The Lotus Esprit and Eclat
Hethel secures its future with a spectacular new mid-engined
and a sportier Elite derivative
Motorsport, November 1975
Those of us with any concern for the declining British specialised car industry have been worried about the future of Lotus Cars since the company placed 100% reliance in the expensive Elite earlier this year. Not surprisingly in these fraught times registrations of this £6,493 to £7,970 2-litre car have been poor though picking up recently and the company desperately needed a second, cheaper, higher sales potential sports car to produce an economic output and profitability from the modern Hethel plant. On the Ital Design stand at the Paris Motor Show last month Colin Chapman eventually revealed his essential trump card, the mid-engined two-seater Lotus Esprit, the most exciting, attractive, series production British sports car to appear since the E-type in 1961. On performance and specification at its price of £5,844, this 138mph, 0-60mph in 6.8sec. Esprit currently has few serious sports-car rivals below the level of Porsche and Ferrari. The closest comparisons are the Lanica Beta Monte Carlo and the less futuristic, probably more expensive, AC 3000.
A further encouragement for Lotus survival should be the Eclat, a coupé version of the Elite introduced at the London Motor Show.
The Lotus Esprit
The production Esprit stems from the design exercise of the same name created by Ital Design's Giorgio Giugiaro for the 1972 Turin Show. The mechanical and chassis side of this mostly steel model was largely Twin-Cam Europa. In production form the Esprit body is glass-fibre-reinforced plastic produced in two halves, by Lotus' well protected method of low-pressure injection moulding in an identical method to that of the Elite. Like those of the Elite, the two body halves are joined together along a prominent waistline by Chief Engineer Tony Rudd's "belt and braces" method of bonding and bolted bracketry. A new, but familiar style backbone chassis carries the Elite's 160bhp version of the Lotus-designed and built, 1973cc, four-cylinder, 16-valve, twin-cam engine first produced for the Jensen-Healey. In this mid-engined application this Lotus 907 unit is positioned in-line, with its clutch to the rear, and is canted over at 45° to the horizontal on its exhaust side, as in the Elite and Jensen-Healey/Jensen GT.
Giugiaro in Turin was responsible for 'productionising' his original theme for Lotus. Apart from the change to glassfibre, which the designer had never worked with, major modifications were to decrease the rake of the screen by 3° to comply with US roll-over strength legislation and to dispense with the fully-opening rear-end in favour of a lid which is little larger than the 'big, sloping rear window. This gas-stut-supported lid, with a release in the driver's B-post, covers 7 cu. ft. of upholstered luggage space, separated from the cockpit by a shallow, almost vertical window immediately behind the seats. Routine engine access is through a lid in the centre of this 'boot' floor. Additional space for soft luggage can be found around the spare wheel beneath the wide front 'bonnet'.
Essentially wedge-shaped to the point where the rear window tumbles down to the small spoiler on the tail, the Esprit lines have much in common with other contemporary Italian mid-engined sports cars. As such it is not the evocative trend-setter which the E-type represented in 1961. Wind tunnel tests resulted in the adoption of a prominent front spoiler. Essentials to the Esprit's very low drag factor are retractable headlamps (four in two pods), raised electrically like those of the Elite, and the almost flat, 27.5° raked, single-pantograph-wiper-swept, Solbit-boned windscreen. The side windows are electrically operated, normal Lotus practice, and behind these are two small, fixed, side-windows, part of the boot side, which help three-quarter rear vision.
The wide, roomy, passenger compartment is encapsulated in a 'safety cell' structure, notable for pioneering two noval features. Side impact protection is provided by very strong extruded aluminium side beams in the doors, saving 5lb per door compared with steel of comparable strength. Between the occupants and the engine Chapman has utilised a lesson learnt from his boat construction activities: the bulkhead is made from marine-ply, said to be stronger under most strain conditions than steel tubes. Additional strength comes from a box section running across the scuttle area of the Esprit.
Interior appointments are splendidly attractive, ultramodern, comfortable and practical. Most prominent is the big, separate binnacle mounted atop a vast, sloping acreage of padded facia. The wraparound ends of the instrument pod carry the switch gear. Cloth upholstery comes in any colour so long as it is green with tartan inserts for the luxuriously body-hugging, high-back bucket seats, which are separated, as is to be expected, by a console over the backbone chassis. The entire facia is covered in green cloth. Lotus are developing their own air-conditioning to encourage Esprit sales on the US market.
The sheet-steel backbone chassis follows much the same lines as previous Lotus examples. Arms at the front of the chassis support the coil-spring/damper front suspension units. The 907 engine is carried in a tubular space frame at the rear of the sheet-steel chassis. The chassis box section is used to carry the water pipes from the long, shallow, Covrad aluminium radiator behind the air dam, a type of radiator first used on the Elite. Behind each seat, ahead of the subframe, is mounted a separate fuel tank, each of 7.5 gallons capacity, with separate fillers.
The engine/transmission unit is rubber-mounted to the chassis at four points. The nature of the gearbox is something of a surprise: no less than a Citroën SM unit mounted at the rear of the car, mated to the Lotus engine by a special bell-housing and driving through an 8.5 inch clutch. Yes, the Maserati-engined Citroën SM has gone out of production, but Citroën are continuing the low-volume gearbox production for Chapman's company. The linkage to the box is a lengthened version of the SM's rod and cable system, and precision is assisted by a cast alloy gate at the base of the central gear-lever, hidden beneath the gaiter. All five gears are indirect, with 5th designed as an overdrive, offering 21.85mph at 1,000rpm.
Front suspension is by unequal-length wishbones borrowed from Opel Ascona, as are the anti-roll bar and 9.7in outboard front brake discs, of non-ventilated type. A modified Elite steering rack is fitted. At the rear the layout is again modified Elite, with independent diagonal trailing arms and lateral links, fixed-length driveshafts, coil-spring damper units. Rear disc brakes are inboard and of 10.6 inch diameter. Wolfrace alloy wheels are fitted (as they were on Giugiaro's original prototype), 6J x 14in front, 7J x 14in rear. Initially tyres are to be exclusively Goodyear G800 Supersteel Grand Prix '70' steel belt radials, 195/75HR x 14 at the front, 205/70HR x 14 at the rear.
The Elite-specification all-aluminium engine has cylinder dimensions of 95.2mm. bore x 62.9mm. Stroke, has five main bearings and produced 160bhp at 6200rpm, 140 lb ft torque at 4900rpm with the aid of two twin-choke Dellorto DHLA 45 carburetters, a 9.5-to-1 compression ratio and those 16 valves operated by twin overhead camshafts. This is sufficient to propel its 17.8cwt to 100mph in 20.7 sec and to the end of the standing quarter-mile in 15 sec, excellent figures for a 2-litre, four cylinder production sports car, so long as they are more accurate than those quoted by Lotus for the Elite at its introduction.
Truly, Lotus have excelled themselves with the Esprit, at last producing another true enthusiast's car to replace the S130, Elan and Europa, though far removed from the cheap kit car idea which took Chapman to his millions. Today's Lotus enthusiasts will have to be pretty well heeled to afford the Esprit which should at least be economical to run but at its price this beautiful machine fills a wide-open gap in the market. It's a shame that the open Elan could not have survived to complement the Esprit at the bottom end of the range.
The Lotus Eclat
The Eclat is simply a coupé version of the Elite, sharing the same mechanical components, except that the cheapest version, the 520, utilises a four-speed gearbox instead of the Elite's five-speed unit, which is, however, included in the dearer option packs. Lotus see the Eclat as the true successor to the +2S 130, a 2 +2 high performance sports car.
It shares too the luxuriously-upholstered Elite interior, its comfortable seating and the 'ring of steel' safety protection for the cockpit. In place of the Elite's hatch back, the Eclat has a conventional rear window, sloping steeply towards a conventional boot lid above the boot which is much more capacious than that of the Elite. The rear bucket seats are identical to the Elite's, but have been moved through an arc, making their backrests more upright and reducing headroom (hence the 2+2 designation) to enable the boot to be enlarged by moving the fuel tanks forwards.
At the Paris Motor Show Colin Chapman and Lotus Managing Director Richard Morley were at pains to point out to me that the Eclat doesn't just look different to the Elite, it drives much more sportingly too. This is the result of something like 300lb less weight in its cheapest form, in which form there is also the benefit of lower unsprung weight from 5.5J x 13in steel wheels shod with 185/70HR G800 Grand Prix tyres in place of the Elite's bit 7JK x 14in alloy wheels shod with 205/60VR x 14 Dunlops. These big wheels are standard on the more expensive Eclats, the 521 (which also has the five-speed gearbox and Philips 314 radio), the 522 (big wheels, five-speeds, air-con and Philips 462 stereo/cassette radio, and the 523, a 522 plus power steering.
Released at the London Motor Show along with the Eclat was the Elite 504 with automatic gearbox and luxurious new marcasite interior. Now the top of the Lotus range, this Borg-Warner transmission model is a rather hefty £7,970.