Lotus's Wild Wedge of a Car Could Be Your Next Best Investment
by By Hannah Elliott on Bloomberg, December 2018
Resale prices are trending up
The white 1976 Lotus Esprit car from the 1977 film The Spy Who Loved Me. Photographer: Oli Scarff/Getty Images Europe
Quick: What do Sharon Stone, Richard Gere, and Roger Moore have in common? Answer: They each drove a Lotus Esprit in a blockbuster Hollywood movie.
The sexy British wedge won generations of admirers in Basic Instinct, Pretty Woman, and, especially, in Moore's The Spy Who Loved Me, when James Bond drove a white Lotus Esprit Series 1 in an epic chase along the Sardinian coast and then transformed it into a torpedo-firing submarine when he took it underwater.
In recent years, though, the Esprit has dimmed from popular imagination, overshadowed by BMW 2002s and vintage Porsches. In certain circles, any mention of intending to buy a Lotus is met with a gasp, then a pause, and then derision and warning. "Lots of Trouble, Usually Serious," the saying goes.
A Lotus Turbo Esprit from the 1981 James Bond film For Your Eyes Only is displayed for sale on July 8, 2009, in London. Photographer: Peter MacDiarmid/Getty Images Europe
Translation: They look cool but break your heart. The Lotus mechanics and wiring are notoriously faulty, and any "real" car guy worth his salt knows even a free Lotus is too expensive to own and maintain.
"Once you take the engine out, the suspension comes undone," says Jake Auerbach, the general manager of Rally Road and formerly of RM Sotheby's. "You pull a pin, and the whole car comes undone."
But that's Lotus for you—haphazard interior workings, but their supermodel good looks and capable handling keep fans coming back. Or, as Auerbach says: "Made simple within an inch of their life and then added lightening."
That said, they do cost much less to repair than similar-era European cars from, say, Ferrari and Lamborghini.
According to Hagerty data, values of early Lotus Esprits are on the rise.
Online outlets such as Bring a Trailer and Hemmings have listed them for cheap, $15,000 here and $20,000 there for specimens of dubious running quality. As recently as last year, one sold on the auction website for $9,450.
"Build quality on early Esprits wasn't up to the price," according to Hagerty's valuation report, which notes that compliance with then-federal regulations hampered its performance. "The usual Lotus fragility along with the Federalized cars' anemic horsepower rating failed to impress enthusiasts."
A 1979 Lotus Esprit Series 2. The interior includes soft red fabric stitched in plump rolls; the four-cylinder engine is visible through the transparent rear hatch. Photographer: Hannah Elliott/Bloomberg
Talk to those who've owned one for any length of time, though, and you may hear a different story than that clever "Lotus" acrostic.
"I don't know any owners that feel that way," says Chase Van Der Rhoer, referring to the acrostic. He's owned a black 2003 Esprit since he bought it new that year. "If ranked on the pure head-turn-to-cost ratio, it has to be ranked in the No. 1 spot," he says. "And while that is not my thing at all, it does attract crowds. That is saying a lot for a 15-year-old car."
A Lotus Esprit S2 displayed at the British International Motor Show in Birmingham on Oct. 18, 1978.Photographer: Aubrey Hart/Hulton Archive
Maintenance, he says, is less frequent and less expensive than that of a normal luxury car: The routine annual service charges hover around $700—with parts, about $900. That's far less than the thousands it would cost to service a Ferrari Daytona.
"It may be due to owning a late-model production model, but after 29 years of Lotus making the Esprit, for example, the car was sorted,"
Van Der Rhoer says. Over the past 10 years, values have risen slowly but surely. And if you look at the data, you can make a case that the forgotten Lotus Esprit could be the next big thing.
On the Rise
The Esprit has seating for two
According to Hagerty, the average value of a 1979 Lotus Esprit Series 2 is $17,800, up from $17,000 three years ago and $12,750 five years ago. (It was $11,100 in 2006.) Late models, which promise better reliability, were going for around $17,000 on Bring a Trailer a few months ago; now they're largely listed for $30,000 and counting.
"I see them being great buys right now," Auerbach says. "I don't expect you're losing money on the short term going out to buy an Esprit."
The Lotus Esprit occupies that happy space where a car is rare enough to be unique—if you own one, it will be the only one in your town—but not so elite that you can't get parts and then have to pay a fortune if you do find them at all.
The Esprit premiered in 1972 as a conceptual exercise to help reinvigorate Lotus's tired product line. By model year 1976, a full production version had arrived.
With only four cylinders, they never were "a lot" of car, which will keep the values from ever becoming exorbitant, but good examples can be expected to steadily gain value.
"They suffer from the fact that a lot of them became so cheap that, as they needed any work, it was deferred," Auerbach says. That means regular maintenance and minor repairs were put off, leading to bigger problems as time passed. "The attrition rate was high," he says. "So if you can find a really strong example, that means a lot."
The Esprit premiered in 1972 as a conceptual exercise to help reinvigorate Lotus's tired product line (the Elan and the Europe had both been around for years and were being further degraded in resale value because of encroachment from aftermarket-built kit versions).
By 1976 the production version arrived—looking thrillingly like the original concept, a rarity especially in that era for automakers. The Italian designer Giorgetto Giugiaro (of Maserati Ghibli, DeLorean, BMW M1, and De Tomaso Mangusta fame) created the Esprit body style; it's widely considered the purest expression of the particular sharp wedge style that crystallized during the 1970s. (See also the Lancia Stratos and Ferrari Modulo.) It's also undoubtedly the least expensive of the lot to buy and own.
A 1979 Lotus Esprit Series 2 in downtown Los Angeles.Photographer: Hannah Elliott/Bloomberg
Inside, the cockpit came with two seats set so low you could tumble right in and a dashboard curved around the driver on either side, like a console that a filmmaker in the '70s would imagine to be a spaceship of the future. There's not much head, shoulder, or leg space. There's virtually no visibility from the driver's seat out the rear side and back windows, though some variants now include a clear cover over the back so you can see the engine without popping the hatch.
Lotus engineers added a 2.0-liter, four-cylinder engine "under the hood" as it were, though in actuality the engine was placed to the rear middle of the car, set just behind its only two seats. It came with a short-shifting five-speed manual transmission. Optimistic readings of the power output came in around 150 horsepower.
The car weighs 2,200 pounds, so that amount of power is enough to get it up to decent speed, and it excels around corners. Overall, the nimble handling and light ride (if not its pure power) match its polygonal good looks. It handles hills and winding roads with the grace of a skier. In good working order, its four cylinders make a signature warbling engine sound unlike anything else. Anyway, by 1980, with the hope of making the car's performance match its stunning appearance, Lotus added a bigger engine and a turbocharger; later models had V-8s with 500 horsepower
The 1976 Lotus Esprit coupe used in The Spy Who Loved Me. The vehicle is one of two Lotuses driven in the film by Roger Moore'Ěs James Bond character. It turns into an amphibious car for the movie, driven both on land and underwater.Photographer: LEON NEAL/AFP
"The Esprit is one of the ultimates in general," Auerbach says. He recently bought an Esprit Sport 350 from 1999. "That was the secret handshake of, 'I'm somebody who really does like to drive my cars.'"
Do It Right
If you're tempted to jump on board the Lotus Express, focus on the earlier years (1976-81)
if you want the highest possible return on your investment, and buy the best example of one you can possibly afford. The best bang for the buck is probably an early Series 2, which likely won't reach the peak prices of a Series 1 but will cost less to buy in the first place.
Have a trusted mechanic inspect the tubes, which are known to crack, and steering racks, which have a reputation of wearing out early. Beware of aftermarket additions and modifications, which were popular for Lotus owners. Mileage on the engine is not as important a consideration as a regular and careful maintenance history, the quality of the build, and the absence of rust and collision repairs.
A 1979 Lotus Esprit Series 2 on California's Highway 2.Photographer: Magnus Walker
Recent sales have seen wild swings, from $26,400 for a white 1979 Lotus Esprit S2 in good condition at Worldwide Auctioneers to $106,400 for an orange, unrestored-but-collector-grade Esprit S1 sold by RM Sotheby's, both in August of this year. (At RM Auctions' sale in 2013 in London, a 1978 Lotus Esprit Submarine sold for $962,839.) Then there are those listed online, which generally run from $25,000 to $55,000 for examples in good and fair condition.
Of course, "good" and "fair" condition should be taken with rather wide parameters of definition when it comes to the Lotus Esprit. Purchasing a "running, driving" Series 2 could mean the car starts and hits second gear but the windows don't work and fourth gear wobbles like a sick bird.
Not that it's always the case. Not by a long shot.
Van Der Rhoer has perhaps the most apropos advice for those hoping to take the plunge: "The secret to keeping any exotic for a long time is in finding a good mechanic, following the service intervals, avoiding potholes—and steering clear of a divorce."