The Lotus Esprit was launched in 1976 as a replacement for the Europa.
The Esprit had a similar backbone chassis, but it was larger and more luxurious, as Lotus founder Colin Chapman forever wanted to push the company’s output upmarket to maximize profits — which is what was largely propping up the racing team.
A memorable appearance in the 1977 James Bond film “The Spy Who Loved Me” (as the famous submarine car) helped overshadow tacky details such as British Leyland parts-bin door pulls, and off-the-shelf (with some very odd offsets) Wolfrace slot mags. What you did get was a superbly balanced car that did more than you’d imagine possible on 160 bhp.
The legend is that Lotus’ chassis man Roger Becker, there to chaperone the two film cars, had to do the driving for the helicopter chase scene in the movie because the production’s own test driver couldn’t find the limits of grip to break the car away for the dramatic sliding scenes.
The U.S.-market Turbo arrives in 1983
It was obvious that the chassis could handle more power, but U.S. buyers had to wait until 1983 for the Turbo version.
The Turbo had appeared in 1980 on the S2 (with Rover SD1 taillights and cooling scoops behind the rear windows) as the Essex Turbo Esprit. The car’s chrome-sided livery was a tie-in with Lotus’ then-F1 sponsor Essex Wire.
This car is very collectible if you can find one with all its stickers still intact. The rear suspension gained an upper link at the rear, and the brakes were improved.
The dry-sump type 910 engine made 211 bhp at 6,250 rpm and 200 ft-lb of torque at 4500 rpm. The car went 0–60 mph in 6.1 seconds, and top speed was 150 mph. A total of 45 Essex Esprits were built, along with a number of plain-colored Turbos.
The Turbo Esprit arrived in 1981, although there were no Lotus imports to the U.S. in 1981 and 1982. This has the 2.2-liter Type 912, wet-sumped — but with the same power and torque as its predecessor.
The final incarnation of the Giugiaro-styled Esprit was the high-compression HC from April 1986, with power up to 215 bhp and 220 ft-lb, plus more torque at lower engine speeds. The U.S. got the first fuel-injected Esprits, the HCi variant with Bosch KE-Jetronic and a catalytic converter. Same power (at higher revs) but torque dropped to 202 ft-lb.
Many years, many generations
In 1987 came the big change: The body was restyled by Peter Stevens, softening the hard edges to create a much more modern shape without changing any of the basic architecture. The molding process was different, and the name was changed again, to Esprit Turbo. Enthusiasts often refer to it by its project code: X180.
The 1988 model year North American Esprit Turbos kept the Citroën transaxle and Bosch fuel injection system used in the previous model year. Other X180s received a new Renault UN-1 transaxle, which brought outboard rear brakes.
For 1989, Lotus introduced the Esprit SE (special equipment) with GM’s multi-port intercooled fuel injection: 264 bhp, 280 bhp on overboost, 0–60 mph in 4.7 seconds and 160 mph. Spot one by its Citroën CX mirrors.
The Esprit S is a more basic version, with 228 bhp, and it was built up to 1991.
The Esprit Sport 300 was a stripped-down racing version built for IMSA. It produced 300 bhp, and only 64 were built.
Yet another redesign, this time by Julian Thomson, resulted in the Series 4 in 1993. New five-spoke alloy wheels, Toyota AE86 taillights and power steering were an Esprit first.
For 1994, the S4s offered 300 bhp, 290 ft-lb, 4.6 seconds to go 0–60 mph with a 168-mph top speed. Spot one by the big wing from the Sport 300 racer. Three-hundred sixty-seven were sold from 1994 to ’97; intended to be the last Esprits.
The last iteration of the 4-cylinder Esprit was the GT3, a turbocharged, charge-cooled variant with the 2-liter Type 920, which had previously been used only in Italian-market cars.
Turbo production ended in 1999, after 6,382 had been built.
Where the gremlins live
What to watch out for? Quite a lot, but not always where you’d expect — it’s a Lotus, after all.
Neglect is the main issue, so you want to see lots of service/oil-change history, and bills for some of the more-expensive items. Radiator and water-rail replacement — even fuel-tank replacement and clutch change on higher-milers — are good to see.
You should check that the coolant is nice and clean, harboring no nasty grunge.
The body fiberglass is usually pretty good, but check for obvious nicks, cracks and sinkage where replacement body sections may have been let in. Do not expect Corvette-quality ’glass.
Lotus Esprit interiors don’t wear well, so expect baggy seats. The gear change isn’t ideally placed, so shorter drivers feel as if they are reaching back. The electric windows are likely to be slow.
Listen to Paul Matty
Paul Matty, who has looked after old Lotus cars for more than 40 years (paulmattysportscars.co.uk), says:
“They are fantastic, and basically the later the car, the less trouble they are. Very early cars had a crude dry-sump system with an externally driven oil pump. People don’t change the belts, and they break…
“Early cars had a square-tooth cam belt, and they don’t last well. With most owners only doing 3,000 miles or so, they and the sprockets need annual inspection, and if there’s any wear or scuffing on the back of the belt, change them. Later belts, from the HC engines onwards, are round-toothed and last much better, three to four years.
“Head gaskets aren’t bad if they haven’t been overheated, but they do need the right coolant with corrosion inhibitor for all-aluminum engines. The biggest problem is the exhaust manifolds, which crack because they get red-hot and they’re exposed to spray from the left rear wheel, so they go through continual heat cycles. The nuts and studs will be rusted and seized, and if you try to drill them out, there’s a chance of going through into the water jacket. You think it’s leaking from the head gasket but it’s not. And early cars have a separate wastegate with no lubrication, which seizes. If it seizes open, you just lose boost, but if it seizes shut it’ll go like an F1 car — but only for about as long, so watch the boost gauge.
“The radiator is up front, and they silt up because people ignore them. It’s a crossflow design, so you’ll still get water flow, but it might only be flowing through half the core. So a replacement aluminum radiator is good to see.
“Likewise, the water rails corrode where they come out at the front and join the hoses by the steering rack. Changing them is easy enough, but the engine and gearbox have to come out first because they slide out from the back.
“If there’s a strong petrol smell from near the outer seat-belt mounts, the fuel tank on that side has rotted out. It’s a massive job, so best walk away.
“Never allow them to tick over from a cold start. The cams run in plain aluminum, and oil doesn’t get up there at low revs, so drive straight off instead.”
What you’ll pay
Paying $20,000–$25,000 should get you into a Turbo, with top S2 Turbos going for $40k, and S4s for $45k.
“Of course, collectors want the original Turbo, with all the Essex livery or in white, with the correct interior, including roof-mounted radio, but these are changing hands for three figures in the U.K. now,” Matty said. “Stevens-era cars are much cheaper, under $25k for roughish, $30k–35k for nice and top cars at $40k; SEs are $3k–$4k more. The late Giugiaro S3s had the same HC engine, and they’re beautiful, with nice cars $40k–$60k.
“My favorite is the S4s; they are everything the V8 should have been,” Matty said. “At $50k–$65k in the U.K., they look a bargain against a 308 Ferrari.
“Second would be the GT3, which was looked down on when new as it’s only 2 liters, but it’s a lightweight… The trouble is, buyers wanted all the ‘stuff,’ so that put the weight back on. But we’re not allowed to go fast anymore, so that doesn’t matter as much.” ♦