Serial Lotus owner and restorer
Matthew Oxley talks Esprit
An owner's and restorer's perspective, from Matthew Oxley
WRITTEN BY Matthew Oxley / August 2021
Lotus cars have always been a passion of mine since the first time I saw my dad’s S1 Elan when I was just 5 years old, and of course like many men my age the passion reignited whilst watching The Spy Who Loved Me in 1977.
Over the years I have been fortunate enough to own many Lotus’ including S3 and S4 Elans, Elan Sprint, Elan +2, Twin cam Europa, S1 Esprit, S2 Esprit and S2.2 Esprit. Many of my early cars were barn finds and it has taken a lot of hard work to bring them back to life. Whilst I enjoyed working on these cars, my real love was for the early Esprits, so the real jewel in the crown for me was purchasing my first Lotus Esprit S1 for just £200. The car had been sitting in a barn for 20 years, and in that time had become home to the farm’s resident vermin. It is ten years since I restored it and, quite simply, this car was turned from total trash into my favourite car – so much so that I have since bought four more S1s and an S2.2!
I love restoring early Esprits, stripping them down to every last nut and bolt and rebuilding them as close to the original specification as possible, gives me a great sense of achievement. The work is especially rewarding knowing that I am helping to preserve the few that are left and bring them back to life. Lotus made only 718 S1s, 1,060 S2s and 88 S2.2s worldwide from 1976 to 1981. It is estimated that there are only 50 or so left in the UK. The early Lotus Esprits are fantastic cars to own and drive. The looks are sharp and aggressive but yet somehow classic, streamlined and beautiful. The interior has a cool retro seventies look that makes you smile, and when you’re in the driver’s seat the sleek wraparound instrument binnacle makes you feel like a you’re in a fighter plane cockpit about to take off. When the engine fires up, the real joy begins – the car pulls eagerly though the gears (it is the best rear-engined car gearchange I have ever encountered) and enjoys the higher revs. Even at high speed, the car is very stable – how on earth they got the aero so right in the early 1970s is beyond me.
But it’s in the corners where the car really comes alive, Lotus handling and steering is legendary, and in the Esprit the balance is perfect and changing direction is just an effortless, almost telepathic move. At the limit the car understeers slightly to begin with, progressing into gentle oversteer as you apply more power. Ease off the throttle and the back end tucks back into line – all very predictable and intuitive. The car was ahead of its time, at speed it is planted and the chassis comes alive in the bends, it feels balanced all the way to and beyond the limit. The higher-powered cars tend to be a little friskier in the wet but without all the modern nanny driver aids it just takes a little restraint to keep it all together. I have done a few trackdays in a 4-cylinder Esprit Turbo and a V8 and, even in the wet, you quickly come to understand how the cars behave and they are very chuckable once your confidence grows. In fact, my 1989 Esprit Turbo was quite competitive when it was very wet and some drivers of Exiges and Elises commented that, “It went very well for an old thing” (I presume they meant the car…). The icing on the cake? You have all this in the luxury cabin of Lotus’s flagship model which cossets you and makes you instantly feel special and very “At home”.
Any Esprit has a real wow factor, this is evident by the amount of people that smile and point at my S1 when I drive past – I have even seen teenagers look up from their phones! There are always crowds around my cars at shows with people asking questions and if they can sit inside. In an Esprit, it is the journey that is the thrill – not the destination, although it’s best to avoid speed humps! On arrival, it’s very rewarding to have people tell you how great your car looks, assuming you can find a place to park in the stupidly narrow spaces we have nowadays.
The Esprit, throughout its 28 year production life, delivered supercar styling and performance but for half the money of the equivalent Ferrari or Porsche. Owners had to put up with dubious build quality, poor taste jokes and jibes about cars built by Norfolk turnip farmers and cars which were sometimes unreliable. However, in practice, a well-maintained Esprit is a rewarding-to-own and beautifully balanced classic GT sports car with performance to match its much more costly competitors of the time. Its presence on the road is unquestionable and for many years the car was hailed for delivering incredible performance from only a 4-cylinder engine, finally being out-gunned latterly by the V8. Having said that, the 4 cylinder cars had many fans who preferred the lighter car’s handling and performance characteristics to the V8.
The Esprit became the sports car of choice for James Bond and also starred in Basic Instinct, Pretty Woman and many more films – not bad for a bunch of turnip farmers!