The £10k Supercar
Lotus Esprit Turbo
The Lotus Esprit is the forbidden fruit of supercars. Spectacular styling,
fantastic handling and stunning performance tempt at silly prices,
but do you dare take the chance?
Practical Performance Car, November 2005
words by Ed Hall, photography by John Colley
The Esprit's debut as Bond's wheels in The Spy Who Loved Me, sent the world weak at it's knees. The door handles may have been borrowed from an Allegro, but the Esprit looked like it came from a different planet. If the Esprit's looks represented a true depiction of the car's abilities, Lotus had an achievement of David and Goliath proportions on their hands. However, if this underdog was in fact a bit of a mutt, the Esprit would have taken Lotus down with it. In short, Lotus had everything to lose and everything to play for.
Luckily their aim was sharp and the Esprit hit the mark with road testers and the public alike. The combination of glamour, perfect poise and handling at the same price bracket as Fiats rather than the Ferraris they styling aped, gave it few equals.
The only criticism was that the dramatic styling and amazingly neutral handling demanded more than the 160bhp the naturally aspirated 2-litre four-pot could deliver. So in 1980 Lotus brought out a 2.2-litre and more importantly, discovered the joys of turbocharging, giving rise to the garishly liveried, 210bhp Essex Turbo.
Now with the power aplenty and 0-60 times creeping towards five seconds, the Esprit looked and went like every bit the supercar a Ferrari was, yet sill at a fraction of the price. With power outputs climbing most years and successful 1987 Peter Stevens restyle refreshing the styling and broadening its appeal, it's not difficult to understand why over 10,000 cars found owners over its amazing 25 year lifespan.
Today again Esprits are better value than ever, but the spectre of unreliability that's always haunted Lotus looms larger than ever. If there was one car that bolstered people's worries about the solidity of Lotus' construction, this was it. Make no mistake, the decision to buy an Esprit is one that can only come from the heart, buy buy one without your head, and your heart will be as gutted as your bank balance.
Wheels and Tyres
The S1 Esprit was shod with funky Wolfrace slot mags, the S2 Esprits used Speedlines or lattice BBS rims, before the Stevens restyle changed to a more anonymous multi-spoke. Pre-Stevens wheels are very tricky to find and prone to rim corrosion as well as kerbing, so check thoroughly.
Pirelli P600s are all that's available in the original size of 235/60/15, or 245/50/16 in the case of the SE. Esprit Engineering reckon swapping to a 245/55/15 alters the gearing only very slightly and allows a much greater choice of rubber.
Because of the nature of the beasts, Esprits are very rarely used every day. This doesn't bode well for the brakes, leading to sticking calipers, particularly on anything pre 87. After this date, Lotus' deal with Toyota meant Toyota calipers on the Esprit. At the same time the inboard discs at the rear were move outboard. check for hot wheels after a short test drive to see if any of the calipers need rebuilding.
Handbrakes also seize with lack of use and on S1 and S2 cars the easily knocked lever can break its fragile mountings.
On the road the temperature gauage should sit between 80 and 90°. Make sure the fans cut in when stationary as, like the rad itself, they're vulnerable to corrosion and neglect. Again, this is where seldom driven cars suffer. Aluminium coolant pipes run the length of the car and at the exposed front end they're starting to rot through, but aren't expensive at £30 a piece.
The Esprit's French connection is the gearbox. Either the Citroen/Maserati C35 pre 87, or the Renault gearbox thereafter. The C35 is strong enough though parts are beginning to become scarce. Its primary cause of grief is water ingress ruining the bearings because water that collects on the engine cover runs off directly into the breather. There's little than can be done about this other than avoiding getting it wet and changing the oil regularly, but if the box is shagged expect to pay £500-1500 for a secondhand replacement, bearing in mind they differ between turbo and non-turbo by the positioning of the release fork. Expect a few oil leaks, particularly from the back, and only worry if they start to get serious.
The later gearbox is actually based on that from the Renault Traffic with different ratios. Everything is easily available and they're up to the job – Esprit Engineering have only had to change one.
The biggest concerns are the driveshaft oil seals, though they aren't dear or too complicated to change. If you're one of the unlucky ones, expect to pay around £800 for a replacement gearbox.
Body and Chassis
Ever since the Elan days, Lotus have never been well renowned for having a long-lasting chassis, but the rot worries were silenced forever in 1981 with the adoption of a galvanised chassis. That said, check the chassis tube that runs pass the exhaust manifold on turbocharged cars as the heat from the turbo burns off the coating and the welding repair is an engine out job. Chassis damage from an accident is not very common in the experience of Esprit Engineering, but obviously check.
What's more likely is broken chassis to body mounts at the rear, causing a loose feel to the back end. Inexperienced garages often leave out the chassis brace strut that prevents this.
Stress cracking of the bodywork is not usually a problem, particularly since Lotus introduced their Vacuum Assisted Resin Injection process in 87. If cracks are present, previous damage is normally the cause. Repair sections of the body come in quarters, and while the outward appearance will often disguise a repair, look under the spare wheel for a join. Don't dismiss a car for having been repaired, but it's in these less obvious places where the quality of the work can be determined. Equally, a cheap respray won't last and a quality job costs over £2k.
As anyone familiar with the Triumph TR7 will know, 70s British cars with pop-up headlamps can prove a right pain, and as that's where Lotus pinched their motors from, don't expect any better from the Esprit. Figure in bowls that hold water rotting out the headlamps and the pivot pins, and you've often got two days work and £300 worth of parts just to be able to drive at night again.
This is why you buy an Esprit and as such needs to be spot on. Steering rack wear is very common on non-PAS cars which will cost £175 plus £150 labour. Otherwise, listen for creaking from the rear suspension that's often put down to knackered dampers when it fact the bush has collapsed between the lower arm and the upright.
There's a knack to replacement as it's very easy to crack the aluminium upright in the process. If the dampers do feel as if they've had it, budget on £100 a corner.
Pre 86, Lotus used trunions as the bottom link of the front suspension, just like the 60s Elan. Crucially, these need lubricating with EP80 oil as grease will destory them. This is despite them being fitted with grease nipples. Latterly, Lotus opted for more reliable ball joints that cost around £15 a piece.
Despite lacking a few cylinders compared with its more exotic rivals, the Lotus all-alloy twin-cam four can throw tantrums to match the best of them, especially in turbo form. That said, a well maintained example should see well over 100k miles between rebuilds, so evidence of this is what you need. Cambelts have to be changed every three years or 30k miles, some say even sooner, because failure is terminal for the engine.
This doesn't require the engine to be removed and Esprit Engineering charge £265 – small change compared with the £5k for a rebuild. Oil changes should be every 3k and just as important is the use of the correct Lotus oil filter that has an anti-drain valve to ensure there's oil at the bearings on start-up. This only costs £12, so there's no excuse. Due to the specialist nature of the cars it's not unusual to find plenty of owners on the logbook and therefore imcomplete service history, so recent bills from well-reputed marque expects is the best you can expect.
Whether turbocharged or not, listen for bearing rumble and check for 3.5bar at idle. Though a small amount of smoke will be inevitable on older cars, it shouldn't be excessive and don't confuse blue smoke from the exhaust with oil burning off the exhaust manifold from the leaking cam covers. Smoke on start up from a naturally aspirated car will almost definitely be valve guides, whereas from a turbocharged car it is nearly always the turbo's seals.
A head rebuild costs around £300 and a reconditioned Garrett turbo around £450-500, though they're for the most part very reliable. Just remember that fitting one is an absolute nightmare and can cost from £400 to £1500 since the manifold studs are invariably seized, sometimes requiring the head or even the entire engine to be removed. Non-turbo cars aren't free of this particular joy either as their manilfolds crack for a pastime. It's difficult to see the entire condition of the manifold without the use of a lift, so listen carefully for chuffing. The manifold alone is £600.
The biggest killer of turbocharged pre-87 engines is over-boosting. This is a twofold problem caused primarily by the Garrett wastegate seizing through rust and secondly because prior to 87 the relatively weak cast pistons and iron liners used were already at their strength limit. Even without wastegate seizure the ring lands of the pistons break up, grenading the engine. Add up to 1..5 bar of uncontrolled turbo boost and it's a recipe for disaster.
Accelerate hard in second gear and make sure the needle of the boost gauge doesn't exceed half way on the dial. New wastegates aren't available so repair is the only option. Post 87 engines benefit from much tougher forged pistons and Nicasil coated aluminium liners which will take higher than standard boost levels and are a must for a rebuilt engine despite their considerable price. Esprit Engineering has found a source for them that brings their cost down to £1600.
Until 1989, fuelling for both variants was achieved through twin side-draught Dellortos, 40mm in the case of the Turbo and 45mm otherwise. They very rarely need changing other than when the mixture screw has corroded solid into the housing. In which case, they're £250 each. After 1990, Lotus switched to a General Motors Delco fuel injection that is thankfully very reliable, be can take some time to get used to the transition between the idle and off-idle map. It's not exactly smooth and makes the car easy to stall.
The Esprit's cockpit runs the fine line between the futuristic and the downright bizarre, particularly on the earlier cars, but is an exciting place to be nonetheless. Electrically they fare better than reputation would have you believe with bad earths being a usual culprits. But the trim does its best to fall apart around you.
Lotus, as if by some sort of admission to their cars' frailities, offer a re-trim service, but the full works costs £2.5k. Even cars as tidy as the example pictured have had this done, so good original trim us unlikely on anything but a museum piece. Beware of freshly painted leather disguising a tatty interior.
Thanks to: Rob Shepard for bring along his immaculate SE. Esprit Engineering – 01725 514449, www.espritengineering.co.uk