1984 Lotus Esprit Turbo
“Shockingly reliable.” This is not the phrase that you expect to hear associated with any of the more esteemed British sporting marques. If Colin Chapman’s creations truly embodied his mantra of “Simplify, and add lightness,” then they also often got in the spirit of things by shedding important bits at speed. As the owner of this 1984 Lotus Esprit Turbo puts it, “You know the old bumper sticker: the parts falling off this car are of the finest British quality.”
However, this particular car, three decades old and having spent two-thirds of its life with the same careful owner, has bordered on bulletproof. It has been well-maintained and, moreover, maintained in a manner that would please any waste-not-want-not post-war Brit. When the starter motor gave up the ghost, it was sent out to be rebuilt rather than replaced, at a cost of a couple of hundred rather than thousands.
Curbside in Horseshoe bay, I fold myself into the cabin – no easy task with the left-mounted hand-brake directly in the way, adjust the seat, glance to confirm that the mirrors are, effectively, mostly useless, and then engage first gear with the walnut headed shifter. Lots Of Trouble Usually Serious? The onramp beckons – let’s go get in some.
Now, if this were Hollywood, I’d be making a left rather than a right, and plunging this silver dagger right into the heart of the bay. There, it would suddenly sprout fins and propellers, and we could go for a brief underwater tour, perhaps with a quip or two.
Audiences for 1977′s The Spy Who Loved Me saw James Bond doing just that, and while dear old 007 has had any number of cars in his lengthy career, the Esprit seemed to capture the imagination more than most. Alone of all the Bond cars, it can stand up to the Aston Martin DB5 as an embodiment of the rakish, devil-may-care spirit of the films – and besides which, it turns into a dang submarine!
You can see why the producers opted for the Lotus as their hero car: just look at it. Low, angular, and sharply creased, it’s part rocketship and part stiletto, a mid-engine fighter jet with the wings cut off and landing gear swapped for BBS alloys. When the current owner first saw an Esprit in the window of a dealer in Calgary, it immediately went on his dream driveway list. His garage, which at one point also contained a 993 twin-turbo and a Pozzi-blue Ferrari 360 coupe, soon found itself with a Lotus banner on the wall and an Esprit safely tucked away.
Styled by Giorgio Giugiaro’s Italdesign, the Esprit was among the first of the “folded-paper” designs, joining cars like the BMW M1 and the Maserati Bora. Like the Lamborghini Countach, these cars had an extremely futuristic look, and amidst the lumpen malaise of the cars of the late 1960s, they were pure secret agent fantasy.
This particular car has an impeccable, yet interesting history. It was sold out of Vancouver originally, making its way up to Cranbrook as – or so the rumour goes – a lottery win purchase. Subsequently, it passed into the hands of a circuit court Judge, who used it to frequently travel back and forth to the Okanagan. In the early 1990s, it found its way to its third, and likely final owner.
While a wary eye has been kept on the maintenance schedule, this car has been driven, and driven as intended. From time to time it makes its way up the Coquihalla or down the coast, either just for a jaunt or to join in a classics meet. Indeed, the first thing you notice is how comfortable it is for a 1980s supercar. You wouldn’t want to be much taller than my 5’11”, and folks with an affinity for Doc Martens are going to have a sad time of it trying to cram their feet down the cramped footwell into the pedals, but it’s a remarkably easy car to drive.
Pulling away easily on an uphill from a light, I roll into the throttle gently and find an abundance of stout turbocharged torque. The Esprit’s carburetted 2.2L four-cylinder is amazingly compact, even with all the associated plumbing for the turbocharger, and it makes somewhere in the neighbourhood of 215-220 hp, with torque to match. In today’s era of the direct-injected turbocharged engine, it’s like comparing lighting a Zippo to flicking on a lightswitch, but the Esprit has plenty of shove to match its sub-Miata curb weight.
And then there’s the whole occasion of the thing. The steering is entirely manual, making it a real bear at low speeds, but a fingertip-dancing delight once you’re on the move. The sensitivity shows you nuances in the road surface that your eyes couldn’t see, stuff the modern car is designed to iron right out. Never mind running over a coin and knowing whether it was a dime or a nickel, with the Esprit, you could tell what year it was minted.
With period-correct rears that are getting a little long in the tooth (and hard to find too), corners are taken mid-level, with the Esprit staying almost entirely flat thanks to its low centre of gravity and balanced suspension. Clip the apex easily as you sit so low you could reach an arm out the window and brush it with your fingertips, and then roll softly into the throttle in third and let the Lotus swoosh out, riding a surge of boost from the Garret T3.
All around you are reminders of the provenance of this car, the racing heritage established by the company’s founder, and the golden era of British racing. The gauges, for instance, are Smiths – the first employer of Graham Hill, the only driver to have claimed the coveted triple crown with wins at LeMans, the Indy 500 and the Monaco Grand Prix.
Pausing at the top to take a breather and a few photos, we get a passing air-horn salute from a pair of laden dump trucks, working on one of the residential developments that marches ever upwards with the rising tide of humanity. “People don’t always know what it is,” the owner says, “Sometime they read the rear bumper and ask, ‘Lotus – who makes Lotus?’ I tell them Colin does.”
In silver, the casual passerby often mistakes the Esprit for a DeLorean – another Italdesign job – or is mystified entirely. They do, however, know that it’s something special, and the car is an award winner, occasionally by accident. As a driver, it’s kept clean and waxed, but is original rather than restored. Some time ago, after driving down to an annual Lotus meet, it was simple enough to hang an entrance card in the sharply-raked windshield, and the Esprit promptly took an overall class win despite a bug or two squashed on the front bumper.
Louvres and spoilers, ducts and vents, a roofline at the height of a Hobbit’s navel and those classic basket-weave deep-dish BBS rims: the Esprit was and is like nothing else on the road. It was a dream for many, and for those with the temperament to keep and run her regularly, it’s a dream that can be made reality.
So, getting in and out requires regular yoga sessions, the air-conditioning recently packed it in and was removed, and the rear trunk, while spacious, builds up enough heat to boil shampoo. Mere trivialities to have some of Colin’s finest work at your command. Simplify and add lightness; lighten the load, and buoy the spirit.