John Simister drives the very first and very last examples of Britain’s supercar, and charts its progress from darty motor show escapee to fully fledged V8 firebreather.
Twenty-eight years, four cylinders, 193bhp and nearly half a ton separate these two Lotus Esprits. A lot of financial trauma, political manoeuvring and high-drama brinkmanship, too, as has always been the Lotus way. Maybe all those resin vapours bend reality more than the smell of hot steel normally manages to do. Composites and conflict: they often seem to go together.
What we have here, though, are not just examples of very early and very late Esprits. These two cars really are the first-ever production car and the very last, made sometime in May 1976 and on 20 February 2004 respectively. The line of evolution from start to end was gradual enough apart from one big remake in 1987, but how much of the first really remains in the last? And how similar are they to drive?
To answer the first, first: in detail, practically nothing. There is scarcely a component that hasn’t changed. But the broad principle remains: a mid-engined, supercar-aspirant, glassfibre-bodied coupé with the wedgy looks to ignite many an exotic concept-car fantasy. In 1976 it was the most dramatic Lotus yet; in 2004 it remained the most powerful roadgoing pure-bred Lotus there had ever been thanks to its V8 engine and twin turbochargers, which still holds true today by a whisker. (The Vauxhall-based Lotus Carlton actually holds top honours there, but that’s a special case.)
OUR RED CAR looks a bit like an unfinished prototype, and in many ways that’s exactly what it was when it escaped into the outside world. Gordon Masson, who has owned it since 1983 – ‘which means I’ve probably owned an Esprit for longer than anyone else’ – explains how he discovered that it broke down continually for the first owner, who eventually threw the keys (early Esprits had several to suit the multi-sourced locks) back at the dealer because he’d had enough.
‘I bought it from a woman in Aberdeen and although it looked stunning, it was in a terrible state and the engine was a dog. I called Lotus specialist Pat Thomas of Kelvedon Motors to see about an engine rebuild. He asked me if it was an early S1, and I told him it was the 100th because its chassis number was 0100G. “I worked on that car,” he told me, “and it’s not the 100th. It’s the first production car.”’
When it was nearly new, Lotus had agreed to buy back the troublesome Esprit and Pat Thomas got the job of making it work properly, keeping the rainwater out and so on. It had already had the role of ‘demo car’ with Lotus Engineering between its May 1976 build and its departure to the dealership for its August registration, having not fully untied the apron strings that bound it to the three or four preproduction cars that were later scrapped, so in Thomas’s hands it was simply reverting, offsite, to its former de facto development role.
A year later, Lotus sold it again and it went through three owners in Aberdeen before Gordon, aged just 23 himself, bought the then seven-year-old Esprit. Not that he has had use of it throughout all 31 years of his ownership. Seven years ago it went back to Lotus for a suspension project with Brian Angus, the Esprit platform manager, to make new springs and dampers available again for all Esprits. Lotus had been shocked at how badly its cars handled on aftermarket items: ‘I have never driven a car with such abysmal handling,’ chassis chief Roger Becker said of Gordon’s car, then running on the adjustable coilovers fitted as part of a restoration ten years ago.
‘It stayed with Lotus for six years,’ says Gordon, during which time it was variously on display in reception, in the design studio as inspiration, and even formed the backdrop for Lotus CEO Mike Kimberley’s retirement presentation. Once back in Gordon’s hands it had a second, much better restoration by Brian Swankie, including the reinstatement of the original style of green and red tartan cloth interior trim in place of the beige leather it wore mid-life.
Today, it looks very much as it did when new, including the original outline-lettered Lotus script. That means a body-colour front spoiler, re-made to the original design, instead of the black item fitted to subsequent production cars, and oh-so-70s Wolfrace wheels more usually seen on US-inspired custom cars. These were faithful to Giorgetto Giugiaro’s original 1972 Esprit concept car, designed in his origami period, which was based on a stretched Lotus Europa chassis and revealed at the Turin show.
That concept car, in silver, went down so well that Lotus decided to develop an Esprit for production under the code name M70. Changes had to be made, of course. The windscreen had to become flatter to match the racy A-pillar angle while satisfying visibility legislation, and the body gained a midriff ridge where the upper and lower halves of the moulded bodyshell joined. Under this shell was a new chassis designed to take Lotus’s 2.0-litre, 160bhp, slant-four engine as already used in the Elite and, in earlier guise, in the Jensen-Healey and the Talbot Sunbeam Lotus. Suspension was by Opel Ascona-derived double wishbones at the front and wide-based lower wishbones, radius arms and an upper link formed by a fixed-length, and overworked, driveshaft at the back.
This first proper prototype, painted red, arrived back at Lotus from ItalDesign in 1973. Development continued apace, with the next – Lotus-built – prototype losing two inches from the wheelbase at Colin Chapman’s aesthetic behest, to the detriment of cabin space for tall drivers. Nor did the seats recline, and the steering wheel was mounted high. It fitted Chapman perfectly, and that, as far as Chapman was concerned, was what mattered.
A pre-production car, painted silver, appeared at the 1975 Paris show, with a promised price of just £5844. By the time sales staggered into gear in mid-1976, this had risen to £7883. By this time, too, 0100G had completed its time as a Lotus development car and had been ejected into the outside world. By then the motoring press had praised the Esprit’s roadholding and handling and had written harsh words about the refinement and the quality. To drive 0100G today is to discover exactly where they were coming from.
First impressions? It seems small, not only by the standards of modern supercars but also compared with its muscled-up, bright yellow descendant. Some of the panel gaps are vast, the rivets that fasten the window seals are visible within the doors, and that striking ‘boomerang’ instrument pod, floating above the sloping dashboard, shows raw fibreglass on its underside. There are British Leyland stalks on the steering column to go with the same company’s flap-type door handles, Veglia instruments like a mid-1970s Lancia’s and no nearside door mirror. The glovebox lid is, Gordon says, ‘a piece of cardboard’. An air of home-madeness pervades.
A tailgate with a large, flat rear window covers a surprisingly empty-looking engine bay and the boot behind it. In that boot are drain tubes added during development to stop the boot filling with water, while at the front are two headlamp-raising motors instead of the original, inadequate single item. The engine has a large, removable cover, but the cambelt and its sprockets beneath are worryingly open to the elements.
It fires up with the high-hydrocarbon splutter-blatter typical of a Dell’Orto-fed twincam engine, and the super-sharp throttle response that goes with it. The gearlever feels the long distance away from the Citroën transaxle that it is, but it clunks into place and we’re off in this fine piece of retro-futurism laced with the scent of engine oil.
You sit low and laid back, instruments right in the line of sight through the two-spoke steering wheel, bonnet invisible, ambience airier than expected. The unassisted steering feels surprisingly slow around the centre, like a Dino’s, which makes you think there will be large slip-angles and understeer unless you kick the tail out. Not so; this is a Lotus, remember.
As speeds rise, so the front wheels bite with more conviction, the steering gets more focused and it all starts to flow. The suspension is soft, as Chapman always liked it to be, so you need to make this Esprit flow rather than trying to flick it through curves. All the while the engine pulls keenly, if not especially powerfully, and the near-solid mounting of engine and transaxle to the chassis (as required when using driveshafts as suspension members) ensures you hear and feel every last gasp of its efforts. Sophisticated and refined this Esprit is not, but its primordial rawness does have an appeal.
CAN THIS REALLY BE our red car’s blood descendant? I’m now standing by the V8, the culmination of 28 years of post-0100G development. What were near-flat, angled panels have become convex and musclebound, the result of the 1987 re-make designed by Peter Stevens and since modernised by Julian Thomson to create the curvy machine you see here. Its four round rear lights, a change brought in right at the end, are a nod to the Elise look, and the interior is fully, properly, luxuriously trimmed.
To get from there to here took a route of considerable glamour and intrigue, its highlights addressed at the end of this feature. This final V8, with just 18,745 miles under its wheels, was built for Lotus North America’s CEO but he didn’t stay there long enough to take delivery. So it ended up at Chicago’s Lotus agent, from which it was bought by one Denis Van Ransbeeck, whose birthday matched that of the car.
Denis owned it for a decade before deciding to sell. Potential suitors talked of buying it to hide away in a collection, but Steve Casey from Calgary, Canada, envisaged a more visible role. ‘I said I’d take it all over North America,’ he says, ‘driving it to local shows and transporting it when they’re further away.’ The Esprit had meanwhile ended up in Belgium, so Steve had it transported from there to Lotus at Hethel, where he had just met up with his new toy.
‘They spoiled us,’ he says of his reception at Lotus. Clive Chapman, son of Colin and the mastermind behind Classic Team Lotus, signed the handbook. With the Esprit came a build book signed by Brian Angus and detailing, with photographs, every single piece. On Steve’s visit the six of the 12 workers who had built the Esprit and who still worked at Lotus also signed the handbook. A documented history gets no better than this.
So the V8 has arrived here at our Brooklands venue, fresh from its maker. Its evolution from the S1 is far-reaching. As well as those rounder lines the body has long lost the big rear window, although the side buttresses remain.
The engine’s plenum chambers and inlet manifold are visible through louvres in the rear deck, and are gloriously exposed in an otherwise enclosed and trimmed bay when the tailgate is lifted.
The large rear wing and the central exhausts mark this out as an ultimate rapid Esprit, as the soundtrack will shortly confirm. A quick glance over the bodywork reveals a properly professional set of panel gaps (by glassfibre standards), and the consistent finish that results from production by vacuum-assisted resin injection (VARI) rather than hand-laying. The mirrors come from a Citroën CX, the wheelarches have gained small extensions and the roof panel is removable.
Inside, nearly everything apart from shiny yellow flashes of composite on the doors and around the gearlever is leather-covered, mainly black but quilted yellow for the seat inserts. The finish is plush, and this late car has a redesigned dashboard in which the distinctive instrument boomerang has finally given way to a conventional built-in cluster with VDO dials. At least it won’t vibrate anymore. The neat push-button switchgear in the centre console comes from a… Peugeot 106.
It’s a shame about the airbag-filled steering wheel, but even Lotus has to conform to safety legislation. I first drove an Esprit V8 just after its launch in 1996, then still with horizontal tail-lights and the boomering dash, and found it blisteringly fast and endowed with delightful steering, by then power-assisted. But it sounded flat and dull, like a muted four-pot thanks to its flat-crank layout and to-the-letter exhaust system, and the shift of its Renault transaxle was as ponderous as the clutch was heavy. Together, they spoiled the car.
No such problems here. This V8’s exhaust system blares and crackles with the best of them, sounding like a deeper, more gutteral V8 Ferrari, while the gearchange is transformed by freeing the gearbox’s synchronisers from
having to dissipate the rotational inertia of a large, hefty clutch plate. Instead there’s a twinplate clutch of smaller diameter but equivalent torque capacity, and you can snick through the gears as quickly and neatly as you like.
Compared with its grandparent this Esprit is massively faster and much grippier. It feels as if will powerslide on a whim, such is the engine’s responsiveness via its pair of small turbochargers, but despite being obviously bigger, heavier and carrying more momentum, it’s a keen, agile, friendly machine. Its dynamics are more grown-up but still Lotus in their deftness. It’s a lovely thing, an Esprit finally being what the Esprit was always aspiring to be. A proper supercar.
FIRST AND LAST. It has been an intriguing encounter. But the story might not be over yet. Back in 2010, Lotus revealed a ludicrously over-ambitious plan to launch five all-new models, including an Esprit. The plan collapsed for myriad reasons of finance and politics, but the Esprit was the one car of the five that did get beyond the show-car stage. Running cars have been spotted at Hethel and the signs are that this new Esprit may yet happen. Cross your fingers and hold your breath.
Published with kind permission from Octane. Photographer by Paul Harmer. Click any image to open the gallery and view full size images.