Licenced to Thrill
With supercar credentials at an affordable price,
Carlin Gerbich reckons you should drive a Lotus Esprit
Classics, April 2004
When we drew up this list of dribbly dream machines, we'd listed the Ferrari 308 as a possible contender. The Lamborghini Contach was there too, but then we remembered that the Lotus Esprit beat both on price and the fact they weren't Italian. Not that Italy turns out trite. Both the Lambo and Fezza are great cars, it's just that the Lotus is a similar shape, is cheaper, is just as reliable and is, most importantly, British.
It also had three considerable revamps during its 16-year production run and, true to Lotus form, loads of different trim and power plant options. By the time design guru Peter Stevens had finished with it, the Esprit was a truly inspiring supercar. Giugiaro's original styling for the Type 79 perfect for the angular seventies emerged from fairly drastic late eighties cosmetic and structural surgery a leaner, more taut and more aerodynamic package.
Some argue it was James Bond that put the original Esprit on the international stage with the release of The Spy Who Loved Me in 1977. The car had drawn international admiration when it was unveiled at the 1972 Turin Motor show but it was four years later that the first ones rolled off the production line. A year later, when Roger Moore 'Duke'd' his pre-production one off the end of a Sardinian pier and flicked a switch to convert it in to a submarine, it opened a few eyes. So too did the turbo-driven Type 82 which followed three years later in time for the filming of For Your Eyes Only, While Lotus never needed Hollywood recognition to vindicate its road car design, the Esprit's enduring success in America certainly owed something to the two Bond movies. In fact, America's love affair with the car continued well after production ceased for UK and European markets.
Kudos came from Lotus' success on the race track. With seven F1 manufacturers titles and six drivers ones not to mention shrewd involvement in other projects, like the earlier Cortina and Talbot Sunbeam the Norfolk company's expertise in development couldn't fail to infatuate the public.
The ultimate incarnation of the Classic Lotus was the Stevens-penned Type 82 or Esprit Turbo SE, released in 1986 (actually 1989, LEW). It looked as though Stevens had run the car through a giant sanding machine to knock back the hard edges, then attacked the bodywork with an arsenal of industrial power tools to create new channels to smooth airflow over and though the car. It looked more like a competitor to the Ferrari 328 GTS and, with a turbocharged 2.2-litre four pot-producing 265bhp (actually 264bhp, LEW) (220bhp per tonne), it finally had performance it had long needed.
Our test car, the even curvier GT3, had a smaller engine that squirted 240bhp to its rear wheels but on a wet and cold stretch of Sussex scenery, it was enough for a little fun. The GT3 may lack the second back of cylinders and second turbo of the 32-valve V8 Esprit 350 (Not sure why they've quoted 350!, LEW), with more power per ton than the Nissan Skyline R34, it's not slouch.
Damp roads plus eight and a half inch wide rear tyres make cornering on the limit interesting but once you're dialled in to the way the car plants its power, it's one of the most engaging and intoxicating cars you'll ever drive. It's not a car that can be driven on the limit easily, and it does take a while to get comfortable with the car's dynamics. It's due, in part, to the mid-engine that demands you drive through bends to keep weight over the rear axle rather than brake in to the apex and then bury your right foot.
The car doesn't snap oversteer off throttle as I'd expected with the loud pedal or lift off in a bend. Grip is generally good, and the front end will tend to let go before the back does, so there's a bit of warning through the steering wheel before things get tricky.
You need a fine blend of aggression, patience and finesse to get the best out of the Esprit on the limit but the car behaves will at more sedate speeds. Suspension is a little stiff for crashing through urban pot holes but it's liveable give the car's behaviour and potential on the open road. It's where the Esprit is designed to work at its best, so owning one for point to point urban commuting is like owning a lion to curb your rodent population, or using a flamethrower to light a cigarette: it's cool and it'll do the job, but it's a tad over the top.
The cockpit is a comfortable workplace. The seats are comfy despite the lack of rake adjustment, and the low seating position combined with the offset pedal arrangement gives you a real sense of race car set-up. The stubby gear lever is weighted nicely for swift, accurate shifts but the metal gear knob runs both ends of the nuclear head spectrum depending on the weather.
Forward vision is excellent which is nice, as with a top speed of 163mph and horizon zapping acceleration, it's good to see as much of it as possible. Rear vision is rubbish but that should never bother a lead-footed Lotus driver: there's very little that should trouble you on the road or track. Parking is tricky: the mirrors don't offer much scope to judge where the rear of the car ends beyond the curvy rump.
What matters most is that the car lives up to expectations. The original Esprits may have been plagued by problems and have been eclipsed by the GT3 and V8 powered cars but they still thrill with a nicely balanced chassis and smooth power delivery. The later cars are better and though they're not yet old enough to class as a classic, they're an '80s icon that will endure.