“Why We Love Them” is an ongoing feature through which we reflect on some of BaT’s favorite cars from the past. Era, genre and country of origin aren’t as important as character, that hard-to-define something special which all the best cars seem to have, and readers should expect to see a bit of everything including sports cars, exotics, sedans, coupes, roadsters, wagons, 4×4’s and more.
Whether the term supercar was ever truly applicable to Chapman and Giugiaro’s Esprit isn’t really relevant–its shape helped define the genre and its spec, though perhaps not always ideal for raw, visceral thrills, would eventually afford performance on par with what the low, purposeful wedge styling promised from the outset. Nearly 11,000 were made between 1976 and 2004, and development really began to hit its stride with the Turbo’s introduction in 1981. Styling and mechanicals would continue to evolve over the next 23 years, peaking in the form of the S4 Turbo. Following the classic Lotus recipe, the Esprit successfully mixed ingredients that other manufacturers have never quite managed to, namely pin-sharp yet fluid handling and a comfortable, compliant ride. Combine these admirable characteristics with unmistakable good looks and extraordinary heritage and it’s clear why we love the Lotus Esprit.
Developed as a replacement for the Europa, the Esprit was to share the same mid-engine, backbone chassis layout even as styling changed from breadvan to cheese wedge. Though larger in all dimensions than its predecessor, the S1 Esprit was still quite modestly sized at 165″ long, 73″ wide and just under 44″ high. Weight was up by at least 400 pounds to a hair under a ton, but even by standards of the day the Esprit was still a lightweight, with the S1 tipping the scales at just under 2,000 pounds. Decades later, even with the addition of another bank of cylinders, modern safety devices and creature comforts, weight still remained impressively low at around 3,000 pounds.
The car’s initial Italdesign shape would undergo many revisions by no fewer than three additional stylists over its nearly 30-year production run, and though none of these facelifts would match the original for purity, they were nonetheless all very attractive in their own right and helped keep the car fresh far past its original intended sell-by date.
Despite its motorsports successes, Lotus was and still is a relatively small manufacturer, and in order to reduce costs the Esprit used many off-the-shelf parts throughout. Notable exterior items used at one time or another included Citroen CX mirrors, Austin Allegro door handles and Toyota Corolla AE85/86 taillights to name just a few.
The interior of the Esprit is a special place, mirroring the outside’s angular design language and offering surprisingly good ergonomics and comfort–if you can fit. Gauges were large and placed directly in the driver’s line of view, controls were laid out logically and easy to reach, and the seats–though quite low and semi-reclined–offered a driving position with great forward visibility. A wide range of color and material combinations were available, some of which were subtle and tasteful and others which were less so.
Drawing on their world-beating motorsport heritage, Lotus rarely missed an opportunity to remind potential buyers that the Esprit shared DNA with F1 championship winning race cars. Several different memorable race-inspired paint schemes were offered over the years, but our favorites are those worn by the Essex Turbo and John Player editions.
Chassis tuning, engine specs and countless other details both big and small would continually develop during the car’s extra-long manufacturing run, but all versions shared much the same backbone platform, fiberglass bodywork and time-honored Lotus development philosophy that put driving dynamics and light weight as absolute priorities. Even as the car grew more powerful, faster, more complex and heavier it always remained close to the cutting edge for sports car power-to-weight ratios, which combined with Hethel’s near-faultless track record for producing beautifully handling cars ensured the Esprit still felt modern at the beginning of the 21st century–from a performance standpoint, anyway.
Below is a look at BaT Auction results for Esprits, as found on our BaT Model Page here.
While the Europa was most frequently fitted with a rather primitive Renault-sourced four, the Esprit relied on an in-house developed twin cam 16-valve design that was internally coded the Type 907. Often cited as the first mass-produced engine with four-valve combustion chambers, forced induction first appeared for 1980’s Essex Turbo–one of the coolest looking and most prototypical of 80’s special editions.
Standard production Turbos emerged in April of 1981 as part of the S3 redesign, and would continue to evolve through to the 1996 – 1999 S4S–arguably the ultimate four-cylinder Esprit. 1996 also saw the introduction of a new 3.5 liter flatplane, quad cam 32V twin-turbo V8, which despite many apparent similarities to earlier 900-series fours is said to have been a clean-sheet design. Though not fitted with intercoolers, output was reportedly detuned from 500 to 350 HP for production cars, and despite the added displacement and cylinder count, performance remained identical to late turbo four cars at ~4.4 seconds to 60 MPH.
So which one is best? That’s not easy to answer, as the Esprit’s unusually long production run and many iterations help to ensure there’s a wide variety of flavors to choose from, all of which seem to have their own cult following. Early S1 cars are the purest, though S2’s were much improved if you’re interested in an NA car. Apart from the rare S2-based Essex, Esprit Turbos are all S3-onward models, and though there are many differences between the S3 and S4, many were purely cosmetic.
Twin-turbo V8 cars offer a bit more top end than S4 turbo fours, though under most conditions performance should feel very similar–it’s also worth noting that the eight was frustratingly bland sounding. Based on looks we’d take an Essex Turbo but for pure performance it’d have to be an S4S.
Lotus Esprit World — offers a wealth of model-specific resources
Lotus Bits — new and used parts
Lotus Forums — active Esprit channel
image credit: Lotus