So farewell then, Lotus Esprit
As the last Esprit leaves the Lotus Factory,
Peter Dron recalls conducting the very first road test in 1977
Telegraph Nation Newspaper, February 2004
Friday, February 20, 2004: the last Esprit rolls off Lotus's production line at Hethel, Norfolk. So farewell then, Lotus Esprit. Few though, on seeing Giugiaro's dramatic and remarkably wide, wedge-shaped concept car at the 1972 Turin Motor Show, that it could be developed into a production mode. Nobody can have imagined a run exceeding 10,500 units over more than 30 years.
Flashback to a gloomy Monday in Sutton, Surrey House, in the offices of Motor magazine, a nervous road tester waits for a Lotus Esprit test car to arrive. And the more he waits, the more it doesn't arrive. . .
I was that tester, and that was probably the day my hair began to accelerate towards terminal greyness. At 4pm, I called Lotus's press office. "Where's the car, Don?" Pause. . . "Er, I didn't want to call you until I had positive news. . ."
"We need the car, Don. You know it's on next week's cover . . ."
Editor Roger Bell had committed us to having 'EXCLUSIVE: LOTUS ESPRIT TESTED', or some such boast, on the following week's issue of what was then Britain's issue of what was then Britain's best-selling motoring magazine. It was my job to make sure it happened. That meant that the Lotus had to be taken to MIRA (the Motor Industry Research Association's test track, near Nuneaton) and put through all the hoops of testing; acceleration from standstill, maximum speed, steady-speed fuel consumption, braking performance and so on. The car would be weighted and measurements taken of its turning circle, clutch-pedal movement and weighting, speedometer accuracy and boot volume (using the world's most battered but least-travelled set of Revelation suitcases). Chief photographer Maurice Rowe also, somehow, had to make time for all the 'action' and 'detail' shots (the cover photograph having already gone to press). That was Tuesday's plan.
On Wednesday, the six-page 'Star Test' (so called because each aspect of the car performance, handling, ride comfort, brakes etc was awarded stars, from one for bad to five for excellent) would be written, by me. But Motor's road tests were a collective effort. On Thursday, by which time as many of the testing staff as possible would have driven the car, the first draft would be read by the two ayatollahs, technical editor Anthony Curits and road text editor Rex Greenslade. Customarily, a long argument would follow and some changes would be made before the copy was agreed and sent to the printers. The magazine would then appear on bookstalls the following Wednesday. There was not much margin for error.
Where's the car, Don?
In the end, the Esprit arrived by trailer at MIRA early the next morning, to the relief of everyone, especially me. (Lotus always delivered its test cars by trailer; nobody ever wondered why.) The first production Esprits had been completed in spring 1976, but it was not until many months later, and after continual badgering, that the Norfolk company managed to provide a road-test car. It was not only British Leyland that used paying customers to be endurance and reliability testers in those days.
Weather conditions as recorded in the test: 'Foggy, cold, wind 0mph. Temperature 30-35F. Barometer 29-05in Hg. Surface: damp tarmac.' A typically grim day at MIRA, too damp for an attempt on the car's maximum around the triangular high-speed circuit with its three banked bends; in print we cast doubt on Lotus's suggestion of 138mph, but we estimated that 'over 130mph is probably feasible'.
However, the Mile straight was viable for acceleration tests; the slightly moist surface may even have assisted the rear-heavy Lotus to get off the line. At any rate, the figures were respectable. We could not match Lotus's fanciful claims of 0-60mph in 6.8 sec and a standing quarter mile in 15sec; we managed 7.5 sec and 16.1sec. respectively. There is a theory that Lotus, always renowned for advanced thinking, made computerised estimations of its cars' performance even before it had a computer, perhaps even before computers were invented.
While doing the first standing-start acceleration tests (generally three passes in each direction, the figures based on the mean of the best northward and southward runs) I formed the opinion that it would be possible to get 0-120mph time, again with small margin for error. A really stupid idea developed in my head that it was important to achieve this.
On the final runs, I went for it, and managed it, but only with the help of frantic cadence-braking at the end of the northward straight, which led into a very tight bend lined by wooden posts linking horizontal steel hawsers that would have cut the glass-fibre bodywork into a million shards, and probably the occupants too, before spitting whatever remained into the woods 20ft below. An engineer about that time remarked that Colin Chapman's steel backbone idea was very clever for rigidity and weight saving, but occupants should bear in mind that they were sitting outside the chassis.
My finale at MIRA was generally a quick blast around the Number Two circuit, aptly named because the corners were delineated with sand-filled oil drums; since then, someone has had the wise idea of replacing these with harmless plastic poles. As was my usual practice, in mid-bend I took my foot off the throttle abruptly, to see what happen. What happened, despite instant application of full corrective lock, was that the Esprit swapped ends and spun off violently onto the infield, missing a barrel at each end by a foot or two; from the driver's seat if felt like inches. A properly set up car does not do that.
I then drove to the office, more than 100 miles to the south, the weather becoming more miserable. I was soon evident that Lotus had failed to make the rear hatch rainproof. Water bypassed the rubber seals, dripping on to the cheap carpet behind the engine cover. Mechanical heat soon turned the water to steam, which condensed on the inside of the enormous rear window, thereby making all-round visibility even worse than in dry weather, which was poor enough. In this microclimate, the kitsch and seemingly pointless little shelves next to the rear side windows could have been used for exotic plants.
Customers who had paid £8,000, which was then almost like real money, might not have seen the joke. Some time later, at the motor show, I suggested to a Lotus engineer that the Esprit should have a rear-screen wiper. He was not amused when I explained that it should be fitted to the inside of the screen.
Back at Surrey House, still in the car, I discussed with road test editor Greenslade how the day had gone, hanging on the door grip because of the strong wind blowing around the 13-storey building. As Greenslade returned to the office, I attempted to pull the door shut, but the entire door trim came away in my hand.
Esprit buyers soon understood why a Porsche 911 was 30 per cent more expensive. Under that sodden boot carpet, a roughly hewn sheet of plywood was attached to the glass-fibre by screws (not bolts) a mixture of flat-heads, round heads, different sizes: whatever was lying around the workshop.
Thursday's feature test discussion was heated. I argued that building quality was pathetic compared with the opposition. A tone-down version of that got through, including mention of the leaking hatchback, but three stars for 'Finish' seemed unduly kind. I protested in vain at changes to my assessments of 'Handling' and 'Transmission'. I wanted to award each three stars, and, remembering those oil drums, I though even that excessively generous. Each was given a high five.
It took Lotus several years of development before such praise was deserved. The final Esprit would bear no relation to that original lash-up, and I'm rather jealous of the Yank who is adding it to his collection.
Lotus has always been a small company, yet in 1977 it was challenging Ferrari as the most successful grand prix team in history: the following year, Mario Andretti gave Lotus its sixth drivers' title and the team won its seventh constructors' title, before a long, sad slide into oblivion.
On the road car side, the original Elan and mid-engined Europa had been phased out several years before the Esprit's arrival. The theory of buccaneering Lotus founder Colin Chapman was that larger, more luxurious sports cars would lead to bigger profits. The first of these cars was the Elite, a four-seat, three-door, estate-style car, closely followed by the Eclat, a two-door coupé. The mid-engined Esprit completed this new line-up.
During the remarkable life cycle of the Esprit, apart from all the awful things that happened in the world, Chapman cunningly avoided prison by dying in 1982. Ownership of the company then passed successively through the hands of British Car Auctions, General Motors, Bugatti and now Proton. Initially built alongside the Elite and Eclat, the Esprit ended up as stablemate to the successful Elise and the Vauxhall VX220/Opel Speedster. The technically impressive but unprofitable front-wheel-drive Elan came and went during its production run.
The Esprit can be said to have kept Lotus afloat in hard times; during one trough, it was the only production model.
The ambitious Chapman had long harboured dreams of going 'upmarket'. The Esprit project began with a mid-engined concept, based on the Europa chassis and designed by Giorgetto Giugiaro (who later did the Morris Ital, but let's not be unkind), at the 1972 Turin Motor Show.
By 1975, this had developed into a production car, with a new backbone chassis and the four-cylinder, 16-valve engine that had already appeared in the Elite/Eclat, here mated to a five-speed transaxle bought in from Citroën-Maserati. Hubs and links for the front suspension came from the Opel Ascona, but the rear suspension was a Lotus speciality in which the driveshafts doubled as upper links. In those early days, it was not really the parts that were at fault, only the sum of them.
The first-generation Esprit was made between 1976 and 1978, then replaced with the S2 (1978-1980), with a new camshaft (curing vibration problems), improved cooling, wider wheels and revised interior.
In 1980, the 2,174cc Type 912 engine was introduced, with more torque. It was shortly replaced with the S3, a naturally aspirated model running alongside the new Turbo Esprit. Both of these were steadily developed for improved performance, handling and build quality.
In 1987, a complete redesign was undertaken under the direction of Peter Stevens. Various different versions of the car followed. When the S4 appeared in 1996 (actually 1993, think they meant S4s, LEW), it was available either with the final evolution of the four-cylinder Turbo (now producing a remarkable 122bhp per litre), or the twin-turbo, 3.5-litre V8, developing 350bhp.
The latter is the power unit of the final Esprit destined for 'a serial Esprit owner' in the US. Lotus itself is keeping one of the final cars.
So will there be a new Esprit?
The short answer is yes, and within two or three years if all goes to plan, though it is not yet clear whether the car will be called Esprit.
It will certainly be in the spirit of Chapman's Esprit a lightweight, innovative, high-performance, mid-engined two-seater. The chief innovation is something called VVA Versatile Vehicle Architecture, developed by Lotus's engineers with the intention of retaining the excellent qualities of the Elise's structure (lightness and rigidity) while overcoming its relative impracticality.
VVA is essentially an advanced form of platform-sharing, in which chassis elements can be used in models of different sizes and configurations (with the engine either ahead of or behind the driver, or example).
Given that Giugiaro penned the original Esprit, it would be appropriate, perhaps, for Lotus to commission his company, ItalDesign, for this car. This time, more consideration would certainly be given in the initial stages to production problems. Much depends on the success of Lotus's bold move to take the Elise into the notoriously difficult US market. The ambition is to move steadily, with an expanded range of models, towards the Hethel factory's theoretical capacity of 10,000 cars per year.