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Lotus Esprit at 40

Published: 11th Apr 2016 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

Lotus Esprit at 40
Lotus Esprit at 40
Lotus Esprit at 40
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The first true Lotus supercar of 40 years ago got off to an indifferent start but eventually came good enough to become 007’s choice of transport

Lotus can thank its PR man Don McLaughlan for, if not saving the Esprit, certainly putting it on the map. Noting the benefits Lotus enjoyed supplying Elans and Europas for The Avengers, he decided to go a step further and assist the ultimate goodie – James Bond – after 007 tired of his Astons. And Don had the perfect British alternative – the all new Esprit.

Just as the DB5 gained immortality in just a matter of minutes as Q ran through the Aston’s iconic toys to a skeptical Sean Connery, the Esprit will always be remembered for emerging out of the ocean before an immaculate, dry-as-abone, Roger Moore wound down his window and gave a wriggling fish (it had to be still alive) to an astonished beach bystander in a deadpan kind of way that only the ex-Saint can deliver. It wasn’t so much the fact that the Esprit was also a submarine as well as a supercar in The Spy Who Loved Me that astonished Lotus owners, but more the fact how had Hethel finally produced its first leak-free car. And how the heck did a fish get in a water-proof anyway?

It was the perfect stunt to lift appeal of this all new replacement for the Europa that, despite a more powerful engine and improved chassis, was slower and didn’t handle as satisfyingly at launch.
Given its Europa underpinnings, Esprit should have been the better car but early S1s were criticised for their lack of performance and refinement. And the noise! Okay, so you expect a sports car to be vocal – that’s part of the appeal – but 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.”

Like too many previous Lotuses, the Esprit was full of promise but short on development, despite a first showing of the basic design back in 1972, as a concept car for the Turin Motor Show. A collaboration between Colin Chapman and Giorgetto Giugiaro, it took its cues from the Italian stylist’s similar work on a Maserati that also featured on the Ital stand.


The recently-launched Elite in 1974 showed that the Esprit (code name M70) would be a further development if for no other reason that sharp-suited origamilike designs were all the rage in the 1970s; happily the Esprit carried it off far better than the oddball Elite, which, as a result, led to the speedy development of a nicer fast-backed derivative badged Eclat surfacing at the same time as the Esprit, in October 1975 for the Earls Court show (see separate story).

Both didn’t start production until the following year but Lotus had a roadgoing Esprit ready for Chapman, returning from the South American F1 races in early 1976, to drive away from Heathrow. Did he enjoy his Vauxhall-derived 2-litre 16v engine that Jensen-Healey owners unwittingly helped develop by the kerbside (and part lead to the ruin of Jensen around the same time-ed), now sitting mid-ships, connected to the exotic Citroën SM-sourced transmission, which also acted as a stressed part of the (modified Europa) chassis? This was like the contemporary F1 car thinking that Chapman pioneered a decade earlier, with his Lotus 49, in fact.

Chapman would have been reasonably comfortable in an Esprit, because most Lotus road cars were pretty much designed around his size and girth – including his dainty small feet, the latter which lead to a cramped pedal layout that was symbolic of all Lotus models. But did he note the abysmal rear visibility afforded by that stunning shape (awarded one star in a Motor road test) and the pretty feeble ventilation compounding the situation on that winter night?


The Esprit’s launch in the mid 70s coincided with a downturn for Lotus both on the road and race track, the latter which was always Chapman’s first love and priority. It’s hardly surprising that, given the criticisms of the under-developed Elite, the Esprit wasn’t going to be Porsche perfect, despite the similar showroom prices now asked, rising from £5814 in October 1975 to £7883 less than a year later. However, you have to cut Chapman some slack; F1 sponsor John Player (who wanted to pull out completely due to the recession) had slashed its sponsorship funds and Lotus posted a million pound loss in 1975, that’s after shelling out a reported £4.5m to launch its all new range of road cars. Colin Chapman may have been on par with Ferrari on the race track but had no big car maker backer so had to make money somehow.

As lovely as this Lotus looked (and still does-ed) impressions were enthusiastic rather than ecstatic. Despite having 160bhp on tap, 25bhp more than the old Lotus-Ford Twin cam Europa unit, the considerably heavier Esprit (by more than 225kg) lacked lithe Europa’s pace, and while the handling was considered sensational, the sheer size of the Rolls-Royce-wide Esprit, went totally against Chapman’s original philosophy of producing nimble, compact sports cars and GTs. A Porsche 911 was almost a foot narrower, as was an Aston V8! “The days of diminutive Lotus cars are past,” moaned Autocar when testing an S2 in 1979 – well, until the Elise came along!

Less than 720 S1s were produced before the much improved S2 replaced it in 1978, the same year Lotus won its last F1 Championship. By then the car’s poor build and unreliability had done Lotus also irreparable damage in the United States, despite the car later playing star roles in further Bond films and the 1980’s American blockbuster Pretty Woman starring Richard Gere and Julia Roberts.

The larger 2.2-litre engine only slightly improved the car’s outright pace meaning that numerous GTis as well as the old V6 Capri could keep station with an Esprit to 60mph but the added torque was appreciated. The Lotus only came good in S3 guises for the 80s where, among the many improvements, were a quieter cockpit with a claimed 50 per cent reduction in noise levels, a Turbo-derived chassis to answer some earlier critics about the lifeless steering, and greatly improved build quality for the £13,500 now asked – a far cry from the launch price five years earlier.

The rather lame engine performance was changed out of all recognition with the advent of a Turbo option, which lifted power from 160bhp to 215bhp – with sorted handling to match; now this Lotus could compete with the likes of Porsche in most departments without that famous acronym of unreliability continually rearing its ugly head.


Some Lotus experts believe that the engineering tie up with DeLorean to get his car to perform properly caused Chapman to ignore his own cars which, at best, were always built down to a price and relied on innovation and driving excellence to grab sales. One expert, Miles Wilkins (Fibreglass Services), commented in a magazine back in 1990 that the main reason Esprit chassis rotted so fast was because Lotus simply had no money to lavish on production cars and so the frames only received one coat of black paint for protection – thankfully, it was galvanised on the S2 cars!

Like the other 70’s wedge-shaped wonders that were also produced at Hethel, second-hand Esprits quickly gained a bad name as well as successive penny-pinching owners who failed to appreciate what junior supercars these Lotuses were even at the bargain prices asked. Eventually, every good car becomes a coveted classic and according to leading Lotus lights such as Paul Matty and Barry Ely, original Esprits have gained enormous interest over the past year and prices have subsequently rocketed. Good cars worth, say, just a princely £8000 a few years back are now well into double figures and S1s, unbelievably, can touch £50k, which is more than double what a similar S2 achieves. Strangely, S3s are the cheapest despite being the best buys.

The S3 gave way to the S4 but not before the X-180 (which sounds like something Spectre would threaten the world with) was introduced being a very effective, cost effective softer-styled reskin by Peter Stevens, who was busy penning the new M100 Elan at the time. The proper S4, blessed by a further facelift by Julian Thompson (who went on to Jaguar) saw this Lotus evolve into an outstanding sophisticated supercar, the best Lotus ever made many feel, pointing to a remarkable 17 year production run.

If you fancy buying this spectacular looking Chapman classic before the tide really turns, ignore what model it is and go for condition first and foremost because a good Esprit is never out of its depth in any other area.


It was the year of Punk Rock, raging inflation, rising unemployment and general doom and gloom as the Esprit enjoyed screen immortality. Here’s a snapshot of ’77

The Queen celebrates her Silver Jubilee during 1977 with a year of festivities at a time when inflation was running at a recorded 12 per cent. A typical house cost just over £12,000 and the average wage was a shade under £5000 so at least they were affordable! As was petrol at just 18 pence a litre…

Like our Dave, then Prime Minister James Callaghan was forced to enter an uneasy union with the Liberals (called the Lib-Lab pact) to remain in power but it ended before 1979. He instigated the Race Relations act that year along with the Job Introduction Scheme.

Liverpool FC win European Cup, Man Utd FA Cup – but it was more about comings and goings. Man Utd sack boss Docherty in July while England manager Don Revie jumps ship for a lucrative deal in the Far East… Brian Clough becomes Notts Forest’s new boss

The Labour Government gets tough with British Leyland by threatening to withdraw state aid, unless strikes came to an end. All at a time when figures showed foreign cars outsold British makes in the UK for the first time ever. Michael Edwardes is brought in to turn ailing British Leyland around…

After losing the Formula One World Championship by just a point in 1976, Niki Lauda confounds critics who said his near fatal crash had finished him, by winning his second crown. But it was a torrid time in F1 with the deaths of Welsh ace Tom Pryce and Brazilian Carlos Pace (pictured) just weeks apart.


When The Car Was The Star

The Spy Who Loved Me was Roger Moore’s ‘Q moment’ when he gave a wriggling fish to a bystander on the beach after emerging from the sea. The gleaming white S1 was half of the pair of road cars supplied by Lotus, the other being Chapman’s own car. Two Esprit Turbos, complete with ski rack, appeared in For Your Eyes Only before the white one was blown up – by its burglar alarm! After that James Bond wanted something more durable…

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