Seventies style or Eighties usability? It’s a dilemma that has troubled enthusiasts for many years and, while deciding between an early LP400 Countach and one of the later QV models can be a tough choice for a multitude of reasons, we find ourselves in a similar quandary when looking at Lotus GT cars of the same era.
At a glance, anyone can see that the earliest M50 Elite of 1974 and later Eclat both bear a striking family resemblance to the Lotus Excel, introduced at the 1982 NEC Motor Show. Delve a little deeper under the skin, however, and you will discover a considerably different machine, and one that deserves a second look.
The Excel was the first Lotus model to bear the fruits of a recent technical partnership with Toyota, and what a difference it made. Lotus kept its own carburettor-fed 2.2-litre four-cylinder engine but utilised the transmission, differential, driveshafts and even the brakes from the Celica Supra, along with various other components throughout. The car also gained a new rear suspension set-up as well as numerous cosmetic changes, including body-coloured bumpers and a new front-end treatment.
Which one to buy?
This was just the beginning of a long evolutionary journey for Excel, however, and towards the end of 1984 Lotus had further updates up its sleeve to take the fight to its rivals. It received a further re-style, refreshed interior as well as a new SE (Special Equipment) package in early 1986 – much of which was undertaken by Peter Stevens as his first project for Lotus. As well as some functional aero tweaks, the SE also brought a 20bhp rise in power, bringing it up to a healthy 180bhp.
1986 also brought in another Lotus first, the automatic SA version, which made use of a four-speed ZF transmission to appeal more to US buyers. Build quality steadily improved throughout the production run, with tolerances significantly tightened up. That means finding a later model today, preferably in SE form, is your best bet. Production actually continued right up to 1992, by which point the Excel was a very well sorted car – if a little out-dated. Drive a good example today and you will still be struck by the sharp chassis set-up, as well as the torquey and exceptionally responsive engine.
Performance and specs
Engine 2174cc in-line four cylinder
Power 180bhp @ 6500rpm
Torque 165lb ft @ 5000rpm
Top speed 135mph
Fuel consumption approx 22.5mpg
Gearbox Five-speed manual
Dimensions and weight
Kerb weight 1171kg
• Electrical gremlins are to be expected, so don’t be too surprised if there are a few blown dashboard bulbs. Other issues, such as inconsistent gauges and flickering warning lights, are generally due to bad earth contacts.
• Be wary of more serious electrical maladies, as they can be difficult to trace.
• Engines are largely reliable but they don’t like to be abused, so ensure any car you’re buying has received regular oil and coolant changes.
• If a car is running rough, then it may be a case of setting-up the carbs, but a misfire could be caused by a tired fuel pump.
• Look out for electrical issues under the bonnet, as a failing distributor may also cause problems.
• Most parts are surprisingly cheap and easy to source, as they were originally taken from 1980s Toyotas. The rear light clusters were shared with the Rover SD1, but other trim and parts unique to the Excel can be more difficult to track down.
• The steel backbone chassis was galvanised from new, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be rusty today. It’s best to get the car on a ramp to fully inspect the underside.
• As the body is glassfibre, there’s little to worry about here, aside from the condition of the paint and previous accident damage. Do watch out for crazing and cracking of the gel coat too.
Owners clubs, forums and websites
Summary and prices
It’s easy to be swayed by the looks of the prettier earlier models, or the functionality of something from Stuttgart, but we would urge you to spare a thought for the Excel. Here’s a car that is far better to drive than it has any right to be, less troublesome than any Lotus of old, and fantastic value for money.
Even the best Excel will struggle to command more than £10,000 on the market and you can find good cars for considerably less. £3000 is the starting point for an early car in need of a little love, while £6500 should get you into a decent SE. Automatics are generally pretty rare, and are a little cheaper.