mission: to stock up on as much duty-free food and booze
The catch: it must be done on the thinnest of shoestring budgets.
The car: that most reassuringly inexpensive of supercars, the Lotus Esprit GT£
Top Gear February 1997
Story: Angus Frazer, Photography: Philip Lee Harvey
The post-Christmas blues were biting and there wasn't even a can of beer left in the house. I needed a break, but I was completely broke. If I was going to get away for a couple of days, have a good time and maybe restock the fridge in the process, it was going to have to be done cheaply. Very cheaply. So why then the bright orange Lotus Esprit?
Well, the new Esprit GT3 only costs £39,915. And that, for a supercar, is cheap. TVR and Marcos aside, nobody is producing cheap, affordable supercars anymore. The Renault Alpine, the Mazda RX-7 and the Porsche 968 are all gone and you can forget about 911s unless you've 60 grand to spare.
For anyone after an affordable, mid-engined supercar with all the trimmings of prestige badge, racing history and British-built heritage, the Esprit GT3 is the only thing that fits the bill. It's not perfect though, for its engine isn't the 349bhp V8 fitted to the range-topping Esprit. The GT3 makes do with a more humble, recently introduced, two-litre four-cylinder turbo. But with 240bhp and a claimed 0-60mph of 5.1 seconds, I was sure I could have some good cheap fun.
The Daily Mail had just the ticket France and back with P&O for a pound. It cost an extra tenner to take the car, but it was still cheap. It was only when I finally read the small print, sitting at Dover waiting to board the ferry at seven am on Thursday morning, that I discovered the offer was valid for a day return only.
It cost another £50 for a Friday night return, but never mind, there were wonderful savings to be made in the ship's duty-free, already crammed with shoppers. Trying to shoulder my way through, whilst not tripping over the ranks of little old lady tartan shopping trolleys at half seven in the morning, was bad. The floor rolling about under my feet was worse. But the thought of actually buying beer and lugging it around was too much. I gave up.
Outside is the lounge, young men in shell-suits struggled with the mathematical complexities of what to do if one had bought three crates of Stella Artois, only to find that no more than two would fit into one's little old lady tartan shopping trolley. It took a while but then the solution dawned. It was so simple. Just drink the third crate. I retreated amid a cracking, hissing barrage of lager fizz, in search of breakfast.
The Burgundy Restaurant looked like the type of place a well-heeled hungry supercar driver might enjoy a pampered breakfast. The menu in the window whispered seductively, "Come on, it'll only be a tenner. Stick it on your credit card, They can't have those electronic checking machines on a ship. They'll never know your card's over the limit." With gritted teeth, I joined the self-service restaurant queue, shuffled my tray along and ordered beans on toast and a cup of tea for £1.95 cash.
Two minutes up the road from Calais and the previous night's crawl across a wet London with the screen misting up and my foot tiring from the heavy clutch was no more than a memory.
Clear blue skies, open roads and the Esprit was off, sailing past the other cars. Way down low there was a bit of turbo lag but once that had passed, at around 3,500rpm, the engine really kicked in. If felt long-legged and there was no need to rush the chrome-balled gear lever through the first three changes, but despite the almost leisurely approach, the GT3 accelerated hard. Up into fourth and fifth gears 110mph, 123, 130... and more, if you wanted it. I settled for a sensible three figure gait and let the car lollop along.
With a high speed ride equal to any Mondeo or Primera repmobile, reassuring steering and an effortless, stable, high-speed gait, the Lotus ate the miles with ridiculous ease. I mused over the possibility of a night in Cannes, or maybe Monte Carlo.
But down south my budget wouldn't buy a bed in a youth hostel, and supercar drivers, down on their luck or not, deserve something more grand. And, of course, I had shopping to do.
The nearest decent-sized blob on the map was Arras, so I guided the GT3 off the autoroute and into the old town centre. I pulled up by an impressive-looking cheese shop, where Jean-Claude Leclercq showed me around his fine cellar. Prices ranged from 6.2F (71p) for a small wedge to 462F (£53) for a cheese as big as a cartwheel. The cellar full of fromage was an impressive sight, but it sank like.... well, like a smelly cheese cellar, really. I clambered back up the steps and followed my nose to the premises of Y Delestrez, Patissier and Chocolatier.
Back in the Esprit, I worked my way through 60F (£6.90) worth of assorted confectionery whilst plotting my way to the night's accommodation a real French chateau. But one chosen from Alastair Sawday's French B&B guide, and one in which a room costs just 190F (21.86). In the photograph the chateau de Saulty, although possibly a little faded of facade, looked fantastic and enormous. There had to be a catch.
I took the small roads to the chateau, south west of Arras, and they showed up the engine's turbo lag more than the faster routes had. Coming out of a tight corner, it was crucial to be in the right gear. Get it wrong, lose too much speed and I was left with two choices change down, or wait for the lag to pass and the turbo to kick in.
But with the car in the right gear and the turbo on the boil, the Esprit flew. The roads over the flat French countryside were often long and open with good visibility, but they were also narrow and treacherously bumpy. It was never a problem in the Esprit it easily sorted out the bumps and ruts.
The brake pedal did cause a slight problem. All Esprits suffer from a narrow, cramped pedal box, and the GT3 was no exception. With big feet, you have to concentrate hard to make sure your foot is on the brake pedal alone. On top of that, there was very little feel to the pedal. It never quite felt like the ventilated Brembo discs were going to do the job, although they always did.
Lack of feel wasn't an issue with the power steering it's the best. The GT3 uses independent suspension all round with coil springs and telescopic dampers. The rear gets upper and lower transverse links, while the front gets double wishbones and an anti-roll bar. It all adds up to make the Esprit on of the most neutral, clean-handling cars there is. In fact, if it wasn't for the incredibly amount of feeling the steering gives the car could almost be accused of being too clean, too clinical.
One more corner and there was the village of Saulty. There was no catch. The chateau was superb, with modern, clean, warm, ensuite bathrooms. It's owners, Francoise et Pierre Dalles thought the orange Esprit was just the grooviest thing ever. M Dalle gave me a conducted tour of the village, waving from the passenger seat to this friends.
A fine car for posing in, the GT3. It's as '70s-looking as tartan turn-ups and the black GT3 logo down the side is exactly like Porsche's 'Carrera' on the old shape 911s. But its simple, uncluttered lines still look great, and I loved the paint that Lotus call Chrome Orange. Its sparkly metallic finish tricks you into thinking the body is metal, not composite. If you don't like orange, there's Electric Green or Saturn Silver to choose from.
There was a choice of several restaurants too, but the Dalles recommended L'Auberge De Pommera, a 20 minute drive away. There was a 75F (£8.62) menu, but I'd had no lunch so I pushed the boat out. Potage du jour, filet du boeuf au poivre and Perrier all excellent, and all mine for 133F (£14.90). But with the GT3 outside, there was no wine for me.
On returning to the chateau, M. Dalle had a bottle waiting, along with a English/French dictionary. The conversation and the wine flowed freely. By the end of the first bottle, I had clearly expressed to him that 'the vin est good' while he, in return, had left me in no doubt that 'le Louts is bon'.
Next morning, I left the chateau after a breakfast of coffee, croissants, apples and bread. The dawn came, cold grey and wet, yesterday's blue sky gone. So I popped up the Esprit's big headlamps.
The rain hammered against the steeply-raked windscreen. With out the sun, the countryside looked bleak, and in the wet, the Lotus had a more aggressive streak to it. Hit the throttle too soon out of a low-speed corner and the rear tyres fought for freedom. The only traction control was my right foot.
But at least the cabin was warm, cosy and comfortable. My doubts about the comfort of the one-piece racing seats had proved unfounded. But the screen misted easily in the murky weather.
The mighty orange machine and I sliced our was across the countryside stopping in Arleus for garlic at 6F from 80-year-old grandmére Renee Ledent. Then north to Douai for snails and paté. But they wouldn't let me see where they farmed the snails so I bought the cheapest paté at 32F and kept going.
The real find came in the village of Hordain La Choulette brewery. Half a mouthful, just to tast it, and I knew I had found the Holy Grail at just 72F (£8.28) for six massive 75cl bottles.
I trickled into customs with a full boot but a clear conscience, and was waved through unhindered. After my French adventure, i'd decided that the Lotus Esprit GT3 definitely qualified as a supercar. OK, maybe not the quickest, the most modern or the most refined, but definitely the most affordable.
Heading out of Dover, I grinned as the GT3 lashed past the long line of traffic lumbering uphill. I knew they were all thinking, 'Rich bastard', But they were wrong. I was just in a hurry to put my beer in the fridge.
FACT FILE Model two-door sports coupé Engine two-litre four-cylinder 16v turbo, 240bhp, mid-mounted Performance 0-60mph 5.1 secs, 163mph Gearbox five-speed manual, rwd Suspension (f) ind double wishbones Suspension (r) ind twin transverse links Brakes ventilated discs with anti-lock On sale in the UK now Price £39,195 Rivals Toyota Supra, TVR Cerbera Marcos LM500, BMW M3