A lot of us may be cooped up these days, but with sunnier weather outside it’s only natural to start thinking about track days, autocrosses, or just the occasional blitz through the countryside. For all the above, there are few cars better than the Lotus Exige, a quintessential track-day toy which, by the way, celebrates its 20th birthday this year. Perhaps that’s why this Series 1 car, up for sale in the UK, caught our eye.
It’s not just an early Exige, though. It’s the very first one ever sold, Chassis 0001. Even better.
Lotus released the Elise in 1996 to universal acclaim, in large part thanks to its innovative bonded aluminum chassis. Its charming, smiley face didn’t hurt, either. Finally, here was another clever, small, lightweight minimalist Lotus roadster with razor-sharp handling that harkened back to the original Elan from the 1960s. There also wasn’t much else on the road that was quite like the Elise at the time. But while a Series 1 Elise was more than enough raw, racy sports car for most drivers, Lotus turned everything up a notch with the Exige, aiming it at an ever-growing multitude of track day addicts.
With a fixed roof, front splitter, fixed rear wing, extra cooling vents, and either 177 or 190 horsepower from the Rover K-series 1.8-liter four (up from 160 hp in the highest-spec Elise), the Exige weighs less than 1800 pounds, can hit 60 in 4.7 seconds, and tops out at 136 mph. Those are impressive straight-line numbers even today, but this is a Lotus, so where it naturally shines is in a corner.
The car didn’t come with a radio or power steering, storage space is nearly nonexistent (and baked by the engine), rear visibility is comically poor, and a full racing harness was on the very short options list. So, while it is technically street legal, the Exige is clearly more Oulton Park than parallel park.
Lotus built about 600 Series 1 Exiges until 2002, although it took until 2004 for a Series 2 version to come out. Lotus introduced the Series 2 Elise in ’01 (a version of which we finally got in the U.S.), but the Series 1 Exige kept the original Elise’s somewhat friendlier-looking shape for its entire run.
Lotus still builds the Exige today, and this car (chassis 0001) is the one that started it all. Available for sale at Lotus Silverstone, which is right across the street from—you guessed it—Silverstone Circuit in England, it shows just 17,141 miles on the odometer. The Chrome Orange Lotus was apparently the Exige used as a press car for magazine tests and a brief review by a pre-Top Gear Richard Hammond for Men and Motors. Over a bed of early 2000s techno music, he exclaims that “it looks like a race car, it sounds like a race car, and it goes like a race car,” and he describes the wailing engine as “in here with you, sitting on your left shoulder like a parrot.”
Despite being flogged by journalists, it looks mostly quite good. There is some age on the wheels and surface rust on the lug nuts but otherwise few signs of age. The interior (what there is of one, at least), also shows little wear or age.
The asking price is £45,000 (about $56,400). Adjusted for inflation, that’s less than the car cost new and is almost tempting, given that it’s the very first example of an already very rare car. Even if we could afford it, though, the car is still five years away from being eligible for import into the States—which feels like about a century with how time passes these days—so it won’t be coming here anytime soon. Perhaps Lotus should buy Chassis 0001, and take it home to Hethel.