That crisp wedge styling, the sparkling performance, the F1 pedigree, the Bond-car status. It all leaves us wondering why Lotus Esprits aren’t worth more, especially as prices for similar German and Italian cars took off long ago. All but the cleanest, collector-grade Esprits are attainable exotics, and cars needing some TLC can be downright cheap.
Forget all that, though. S/n 0970 is probably the most desirable example to pop up in recent memory. Lotus founder Colin Chapman used this very special early Turbo model as his personal car from 1981 until his untimely death at the end of 1982, and it’s currently offered for sale by Mark Donaldson, Ltd. in Surrey, England. This Esprit is loaded with desirable features and remarkably well-kept—it’s hard not to want.
First, though, a little history on the Esprit Turbo. The first, S1 Esprit that debuted in 1976 was a sensation, thanks in large part to its Giorgetto Giugiaro-penned “folded paper” design and a starring role in The Spy Who Loved Me; but the 160-hp, twin-cam four didn’t quite live up to its supercar packaging. Lotus responded in 1980 with its first-ever turbocharged production car, the Essex Turbo Esprit. Named after Lotus’ Formula One sponsor Essex Petroleum (Team Lotus took a brief break from John Player Special sponsorship from 1979–81), the car featured Essex’s signature blue, red, and chrome livery along with scarlet leather seats and, most importantly, a 2.2-liter, Garrett-turbocharged version of Lotus’s 900-series engine. Turbo cars also got a stiffer, galvanized backbone chassis. After a run of 45 Essex Turbos, Lotus began selling standard Esprit Turbos.
That’s where this car fits into the story. Built in February 1981 but not registered until August, Chapman’s Esprit wasn’t simply a standard car taken off the line. Finished in factory Metallic Silver over ruched red leather, s/n 0970 also has a number of unique features as specified by the company boss. The suspension is lower than stock, there are special pollen filters in the cabin to alleviate Chapman’s hay fever, and the bodywork was reportedly modified to reduce road noise and internal ventilation, although there are no obvious differences in the shape compared to a standard car.
The engine was hand-assembled and blueprinted, and it has the more desirable dry-sump lubrication system (later Esprit Turbos came with a wet sump). Its power steering also makes it unique among early Esprits, and it is reportedly the first Esprit fitted with the BBS snowflake wheels that became popular on later cars. One of the coolest (and most glaringly 1980s) features, though, is the Panasonic RM 610 cassette stereo. Carried over from the Essex Turbo Esprit, the gigantic unit mounts in the roof just behind the windshield. An old ad called it “a car stereo system so advanced its design is over everybody’s head.” Get it?
Not long after the car’s first registration in August of 1981, then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher visited Norfolk in the East of England to meet with some local businesses, including Lotus. She took a tour of Lotus’ latest road and racing cars and got a technical explanation of the latest Type 88 F1 car. She even spent some time behind the wheel of this very Esprit, with Chapman in the passenger’s seat. It’s unclear whether The Iron Lady smoked the tires or discovered whether an Esprit really “corners like it’s on rails,” but the Eastern Daily Press newspaper reported that she did find it “lovely to drive” and exclaimed, “I was tempted to drive away in it.”
A little over a year later, Chapman died of a heart attack at age 54. His Esprit, which had racked up about 4000 miles, passed into private hands and through a string of owners, all documented. Subsequent service, much of it back at Lotus, has included an engine rebuild and the car now shows just 11,006 miles.
Lotuses may be as well-known for falling apart as they are for their performance, but this one has clearly been maintained with painstaking care. Stress cracks in the paint are common on old Lotuses; and Esprit interiors, while cool to look at, often don’t age well. Not so with Chapman’s Esprit. It looks gorgeous.
According to Motorsport, Mark Donaldson, Ltd. wants £100,000 (about $122,000) for the car. That’s way more than the $46,400 listed in the Hagerty Price Guide for an Esprit Turbo in #1 (Concours) condition—but good luck finding another one driven by both Colin Chapman and Maggie Thatcher. The unique and desirable specs, consistent ownership history, and clean low-mile condition only make it even more of a unicorn. Considering the fact that someone paid $112,000 in 2018 for a low-mile but standard 2000 Esprit, and that Elon Musk paid nearly a million dollars for James Bond’s Esprit submarine from The Spy Who Loved Me, 100 grand doesn’t seem like a bad deal at all.