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March 2000

Right from the hurriedly-commissioned Giugiaro prototype, Lotus's approach with the Esprit has been one of constant development, sometimes to keep abreast of the opposition, but more usually out of necessity.

Even Lotus cannot say for certain how many Esprit variants it has produced: at times, the Esprit has seemingly gained a redesigned interior by the week.

But however much the details change, in more than 25 years the basic concept has remained remarkably constant. Outlined below are some of the landmark models.

1972: Italdesign concept
Chapman commissions a radical design that would spearhead Lotus' fleet throughout the Seventies, and Giugiaro builds it in double-quick time for the 1972 Turin Show. By the 1973 Geneva Show, the design is revised to remove the bonnet louvres and single-piece tilting rear section. As a concession to the manufacturing process, the design also inherits a ridge halfway up the flanks to disguise where the bodyshell has to be made in two halves and bonded together.
1975: Esprit S1
The long-awaited first production Esprit is launched at the Paris Show, three years after the first designs appear in public. Technical hitches mean that the first cars don't reach customers until the summer of 1976, and it's a credit to Giugiaro's design skill that the production version still looks bang up to date after a four-year gestation. The mid-mounted 1973cc all-aluminium engine is technically advanced. Poor quality control and reliability problems don't endear it to many early buyers.

1977: The Spy Who Love Me
While its shaky reputation with customers did little for the Esprit S1, an appearance as James Bond's latest mode of transport most certainly does. The Esprit's rakish styling — plus its uncanny ability to sprout fins and turn submarine — make it one of the most memorable Bond cars ever. Cynical owners of real Lotuses are left wondering how Q managed to eradicate all the leaks, screen demisting problems and constant electrical failures from the rocket-firing Bondmobile.

1978: Esprit S2
After just two years on sale and less the 1000 purchases, Lotus introduces the first of many Esprit revamps. Its extensive test team (also known as its customers) demanded improved ventilation, plus better reliability and engine access. The S2 delivers this, and also offers a better quality of interior trim. Biggest visual differences from the S1 are Rover SD1 rear lights and Lotus' own wheel design to replace the Wolfrace alloys in a bid to shake off Lotus' persistent kit car image.

1978: Esprit World Champion
When Mario Andretti wins the 1978 F1 World Championship in the ground-effect 79, Lotus launches a special commemorative S2. Mechanically identical to a standard S2, it features the year's coolest colours — the GP cars' black and gold John Player Special livery, including 'World Champion' written on the flanks, a gold garland round the nose badge, gold seat cloth and even a gold windscreen surround. Lotus builds 100 for each market (UK, USA and rest-of-the-world), and each car bears its commemorative edition number next to the fuel filler.

1980: Esprit 2.2
This stop-gap model is current for just 13 months. Although visually identical to the outgoing S2, this car introduces the larger capacity 2178cc engine as used concurrently in the Elite and Eclat, and also becomes the first Esprit to benefit from full chassis galvanisation. Thankfully, it's also the last of the Esprits to suffer pronounced resonance problems before the chassis and rear suspension are substantially modified. One of the rarest Esprits too — Lotus claims to have built 88, but independent historians have put the true figure as low as 46.

1980: Essex Turbo
The first examples of Lotus' brave new model wear the gaudy colours of Lotus' latest GP sponsor, Essex Petroleum. The chassis is developed to accommodate revised rear suspension with a separate top link, but of far more significance is the Garrett AiResearch turbocharger blowing through twin Dell'Orto carburettors, raising power from 160bhp to 210bhp. The turbo saves on the expense of developing another bigger engine to keep the Lotus abreast of ever-quickening competitors.

1981: Esprit S3
The Essex Turbo's revised suspension is so much smoother and quieter than the original that the new chassis is adopted by the normally-aspirated car too. The front suspension mountings are firmed up to make the ride and handling even better. The interior makes greater use of leather, while the body shape remains basically the same as the S2, but for a slightly reworked front bumper and valance. The 160bhp engine remains, but is at last capable of attaining the long-claimed 135mph.

1981: Turbo Esprit
Inevitably, the turbo continues to spearhead Lotus' sales as a full production car long after the Essex special edition's popularity has run its course. The body shape and trim levels correspond to the normally-aspirated S3 except for the tell-tale side spoilers with NACA ducts and bold 'Turbo' lettering on the flanks. Performance is in a different league from the standard car; even the fastest supercars of the day struggle to match its 152mph top speed and a 0-60mph time of 5.6 seconds.

1986: Turbo Esprit HC
The incessant search for extra power leads Lotus in incorporate bigger carburettors and a higher compression ratio on what is to become the last 'original shape' Esprit. Power climbs to 215bhp, and torque is hiked even more radically to an impressive 220lb ft at 4250rpm. Apart from an additional 'HC' on the customary side transfers, the main difference from the other Esprits is the change from black to body colour for the bumpers, hinting at the smoother look that the Esprit is shortly to develop.

1987: Esprit Turbo
A year of reversals. The words in the name swap around, and Giugiaro's sharp lines are rounded and musclarised by a new design by Peter Stevens. Engines remain unchanged, but the venerable Citroen SM transaxle finally gives way to a modern Renault 25 unit. The normally-aspirated car is facelifted too, differing from the Turbo only in its simpler rear valance with two grills rather than a giant air exit. In 1989, emissions laws turn the carburettored Turbo into the 264bhp fuel-injected Turbo SE.

1993: Esprit S4
Another new look for the ageless Esprit, this time even smoother than before, with tweaks including a curvier front air intake and side scoops, different wheels, slim indicators from the Elan and a reposition rear spoiler. The suspension is improved too, giving the best handling yet for the Esprit at the cost of a slightly harder ride. Power steering becomes standard across the range, but the engine remains untouched in its 264bhp fuel-injected the turbocharged form.

1993: Esprit Sport 300
Following the success of the SE-based 335bhp X180R racer of 1992, Lotus also introduces the Esprit Sport 300, which is essentially a roadgoing version of the race car. The car is stripped out and extensively lightened, and a highly-tuned engine pumps out all of 302bhp. Huge wheels under extended arches and a monster spoiler hint at its 162mph top speed and 4.5 second 0-60mph time. This is almost the last of the four-cylinder turbo line, but in 1996 another stripped-out Esprit is launched, this time the bargain 240bhp GT3 aimed at first-time Esprit buyers.

1996: Esprit V8
Although it had been Lotus' intention to make a V8 Esprit right from Giugiaro's first designs, it takes nearly 30 years for the dream to become reality, Its 3506cc twin-turbo engine delivers 350bhp and is fearfully quick, but the engine sounds disappointingly flat and the clutch is heavy. Matters are improved in 1998 with new two-plate clutch for less petal effort and a quicker gearshift. This is accompanied by yet another plush interior redesign, but purists rave most about the new Esprit V8-GT, which combines V8 power with the stripped-out economy of the GT3.

There are errors in this piece, but I've left them in, reproducing the Article as it was Published


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