LOTUS ESPRIT REVIEW
The Lotus Esprit combines authentic 70s styling, top shelf engineering and five star sports car road manners
James Bond fans will instantly recognise the wedge shape of this British classic. In the 1977 film The Spy Who Loved Me, Bond’s Lotus Esprit turns into a submarine after he drives if off a pier escaping villains.
Amazingly that car was found in a storage container in the US in 1989. A contractor bought the unopened container at auction for US$100 and found the Esprit under a pile of blankets inside it. The significance of ‘Wet Nellie’ – the only working sub-car left after the film – had to be pointed out to him.
In 2013 Tesla electric car founder Elon Musk, a Bond fan since he was a kid, bought the Lotus for a cool US$900,000 and announced he would fit a Tesla drivetrain and attempt to turn it into a real submarine-car. Evidently Musk still has plans to build a submarine car.
This immaculate Series I Esprit was bought in the UK a few years back by Carl Lakis (whose Lamborghini Countach LP5000S we also drove a few issues back) and it is a great example of a pivotal car for Lotus.
Prior to the Esprit, Lotus cars like the original Elan or Europa could also be bought in kit form and assembled by owners, but the Esprit was a proper turn-key production car. The powertrain layout followed standard sports car racing practice with the twin-cam 2.0-litre four mid-mounted behind the cabin with a five-speed transaxle located behind it. It also had independent double-wishbone suspension with coil-over dampers at each corner. It was way ahead of its time and the body was constructed from fibreglass which was seen as quite innovative.
The only thing that let the brand down was quality control and Esprits, like many British cars of that era, had a bad reputation for being unreliable. Carl’s car is not like that, its fit and finish is superb and we had no problems on our test.
The Esprit’s bold shape was designed by Bertone stylist Giorgetto Giugiaro. The Italian styling house was also responsible for the first Countach, the LP400, which debuted two years before the Esprit, and the Lotus has more than passing resemblance, particularly in the nose. I love the look of this car and it is so legit. With wild orange paint, a spectacular green interior with red tartan trim and orange shag-pile carpet it’s so 70s. It’s more Austin Powers than James Bond and made me want to go out and buy a pair of flared trousers and a paisley Gloweave body shirt!
The seating position looks very reclined but is actually very comfortable and with the steering wheel and gear shift in the right spots the driving position is really nice. The pod-style wraparound dash with Veglia gauges is pretty cool too. Obviously a lot of thought was put into the ergonomics by people who knew about driving, which you’d expect because in the 70s Lotus was at the forefront of Formula One and up there with Ferrari. How many cars have a badge that reads World Champion Car Constructors 1963, 1965, 1968, 1970, 1972, 1973? The design is terrific and if it had have been built in Germany it would have been a world beater. It even features on a set of British stamps..
I liked the engine. It’s a four-valve 2.0-litre ‘slant’ four developed by Lotus with twin Weber carburettors and feels more sophisticated than an Alfa Romeo twin-cam of the same era. It only makes 119kW but in keeping with Lotus founder Colin Chapman’s lightweight credo (the car weighs under 1000kg) it feels quicker than it is. One thing I noticed is how well engine noise is isolated from the cabin. The engine sits right behind you under a carpeted fibreglass cover but you can hardly hear it and you don’t get that Weber induction roar. You know the engine is there and it sounds nice but it’s not intrusive.
Lotus has always been renowned for its suspension tuning and its engineers have done suspension for the Lotus Cortina, Vauxhall Lotus Carlton, Corvette ZR-1 and original Aston Martin V12 Vanquish to name a few. This car is very easy to drive, it rides beautifully and nothing rattled, it’s very tight. The unassisted rack and pinion steering is lighter than a Porsche of the same period and you flex your wrists and it turns. It’s nimble and changes direction quickly like most mid-engined cars.
It doesn’t have mega grip by today’s standards but I suspect its limits would be reasonably high. The overall feeling I got was that it was like a junior supercar. In fact it was so good to drive my estimation of it was going up by the kilometre. Lotus only made 714 Series I Esprits and you don’t see many of them so I’d imagine they are quite collectable. I’d have one.