Table of Contents
The Lotus Esprit was Colin Chapman’s answer to supercars. The relentless quest for speed, performance, and advanced designs made sportscars age faster than other types of vehicles. Simply, when each new sportscar is overshadowed by competition in a matter of years, it is hard to keep the same model in production for long. Even the Chevrolet Corvette and Porsche 911, two sports cars with the longest production history, have changed dramatically over the decades. They might keep their recognizable designs (like the 911) but ultimately change the layout (like the Corvette). However, one renewed sports car spent an incredible 28 years in production (!) and evolved from an underpowered two-seater to a powerful supercar. It kept its original design, layout, and name the same for almost three decades. It was one of its era’s most famous sports cars and a legendary movie prop. It was conceived by a charismatic and controversial company owner, often criticized for its quality but praised for its handling and driving feel. It endured all the recessions and changes in company ownership and even had a decent motorsport career. It looked like an Italian exotic and cost as such, but I spotted a Renault engine and other bits from affordable cars. Even today, 19 years after the last one rolled off assembly lines, they are still an incredible sight and sought-after classic cars. So, this is a story about legendary Lotus Esprit, one of the quintessential sports cars from the ’70s and ’80s.
As a company, Lotus is an immensely interesting brand with quite a unique position in the market, a particular philosophy, and an approach. Established in 1948, it started almost as a hobby project by Collin Chapman, who modified Austin 7 to enter it into amateur competition. However, by the mid-1950s, his work was recognized by fellow enthusiasts, and his modification became popular in the grassroots racing scene. The legendary Lotus 7 was the first full-fledged model that launched the company and showed its potential. During the 50s, Chapman entered numerous races and built a name for his company, which was known to be able to outrun more expensive and more powerful cars. In 1958, he felt confident enough to produce another sports car, the Lotus Elite, which successfully promoted the brand in the United States and perfected the formula. Chapman was famously quoted as saying, “Simplify and add lightness,” as he summed up his car-making philosophy. Even though Lotus (at the time) didn’t produce its engines or gearboxes, they concentrated on making light but strong chassis, precise steering and suspension bits, and creating very competent and lightweight sports cars that were affordable and easy to maintain. The critics often called it a “glorified kit-car company,” but Lotus was much more than that. Yes, the bits and pieces were collected from other cars. Still, unique suspension tuning, chassis construction, and design all add to exceptional driving dynamics, surprising performance, and customer popularity.
The 1960s proved to be a fantastic time for the company as it surged to new heights, launched several new models, and won the Formula One championship three times. It also collaborated with car companies like Ford on highly respectable models like the Ford Cortina Lotus. However, in the early 1970s, ambitious as he ever was, Chapman decided that his company needed an upscale sports car—something more conventional, less Spartan, and aimed towards the competitors from Italy. The initial work started in mid-1971 with the help of Giorgietto Giugiaro, who generously offered Chapman to use his design work on the Maserati Boomerang Concept car. The basic idea was simple: use steel chassis, rear-mounted engine, fiberglass body, and more upscale interior and features. By the mid-70s, the full-scale prototypes were done, and Lotus had started preparing its facilities to produce a brand-new model. However, the economic climate had significantly changed from the approved project until the car was ready for release. Lotus needed more than a few compromises to pull the thing off.
Lotus Esprit S1
The official premiere of the new Lotus model took place in 1976 at the Paris Motor Show. The initial response was more than favorable since Lotus presented an elegant sports coupe with a modern wedge-shaped design, great proportions, and a dynamic look. It had pop-up headlights, a low silhouette, and a 2.0-liter, four-cylinder mounted behind the cabin. Called the Lotus Type 907 this unit was loosely based on the Vauxhall engine but in Lotus form, made of aluminum and with double overhead camshafts and 16 valves, pretty advanced technology for the mid ’70s standards. The engine delivered 162 hp for the European market and just 140 hp in US spec models. The power was sent to the rear wheels over a Citroen-derived 5-speed manual transmission. Lotus proudly announced that the 1976 Esprit could sprint to 100 km/h in less than 7 seconds and top 225 km/h (138 mph). Although those figures would make Esprit a pretty exciting sports car, first magazine testers revealed that Lotus might be slightly “too optimistic” about Esprit’s performance.
Actual figures were somewhat more modest, and 0 to 100 km/h took 8 seconds with a slightly lower top speed. However, the test drivers praised the Esprit’s handling and steering and applauded Lotus for making it one of the best driving cars in its class, even though its suspension setup was conventional. The 1976 Esprit S1 (Series 1) weighed just around 1000 kg, which immensely helped the driving dynamics. Interestingly, the S1 didn’t have power steering since the front end was so light turning the wheel didn’t require much effort.
When it arrived on the market in 1976, the Esprit S1 was priced at $16,000, which was very tempting, considering that the Porsche 911 was over $23,000 and the Ferrari 308, although faster and more powerful, was three times more! The only proper sports car cheaper than the Esprit was the Chevrolet Corvette, which could be had for just over $8000. Lotus wasn’t precisely swept with orders, but the company received enough interest from the buyers. Esprit was given enormous exposure when featured in the James Bond movie “The Spy Who Loved Me.” The white S1 was not only capable of outrunning the bad guys, but it could also transform into a submarine.
Lotus Esprit S2
The S1 might be a capable sports car, but it was significantly compromised, mainly in terms of quality, and even at a few years old, Esprit S1s developed rust issues. So, for the S2 model, introduced in 1978, Lotus galvanized the chassis and sorted a few issues with fit and finish, always problematic issues with small manufacturers. Also, the S2 has more intakes, wheels, instruments, front spoiler, and rear lights from Rover instead of Fiat X1/9 units. The mechanicals and engine mainly were unchanged, but in 1980, Lotus introduced a slightly bigger 2.2-liter four-cylinder engine with the same power but more torque (190 Nm). This was a welcomed addition since it improved performance and drivability.
Heavily involved in Formula One racing, Lotus was never shy of promoting its success through its road cars. So, for the S2 version, they had two unique models. One was the legendary black and gold John Player Special, and the other was an exciting Essex Turbo Esprit. The latter was the first Esprit to be fitted with a turbocharged engine, which delivered considerable power – 210 hp and 270 Nm, giving the Esprit performance it deserved. The characteristic blue, red, and silver cars could sprint to 100 km/h in just 6.1 seconds with a top speed of over 240 km/h. The Essex Turbo Esprit was expensive (cost more than the 1980 Ferrari 308) and rare (only 45 were made), but it showed Lotus the right direction for the next generation of Esprit – turbocharging.
Lotus Esprit S3
By the early 80s, the Esprit needed significant design and mechanical refreshments to keep it relevant. Lotus realized buyers wanted more power, comfort, and luxury features. Hence, Esprit’s third iteration prepared a new redesign with a body kit, new wheels, an improved interior, new graphics, leather seats, and details. Lotus now offers two distinctive models—Base Esprit S3 2.2-liter four-cylinder with 170 hp and Turbo Esprit with 2.2-liter turbocharged four-cylinder with 210 hp. However, the unit in S3 Turbo is different from the engine in Essex Turbo Esprit since it has a wet-sump lubrication system as opposed to the dry-sump solution in Essex Turbo.
In 1981, a red Turbo Esprit made another appearance in a Bond movie, this time “For Your Eyes Only,” where it had mounted skies on the back, gold-colored BBS wheels, and a host of Q-designed weapons and upgrades. The Bond factor and the fact that Lotus somewhat improved quality and upgraded the power made it more popular with the customers, and S3 was produced in more examples than S1 and S2 combined. Lotus was recognized as one of the best handling cars in the class, although it lacked the power to fight with the Ferrari 328 and Porsche 911 Turbo.
Lotus Esprit X180
By the mid80s, it was apparent that Esprit was in dire need of thorough refresh or replacement. It sold reasonably well, but sharp lines showed its age. So, in 1987, a complete restyle was performed, and the car became known as the Esprit X180. Peter Stevens designed this generation and significantly improved the original Giugiaro lines. But the changes were more significant than just aesthetics. The body material was improved, and the chassis was reworked along with the brakes, suspension, and complete interior. Although the engines were unchanged, the Renault transmission replaced the Citroen’s unit. New headlights and a new spoiler and front bumper completed the look. Also, the rear lights were Toyota’s but fitted perfectly with the unique design of the back end. The X180 was more than restyling but slightly less than a new car.
The car gained a few kgs and had 1.2 tones but still delivered a competent 0 to 100 km/h time of 5.1 to 5.5 seconds (depending on the engine). The top speed was 240 km/h (150 mph), similar to the competition. However, in 1989, Lotus gave Esprit a new lease on life with the SE model. It featured an improved engine, intercooler, and 264 hp (280 hp on overboost). The 0 to 100 km/h time was 4.7 seconds, which was supercar fast and put Elise SE amongst the quickest production cars of the late ’80s.
Lotus Esprit S4
Incredible as it sounds, the Esprit gained another restyle in 1993, showing just how good the original concept was. With the vastly improved looks and technology, the Esprit was still fresh and competitive almost 20 years after its introduction. The venerable 2.2-liter turbo returned without changes in output, but Lotus introduced the SE Sport model with 300 hp due to incremental changes in the cylinder head and intake system. It had a 0 to 100 km/h time of just 4.6 seconds and a top speed of 271 km/h (168 mph), which raised a few eyebrows in the segment.
However, in 1996, Lotus made the most significant mechanical change in Esprit’s history and finally introduced a powerplant that this model needed – the twin-turbo V8. Called simply the Esprit V8, it had a 3.5-liter, Type 918 V8 engine capable of north of 500 hp but detuned to a manageable 355 for road-going models. With 0 to 100 km/h time of just 4.3 seconds and a top speed of 290 km/h (175 mph), it could be considered a bona fide ’90s supercar.
Even if the Esprit evolved into a very competent and fast car, after 28 years on the market, it was time for retirement, and Lotus discontinued this legendary model in 2004. After more than 10,600 cars were delivered, it was clear that Esprit proved itself and helped the company stay afloat through numerous financial turmoils over three decades. Unfortunately, the company’s founder, Colin Chapman, wasn’t there to see the success of his last model. He died in 1982 and left the company in massive debt after problematic joint ventures with De Lorean.
What kind of engine did the Esprit use?
Over the years, the Esprit utilized various engines. It started with a 2.0L inline-four and later saw a 2.2L variant. The famed Turbo Esprit and the V8 models naturally had more powerful configurations.
How did the Esprit V8 stand out from its predecessors?
Introduced in 1996, the Esprit V8 featured a 3.5L twin-turbocharged V8 engine that produced 350 hp. It was the most powerful Esprit ever made and offered blistering performance.
Is the Lotus Esprit Reliable?
While the Esprit offers a thrilling driving experience, it’s known to have certain quirks and requires attentive maintenance. Properly maintained examples can be reliable, but, as with many British sports cars from the era, consistent care is essential.
Did the lotus esprit have a successor?
While there was no direct successor to the Lotus Esprit. Lotus produced several models that you could identify as successors like the Lotus Evora (2008) and the Lotus Emira (2023).
How many Lotus Esprits are produced?
Lotus produced approximately 10,675 cars over the different generations of the Lotus Esprit. You can download a detailed overview here: Lotus Esprit Production Numbers.