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Motor Blog
Affordable Dream Car:
The 1976-1987 Lotus Esprit

By Benjamin Hunting

Dec 2015

The Giugiaro wedge launched a million childhood dreams. The stylized front end from Giorgetto Giugiaro, Italy’s famed automotive designer, proved to be one of the most enduring sports car profiles from the 1970s. A great example is the Lotus Esprit, which had an extraordinary 30-year run from 1976 to 2004. Over those many years, a mere 10,675 were built.  

The first-generation Esprit—before the re-styling that occurred at the end of the 1980s—also happens to be the cheapest member of the original supercar crop on the modern market. It carries values far below those of any Ferraro or Lamborghini two-door of similar vintage. This makes the British coupe an intriguing target for would-be collectors seeking an affordable entry-point into the world of European classic performance that is largely locked out from anyone lacking a seven-figure net worth.

The last of the Giugiaro or G-cars, this 1987 Lotus Esprit Turbo still cuts through the noise today with its wedge design.

Warning: the Lotus Esprit might be affordable to purchase, but unless you do due diligence at buying time, the cost of ownership could be a different story.

Slow In, Fast Out
Aside from its eye-catching looks—still fresh nearly three decades after it first hit the international scene—the Lotus Esprit has always been prized for its lightweight design and its well-balanced, mid-engine handling characteristics.

You’ll notice that “blazing speed” is not mentioned. That’s because early versions of the car were seriously lacking in a straight-line. Known as the S1 Esprit—or simply as the Bond car after its submarine turn in The Spy Who Loved Me—this model made do with a 140 horsepower, 2.0-liter carbureted four-cylinder engine, and suffered from a long list of reliability issues that would emerge throughout the Esprit’s production run. These included overheating, braking issues, spotty electricals, cabin heat failure, clutch issues, exhaust leaks, easily worn belts, and poorly designed engine mounts.

This 1979 S2 looks clean, but note the tow-rope. Make sure you know what you are getting into before buying an Esprit, as project cars can easily overpower your budget.

If that litany of complaints hasn’t scared you off yet, then take heart in knowing that during its first two years of production, Lotus initiated a rolling series of updates and improvements that culminated in the S2 Esprit. Formalized as a distinct model in 1978, it was succeeded by a small run of S2.2 models in 1980 that swapped in a 2.2-liter four-cylinder that improved torque by 20 pound feet but left horsepower untouched.

Later in 1978, the quintessential Lotus would be launched: the Esprit Turbo. Initially dubbed the “Esprit Essex,’ the Turbo gained a forced-induction 2.2-liter dry-sump engine good for 210 horsepower and 200 pound-feet of torque, enough to trim more than a second off of its sprint to 60 miles per hour. By 1981 the Essex version had been dropped in favor of a new generation of Lotus Esprits riding on a redesigned chassis that would carry both the Esprit Turbo and the S3 (non-turbo) models through much of the decade.

Tight clearances and complicated mechanical design make the Esprit Turbo more of a challenge to repair.

The new Turbo reverted to a wet sump engine design, while the S3 stuck with the 2.2-liter motor found in the S2.2. As was Lotus’s standard practice, nearly every model year saw tweaks and changes made to both cars, with output for the Turbo peaking at 215 ponies and 220 pound-feet of torque in 1986, and 172 horsepower and 160 pound-feet of torque for the S3’s naturally-aspirated mill.

Which One To Buy?
Of the first-generation Lotus Esprit family, it’s easy to make a case for the S3 as being the best balance between affordable, reliable, and fun-to-drive. With just enough power to keep things interesting through the corners and an almost identical suspension setup as compared to the Esprit Turbo, the S3’s simpler drivetrain is also under less stress than its turbocharged equivalent. That could save you from a bigger repair bill down the road.

As with most vintage supercars, it can be a tight squeeze for taller drivers to get behind the wheel of an 1989 Lotus Esprit.

Prices range from $15,000 to $30,000 for first-generation Esprits, in some cases regardless of the car’s condition. S3 cars are usually only slightly less expensive to buy than their Turbo siblings, but while there might not be much of a price gap between S3 and Esprit Turbos when listed, you can be assured that the gap widens the longer you own the vehicle.

Buyer Beware
Keep in mind that parts for the Esprit will be expensive no matter which model you buy. With that in mind, make sure to purchase the absolute best condition example you can afford. No projects, no “owner maintained” examples without any paperwork, no caveats like “well, everything works but the heat or this light or that blinker.” With so few built, you might not be able to locate a perfect Lotus Esprit, but if you do your homework you can likely distinguish between drivers and basketcases—and wring as much enjoyment as possible out of this delightful car before it heads to the service bay.

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