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 2.0-litres. Talk about trouncing the big boys from Italy and Germany, especially when it came to affordability – if not necessarily reliability.
Few cars look as ‘right’ as the original Giugiaro-penned Esprit, and for many the Esprit remains one of the coolest James Bond cars of all time, after playing a major roll in the Rodger Moore’s The Spy Who Loved Me. When that white Lotus plunged into the Mediterranean, and transformed into a submarine the, a Hethel-built star was born.
As it developed, the Esprit became more usable and faster, while perhaps losing some of its design purity. For this guide we’re covering the S1 to S3 cars, including the Turbo models.
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.
Performance and specs
Lotus Esprit Turbo
Engine 2174cc, four-cylinder
Power 210bhp @ 6500rpm
Torque 200lb ft @ 4500rpm
Top speed 152mph
Gearbox Five-speed manual
Insurance group 20
Dimensions and weight
Kerb weight 1067kg
• There were three versions of Lotus’s all-alloy twin-cam engine; a 2.0-litre (type 907) or the later 2.2-litre (type 910 or 912). If correctly looked after, the engines can rack up more than 100k miles between rebuilds.
• Regular servicing is the key, and any failures will most likely be due to poor maintenance. The big one is the cam belt, which should be changed every 24,000miles or three years without fail.
• With turbo models, the wastegate can stick causing boost issues. Monitor the boost pressure on the test run and make sure the gauge doesn’t exceed 0.7bar, unless of course the car has been tweaked.
• Oil leaking from the top end of the engine is often caused by incorrectly fitted cam covers. This can lead to rough running if oil collects in the spark plug wells.
• Take a listen to the exhaust from cold. If you can hear a blow from the manifold, the chances are it has probably cracked, as this is a common problem.
• Head gaskets were a cause for concern when the esprit was new, and can still be a problem today, so a fully functioning cooling system is key. The pipes that run the length of the car to the front-mounted radiator can become rusty, which is a nightmare to fix.
• The steering in an Esprit should be an absolute joy, especially in the early cars, so if it doesn’t feel right it probably needs a new rack. Steering in the later S3 cars is a little heavier due to wider tyres. Racks in these later cars also wear out quicker thanks to the extra strain.
• When test driving an S1 and S2 models, step on an off the throttle a few times and listen for any clonking sounds. Universal joints have a habit of wearing out, although later S3 models have a much improved rear suspension setup.
• You don’t have to worry about the body panels corroding, and the shell is generally strong and long-lived. Crash damage, and poor re-spray work are really the only concerns.
• If there are signs of accident damage on top, then inspect the chassis with a fine-tooth comb. You won’t generally find too much corrosion, as everything after the S2.2 was fitted with a galvanised chassis. If it’s still in one piece, and not bent or damaged, then breathe a sigh of relief. If there are any issues, then it really needs to be replaced, as repairs are not generally good enough.
• Another problem area can be the fuel tanks. If they haven’t been replaced (and are rusty), then it’s a nightmare of a job to carry out.
• Windscreens will need to be re-sealed if hasn’t been replaced, and it’s a delicate job requiring patience. Half of the time the screen will crack during the procedure, making things even more expensive.
• Lotus originally sourced it’s gearbox from the Citroen SM, meaning replacement parts are almost none-existent, and expensive. Check that the ‘box engages all gears cleanly as well as noisy bearings. It’s a fairly strong transmission though, and will last a long time if you’re a sympathetic driver.
• One safety checkpoint you must make is to find out if and when a new clutch slave cylinder feed hose has been installed at any point. If not, the fluid can catch fire as it hits the rear brakes.
• Interiors generally don’t wear too well, so it’s not unusual to find cars with re-trimmed seats. If looking at an early car, check that the dashboard is in one piece, as the finding spare parts today s almost impossible.
1972: Lotus shows the Giugiaro-designed Esprit concept car at the Turin motor show, based on a modified Europa chassis. Production version remains largely unchanged
1976-1977: Series 1 car goes on sale in the UK, with 160bhp 2.0-litre alloy engine. This is the least refined of all Esprit models, but the purest in terms of design. 714 built.
1978-1980: After just two years, the Esprit is facelifted. New S2 model features Speedline alloys, and new rear light clusters from the Rover SD1, as well as a few updates that make it a little more usable. 1060 built.
1978-1979: JPS special edition built to celebrate Mario Andretti’s Formula 1 Championship win, with just 147 produced.
1980-1981: Bigger 2.2-litre engine is fitted to all Esprits, known as the S2.2. Although power is still capped at 160bhp, the larger engine improved the car’s drivability. With just 88 built, these tend to be bought by collectors.
1980-1981: Essex Turbo model pack a 210bhp punch, with dry-sump engine and unique paint job. 45 built.
1980-1987: The Espirt Turbo goes on sale, now as a full production model. Stronger chassis, improved ventilation and over 210bhp made this a genuine supercar chaser. 1537 built.
1981-1987: Substantially better-developed S3 model goes on sale, alongside the Turbo. Galvanised chassis comes in at this point, and the reliability is much improved over earlier cars thanks to development of the turbocharged car. 767 built.
1987: High Compression Turbo model launched, boosting power to 215bhp. Externally, there is very little difference, with a small HC badge the only giveaway.
1987: Peter Stevens re-styled Esprit goes on sale, featuring a thoroughly updated interior and exterior.
Owners clubs, forums and websites
Summary and prices
In the 21st century the Esprit is still jaw-dropping, without appearing passé. While the handling is still outstanding, turbo models are certainly fast enough to keep even the most experienced drivers on their toes. A lot of the car’s initial foibles have been ironed out since the early days, and the Esprit is a largely reliable gamble today – if you buy well. Running costs shouldn’t be too bad, and most Esprits could be covered by a classic car insurance policy.
Series 1 cars are by far the rarest and most valuable. A top condition example will set you back around £38,000-£45,000, with a usable car at just over £30k. Esprit Turbos are also highly sought after, with the best cars £14,500-£20,000. Early ‘Essex’ Turbos do command a £5k premium however.
S2 and 2.2 models offer the classic styling, with many of the earlier car’s foibles worked out, so are also highly desirable at £15,000-£20,000. If you’re looking for great value, then a top S3 will likely set you back just £12,000-£14,000, with usable cars starting at just £7000.