The iconic British supercar – Lotus Esprit was built by Lotus in the United Kingdom from 1976 to 2004. The silver Italdesign concept that eventually became the Esprit was unveiled at the Turin Motor Show in 1972, and was a development of a stretched Lotus Europa chassis. It was among the first of designer Giorgetto Giugiaro’s polygonal “folded paper” designs. Originally, the name Kiwi was proposed, but in keeping with the ‘E…’ naming format of Lotus tradition, the name became Esprit.
After 28 years of production a total of 10,675 Esprits were produced but now a new version is coming, nine years after the last one rolled off the assembly line at Hethel in February of 2004.
The Lotus Esprit was first launched in October 1975 at the Paris motor show, it went into production in June 1976 replacing the Europa in the Lotus model line-up. These first cars eventually became known as S1 (or Series 1) Esprits.
The S1 Esprit was fitted with a steel chassis and a fiberglass body, it was powered by a 2.0L Lotus, 4 cylinder engine, as previously used in the Jensen Healey. The engine produced 160 bhp and was mounted longitudinally behind the passengers. The 5 speed gearbox was the same that was used in the Citroën SM and Maserati Merak. The car also featured inboard rear brakes, as was racing practice at the time and the car weighed less than 1,000 kg (2,205 lb).
The first Lotus Esprit could accelerate from 0-60 mph in 6.8 seconds and had a top speed of 138 mph (222 km/h). Even though the car handled well it was generally regarded as lacking in power, especially in markets such as the United States where the engine was down-rated for emissions purposes.
The S1 Esprit can be distinguished from later Esprits by a shovel-style front air dam, Fiat X1/9 tail lights, lack of body-side ducting, and Wolfrace alloy wheels. Inside the car, the most obvious indication of an S1 Esprit is a one-piece instrument cluster with green-faced Veglia gauges.
In 1977 the car gained fame after its appearance in the James Bond film The Spy Who Loved Me, where it was featured in a long chase sequence and converted into a submarine.
The second generation of Esprits received numerous improvements. The most obvious of these changes were the intake and cooling ducts located behind the rear quarter window. An integrated front spoiler was also fitted along with the tail lights from the Rover SD1.
S2 Esprits also used a set of 14-inch Speedline alloy wheels designed specifically for Lotus. Other changes included relocating the battery from above the right side fuel tank to the rear of the car, adding an access door to the engine cover and replacing the instrument cluster made by Veglia with individual gauges made by Smiths.
During this era, special edition cars were made to commemorate Lotus’s racing victories. The special edition cars were known as the John Player Special (JPS) Esprits and shared the same black and gold color scheme of F1 Lotus racing car.
In 1980 a more powerful S2 Esprit was created titled S2.2. This was an almost identical version but benefited from a larger 2.2 L engine, the horsepower was the same but the torque had increased from 140 lb·ft (190 N·m) to 160 lb·ft (217 N·m). The S2.2 also introduced the use of a galvanized chassis. These cars are extremely rare even among Esprits and only 88 are thought to have been produced.
Essex Turbo Esprit
In 1980 the first factory turbocharged Esprit was launched. Initially, this was another special edition model commemorating F1 ties and reflecting current sponsorship, this time in the blue, red and chrome livery of Essex Petroleum. The new turbocharged dry-sump type engine produced 210 hp (157 kW) and 200 lb·ft (270 N·m) of torque. It could hit 60 mph in 6.1 seconds and had a top speed of 150 mph (240 km/h).
These performance improvements were coupled to a redesign and strengthening of the chassis and rear suspension, where an upper link was added to alleviate strain on the driveshafts, along with brake improvements. The Essex cars introduced a Giugiaro-designed aerodynamic body kit with a rear lip spoiler, prominent louvered rear hatch, more substantial bumpers, a deeper front airdam, and air ducts in the sills just ahead of the rear wheels. The car ran on a set of 15 inch Compomotive 3-piece wheels. The interior was fitted with scarlet leather, combined with a roof-mounted Panasonic stereo, made for a dramatic environment.
Only 45 Essex Esprits were built, followed by a number of non Essex-liveried but otherwise identical cars. Two Essex-spec Turbo Esprits – one in white and the other in red – were featured in the James Bond film For Your Eyes Only (1981), although these were scripted as the same vehicle; the white one was blown up by an anti-burglar explosion system in Spain, while the red one was a “rebuild” of the original.
The S3 Esprit continued to use the 2.2 L type 912 engine of the S2.2, whilst the Turbo Esprit reverted to a less complex wet-sump lubrication system, retaining the power and torque outputs of its dry-sump predecessor.
The interior for both cars was revised and featured new trim; combined with changes to the body molds, this resulted in more headroom and an enlarged footwell. Externally, the Turbo Esprit retained the full aerodynamic body kit of the Essex cars, and featured prominent ‘turbo esprit’ decals on the nose and sides; the S3 gained the more substantial bumpers, yet retained the simpler sill line and glazed rear hatch of the S2.2 body style. Both models were supplied with 15″ BBS alloy wheels.
In April 1986, the final incarnations of the Giugiaro-styled Esprit were announced, with raised engine compression giving rise to their ‘HC’ moniker. This increased the output of the naturally aspirated engine to 172 hp (128 kW; 174 PS) and 160 lb·ft (220 N·m) for the Esprit HC, and to 215 hp (160 kW; 218 PS) and 220 lb·ft (300 N·m) for the Turbo Esprit HC, with the increased torque available at a lower rpm. For markets with stringent emissions requirements, Lotus introduced the HCi variant, teaming the higher compression engine with Bosch KE-Jetronic fuel injection – the first fuel-injected Esprits.
Peter Stevens redesign (1987)
In 1987, a new version of the Esprit was unveiled, incorporating rounder styling cues given by designer Peter Stevens of McLaren F1 fame. A new Lotus patented process was introduced to create the new body, called the VARI (Vacuum Assisted Resin Injection) process, which offered more advantages than the previous hand laid process. Kevlar reinforcement was added to the roof and sides for roll-over protection, resulting in an increase of the Esprit’s torsional rigidity by 22 percent.
Giugiaro is said to have liked the restyling, claiming it was perhaps too close to his original design. The Stevens styled cars retained the mechanical components of the previous High Compression Esprit and Turbo Esprit, but introduced a stronger Renault transaxle, which necessitated a move to outboard rear brakes. However, the MY 1988 North American Esprit Turbo kept its Citroën SM type transaxle used in the previous model year.
The car’s Type 910 engine retained 215 bhp and 220 ft-lbs, but decreased its zero to sixty from 5.6 seconds to a varied time between 5.4 – 5.1 seconds and a top speed of over 150 mph.
The exterior style changes were accompanied by a new interior which offered a little more space for the occupants. The Stevens styled Esprit is often known by its project code of X180.
In 1989, the Esprit was again improved with the addition of a water to air intercooler, which Lotus has named the Chargecooler, producing the SE (Special Equipment). This engine was known as the Type 910S. Horsepower was pushed up to 264 with 280 available on overboost and zero to sixty miles per hour times reduced to 4.7 seconds with a top speed of over 160 mph (260 km/h). Several modifications were made to the body kit as well, like side skirts which are parallel to the body, five air ducts in the front air dam, wing mirrors from the Citroën CX and the addition of a rear wing.
Along with the SE, Lotus produced the little seen Esprit S, a midrange turbocharged car offering fewer appointments and 228 hp (170 kW), as well as the standard turbo still offering 215 hp (160 kW). The N/A and turbo were cancelled after 1990, and the S in 1991.
The Esprit was a popular and successful addition to the American IMSA Bridgestone Supercar Championship and as a result Lotus produced the SE-based X180R, with horsepower bumped to 300 and with racing appointments. The Sport 300 was a derivative of the X180R sold in Europe, which included many modifications. These are known as the fastest of the 4 cylinder Esprits and among the most desirable.
The Stevens Esprit made appearances in several movies including: Pretty Woman, Basic Instinct, The Rookie, Taking Care of Business and If Looks Could Kill / Teen Agent, as well as the short-lived TV series The Highwayman.
Julian Thompson redesign (1993)
In 1993, another exterior and interior revamp of the car resulted in the S4 which was the first model to include power steering. The exterior redesign was done by Julian Thompson, which included a smaller rear spoiler placed halfway up the rear decklid. Other major changes were to the front and rear bumpers, side skirts and valence panels. New five spoke alloy wheels were also included in the redesign. The S4 retained the same horsepower as the SE at 264 hp.
The S4 was succeeded in 1995 by the S4s (S4 sport), which had an increased power output of 300 bhp and 290 ft-lbs of torque, improving all-around performance while retaining the comfort of the previous version. Top speed was increased to 168 mph and a 0-60 mph time of 4.6 seconds. Although the engine kept its 2.2 liter capacity, many modifications were added to improve engine performance. Some of the changes were enlarged inlet ports, cylinder head modifications, a re-calibrated ECM and a revised turbocharger. The most visible external styling changes was the addition of a larger rear wing taken from the Sport 300.
This car was to be the end of the line for the Esprit but a canceled project for a front engine car had left Lotus with a compact V8 and no car to put it into.
Lotus V8 (1996)
The Esprit V8 used Lotus’ self developed all-aluminum, twin-turbocharged 90-degree V8 engine, Code-named Type 918. This bigger engine was still controlled via the same Renault transmission as before but with no Chargecooler. Derek Bell eventually developed an uprated gearbox that overcame a lot of the gearbox problems with a much thicker single piece input shaft. The Type 918 engine was detuned from a potential 500 bhp to 350 bhp to prevent gearbox damage due to the fragility of the Renault UN-1 transmission. As tested by Motor Trend Magazine in 1998 at the Ford Proving Grounds, zero to sixty miles per hour came in at 4.4 seconds along with a top speed of over 175 mph.
Early Type 918 engines built between 1997 to 2000 were are noted to suffer from a leaking cylinder liner problem due to a breakdown in the liner sealant if the engine overheats. This resulted in water leaking into the cylinders and ending up in the sump. After extensive testing, this problem was rectified with a change of sealant type from Loctite 572 to Hylomar 3400, although some owners still reported sporadic leaking cylinder liners.
Another version was produced alongside the V8 models called the GT3, a turbocharged 4 cylinder car with a 2.0 L chargecooled, turbocharged engine as used in Italian market cars previously.
In 1998 the V8 range was split into SE and GT specifications, both cars with a much changed interior configuration, both offering similar performance with the SE being the more luxurious of the two.
The ultimate incarnation of the Esprit came in 1999 with the Sport 350. Only 50 were made, each offering 350 horsepower along with various engine, chassis and braking improvements, like the addition of AP racing brakes, stiffer springs and a revised ECU.
Several visual changes were made as well, including the addition of a large carbon fiber rear wing on aluminium uprights in place of the standard fibreglass rear wing. By this time the Esprit could reach 60 mph (100 km/h) in 4.3 seconds as well as reaching 0-100 in 10.1 seconds, and weighed 1,300 kg (2,866 lb) as a result of many modifications.
Esprit production temporarily ceased in 2004 with Lotus content on producing the Esprit with little development aside from minor cosmetic changes including a switch to four round tail lights for the 2002 model year.
At the 2010 Paris Motor Show, along with four other cars in the company’s lineup, Lotus unveiled a completely redesigned, new generation Esprit, scheduled to go into production in late 2012 and confirmed to go on sale in Spring of 2013.
This new Esprit features a futuristic front-end with LED front daytime running lights and a center-mounted dual exahust system in the rear. The interior also has a new futuristic, but minimal design which includes a digital instrument cluster, a sport steering wheel and carbon fiber trim scattered throughout the cabin. It has a length of 455 cm (179.1 inches), a width of 195 cm (76.8 inches) and a height of 125 cm (49.2 inches). Gross weight is stated to be around 1495 kg (3,296 lbs).
Both the standard Esprit and Esprit R will be powered by a mid-mounted 5.0-liter pressure charged V8 engine (sourced from the Lexus IS F), producing 543 hp, with the Esprit R producing 612 hp. Power is fed to the rear wheels by a seven-speed DCT paddle-shift transmission. Lotus claims it can accelerate from 0-100 km/h (0-62 mph) in 3.4 seconds and keeps going up to a top speed of 330 km/h (205 mph), making it one of the fastest production cars in the world. The new Esprit will also be available with a Hybrid option, utilizing a KERS regenerative brake system derived from Formula One.
Lotus Esprit models
Esprit – 1976–77
Esprit S2 – 1978–81
Esprit JPS (John Player Special) – 1978–79
Esprit S2.2 – 1980–81
Esprit Essex – 1980
Esprit S3 – 1981–86
Turbo Esprit – 1981–86
Esprit S3 HC – 1986–87
Turbo Esprit HC – 1986–87
Turbo Esprit HCi (Bosch Fuel Injected) – 1986–87
Esprit – 1987–90
Esprit Turbo – 1987–90
Esprit SE – 1989–91
Esprit S – 1991
Lotus Esprit X180R – 1991-92
Esprit SE HighWing – 1992–93
Esprit S4 – 1993–96
Esprit 300 Sport – 1993
Esprit S4s – 1995–96
Esprit V8 – 1996–98
Esprit GT3 – 1996–99
Esprit V8 GT – 1998–2001
Esprit V8 SE – 1998–2001
Esprit Sport 350 – 1999
Esprit V8 – 2002–04