Lotus smoothed off the Esprits edges as it evolved, but never blunted its impact,
Natural selection is a wonderful thing. As time goes on only the strong survive and its why, more than 25 years after it hit the road, the Lotus Esprit still reigns supreme: A new V8 will set you back a flyer short of fifty grand, but go for a four-pot and you can pick up a legitimate Ferrari-beater for Fiat money. Some 9186 Esprits were built with the classic 16-valve slant-four from 1976-99, and the extra good news is that, with 17 different models to choose from (plus five V8s), there is an example of this real-world supercar to suit every taste not to mention every pocket.
Favoured shape of the 70s, the wedge was taken to its extreme with the first Esprit proto-type, Giorgetto Giugiaros Silver Car, star of the Ital Design stand at the Turin Show in 1972 that followed the similar Maserati Boomerang study. Based on a Europa chassis, the Silver Car was developed by Colin Chapmans engineers at Hethel into the second mid-engined Lotus, with the engine also mounted longitudinally, keeping the main mass forward for opti-mum balance. But it was our years before project M70, spearheaded by Mike Kimber-ley and Tony Rudd, hit the road, despite looking much as the initial concept and using traditional Lotus construction methods. Under the dramatic skin there was the familiar steel backbone chassis and the glassfibre body was formed, as on the Elite and Eclat, in two halves with the join disguised by a pronounced rubbing strake along the flanks.
The original Esprit has lost none of the drama that made it such a sensation in 76 and, even alongside its stylish successors, looks like a carelessly parked flying saucer. Hunkered over fat Wolfrace alloys, its hard to believe a car can be so low and still accommodate human beings, yet the prototype had been even more extreme, with a near-continuous line from nose to roof.
When tested with hindsight, the 51 is often criticised for performance that doesnt live up to the supercar tag, and its true that, with just 160bhp to haul its 2000lb around, it wont set the road alight. But its the way it delivers its performance that impresses, and the confidence it inspires in the driver. There are few cars of the Esprits size and ability that can honestly be described as chuckable, but the S1 is one, thanks mostly to incredibly sweet steering combining superb feedback with lightness. The Esprit turns into corners with an urgency that puts the contemporary Ferrari 308 to shame. Once into a bend, so neutral is the stance and so massive the grip despite relatively skinny tyres that you realise you could probably have carried another 10mph. Big bumps will send a shudder through the cabin, yet poor surfaces encoun-tered mid-corner wont disturb its composure when others would be heading for the verge. Then theres the response from its carburetted 1973cc four always instant and accompanied by an urgent growland the snappy action of the Citroen gearbox, worked with a wooden ball. With usable cars to be had for as little as £5000, the S1 is the cheapest route into Esprit ownership. As is so often the case, first is purest and the S1 best fits the dictionary definition of the Esprit name, sprightliness.
The first Esprit also offers a pleasant cabin ambience. If you can forget the earwax-brown velour, youll find a bright, roomy interior with electric windows, reclined driving position plus lots of head and legroom with the huge binnacle ahead stocked with garish green Veglia dials. Secure in the Esprits passenger safety cell an innovation for the mid-70s and surely a contributor to its easy federalisation its easy to drift into dreamland. Peer out of that flat screen and you can imagine fish swimming by and seaweed snagging on the wiper: suddenly youre Roger Moore, easing your supercar submarine out of the sea in the 1977 Bond flick The Spy Who Loved Me.
If you have a penchant for playing secret agent then maybe a Turbo Esprit would fit the bill. Strap a couple of p airs of skis on the back and you could have rolled off the set of For Your Eyes Only. Launched at the Royal Albert Hall in 1980, the Turbo took the Giugiaro design on a step, adding cross-spoke alloys, body-coloured bumpers and garish decals to hint at the changes under the skin. This prime bedroom-wall fodder for junior petrolheads is now well within reach, with prices for early Turbos dipping well under the £10k mark.
Inside, its 11 years on and surprisingly little has changed. Theres the same binnacle ahead, but topped with beautifully stitched leather rather than velour, and the seats are more sup-portive, gripping your backside better than the S1s. The optional glass roof gives a bright and cheerful ambience, but its curiously cramped, the little wheel sitting low on your legs and your left knee hard up against the gearbox tunnel.
King of the wedge turbos has to be the last-of-the-line 87 Turbo Esprit hc, with 215bhp and a whopping 2201b ft of torque from its high compression engine (5bhp and 201b ft more than a standard Turbo). With the engine stroked out to 2174cc and following 80s fash-ion with a Garrett blower, the Esprits supercar credentials are clear. Use the full 0.67 bar boost pressure and your hands instinctively grip the tiny wheel twice as hard as the razor-sharp nose shaves the distance to the horizon. And the sound is fantastic. Forget your howling sixes or burbling V8s, nothing prepares you for the growl from the hard-working four overlaid by roaring induction as the turbo inhales: lift off and theres an addictive fluttering whoosh as the wastegate depressurises.
The Turbos chassis was revised to give a new engine bay shape and accommodate the improved rear suspension (upper and lower links replacing tailing arms and fixed drive-shafts) and the hcs astounding grip makes it feel part of the road. Braking is exceptional and it has the same positive gearchange and sharp steering, but feels much heavier thanks to the combination of increased weight, a smaller wheel and fat tyres adorning those 15in BBS rims. Its become a physical driving experience.
After the drama of the Turbo Esprit, the Peter Stevens-styled Esprit Turbo is something of a disappointment. Theres the same slingshot acceleration, which kicked the Lotus into the Premier League, but it hasnt really moved the game on. For a dramatic improvement, buyers a to wait until the chargecooled 264bhp SE, which took 0-60mph below 5 secs and top speed above 160mph. In some ways its almost a retrograde step: the hefty clutch operates a less physical gearchange, but the Renault 25 transaxles rubbery long-throw shift isnt a patch on the SM unit. The fuel injection that replaced the twin Dellortos in 1989 cars makes it more refined, plus improved sound deadening means that, with the windows up, its the silent supercar: youve got to drop them to enjoy that exhaust blare and turbo whistle.
Inside, quality seems to have taken a dive. The tan leather has been replaced with tweedy cloth and anaemic pinky-grey surfaces that would look more at home in the lounge of an old folks home. The switchgear, borrowed from here, there and everywhere, feels mismatched, though there is the odd neat touch such as an ice sensor on the dash to warn you to watch your right foot in slippery conditions.
There are few complaints from the outside: the man who went on to style the M100 Elan made an excellent job of refreshing the Esprit with an all-new look~ yet minimising costs and retaining the spirit of the original. Toyota tail-lights replace the hcs SD1 units and the elegant alloys complement the softer 90s look. The only criticism is that the new car looks a bit anonymous alongside the drama of the original.
The S4S is a different proposition altogether. Russell Carrs update adds aggression to scream its supercar status a maze of scoops and vents to cool brakes, engine, radiator and occupants. Its outrageous from its full-width shovel front to carry-handle spoiler on the tail, with wheel-arch extensions barely accommodating vast split-rim OZ alloy wheels hiding huge brake discs and menacing black Brembo calipers.
Taller drivers will delight in the extra room of the long cabin, brought in for the 92 Esprit SE and the supportive Connolly leather seats, part of the Luxury trim pack. Switchgear is improved with Vauxhall column stalks and dash-mounted aircon vents to avoid the frozen-knee syndrome of the Stevens car.
With 20 years development behind it, the S4S is quite some machine. While the GT3 holds court as the last four-cylinder Esprit, the S4S takes the prize as the greatest mating the drama of the limited-edition Sport 300 road-racer with the comfort of the civilised S4. First thing to strike you is the eye-bulging braking power rather than its sub-5 secs 0-60mph and near-170mph potential. Its not that it doesnt feel fast, simply that the flat torque curve 230lb ft is available from 2500rpm and the full 290lb ft just 1100rpm later and absence of lag signify readily accessible power throughout the rev range. But, get used to the heavy race-spec clutch and super-sensitive throttle, and the S4S has enough performance and ability to blow your mind.
The gearbox is a joy too: hard to believe that its based on the same Renault unit, so different is the change from the new internals and quick-shifter. The S4 was the first Esprit with power steering and its superbly weighted, with bags of feel bringing all the confidence of the S1 back to the driver by giving the car a lighter, nimbler feel. Like the earlier cars, its natural state is completely neutral, but there is so much power that its easy to light the rear tyres in oversteer when exiting corners. Unprovoked, the vast 245 and 285 Michelins wont be parted from the tarmac, no matter how hard you try.
Theres no doubting that this quartet is from the same gene pool and, 30 years on, Esprit attraction remains strong. The genius of Lotus has been to continually refine that exceptional package to ensure the car retained its allure generation after generation. Buy well and the Esprit remains one of the few cars that can put your head in the clouds while keeping your feet firmly on the ground. The S1 offers the most fun, the most pure Lotus experience of the trio for the least money. But fragility and reliability worries are enough to deter most buyers. At the other end of the spectrum, the S4S is spectacular, but double the price of the classic Turbo. The decision is obvious the only choice is whether to go for Stevens or Giugiaro.
ONE? THE EXPERTS CHOICE
MUCH WILL IT COST?
WHAT GOES WRONG AND WHAT TO LOOK
1 History, particularly on post-52 cars, is very important. Make sure it has been serviced regularly, preferably by a marque expert, and has had regular cambelt changes (every 24,000 miles).
2 Look for cracked exhaust manifolds, a common failure and a tricky job that can mean taking the engine out (up to 21/2 days labour).
3 Run the car up to temperature and watch for overheating, particulary on pre-S3 cars with smaller radiators. Automatic fans can fail (look for orange warning light on dash) and a blown head gasket is a common result: make the usual checks (white smoke, white goo on filler cap). At worst, the liners can sink, signaling an engine rebuild.
4 Parts for the Citroen gearboxes on early cars are getting rare and they need to be treated with respect. Later Renault-derived boxes are stronger and parts plentiful.
5 Steering racks on pre-power assisted cars are weak and wear out: watch for slop and play in the steering. They can also be damaged if not fitted by experts so check even if replaced recently.
6 S1 and S2 cars use the driveshafts as top link at the rear so wear out their universal joints and wheel bearings quickly look out for slop and noise from the back end.
7 Underbonnet heat can be a problem with S1/S2, causing fluids to boil and failure of ancillaries such as master cylinders and coils.
8 Its a supercar and so not a DIY proposition. Buying from a specialist is recommended: if buying privately get an expert to check it over; a bad one will be cripplingly expensive to put right.
ESPRIT FROM A-Z
1972 Silver Car concept, based on
Europa chassis, displayed on Giugiarios Ital Design stand at Turin
Motor Show in November.
Allan Cooper has owned his 38,000-mile S1 three times: I bought it in 82, then bought a house and couldnt afford the mortgage so sold it in 85. A year later I couldnt find one as good so I bought it back. I sold it again a year ago, but got it back after a week. Cooper started with an Elan Plus 2 in his 20s: In my youth that white Bond film car was the thing to have. Its like a roadgoing go-kart, you cant call it a power machine but its a drivers car. The S1 has proved reliable and economical: Its so simple, it doesnt even have electronic ignition But, with two kids and no time, its for sale again call 01866 832433 if youre interested
Having lived near the Hethel factory all his life, Richard Rudling was fated to own a Lotus: Dad used to take us to the open day every year when Colin Chapman was alive. We went round the back and there was every colour of S1 with the headlights up. I thought then that if I won the pools Id buy an Esprit the plastic pot from down the road Rudling bought an Excel and when the kids grew out of it he bought his superb Turbo hc with 6400 miles on the clock: Much as I love the GT3, it had to be the early shape, so I got the latest version possible. Four years and 10,000 miles on, hes still in love: It was expensive, but you get what you pay for, it has never let me down and has been perfectly reliable.
Simon Roberts mint 28,000-mile S4S joins a TR6, fulfilling a long-held hankering for a Lotus: Ive always liked them; we got lost on the way to Bromsgrove and went into Paul Mattys thats how it started. Roberts began with an Excel before trading up: I wanted a Turbo hc but condition-wise I dont think I could have got better. Three years on, Roberts has added about 7000 miles at weekends only but has no thoughts of trading up to a V8: I dont think Ill get one that~ better than this.
What you could have bought
New price £80,000
That car today £40,000
Sold 1979/457 Built,
3453cc, 277bhp, 239lb ft, 162mph.
0- 60mph 5.5 secs
Another glorious Giugiaro-styled plastic wedge, built by Baur and short lived despite beautifully-balanced shape. Fine handling and able to cope with a lot more than the 277bhp from its glorious twin-cam straight-six. Hyper expensive and hyper rare.
New price £32,200 (1985)
That car today £30,000
Sold 1975-89/13,555 Built,
3195cc, 270bhp, 224lb ft, 158mph.
0- 60mph 5.5 secs
Esprit's most direct rival cost a lot more and offered less performance but a fanicer badge: 328 an evolution of the 308 with more torque and better brakes. Great handling lacks ultimate polish of Esprit, but desirable GTS version got onee over on the Lotus.
Panther Solo 2
New price £39,850 (1990)
That car today £20,000
Sold 1989-90/16 Built,
1993cc, 204bhp, 200lb ft, 144mph.
0- 60mph 6.8 secs
Bit of an oddball. Lots of potential thanks to Ferguson Four-wheel drive, great handling and Cosworth power, but let down by vast price tag when new, poor packing a nominal two-plus-two only and unusual cab-forward looks courtesy of Ken Greenley.
New price £31,150 (1986)
That car today £20,000
Sold 1973-98/192,865 Built,
2687-3164cc, 231bhp, 195lb ft, 150mph.
0- 60mph 5.4 secs
Germany's sensible supercar: fast, great handling, reliable and big enough for a young family. Aircooled flat-six sounds great and pulls right through the range. Turbo outrageously quick, but perhaps a bit too efficient, lacking some of the Esprit's soul.
New price £31,720 (1991)
That car today £10,000
Sold 1986-95/18,266 Built,
2975cc, 250bhp, 258lb ft, 161mph.
0- 60mph 5.6 secs
French Lotus: steel backbone chassis with glassfibre panels and engine in unlikey position slung high over rear wheels. GTA a bit gawky, A610 more handsome, often overlooked yet Turbos very quick and handling quite superb.