I’d love to say that Ursula Andress emerging goddess like from the Caribbean sea, dripping wet in a white bikini is my over-riding early memory of James Bond films, but it’s actually a white car. We didn’t get to the cinema much when I was a kid (we made our own entertainment in those days) but for my 12th birthday treat my dad took me to see The Spy Who Loved Me where I fell in love both Bond girl Barbara Bach, and the Lotus Esprit.
It’s dramatic chiselled wedge profile is still striking today, but in late 70s depression ravaged Britain it was a revelation. I remember thinking it must have been built specially for the movie, but of course it had actually been released by Lotus a year earlier, as a replacement for the Europa. The usual Lotus construction method of a steel backbone chassis with glassfibre bodywork was retained from the previous model – but that was about all that was, which was entirely intentional.
Lotus boss Colin Chapman knew that producing low volume kit cars was a tenuous existence, as the likes of TVR, Marcos and AC proved by lurching from one financial crisis to another. Always a man with unlimited aspirations, Chapman wanted to launch Lotus into the luxury performance car market and compete with the likes of Porsche and Ferrari. It was a heady dream, and one that few thought realistic, but that wasn’t going to stop him trying.
In order to transform Lotus from specialist sports car producer to one with showrooms in London’s West End, he needed a car with arresting looks, neck snapping performance and impeccable handling, and for the first of these ingredients he turned to Giorgetto Giugiaro, whose folded paper designs had already attracted the likes of Maserati and Volkswagen, for whom he went on to design the Boomerang and Golf.
The second two ingredients of Chapman’s signature dish were delivered to Giugiaro’s Ital Design studio in Milan in 1971 – a modified Europa chassis with its dimensions changed to suit the M70 prototype Lotus engineers had designed as the underpinnings for the new supercar. The final part of the dish was a new engine.
The enigmatic Lotus boss knew the company would need to produce something a little more exciting than the Europa’s Renault engine, and that the 1600cc Ford Kent based Lotus Twin Cam wasn’t up to the job of providing the kind of performance he needed from the new car. A 2-litre, double overhead, cam 4-valve per cylinder slant four was in development by Lotus (Chapman envisaged it being the basis of a future 4-litre V8), but with the cylinder head finalised they still had no block designed to fit it to.
GM’s Vauxhall had, however, launched a 1973cc slant four a few years earlier, with an 8-valve iron head. The bore spacings matched the new Lotus head, so the Norfolk firm bought 10 blocks and four engines, and development of the Lotus 907 engine began in earnest. The new powerplant was production ready in 1970 and Chapman did a deal with Jensen to sell it 15,000 907s for the new Jensen Healey sports car, the money from which he ploughed back into the development of the Esprit.
Apart from financial rewards, this deal also meant that any 907 teething problems could be ironed out in the Jensen (warped cylinder liners anyone?) so that by the time the Esprit was ready for unveiling the new engine was debugged and ready for action. The Esprit debuted at the 1975 Paris Motor Show to crowds who marvelled at the new British supercar that looked like it had jumped straight off a Top Trumps card.
With only 160bhp the new Lotus looked, on paper at least, as though it would struggle against German and Italian competition, but with a kerb weight of under 1000kg its power-to-weight ratio gave it a fighting chance, and although most road testers struggled to replicate the factory’s claimed figures of 0-60 in 8secs and 133mph top speed, its superb handling was universally lauded – and it was oh so beautiful.
And for once the 1973 oil price crisis prompted by the war between Israel and Egypt had a positive effect on a car manufacturer, with the 2-litre, lightweight Lotus able to boast impressive economy figures for a car of its type. This, coupled with Lotus PR manager Don McLaughlan’s triumph of getting Roger Moore’s 007 into the driving seat of an Esprit, albeit with a dazzling array of non-factory options, was enough to make the Esprit a success.
The S1 Esprit was made for two years before Lotus addressed a lot of the car’s shortcomings by improving the seating and interior trim, upgrading the instruments and switchgear and fitting a new wraparound front spoiler and custom built alloy wheels, which raised the car’s luxury image considerably. In 1978 Lotus won the Formula 1 Constructors’ Championship and celebrated by releasing a limited edition Esprit trimmed in their sponsor’s JPS livery.
However, the supercar buying public wanted more power. A stop gap 2.2-litre (912) engine powered just 88 cars before Chapman revealed his masterstroke, the 910 turbo engine. Blowing through twin Dell’Orto side draught carbs, the engine now made 210bhp and 200lb-ft, lifting the Esprit’s performance firmly into supercar territory, with a 150mph top speed and the sprint to 60mph now down to a shade over six seconds.
The debut model for this technological tour de force was named the Essex, after Team Lotus sponsors the for 1979-1981 season, Essex Overseas Petroleum Corporation. Just 45 were built, with the rest of the Esprit Turbo production having an identical spec, minus the blue, red and silver colour scheme.
The Esprit’s third incarnation included 2-litre turbo’d and 2.2-litre naturally aspirated options, more headroom and much improved quality control. The Esprit had grown up, but just as it was celebrating its coming of age, Colin Chapman died unexpectedly, leaving the company rudderless and in a perilous financial position.
Lotus limped on until 1986, when General Motors bought it and provided much needed funds to update the Esprit. Peter Stevens, who would go on to style the McLaren F1, softened and flowed Giugiaro’s wedge and the Esprit instantly looked fresh again. Not only that, a new moulding technique patented by Lotus, allowed Kevlar to be incorporated into the bodywork, improving rigidity by 22%. The turbocharged 910 engine was developed further and now managed 280bhp. But more was to come.
The Lotus Esprit Sport 300 employed a Garret T4 turbo with an uprated charge-cooler, and larger inlet valves (the engine was by now fuel-injected). This delivered a staggering 302bhp, so the 300 in the name was well deserved. This slashed the 0-60 dash to just 4.7 seconds, with the top speed now pushing 170mph. Only 64 were built – that rarity making them some of the most desirable Esprits on the collector market.
Despite the previous models never officially receiving the S3 moniker, the next model was indeed the S4, with a Julian Thomson facelift taking the Esprit into the 90s. But it was under the engine cover that the biggest change occurred, when the S4 finally realised Chapman’s V8 dream. Lotus took two of its 4-valve heads and with GM’s help produced a 3-litre turbocharged V8 that was easily capable of 500bhp, but was tuned to make a lazy 350 in the interests of the rest of the drivetrain hanging together – plenty to get to 60mph from a standstill in 4.3 seconds though.
Finally, after a 28 year production run and 10,675 versions of Giugiaro’s iconic wedge, in all its forms, the Esprit was retired, having brilliantly fulfilled its brief of establishing Lotus as a manufacturer of high performance supercar alternatives to Ferraris or Porsches. The agile English company’s next move would take it into a different market sector altogether, but for us the Esprit years remain the most exciting of them all. We like to think 007 would agree.