I’ve been told I was mean to Lotus last week, referring to them as unreliable in my post about the fabulous Lupo GTI and my son’s limited mechanical knowledge, so let’s deal with that straight away. I love Lotus deeply and was reminded of it when I had the opportunity to drive my friend Erik’s Elise a couple of weeks ago (I did a piece on when he bought it that you’ll find here), but I maintain that to describe them as reliable at the level of a modern VW would be about as true as claiming that Sweden plays entertaining football.
Growing up in the 80’s one of my real dream cars was indeed a Lotus, however for obvious reasons not the Elise. It was the true supercar-like Lotus Esprit that enchanted me, from the original, 007 one to the later versions. To me it looked cooler than a Ferrari and comparing a 308/328 to an Esprit, I think that holds true even today, as I was able to determine when by chance driving into a Lotus club gathering in the Swiss Alps a couple of weeks ago. One owner was kind enough to give me a close-up tour of his Esprit V8, and that’s obviously a very good reason to look closer at this legendary car, as we’ll do this week!
The Esprit was a true long-runner, coming to market in 1976 as replacement for the Europa, and being produced all the way until 2004, i.e. for 28 years. The wedge-shaped original car was designed by Giorgio Giugiaro and the Esprit’s father and developer was of course none other than legendary Lotus founder Colin Chapman, so the Esprit was a true symbiosis of Italian design and Chapman’s view of what a sports car should be like (read light-weight!). And then it also became a film star, featured in two James Bond films (“They spy who loved me” and “For your eyes only”), as well as in the 1990 classic “Pretty Woman”, where Julia Roberts teaches Richard Gere how to use a stickshift in the hills above LA.
When the Esprit was launched in the mid-70’s, Lotus was still a big name in Formula 1 with Mario Andretti as the star driver. Andretti took his world championship title in 1978 in a Lotus, and this was to be Lotus’s last of a total of seven F1 titles. It was perhaps not a surprise therefore that the first version of the Esprit (called S1, Series 1) actually had a lot in common with an F1 car: the driving position is pretty much the same, i.e. half-lying , the handling is perhaps not on the level of an F1 car but still superb, the whole car is 1.11 metres high, i.e. low enough to make an Evora feel like a family sedan, and with the engine located directly behind the seats, the sound is said to be fantastic, although perhaps not at the level of a 70’s F1 car. The S1 had a four-cylinder engine that until 1978 only put out 160 hp in Europe and 140 hp in the US, however the car weighed only 1050 kg and was therefore still as fast as a 911 SC. In terms of interior materials and quality, let’s just note that the world has come a long way since the 70’s, although there is actually more cloth in the S1 than in a modern Elise…
The S2 was introduced in 1978 with some minor cosmetic revisions but most famously also in the John Player Special edition with the same black paint with gold stripes as Andretti’s F1 world championship car. The big technical innovation was however the introduction of the turbo in 1980 that took the performance to 213 hp and gave the car a top speed of 240 km/h and a sprint to 100 km/h in around six seconds. The S3 which succeeded the S2 in 1983 was the list incarnation of the “original” Esprit and remained largely unchanged, albeit with a bit more power and offered both with and without turbo until 1987.
The second version of the Esprit that came out in 1988 and was designed by Philip Stevens was a largely different car. Although staying true to the original shape, the design was much more 80’s-like, but also more polished and offering occupants more room in an improved interior. The production process was also improved, as was the car’s rigidity. The mechanical components and engines would however remain pretty much the same until 1994 when the Lotus 3.5-litre V8 engine with twin turbos was introduced in the S4, taking the Esprit from a fast sports car to supercar territory. The V8 put out a very healthy 350 hp, 50 more than the regular, 2.2 litre S4 that was still produced, leading to a 100 km/h sprint in less than 4.5 seconds and a top speed of more than 280 km/h. From here on the Esprit remained largely unchanged until the end of production in 2004. It should however be noted that in addition to the main models described above, there was also a multitude of smaller series produced, often in very low numbers, and all of which are of course real gems today.
Coming back to the Lotus gathering I ran into a couple of weeks ago, even if this was a dream car in my youth, I had never even sat in an Esprit and was thus about as nervous as a 15-year old on his first date when I was offered to do so. That I’m no long 15 then became very obvious, as I tried to maneovre myself with some kind of elegance into the very low seat, with the smile on the owner’s face indicating I was less successful than I thought. Once you’re in and have assumed the half-lying but not uncomfortable position, you quickly note that visibility is comparable to how a good friend of mine says you should live life, i.e. with a big front screen and a small rear mirror. That’s to say that it’s very limited in all directions but forward, and if you look sideways your eyes will be on the same height as bystanders’ behinds. You also have a very limited feel for how large the car is, but interestingly, whereas back in the day the Esprit looked like a large car, today it feels rather small – as so often is the case.
The owner was kind enough to turn the key and rev the V8 of his S4 a bit, and the sound is of course wonderful and as he said, also a constant companion on the trip given where the engine is located, so you’d better enjoy it. Using a devoted Esprit owner as source for any kind of objective information is obviously not ideal, but going by his enthusiasm I have to believe that the car is indeed the tremendous drive the looks promise, with almost perfect balance, great steering and a gearshift that is far more precise than the rather chubby changer would have you believe. I did however sense a bit of hesitation as to whether the V8 is a better engine option than the four-cylinder, and even got an admission that from a budget perspective, it’s probably the four-pot you should go for…
Speaking of money, Esprits have been on the way up price-wise for the last few years. Around 10.000 were built all in all but many have died far too early and the offer is thus very limited, especially if you’re looking for a special series where you have to be prepared to pay big bucks. The market for good cars starts somewhere around EUR 40.000 and goes up to six figures for really well kept, low-mileage cars, or special series. Whether you go for the original Esprit (S1-S3) or the updated version is a matter of taste: the early cars seduce with their clean lines and 70’s charm, but the later ones are clearly more liveable, comfortable and, if I dare say so, reliable. As for the best engine, the four-cylinder is probably the sensible way to go, potentially even without the turbo given the car’s low weight. So to end where we started, whatever version you go for, do make sure you have enough of a budget left to give it the love and maintenance it will no doubt require. Then again, so does a 308/328 or any other sports or supercar from the same era. And choosing between those, at least to me, 007 was always cooler than Magnum!