My Lotus Esprit...
...couldn’t complete a journey without breaking
May 2020 by Andrew Frankel for www.goodwood.com
When I was a kid, I had a thing for the Lotus Esprit. Probably had something to do with The Spy Who Loved Me coming out when I was 12 years old. And it never left me.
The Lotus Esprit’s rear overhang was much shortened with modified rear bodywork, and a spaceframe chassis underneath to accommodate the Rover-derived 3.9-litre engine and Hewland DG300 gearbox. Bodywork at the front was changed, too, with no shortage of louvres adding to the car’s purposeful look. It’s slightly rough and ready, but suits its intended purpose perfectly.
So when I was in my early 20s and just before I became a motoring journalist, I bought one. How? Because I was working in the City and had inherited a bit of money too. And if anything was going to cure me of my Esprit addiction, that car would have done it. It was a black 1981 Series 3, with fat silver and gold BBS wheels but without a turbocharger bolted to the side of its 2.2-litre twin cam engine.
It was only five years old when I got it, and had covered fewer than 30,000 miles but, oh my goodness, it was a disaster. It is the literal truth that it never did a single journey of any material distance without something going wrong. Sometimes it would be trivial – a pop up headlight unit would just randomly start winking at passers-by – at others it would be ‘park-it-now-and-call-the-AA’ serious. If buying it didn’t near enough ruin me, then running it and sheepishly selling it back to the same bloke I’d bought it from for a pittance certainly did.
But it didn’t stop me loving the Esprit. In fact I loved it even more. Because in the right moment, on the right road, when it was in the right mood it did stuff no other car I knew could do. I learned so much from that car, about how steering should feel, what true poise really is and that Morris Marina doorhandles don’t matter a damn when attached to a car as transfixingly beautiful as this.
I’ve probably driven a couple of dozen since, maybe more. And whether it was a relatively humble stock Peter Stevens X180 or a rare and sublime Sport 300, every one of them felt special. Yes they were cramped, poorly put together (though post 1993 cars built with GM money were considerably better), difficult to see out of and latterly rarely as good a package as the equivalent Ferrari, they always found their way into my heart. And they always will.
Besides, compared to the Ferraris of the day, Esprits are stunning value now. Where you might pay £80-£90,000 for a late 1980s Ferrari 328GTB, you’ll pay £20-£30,000 for a good Esprit of the same era. And while the Ferrari will have a far better interior and make a much nicer noise, it’ll probably be slower than the Lotus both in a straight line and through the corners, and should you happen to come across the limit, I know which one I’d rather be in, and it doesn’t have a horse on its nose.
So which are the best Esprits? Original Giugiaro S1s are probably the most cool with their Wolfrace wheels and 007 connections, but they are rare and fearsomely expensive – around £75,000 if you can find a nice one. An S2 is a better car all round for about a third of the money, especially if it’s one of the very rare (88 cars) S2.2 models with the 2.2-litre engine. I actually chose an S3 over a Turbo not just because it was cheaper to buy and insure, but also because the motor in those early Turbo models was not exactly sophisticated in the way it delivered its power.
I’d say the least desirable cars are the early X180 models – they weren’t as striking in appearance as the originals and insufficiently different under the skin. The 264bhp chargecooled SE was bloody fast though, but also for some reason the least comfortable Esprit I’ve driven.
I think the smart money goes for an S4 or, if at all possible, an S4S. These were cars built under the patronage of General Motors and it shows not just in the quality of the construction, but the quality of the parts used too. Of course everyone wants a Sport 300 but with just 64 cars built and sizeable legend behind it, prices have moved into six figure territory, on the rare occasion one comes up.
The V8s are obviously mightily punchy, but the motor – the last designed in house at Lotus – is surprisingly bland and was originally not without its reliability issues.
As for the best to buy, two cars spring most readily. One is the GT3, which was like a junior Sport 300: less powerful but light, lithe, wonderful to drive and with fewer than 200 examples made, rarer than a Ferrari 288GTO. But I’d probably go for an S4S, which wasn’t far removed from a production version of the Sport 300 with the same engine but, like the GT3, available for not much more than £30,000.
When Lotus launches the forthcoming all-new Esprit next year with its hybridised V6 motor, the old one is going to be thrust back into the spotlight in a way it has not enjoyed since production ceased 16 years ago. With the market on its knees, and few vendors able to ignore a sporting bid, it might be quite a good time to tuck one away.