The iconic 1976 Lotus Esprit can be traced to the lightweight, mid-engine Europa – an inconvenient road car, with cramped interior and negligible rear visibility. In the early ‘70s, founder Colin Chapman was determined to dispel Lotus’s kit car reputation, and the Esprit was the first indication that he might.
Designer Giorgetto Giugiaro revolutionized the Europa at the 1972 Turin Auto Show with the handsome Esprit. Beneath the fiberglass body was a backbone chassis, rack-and-pinion steering, independent suspension, four-wheel disc brakes (inboard at the rear), Citroen SM transaxle and five-speed gearbox. A 160-horsepower, 16-valve, 2.0-liter, twin-cam engine delivered 0-60 mph in eight seconds and a top speed of 135 mph. The wedge-shaped body featured a steeply raked windshield and pop-up headlights.
Although the Esprit is a pure two-seater, it compared favorably to exotic 2+2s, such as the Ferrari 308 GT/4, Maserati Merak or Lamborgini Uracco, due to its lower output. But anyone who bought one of the Italian trio could probably trade it for a brand new Corvette today, unlike the Lotus.
Esprit buyers waited three years for production to begin, as Lotus dealt with other models’ production and development problems. Build quality and reliability issues haunt all of their contemporary models today.
The Esprit’s 907 engine initially powered the 1972-76 Jensen-Healey, and contributed to its demise: Engines overheated, timing belt tensioners failed and oil leaked from the valve covers filling the cabin with fumes. The engine was also tilted 45 degrees, which could have severely negative effects under heavy lateral Gs.
Additionally, the fiberglass body cracked, the chassis vibrated like a tuning fork and rusted quickly. The GM-sourced pop-up headlights leaked water into the wiring and electric windows failed. Turbo lag made fast driving difficult and the gear shift was vague. Soft rubber suspension bushings wore out, causing the Esprit to wander. However the Esprit had excellent paint and an exotic leather interior and by 1978, all 718 Series 1 Esprits were sold.
Chapman introduced the Series 2 in 1979 and build quality improved. Cooling issues were corrected with rear ducts, and a front spoiler was added. Sales increased, and 1060 were sold in 1979-80, along with 147 black and gold “John Player Special” models, celebrating Lotus’s 1978 F1 Constructor’s Championship.
Engine size increased to 2.2-liters in the 1980 model, but the big news was the limited edition (45) Essex Turbo model which offered 210 bhp, 0-60 mph in six seconds and a 150 mph top speed. The four-cylinder Turbo endured until 1999 and 6,382 were built. Chapman’s own copper-colored Turbo was featured in James Bond’s For Your Eyes Only.
The Series 3 Esprit bowed in April 1981, and Turbo and normally aspirated cars shared an improved chassis, aero body kit, 15-inch BBS wheels and substantial bumpers. Interior upgrades included more foot and head room. The front suspension was improved in 1985, and ‘86 saw the final Giugiaro version. The HC (high compression) engine yielded 172 bhp normally aspirated and 215 bhp when turbocharged. Lotus fitted Bosch K-Jetronic fuel injection to U.S. market cars for the first time.
Peter Stevens redesigned a more curvaceous Esprit for 1987. A new body construction process called Vacuum Assisted Resin Injection debuted, as well. Kevlar roll bars increased torsional rigidity 22 percent and a stronger Renault transaxle moved rear brakes outboard.
For 1989 Lotus introduced the Esprit SE (special equipment) with GM’s multi-port intercooled fuel injection which cut 0-60 mph times to 4.7 seconds and pushed top speed to 160 mph. The new system developed 264 bhp, with 280 bhp available on overboost. Body changes included side skirts, ducts in the air dam and a rear wing. Two lesser Turbo models were offered, the 228 bhp Esprit S and the 215 bhp standard model. The Esprit Sport 300 was a stripped-down racing version built for IMSA. It produced 300bhp, and only 64 were built.
Julian Thomson’s 1993 Series 4 was the Esprit’s final redesign; rounder still with new bumpers, side skirts and valances and a smaller rear wing. For 1994 the S4s (lowercase “s” for sport) offered 300 bhp and a top speed of 168 mph. The cylinder head and turbocharger were modified, and the big wing from the Sport 300 racer fitted. In all, 367 were sold from 1994-97; intended to be the last Esprits.
However a cancelled project left Lotus with a dazzling aluminum twin-turbo 3.5-liter V-8 engine, which was detuned from its 500 bhp race configuration to 350 bhp. The Esprit V8 was built from 1996-2004, while the four-cylinder GT3 Turbo ended in 1999.
Derek Bell helped develop a Renault gearbox that would take increased power. The final V8 was the Sport 350, of which 50 were built. It was good for 0-60 mph in 4.3 seconds, 0-100 mph in under 10 seconds and 175 mph. The S350 also featured a huge carbon fiber rear wing.
The problem that dogs every Esprit is durability; Chapman never really thought much beyond winning the next race. It is telling that when Jeff Smith won the 1965 World Motocross Championship on the 441cc BSA Victor in 1965, sales boomed. Yet, engines were only ever good for about 90 minutes flat out – as long as one of Smith’s races.
The Esprit is also overshadowed by the mid-engine Ferrari 308 which is stylish and reliable. Timing belt replacement is expensive, but otherwise maintenance is reasonable. You’ll pay $75,000 to $100,000 for a good 308, but your money is safe if you buy the right car with complete records.
As noted, early Esprits can be worrisome. Buy a documented, well-maintained car and insist on a thorough pre-purchase inspection by an expert. Figure on about $15,000 for an excellent normally aspirated Esprit and $20,000- $25,000 for an equivalent Turbo. Buy no projects, however cheap.
Even though the Esprit V8 is spectacularly quick, niggling problems remain. Though the chassis is galvanized, check for accident damage. Air-conditioning is essential, but expensive to fix. Overheating can mean engine seals have failed, mixing oil and water. Radiators are expensive and difficult to replace, and gas tanks can rust. That said, the V8 has true supercar performance and represents impressive bang for the buck, at $35,000-$50,000. Investment prospects are modest, however and likely to remain so.