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Lotus Esprit S1-S3

Published: 6th Oct 2015 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

Lotus Esprit S1-S3
Lotus Esprit S1-S3
Lotus Esprit S1-S3
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Lotus Esprit S1-S3

Launched 40 years ago almost to the month to replace the Europa, after a shaky start the Esprit went on to become one of Lotuses longest running models. Famed for its sensational road manners when new, a good one still impresses – and there’s plenty you can do to make yours beat most moderns both on the road or on track. Here’s how!


According to leading Lotus light Pat Thomas, who recently retired and sold his Kelvedon Lotus concern, the cars were never the problem – it’s the owners! Pat, who owned the first ever production Esprit, told us, only the most fastidious of owners spent enough time and money maintaining theirs properly.

The majority, Thomas adds, usually require another £2000 to make good and set up properly (more anon). “The problem is most people think their cars are great but in Esprit terms they handle terribly”. Test drive a really good one and you may find yours well below par!

Assuming that the chassis is rot free and straight pay close attention to the condition of the front wishbones which have been known to crack due to age and fatigue. Also, to fully savour that fantastic handling shox and springs need to be in best shape along with the mountain of compliance bushes fitted.

The brakes are at best adequate even on standard cars, and frequently seize up if the car has laid dormant, especially the handbrake. As working on those inboard rear disc brakes is a real labour of love, have you, or past owners, neglected them?

The engine is pretty robust but before any tuning is carried out we’d advise renewing the cambelt. The top end can become noisy on all models and oil leaks between heads and camboxes are pretty common, too. Cooling is a concern so look to fitting an uprated radiator to be on the safe side and use Evans Waterless Coolant.


Before you even contemplate any form of tweaking, it’s amazing how many horses have gone awol due to simple wear and tear. For example, sorting out tired and out-of-tune Dellorto twin choke carbs, perhaps neglected due to their overhauling and tuning costs, may be all that your car requires to make it perform well again, especially if combined with a session on a rolling road to fine tune them along with the ignition timing, which by now should have been converted to a good electronic type. Certainly, any such tweaking should be left to a Lotus expert.

Air filters and exhaust mods (£270-£300 depending upon model from PNM Engineering) should be the first changes made before considering tackling the 16-valve head and then fitting larger 45 Dellortos. Up to 200bhp is on the cards by way of conventional head mods although the car may become a bit of a pain on the road.

The larger 2.2-litre engine didn’t give much more power but did boast better pulling torque and is worth opting for if you intend large scale mods. Another route for more grunt is to seek out the Lotus Turbo installation and enjoy between 215-264bhp depending upon state of tune (HC). If a stockTurbo Esprit isn’t quick enough, then you can obtain a strong 250bhp or so by adding a turbo dump valve into the plumbing (£125) along with an adjustable wastegate actuator for another £250. Add some suitable engine ECU ‘brain chipping’ from the likes of Superchips or Emerald and it will go like a rocket, we’re informed!

Now for a spot of overdue myth busting… The engine is not a mix of Lotus and Vauxhall as is commonly thought.

According to Esprit experts PNM Engineering (0151 630 6101), apart from the crank (which itself is made differently) hardly any parts are interchangeable so you can’t use a stock Vauxhall block (which is of a larger 2.3-litre size) and fit Lotus heads to save money without major re-engineering although it has been done. If you need a replacement, then the Elite/Eclat unit is easier find and considerably cheaper, we’d wager. Just simple tweaks to the induction and exhaust produces enough power to satisfy most owners plus doesn’t affect its originality but more attention to the cylinder heads (improved anyway for 1985 models) coupled to L14 camshafts really pulls out the power to around 200bhp once set up.

This last comment is important as some owners are becoming tempted to convert from carbs to EFI as Lotus eventually did. Pete Musgrove of PNM says it is doable on earlier Esprits although not with Lotus parts as they are now rare and expensive.

What’s more, he questions the worth of this alternation unless you are using the car as a daily driver where it certainly does improve day-to-day drive-ability. Musgrove’s own Turbo, which has covered some 100,000 miles kicks out an amazing 290bhp yet the engine is internally standard – plus still runs on carburettors!

Being a ‘slant four’ design, the engine bay is quite wide – spacious enough to see V8s slotted in. It’s not unusual to see the evergreen Rover unit nestling in there although more modern alternatives we’ve seen includes the Audi V6 and V8 engines. Naturally the Lotus V8 fitted on later S4 Esprits can be fitted but these can be a mite unreliable. Vauxhall tuner Blydenstein proved that the Firenza engine could be stretched to an amazing 2.6-litres and if you yearn for more ccs, there are 2.5-litre crankshaft kits around for the Lotus unit and are said to perform nicely. However, it’s not a cheap modification and only worth considering if your engine needs rebuilding.


Before you even consider shelling out on tuning parts, ensure the basics are right first. A thorough service and geometry check will transform many cars because the majority are in poor shape.

Pat Thomas claims the vast majority will have their wheels pointing in four different directions simply due to suspension wear and deterioration. Kelvedon offers a special alignment check – but it takes six hours because the engine has to be shifted slightly and an engine mounting removed to gain access to the rear suspension for any adjustments. Due to the sheer hassle and cost of it all not many owners have this quite essential work done.

In terms of chassis tweaking, the Esprit uses a curious suspension mix of Opel Ascona (Vauxhall Cavalier Mk1) bits at the front with Europa style rear end; in 1980 Lotus reverted to its trusty Triumph-derived hardware. This means contemporary upgrading is on the cards and is well worth doing although bear in mind that the Esprit handles superbly well if in good order and it’s all too easy to mess the good work done by Lotus engineers by fitting wrongly developed uprated dampers and springs, for instance.

Generally, the suspension benefits from a quality adjustable damper kit (around £550 from PNM: 0151 630 6101) or you can just opt for Eibach springs costing a similar amount. The third way is a tailored spring and damper pack from £730. But if you want to fit polyurethane bushes to the suspension, then this specialist advises that you only use Lotus-spec parts as Musgrove doesn’t rate the current craze for fitting ultra hard ‘track’ bushes for the road.

The Esprit was never designed for track use says Pete who adds that it’s no good trying to get the suspension geometry correct unless the rear bushes are in poor shape; indeed simply replacing them should be all that’s required to get yours back to spec unless previous owners have fiddled with the geometry settings that is…

If there’s one area where Musgrove admits the Esprit is lousy it’s the braking department. Beefing them up to 1994 Brembo spec is a good ploy and you might strike it lucky at a Lotus meeting and find good used ones. Alternatively, PNM sells its own tailored vented disc kit complete with four pot callipers.

You often see Esprits rolling on odd rubber (does yours?) but don’t always blame the previous owner as availability of the tyre sizes required fluctuates and “it’s a case of taking what you can get”, admits Pete Musgrove. Big tyres result in a heavy steering but either a modern electric conversion (like EZ) or Lotus’s own hydraulic set up on later models can be adapted but none are cheap conversions and possibly not needed anyway if you only use the car for special occasions as the tiller lightens up nicely at speed.

Handling The Power...


  • Good quality tyres
  • Proper geometry check
  • Replacement sports dampers
  • EBC brake pads


  • PNM suspension upgrade kit
  • Uprated bushes (Lotus spec)
  • Better discs and callipers
  • Power steering conversion

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