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Lotus Carlton

Lotus position Published: 20th Feb 2012 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

Lotus Carlton

Fast Facts

  • Best model: Original and unmolested
  • Worst model: Neglected examples
  • Budget buy: A good GSi 3000 instead?
  • OK for unleaded?: Yes
  • Will it fit in the garage? (mm): L4768 x W1933mm
  • Spares situation: Steadily improving
  • DIY ease?: Fairly good
  • Club support: Very good
  • Appreciating asset?: Yes but not rapidly
  • Good buy or good-bye?: Considering what Cortinas sell for…
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With only 75 or so left, the Lotus Carlton is rarer than a Lotus Cortina yet cheaper and less chance of fakery. Neglect and rust is sadly common so check with care and buy the best you can find.

Pros & Cons

Magnificent Ferrari-eating performance yet docile, safe handling, superb value for money
Lacks pedigree, many ratty examples around, iffy parts supply, expensive to repair and run
£ 12,000-20,000

It’s rare for a Vauxhall to cause a sensation but one that did, and still does, is one of Luton’s unlikeliest models – the big barge Carlton. Mind you, the one we’re talking about came with a 3.6-litre twinturbocharged engine developing the thick end of 400bhp and a massive 419lbs.ft of torque, offering supercar performance that even 21 years later remains almost unbelievable. The 204bhp 3000 GSI was a brilliant Carlton, but this one could power from rest to 60mph in just over five seconds. By the time the stopwatch was reading less than 12, it was doing the magic ton and well on the way to its maximum of more than 175 mph.

No-one had ever seen anything like it from Vauxhall and only 284 of a three-year production run of just 950 cars were right-hand drive, earning it a place in Britain’s hall of modern classics. Did we tell you this Carlton was made by Lotus? Given its remarkable credentials, the Lotus Carlton remains one of the best modern classic bargains on the block. It cost almost 50 grand new back in 1990 but now for around £20,000 – or less – you can own arguably the greatest super saloon ever built where a Vauxhall puts a Ferrari to shame in terms of performance, yet still has room for all the family and the kitchen sink. And when you consider the price of what Lotus Cortinas now sell for, it’s the much better buy.


The Lotus Carlton was the unlikely offspring of the marriage between General Motors and Lotus in 1986. Cash strapped Lotus was being treated like an automotive pass-the-parcel at this time and it was GM’s turn to make something of it, first with the fwd, Isuzu-powered Elan and then the Carlton. Ford had its 150mph Sierra Sapphire Cosworth and the Lotus Carlton was the General’s uncompromising answer. However, it wasn’t the first time GM wanted to make a fantastic flagship for the flagging Vauxhall name; back in the 1970s it intended to make a road going V8-powered Ventora, to ape the ‘Big Bertha’ one Bill Blydenstein had developed for Gerry Marshall to race. Sadly, rear axle problems and the 1973 energy crisis put paid to the idea – and the strangely unloved racer that was too lardy and bulky for tracks was written off a year later.

First conceived in 1988, the Lotus Carlton was developed by a combined team of 30 engineers and technicians whose aim was to provide outstanding handling, roadholding and braking to match its sensational performance. Completed Vauxhall Carlton 3-litre GSi models were shipped from the GM plant at Russelsheim in Germany to the Lotus factory at Hethel in Norfolk, where a dedicated team of 55 craftsman at the old De Lorean base spent 150 man-hours stripping out trim and seats and modifying the bodyshell to accommodate a repositioned engine and gearbox.

Fibreglass additions included a new front bumper incorporating an air dam, together with a rear spoiler and wheel arch extensions to accommodate the much larger and wider wheels and tyres. Additionally, major changes included a complete engine re-build, significant mods to the suspension, the adoption of the most powerful brakes available at the time and the trimming and re-fitting of leather seats and door panels.

But the engine was the biggest news, a 3.6-litre straight six engine, itself a stroked version of the existing lusty Vauxhall/Opel 3-litre unit – topped with a 24-valve alloy head and a brace of turbochargers developed by Lotus for 377bhp at 5200 rpm, while maximum torque was a massive 419lbs.ft at 4200 rpm – 300 of it developed at just 2000 rpm; a figure only the best muscular diesels now manage.

In order to handle all this power, Lotus engineers raided the GM parts bin and came up with the six-speed manual transmission used by the Chevy Corvette ZR1, while the rear diff was a beefy unit used by a GM Holden model sold in Australia. A four-channel anti-lock braking system, with AP racing four-pot callipers at the front acting on 13-inch ventilated discs and twin-pot callipers operating on 12-inch ventilated rear discs, made sure the car stopped as fast as it went – how does 100mph to zero in six seconds sound?

Lotus engineers devised a new multi-link rear suspension with modified strut pivot points for twin-tube dampers to ensure top directional stability and ride comfort at high speed. The front suspension featured a conventional MacPherson strut set-up with twin tube dampers and strengthened anti-roll bar, while the Lotus Carlton’s 17-inch alloys were shod with 235/45 and 265/40 tyres, front and rear.

The LC lasted barely three years but it wasn’t the lofty price or dowdy Griffin badge that put people off most. No, high insurance premiums that also killed off the hot Cosworth Sierra and Escort played a major role, as did a cooling European economy. Arguably, what also stopped the Lotus Carlton in its tyre tracks was negative reaction to a family car that could reach 180mph or more! Indeed, questions were asked in Parliament while one Police chief called for the car to be banned.

General Motors came up with a great idea at the wrong time because, just when the Germans decided on limiting top speed to 155mph, along came Vauxhall/Opel with a car that openly disregarded such limits. In the end GM played the car down and was almost apologetic about making it.


It’s a bit of a cliché to say that certain old classics can still mix it with moderns on today’s roads but, along with Cosworths and Audi Quattros, the Lotus Carlton can not only meet ‘em but can still beat ‘em!

Published road tests of the Lotus Carlton at its launch, and shortly after, were universally ecstatic about its almost unique combination of brute force and velvet glove refinement. It only recently lost the crown for the being World’s fastest four-door saloon, and only the Lamborghini Diablo was able to match it for all-round performance when contemporary. One writer was particularly thankful that the Vauxhall’s brakes were bettered only by the McLaren Fl supercar!

The use of two relatively small Garrett T25 turbochargers resulted in hardly any lag and, from about 2000 rpm, the engine delivered a smooth band of power in a quiet and calm manner that was underlined by a muted but purposeful exhaust note. The Lotus Carlton was beautifully developed and was fast but with finesse.

Top gear is essentially an overdrive sixth ratio with an incredible 44mph@1000rpm that allows the car to lope along at 70mph with the engine just ticking over at around 1500rpm. But change down a gear and watch the needle rapidly approaching 175 mph and beyond on the autobahn leaving Ferrari owners in its wake!

Roadholding and grip, thanks to the Lotusdeveloped rear suspension and the wide, wide tyres (well they were back then!), remain also of a very high order though the car is devoid of the modern electric trickery to keep you out of trouble. You call it a sporty saloon that TVR would have made because shorn of get-you-out-of-jail electronics the LC demands fair respect in the dry and certainly a lot in the wet!

That said this Vauxhall wasn’t – and isn’t – a car to be frightened of; indeed it drives just like a normal repmobile Carlton – just a lot quicker when desired! As one test put it, “The balance of the handling was superb… enabling its enormous power to be used, if not with abandon, certainly with equanimity”.

If you can afford the petrol – which actually isn’t bad at around 28mpg on a legal run – the LC actually makes a practical daily driver. That tall gearing means the car is just idling at the legal limit while comfort and refinement levels wouldn’t exactly disgrace a 61-plate BMW.


According to Autobahnstormers’ Club Secretary David Waddington, £16,000 - £18,000 will fetch a Lotus Carlton in good condition and £20,000 will buy a truly specimen example. Left-hand drive Lotus Omegas used to be valued less but now there’s price parity across the board. However, left-hand drive Omega-badged ones sourced from the European mainland are less likely to suffer from rust, since there is less salting of the roads on the Continent, it’s reckoned.


Making this Lotus even larier isn’t easy as it was so well designed from the outset and, let’s face it, 377bhp is more than enough for today’s roads. Actually, that’s on the conservative side because Autobahnstormers’ David Waddington says that a good well run in engine sees over 400bhp on an engine dynometer!

When new, special induction kits were also made available. No doubt that, with chipping and turning up the twin turbo boost, 450bhp or more is on the cards.

Understandably experts say take care here, not least because it spoils the car’s originality, which will become even more critical over the years. Likewise the rest of the running gear, if in good order, is more than up to it, especially the AP racing brakes, although it can all be upgraded. Frankly the best ‘improvement’ is having a car serviced and set up by an expert, where the difference will make it feel like a new car.

What To Look For

  • The Lotus Carlton is a hybrid that offers tremendous performance and driving pleasure. The downside is its complexity and rarity and so spare parts can either be difficult or very expensive – or usually both – to obtain so beware of any bargain buys turning up. These cars are in fair demand and rare so you get what you pay for.
  • Anyone contemplating buying one would do well to contact one of the handful of clubs devoted to the marque before making a decision; we are indebted to Autobahnstormers for help in this feature ( The buying experience is made much easier by the fact that cars are either pretty tatty or fairly well maintained, so either way you can see what you’re getting.
  • As it’s a modern car rust shouldn’t pose too much of a worry, but we hear that a worrying number of owners have let their Carltons deteriorate markedly. It’s believed that around only 75 LCs now exist.
  • It’s what lurks under the bodykit that’s the real worry. Places to check for rust include under the windscreen seals, bottoms of doors, wheelarches, sunroof, spare wheel well, below the rear bumper and the roof aerial. It is likely that the front will have been re-painted at least once in the car’s past and so ask about any accident damage.
  • The windscreen is special to the car and so should have a tint band along the top - it if lack this then the replacement screen came from a GSi. Oh yes and all the body glass is tinted. Oh once again… not that you would do we’d imagine but don’t use an automatic car wash! Vauxhall even warned of this at launch as it can rip off that sexy bodykit!
  • That sensational Lotus/Vauxhall engine needs a fair bit of watching. It’s a complex unit and a lack of knowledgeable care will ruin it. If you don’t know what you are looking for then seek advice from an expert and the owners’ club.
  • Let’s start at the sump where a vacuum is said to aid turbo drainage when the units aren’t at full pelt. However the turbochargers can leak away at hot idle so check for oil seepage. A special crankcase breather has been designed by owners to help matters.
  • Cylinder head gaskets can let go and take the rare GSi-derived heads with them. Look for signs of recent work and carry out the usual checks for leaky head gaskets and have a compression test done if need be (if the owner dislikes the idea then expect the worst). The rarity of these heads has lead to stock GSI items now being modified.
  • As you can imagine engine blocks are becoming extremely scarce but are around if you hunt hard enough. Stock 3-litre GSi and Senator alternatives can be employed if all else fails. The turbos are quite conventional and need only the usual checks. Look for smoking, uneven turbo boost and so on.
  • The electronics can play up and lead to poor running. See that the ECU light illuminates and extinguishes on call and that it hasn’t been craftily disconnected to hide a fault. Coil packs can pack up and lose a cylinder as a result and check the obvious such as dodgy wiring, old ignition leads and so on.
  • Transmission is bullet-proof with the exception of the clutch and bell housing. The clutch pivot pin retaining bolt can shear, while a bell housing fault will render the car a no-goer.

Three Of A Kind

Ford Sierra Cosworth
Ford Sierra Cosworth
The super saloon and hatch that gave Vauxhall the motivation to make the Lotus Carlton, it’s not as fast as the GM product but is more outrageous and extrovert. Cracking value too and, of course, being a Ford means that running a Cossie is as easy as a rep’s 2.0 LX. The RS 500 is the most thrilling but 4x4 Sapphire the most polished and usable. Given the iconic RS tag its strange why Cossies remain so cheap.
Lancia Integrale
Lancia Integrale
One for the purist… Lancia’s evolution of the family Delta hatch culminated with the all-wheel drive Integrale and like the Cossie and LC, is a true modern classic that remains remarkably inexpensive to buy, if not run. Acclaimed to be the best handling car of its era, but LHD may not appeal to everybody. Plainer still good Delta HFs are RHD and even cheaper. Always buy best you can for the money.
Jaguar XJR
Jaguar XJR
If you regard the supercharged (X300) XJR as a modern Coombs then we won’t argue. It’s one of the most underrated sophisticated sports saloons ever and incredibly cheap to buy, and okay to run if you use Jag specialists. Some manuals but most automatics and post ‘96 V8 version is the most thunderous. Like the Lotus Carlton it’s a split personality classic that obeys your driving mood.


Okay so you can’t really compare a Lotus Carlton to a Lotus Cortina… but they both wear that famous badge! Although lacking the sports pedigree of the Ford, the Vauxhall effort is the truer sports saloon and a lot cheaper to buy. Own one while you still can.

Any Lotus-badged classic has to be worth going for… so why not give the 175mph Carlton a fresh look at?

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