The car that soldiered on through all manner of hell, and came out king of the hill in the end, whilst by extension keeping the company afloat.
During the early 1970’s the craze was the supercar, the Lamborghini Countach had
shown the world the ‘Wedge’ and given us a new idea of speed with its 200mph cruising velocity. Across the world, everyone wanted a piece of the new supercar action, with the result of many weird and wonderful retreads. In Britain, it was a mixed bag. At British Leyland, they gave us the Triumph TR7, which leaked, broke and generally failed to deliver in spades, whilst at Lotus, they gave us the Esprit, and that was the exact opposite.
Originally, the concept dated back to 1972 when a concept car by Lotus was unveiled, being designed by the world famous ItalDesign, built onto the platform of the previous Lotus Europa. In the following years the design was tinkered and altered by renowned stylish Giorgetto Giugiaro in one of his memorable ‘Folded Paper’ designs, a nickname for his more angular models such as the DeLorean and the Maserati Merak. At the time the name was initially intended to be named the Lotus Kiwi, but instead chose Esprit to keep with the long running Lotus tradition of naming cars with the letter ‘E’.
However, unlike the massively powerful supercars that the Esprit was meant to be competing with, the car was designed to embody both power and incredible handling. The engine was a lightweight 2.0L Type-907 4-Cylinder engine, a comparatively small powerplant that produced 160hp. But even so, the car had a top speed of 138mph and a 0-60 of 6.8 seconds, which even today isn’t bad and could easily combat the likes of the modern Hot Hatchbacks. This is due largely to the fact that the original Esprit was built out of Fibreglass on a steel backbone chassis.
The original car was launched in 1975 at the Paris Motor Show, and at the start was a little lukewarm in its reception. Although it was lauded for its incredible handling and ability to grip just about any surface, the low power engine meant that it didn’t take-off as much as it had intended, especially in the desired American market.
Fame thankfully was not that far away. At the time of production the James Bond films were looking for a new Bond Car, as it had been nearly 10 years since 007 had been paired with a single iconic motor. Seeing the opportunity for some product placement, Lotus’ head of public relations, Don McLaughlin, decided to take matters into his own hands and drive a prototype Lotus with all the Lotus badges taped over to Pinewood Studios near London and park it outside the main office before going across the way to meet a friend. Within a matter of minutes a sizeable crowd had gathered to ogle the sublime mystery car. Eventually he came back, made his way through the crowds, climbed in and drove away without a word being said. It was ambitious, but it worked, and the film crew went out of their way to find out about this car.
In the end a Lotus Esprit was featured in the 1977 film ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’, where it was shipped to Corsica and became the epic motor in the fantastic escape scene between Bond, several henchmen in cars and a pursuing helicopter. During filming however, the chase was originally quite uninteresting as the Lotus’ famous grip meant that performing powerslides and drifts were impossible. This led to the Lotus test driver, who had accompanied the car to the film site, taking over from the stunt driver and literally flailing the car and pushing it to its very limits to try and make the chase look more exciting. From that moment on, he took over as stunt driver and can be owed for making the spectacular chase even more spectacular, finishing off with one of the more iconic parts of the movie where the Lotus flew off the end of a jetty and splashed into the sea, turning into a submarine to investigate Karl Stromberg’s underwater rig. Although the Esprit’s featured in the underwater sequences were a mixture of models and miniatures with alkasalsa tables causing bubbles, Top Gear’s Richard Hammond was able to prove that a submarine car could be made out of a technically similar Lotus Excel, although it did require the doors being welded, the tyres being filled with cement, the windows being replaced with perspex and the fitting of external propellers.
When the Spy Who Loved Me premièred in 1977, the Lotus Esprit was rocketed to fame for it’s intense scenes, and what would have been an unremarkable 70’s sports car became one of the most iconic motors of the decade. But sadly the end of the 1970’s brought trouble to the Lotus company. An Oil Crisis sent fuel costs rocketing, and the idea of owning gas guzzling supercars became highly undesirable. This was compounded by a global recession which saw the promising American market collapse. Lotus’ production fell from 1,200 cars per year to just under 400, and the company was unable to pay for the development of new models, which meant that the 10 year old Elite and Eclat
couldn’t be replaced. In 1982 the company’s founder and famed Racing Driver Colin Chapman died suddenly of a Heart Attack, and his later involvement in the DeLorean scandal, which would have seen him imprisoned for at least 10 years for fraud if he had lived to see the trial, damaged the company’s reputation. In 1994 the Lotus F1 team folded and at one point the company was so strapped for cash that they couldn’t even fill the invoices. The company was bounced between ownership by General Motors, and then Luxembourg based A.C.B.N Holdings, and finally to Proton of Malaysia. But despite everything, the Lotus Esprit just kept on going, and kept the company alive, thanks largely to constant development.
Unlike many car companies struggling in the recession which maintained the continuous model and made only a few cheap alterations such as facelifts, the Esprit was developed time and time again to make a more innovative machine, but maintaining that winning style that had made it so popular in the first place. Changes to the drivetrain, updates in the engine, slight alterations to the styling and a continued competitive price tag made it cheaper than a Ferrari but just as desirable, often being quoted as ‘Britain’s Ferrari’. Another part of its success was down to its designers too, the fourth generation car being designed by Peter Stevens, who would later coin the McLaren F1, the world’s fastest production car until the Bugatti Veyron of 2005. The fifth and final generation car of 1993 however has often been described as the best, combining the continued obsession with unbelievable amounts of grip, steering and handling with a 3.5L Lotus Type 918 Turbo V8, giving the car a top speed of 178mph at a rate of 0-60 in 4.4 seconds, which even today is fantastic and would easily put it in line with modern supercars. In straight lines the Esprit would struggle to keep up in a race, but on the corners, whilst other cars would slide and flail, the Esprit would be glued to the line and easily outdo the likes of the Ferrari 458.
Sadly, this performance couldn’t bring the Esprit back to its bloom of youth, and the 28 year old design was eventually killed off in 2004 after 10,000 examples were built, being replaced by the Exige. However, plans were considered for a new Esprit to be launched in 2013 after unveiling a concept at the 2010 Paris Motor Show, but this was unfortunately not pursued and development was instead put into the Evora. Today Esprits are quite rare like many sports cars of the time, with later versions from the 1990’s and early 2000’s being more common than the early S1 and S2 models of the 70’s and 80’s.
But either way, the Esprit proved to the world that Britain could make a competitive, and powerful sports car. Although it wasn’t exactly built for straight lines, Britain isn’t a country that consists of straight roads, if you’re off the motorway you’d be pressed to find a route that didn’t wind and curve in every given direction. This is where the Esprit could win and indeed went on to do, often being considered the best handling sports car of all time, and one that defied the financial struggle, the recession, the fuel crisis, the scandal, the multiple ownerships and the failure of the company F1 team!