I’m sure most of us have a car from our childhood that stands out – something which resonates with a particular moment in our life. It’s the car we’d love to own some day, even though that may probably only be in our dreams. I think films can be the biggest trigger, particularly in the pre-internet era when a movie appearance could be the only time you’d ever expect to see cars perform to an outrageous max. Think Bullit and the Mustang GT Fastback, Minis in the Italian Job (or the divine Lamborghini Miura P400 at the start of course) or the Countach LP400S in Cannonball Run.
For me, it was the Lotus Esprit from that most car-laden of film franchises, James Bond. The DB5 was before my time, so to my childhood eyes it was the ferocious white wedge of Wet Nellie screaming round the mountains of Sardinia that stole my imagination away, right from the first time I saw The Spy Who Loved Me. At the Silverstone Classic I revelled in a veritable convention of Esprits from across the generations, so I’ve subverted this spotlight to be a brief homage to the model.
I know I’m not alone in my love for the Esprit, and neither is that adoration purely based on its raw aesthetic. This is a car that changed the dynamics of what it meant to be a supercar, that never compromised, that still makes the smiles slide off owner’s faces if you mention rain.
The fact that a car from another film almost derailed the entire company makes for an ironic twist: Lotus’ ill-starred involvement (along with the British government…) in the DeLorean scandal could have destroyed more than just its reputation. That was just one near meltdown in a decade that saw the death of iconic founder Colin Chapman and the company constantly change ownership.
Over 28 years, Lotus produced the 10,675 Esprit in a dozen core variants (five four-cylinder generations and seven special models), though that doesn’t touch on the real number of derivatives that were haphazardly fired out over the years. From 1975 until an almost unbelievable 2004, the Esprit flew the flag for Lotus.
All this makes it so predictable why the Esprit would strike a chord with me. Underdog, eccentric British sportscar manufacturer with no business sense. A car produced under difficult circumstances as the company lurched from crisis to crisis. Perfect looks, penned by an Italian design house, yet made up from a jumble of bits taken from other companies’ parts bins. Always slightly flawed. Total dedication to saving weight. Horsepower numbers that wouldn’t even register with power junkies and yet still make this a frighteningly quick car through corners.
The best thing is that because of that surprisingly large number of cars in existence, the Esprit is not a car that’s seen as being inviolate. Modifications are in some cases a necessity for certain models (like a TVR or Noble, the community know what’s generically wrong and how to fix it), but they’re also the ideal base for wholesale changes – under the body at least. Viz the bagged Esprit S3 we featured, or the pure white and similarly-equipped S3 I admired at last year’s Retro Rides. I’ve even seen one with a 6.2-litre LS3 Chevy engine shoehorned in!
This 1981 S3 was equally out-there: it’s now got a 4.2-litre Audi V8, mated to an A4 TDI’s 6-speed gearbox! Then there are the Porsche 911 4-pot callipers at the front and Audi TT callipers at the rear, AVO adjustable shocks and springs and a Vems ECU. And it was for sale!
Five years of prototyping preceded the official launch of the Esprit. Initial work began in 1970, and Giorgetto Giugiaro were brought on board the following year. The first production Esprit rolled off the Hethel lines in 1976, after a reveal at the previous year’s Paris Motor Show. 1,000kg of awesome.
You could draw the original S1 profile with four straight lines and it would instantly recognisable. Even the interior was a big linear sloping slab. It’s just so unfussy, so pure. There’s really only one actual curve on it, the deliciously subtle kick-up of the ducktail spoiler that immediately falls off to the Kamm-style vertical rear. Even the nose is a straight wedge, unadorned with any splitter or dam until the second generation update.
Esprit wheels were always things of beauty and simplicity. The first-gen Wolfrace alloys are dense and unfettered, pieces of pure industrial design. The Speedlines that adorned S2 models continued that bare look. BBS and Compomotives would take over, but still complement the styling.
Turbocharging came along in 1980, initially with a limited run of Essex-liveried cars and then with the standard S3 Turbo. The S2.2 normally-aspirated engine had a Garrett T3 added, which pushed power to 210hp and gave the Esprit a kick that put it up there with its high performance competition.
The final iteration of the Giugiaro-styled Esprit was the HC model in 1986, with a new high compression engine available in both naturally aspirated and turbo variants.
1987 saw a substantial redesign overseen by design guru Peter Stephens – who would have a hand in the McLaren F1 the following decade – and the softening of the original razor-sharp lines. The tail was elongated as well, but the overall look is still unmistakable. The Esprit just grew into the new supercar era. The final major design overhaul came in 1993, with the S4 model and the addition of the demi-spoiler halfway up the rear deck and five-spoke alloys, then a stream of small tweaks coming on stream as the Esprit ticked off another decade.
The S4 was originally to be the last Esprit, but another business wrong-turn landed Lotus with a V8 but no car to put it in. It’s something we have to be thankful for, as that spawned the ferocious Esprit V8 series and gave the Esprit an even longer lease of life.
Talking to the owner of this V8, the joy of Esprit ownership was clear – I liked the irony that the ‘For Sale’ sign on the dash was actually for the guy’s villa in Spain, not the car. That’s proper priorities… But then there’s a tick that shows when you ask what they’re like to drive. This is a car you have to respect every time you get behind the wheel, and when it’s raining, you have to drive it like your grandma if you want to arrive at your destination. I like that in a performance car. Anyone can drive a modern electronics-laden supercar, but a healthy dose of self-doubt in the you-versus-the-car equation makes you a better driver…
After small enthusiast-run efforts over the decades, Esprit racing projects really only hit their stride in the 1990s. Over the in the States, Doc Bundy successfully campaigned an X180R in SCCA and IMSA, and back in Europe Esprits won their class in British GT in ’93 and ’94 and also competed at the Le Mans 24 Hours.
An entry with a factory GT2-spec Esprit in the 1995 BPR Global GT Series (the precursor to the ultimate GT1 era of the late ’90s) was relatively successful, and correctly followed the Lotus principle of low weight and handling to make up for a lack of power against the McLaren and Porsche GT1s. They then made this, the menacing Esprit V8 GT1 carbon-bodied monster built ground-up for the 1996 season.
I absolutely love it: in its raw carbon it’s a phenomenal looking machine – it’s just a shame it looked better than it performed. Lotus being Lotus, they had nowhere near enough cash to match the budgets that the other teams were throwing at GT1. Unreliability and accidents stymied any chance on track, even though there were flashes of speed.
This GT1 is currently having its engine rebuilt, so didn’t run at the Silverstone Classic. I can’t wait to see it whole again – and get the chance to really properly feature it.
The Esprit still sits on a pedestal for me, an honest, raw sportscar with a chequered history that just makes the story even richer. There’s always an emotional reaction to seeing one: I’m not crying… it’s just the rain…