Marquasite, which is similar to crushed velvet. These materials generally don’t give problems, apart from the leather (available as half or full), which tends to crack with age.
  • The bonded screens of S1 and S2 models was cutting-edge when new, but they don’t age well. Check if the screen has been resealed; if it hasn’t, it’ll be due soon. Resealing costs £150 or so, but screen often cracks when it’s being removed, quadrupling the cost. Check the dash and footwells for deterioration because of water ingress.
  • Window frames for the side glass are powder coated – but poorly. Replacements are available but if caught in time the metal can be refinished.
  • The Esprit’s electrics are usually reliable, despite the problems associated with plastic-bodied cars. The window motors seize thanks to corrosion and the glovebox-mounted fusebox can get knocked by luggage, but there’s little else to be wary of.
  • If there are things starting to go wrong, make sure you’re aware of the extent. Headlamp relays and motors are worth checking, as these will be one of the first things to give trouble.

Engine

  • Esprits had one of three versions of Lotus’s all-alloy twin-cam engine; a 2.0-litre (type 907), a 2.2-litre (type 912) or a 2.2-litre unit (type 910). Although engine 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.
  • The key to engine durability is regular oil changes using and a genuine Lotus oil filter with anti-drain so the big end bearings are starved of oil during the first few seconds. Patten filters are half the price of the Lotus one, the latter is £23.80 – a small price to pay.
  • Once up to temperature it should show 35psi at 3500rpm; at 6500rpm there should be at least 45psi on the clock. But don’t worry if the pressure drops to just 5psi at tick over; that’s normal.
  • Spy the Turbo boost pressure gauge. The wastegates seize, so see gauge peaks at 0.8 bar; listen to ensure it’s operating; sounds like a light sneeze.
  • If the engine misfires look for oil having collected in the spark plug recesses. Although these engines shouldn’t use oil, they tend to leak it.
  • Cam cover gaskets leak, allowing oil to drip onto the exhaust manifold and why oil collects in the spark plug recesses. If they are over tightened to cure leaks, stripped threads and distortion occurs.
  • Warm and idling, listen for exhaust manifold blows. On a non-Turbo you might get away with four hours to replace the one – Turbos require cylinder head removal so could take up to 12 hours. Think £600- £900.
  • Look for a low coolant level and white mayonnaise on the inside of the oil filler cap, belying a failed head gasket. Cooling systems were a constant source of development. The low-slung radiator can leak without it being obvious and cooling fans fail.
  • Check alloy water pipes, which run through the centre of the chassis; they corrode and are costly to put right, especially engine pipework.

Body and chassis

  • The Esprit’s fibreglass bodyshell is strong, durable and heavy thanks to Lotus’s Vacuum Assisted Resin Injection (VARI) production process. Corrosion, cracking and crazing don’t occur, but there is the possibility of accident damage.
  • First check the nose, which suffers from stone chipping. Damage should be confined to unsightly paint, but the plastic could have been harmed. The whole body needs checking for star cracks.
  • It’s possible to invisibly mend damage, but it’s a skilled job. A car run on a budget may have been repaired at home, with resulting sinkage of the glassfibre – look for paint that’s sunk into the plastic. It’s labour intensive (so costly) process to grind back glassfibre and letting in fresh matting.
  • If any panels are needed because of more serious accident damage, everything is available – right up to a replacement shell.
  • The chassis is as durable. From the introduction of the S2 there was a galvanised frame, so these later cars are even less likely to be suffering from tin worm.
  • The only way of making sure an S1 or S2 chassis isn’t rotten is to put the car on ramps. Between the chassis and the bodyshell there’s an insulating layer of felt, which absorbs water then corrodes the chassis.
  • If the chassis is damaged, anything less than wholesale replacement is a bodge; welding is inadvisable, even if localised. New chassis are no longer available so secondhand is the only option. Budget at least £2000 to fit, but you may as well fit new suspension bushes and brake pipes plus a rebuilt steering – and suddenly it’s a £6000 minimum job.
  • Finally, petrol tanks rust; two are fitted and they’re time-consuming to replace, especially the one on the offside. With replacement items £300-£400 apiece and a day needed for the swap, things can get costly – so smell for fuel around the seatbelt mountings.

Running gear

  • There should be plenty of feel to the steering; any heaviness means a worn rack. This costs £250 plus a specialist’s time to fix; it’s something best left to the experts. Steering racks on S3s and later wear more quickly than on earlier models, because of the wider wheels and tyres; don’t expect more than 50,000 miles from any rack. If the steering doesn’t self-centre properly, it’s because the universal joint on the steering column has seized, which costs £46 plus fitting.
  • While accelerating and decelerating, listen for clonks from the transmission. The rear suspension of S1s and S2s can be problematic as the universal joints and wheel bearings tend to disintegrate. From the Esprit S3 onwards a much-improved rear suspension was fitted, with no inherent faults, although the universal joints should ideally be quality Hardy Spicer units – anything else won’t last as long. It’s not possible to tell the make of joints once fitted, unless crawling underneath, but it might be worth asking the owner if they know what’s been used.
  • Front suspension of post-’85 cars is Toyota and reliable. Pre S3 used Vauxhall/ Opel parts while intermediate models had a design based on the (Triumph-based) Elan system, with trunnions that needed regular oiling. Check the lower wishbones, which can crack near the anti-roll bar mountings.
  • The five-speed gearbox was borrowed from Citroen’s SM, and parts are scarce although it’s pretty durable; just check for worn bearings by listening for major whining. It’s around £300 to replace them or closer to £1000 for a major overhaul. If owner claims the clutch has been replaced, ask if the spigot bearing was also renewed.
  • S1s featured Wolfrace alloys; from the S2 on there were Speedline items. Early S3s featured BBS wheels, which are hard to source – fronts are all but unobtainable these days.
  • Hold the car on a slope using just the handbrake; it can’t be lubricated, so it tends to seize. As, the lever is mounted on the sill it gets knocked with monotonous regularity. S3s had a strengthened mounting but on earlier cars it can break away.
  • The plastic clutch slave cylinder pipe goes brittle and can fail, pumping hydraulic fluid over the inboard rear discs which then ignites. This has caused the demise of several Esprits, so see if a braided upgraded replacement hose has been fitted. If it hasn’t, it could be the best £40 you’ll ever spend on your Esprit.

Three Of A Kind

Ferrari 308 GTB/GTS
Ferrari 308 GTB/GTS
If you don’t fancy emulating James Bond, how about doing your best Magnum PI impression? You’ll need much deeper pockets to buy and run one of these compared with a the Lotus but the Ferrari is every bit as good to drive if you find a good one. Too many are suffering from a lack of use though, with many owners frightened to use theirs because of the adverse effect on values.
Porsche 944
Porsche 944
Until recently this was one of the great junior supercar bargains, but word has got out and values have started to climb significantly. As with the Lotus, there are just four cylinders and this time they’re mounted in the nose, but that pays dividends when it comes to practicality, plus there’s a fully open cabriolet if that model floats your boat. Buy one before they’re out of reach altogether as values are fast firming up.
Lotus Esprit S4
Lotus Esprit S4
Replacement for the Esprit was initially just a clever reskin on the S3 plus other improvements. Be in no doubt however that the ‘Softer Stevens’ reshell (22 per cent stiffer) isn’t as good as a genuine, later S4 even though the cars look much the same. They aren’t – but this model is still a darn sight better than early Esprits and the model ran from 1987 to 1993 in 172bhp NA (non turbo) form. Paul Matty reckons S4s are superb value.

Verdict

Esprit has such an overlooked pedigree. Penned by a supercar style icon, brainchild of a Formula One legend – and then there’s that respected name: Lotus – who needs a pricier Ferrari? The Esprit is well served by clubs and specialists and parts supply is quite good, 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, meaning costs can be steep.

With this in mind, don’t be tempted to buy an S1 just because that’s what was in the Bond film – later models are better in all departments and far more suited to home care. Find the right car and that is great fun to drive, satisfying to own and a strong future investment. But you must track down the right one, and that’s not as easy as it first sounds.



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