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Lotus Esprit buying guide (1976-1987)

Lotus Esprit JPS Lotus Esprit JPS Lotus Esprit JPS interior Lotus Esprit JPS engine Lotus Esprit JPS rear light Lotus Esprit JPS Throughout the Seventies and Eighties, every kid used to lust after a Lotus Esprit Turbo – and there were plenty of adults who did just the same. Here was the most fantastically shaped wedge of plastic that could hit 150mph and sprint from a standing start to 60mph in less than six seconds – and all thanks to a four-cylinder engine with a displacement of just over two litres. Talk about trouncing the big boys from Italy and Germany, especially when it came to affordability – if not necessarily reliability.

In the 21st century the Esprit is still jaw-dropping, without appearing passé. It still handles brilliantly. And it’s still insanely quick. But best of all, the reliability issues have largely been sorted, which all adds up to a car that gives you more bangs per buck than you‘ll find anywhere else for the money.

Which one to buy

Lotus developed the Esprit a lot throughout its decade-long production run. If you can afford a minter and you’re not planning to cover lots of miles, they all make sense. But if you’re on a budget and you’re buying an Esprit to use it, you need to consider very carefully which edition to go for.

American-spec Esprits are unloved as their Zenith carburettors and anti-smog equipment dulled the twin-cam’s sparkle. The raised ride height also damages the dynamics – and the looks aren’t helped either, thanks to the ungainly impact bumpers.

Collectors tend to want the earliest cars (Series 1 and 2), but these are suitable for professional restoration only, which is why projects are best avoided – they also suffer from chronic parts availability. As a result, you’re better off going for a Series 3 or newer, even if you’re not taking on a project.

JPS cars are sought after, along with Turbos, whether standard, HC or Essex models. However, that turbocharger puts off as many potential buyers as it entices, so a boosted car isn’t necessarily the best investment. That leaves the S2.2 and S3 as the most affordable Esprits, so if you’re on a budget aim for one of these.

Tech spec - Lotus Esprit Turbo

Engine 2174cc/4-cyl
Power 210bhp @ 6500rpm 
Torque 200lb ft @ 4500rpm 
Top speed 152mph
0-60mph 5.6sec
Consumption 22mpg
Gearbox Five-speed manual

What to look for

• There were three versions of Lotus’s all-alloy twin-cam engine; a 2-litre (type 907) or a 2.2-litre (type 910 or 912). They’ll cover 100,000 miles between rebuilds if 6000-mile/six-month service intervals are adhered to; failures are usually down to poor maintenance. The cam belt should be changed every 24,000 miles or three years.

• Look for oil pressure of 35psi at 3500rpm; at 6500rpm it should be at least 45psi. With a Turbo, monitor the boost pressure gauge on the test run. The wastegates seize, so see if the gauge peaks at 0.8bar.

• If there’s misfiring as you accelerate through the gears, look for oil pools in the spark plug recesses – leaks emanate from overtightened cam covers.

• Exhaust manifolds crack, so listen for blowing.

• Head gaskets fail. Cooling systems were a constant source of development because of overheating problems.

• The alloy water pipes, which run through the centre of the chassis, corrode and are costly to fix.

• There should be plenty of feel to the steering; any heaviness means a worn rack. Steering racks on S3s and later wear more quickly, because of their wider wheels and tyres.

• While accelerating and decelerating, listen for clonks from the transmission of an S1 or S2; the universal joints and wheel bearings disintegrate. From the Esprit S3 on, much stronger rear suspension was fitted.

• The bodyshell is strong, durable and heavy. Corrosion, cracking and crazing don’t occur, but look for accident damage.

• The chassis is durable, but accident damage and rot (mercifully rare) aren’t easy to repair. From the Esprit S2.2 there was a galvanised chassis, which staves off corrosion really well.

• If the chassis is damaged, anything less than wholesale replacement is a bodge; welding is inadvisable, even if it’s localised.

• Petrol tanks can rust; two are fitted and they’re time-consuming to replace, especially the nearside one.

• The bonded screens of S1 and S2 models age badly. Check if the screen has been resealed since the car was built; if it hasn't, it'll be due. The screen often cracks when being removed, increasing the cost.

• The five-speed gearbox was borrowed from Citroen’s SM, and parts are scarce. This ‘box doesn’t take ham-fisted use happily, so ensure gearchanges are smooth and slick. But the gearbox is durable; just check for worn bearings by listening for major whining.

• The plastic clutch slave cylinder pipe goes brittle then fails, pumping hydraulic fluid over the inboard rear discs which then ignite. See if a replacement hose has been fitted.

Model history

1974: The pre-prduction Esprit is previewed at the Paris salon.
1976: The first customer cars are delivered, with Lotus’ 160bhp 1973cc aluminium engine.
1978: The S2 debuts with an improved interior, Speedline wheels and SD1 tail lights. Power remains at 160bhp and to commemorate Mario Andretti becoming F1 World Champion, 147 JPS black and gold special editions are built.
1980: The 2174cc S2.2 arrives. Power remains at 160bhp, but there’s now a Turbo edition too. The first cars are badged Essex and feature a 210bhp 2.2-litre engine. There’s now a galvanised chassis as standard.
1981: The normally aspirated Esprit becomes the S3, with Turbo-spec chassis and suspension. The Turbo becomes a regular production model with a reduced trim specification. Dry-sump lubrication is a feature until 1983 – a carry over from the Essex.
1986: The 215bhp Turbo HC (High Compression) debuts. It’s stronger, faster and better built than all its predecessors.
1987: A substantially redesigned Esprit goes on sale.

Key clubs and websites

• www.clubesprit.co.uk
• www.lotusdriversclub.org.uk
• www.club-lotus.co.uk
• www.lotusespritworld.com

Words: Richard Dredge // Images: Dean Smith/evo magazine
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Lotus Esprit cars for sale

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Lotus Esprit
14164 34995 GBP
  • The Lotus Esprit was built between 1976 and 2004, as well as a future release in 2014. The silver Italdesign concept that eventually became the Esprit was unveiled at the Turin Motor Show in 1972 as a concept car, and was a development of a stretched Lotus Europa chassis. It was among the first of designer Giorgetto Giugaro's polygonal "folded paper" designs. By the close of 1980, Lotus was effectively building three different models of Esprit, with distinct chassis designs and body moulds - the Domestic (i.e. UK) S2.2, the Export S2.2, and the dry-sump Turbo Esprit. Introduced in April 1981, the Turbo Esprit and S3 (Series 3) Esprits marked a necessary consolidation: both new models had a common chassis, inheriting much of the configuration of the Essex cars, whilst body production was based on a single common set of moulds. In 1987, a new version of the Esprit was unveiled, incorporating rounder styling cues given by designer Peter Stevens (who later designed the McLaren F1). 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 einfor

    • Year: 1987

    Last update: 3 Days Old
    For sale
  • Oldertimerfarm.be
    see details
  • Norfolk mustard with charcoal leather upholstery, sitting on fabulous light weight Esprit Sport 350 magnesium OZ wheels, full Lotus history, 40,000 miles, power steering, air con. sun roof, CD, new MOT. This beautiful S4S is in magnificent condition and a credit to its previous 4 owners. A 0-60 MPH of 4.6 seconds and top speed of 160 MPH with handling to match the S4S still beats almost everything else. This car is a cut above the rest!

    Last update: 28 Days Old
    For sale
  • see details
  • Lotus Esprit S4S Finished in stunning azure blue with cream leather upholstery piped in blue. Only 9,900 miles from new! Serviced by us since 2001 with 15 stamps in the book . We originally purchased this car from a Lotus main dealer in 2001 with only 7000 miles on the clock. It was in as new condition! Barry had intended to keep this one as his own car however, a friend and lotus fanatic saw it when collecting his own Lotus from Barry and persuaded him to part with it. Mike then owned the car for 13 years keeping it in a heated garage and maintained it regardless of cost. The S4S is widely regarded as the best all round Esprit to come out of the Lotus factory. Power comes from a 2.2 litre turbo chargecooled engine developing 286 BHP. 0 to 60 MPH is just 4.7 seconds! This must be the lowest mileage and nicest Esprit S4S available.

    • Year: 2001

    Last update: 28 Days Old
    For sale
  • see details
  • Stunning! 1998 Lotus Esprit V8 SE in Calypso Red, with under 4000 recorded MILES since new! 3506cc Lotus Twin Turbo V8 Engine delivering 350 BHP Finished in Calypso Red Paint Cream Leather Interior with Red piping Air Conditioning Electric Windows Alpine 6 Speaker Stereo For Further information please call 01508 530491

    • Year: 1998

    Last update: 3 Months Old

    • Mileage: 1998 mi

    For sale
  • Stratton Motor Company
    01508 530491
    see details
  • Lotus Esprit Turbo Limited Edition No. 004 of 025, 1987. Just two owners from new! Stunning in original factory colours of Cherry Red over Calypso Red and original gold leather and suede interior with gold carpets. Glorious condition throughout and 47k miles only. Supplied new my Mann Egerton & Co. Ltd. in London to a gentleman in Hertfordshire in May 1987 and then registered with a Midland’s petroleum company in late 1988. Factory fitted air-conditioning and removable “targa” glass sunroof. Full main dealer service history. Comes with its original Clarion Stereo system. Complete standard throughout and comes with Certificate of Provenance from Lotus Cars Ltd. An absolutely stunning example. Fully MOT’d and serviced.

    • Year: 1987

    Last update: 6 Months Old
    For sale
  • UK Sportscars
    01227 728 190
    see details
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