The history of the Lotus Esprit


The Lotus Esprit is a sports car that 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.
The Esprit was launched in October 1975 at the Paris motorshow, and 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. With a steel backbone chassis and a fibreglass body, the Esprit was powered by the Lotus 907 4 cylinder engine, as previously used in the Jensen Healey. This engine displaced 2.0 L, produced 160 bhp (119 kW; 162 PS) in European trim (140 bhp (104 kW; 142 PS) in US/Federal trim), and was mounted longitudinally behind the passengers, as in its predecessor. The transaxle gearbox was a 5 speed unit, previously used in the CitroŽn SM and Maserati Merak; it featured inboard rear brakes, as was racing practice at the time. The Series 1 embodied Lotusí performance through light weight mantra, weighing less than 1,000 kg (2,205 lb).
The original Esprit was lauded for its handling and is said to have the best steering of any Esprit. However, it was generally regarded as lacking power, especially in markets such as the United States where the engine was down-rated for emissions purposes. Lotusí claim of 0-60 mph in 6.8 seconds and a top speed of 138 mph (222 km/h) may be thought of as optimistic - actual road test times indicated 0-60 mph in 8 seconds and a top speed of around 133 mph (214 km/h).
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.
1980 S2A series of improvements made to the Esprit during its initial run culminated in the S2 (or Series 2) Esprit. The most obvious of these changes are intake and cooling duct "ears" located behind the rear quarter window, tail lights from the Rover SD1, and an integrated front spoiler. S2 Esprits also used 14-inch (360 mm) Speedline alloy wheels designed specifically for Lotus. Other changes included relocating the battery from above the right side fuel tank (under the rear quarter window) to the rear of the car, adding an access door to the engine cover, as well as replacing the instrument cluster made by Veglia with individual gauges made by Smiths and using different style of switches on the dashboard.
During this era, special edition cars were made to commemorate Lotus's racing victories. Sharing the black and gold colour scheme of Lotus' then F1 sponsor, John Player & Sons, these cars are commonly known as the John Player Special (JPS) Esprits. Lotus' records of production figures are notoriously vague, however best estimates suggest that 149 JPS Esprits were produced.
The S2.2 was produced as a stop-gap model in 1980, almost identical to the S2 but with an enlarged (2.2 L) type 912 engine used. This kept horsepower the same, but bumped up torque from 140 lb∑ft (190 N∑m) to 160 lb∑ft (217 N∑m). Importantly, the S2.2 also introduced the use of a galvanised chassis. These cars are extremely rare even among Esprits and only 88 are thought to have been produced.
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, and is therefore known as the Essex Esprit. The new turbocharged dry-sump type 910 engine produced 210 hp (157 kW) and 200 lb∑ft (270 N∑m) of torque. 0-60 mph could be achieved in 5.6 seconds, with a top speed of over 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, which were 15" Compomotive 3-piece items. Internally, scarlet leather, combined with a roof-mounted Panasonic stereo, made for a dramatic environment.
By the close of 1980, Lotus were 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.
The S3 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 moulds 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[7]. 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.
In 1987, a new version of the Esprit was introduced, 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 retained the CitroŽn 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 freshening of the interior, allowing 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 CitroŽn 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.
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 upped power to 300 bhp (224 kW; 304 PS) 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, skidpad increased to 0.91g, an increased slalom of 61.7 mph and a 0-60 mph time of 4.6 seconds. Although the engine kept its 2.2 litre 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 cancelled project for a front engine car had left Lotus with a compact V8 and no car to put it into.
The Esprit V8 used Lotus' self developed all-aluminum, twin-turbocharged (Garrett T3/60 turbos) 90-degree V-8, Code-named Type 918, in front of the same Renault transmission as before with no Chargecooler. Derek Bell 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 (261 kW; 355 PS) 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 and a top speed of over 175 mph. Early Type 918 engines built between 1997 to 2000 are noted to suffer from a leaking cylinder liner problem due to a breakdown in the liner sealant if the engine overheats, resulting 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.
Alongside V8 models was produced 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 (as per the name) and 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 fibre 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.
2004 V8Esprit production continued until 2004, Lotus content on producing the Esprit with little development aside from minor cosmetic changes including a switch to four round tail lights in 2002. Over 28 years a total of 10,675 Esprits were produced.
As with many of their cars, Lotus used parts from other cars to cut down development costs. Esprits before 1993 have many British Leyland parts and after 1993 have many GM (Vauxhall, Opel) parts. G Esprits have CitroŽn gearboxes as found in the CitroŽn SM and Maserati Merak, while S Esprits have Renault UN1 gearboxes, with the exception of the North American Esprit Turbo which retained the Citroen gearbox for 1988 only. The door handles come from Morris Marina / Austin Allegro and were kept until the S4 model in 1994 when instead GM Calibra door handles were used. Early models used a Momo steering wheel, later ones had the same as the Pontiac Trans Am. Until 2002 it had rectangular Toyota rear lights from the 1985 Toyota Sprinter Trueno and RWD Toyota Corolla Coupe, later replaced with the same round light as the Lotus Elise II. The aerial mount and whip on the S4 and V8 is the same as the GM Calibra and Tigra. The side mirrors are from the CitroŽn CX. Non SE foglamps from about 1989 are GM Astra mk1. The fan motors come from the Ford Fiesta mk2. The alternator on the V8 models is a standard GM unit also found in the V6 Opel Omega B and the earlier Lotus Carlton/Omega which also provides many of the interior plastic fittings such as door handles and steering column. The clutch slave cylinder on the 98 onwards models is the same as a series 2A Landrover from Girling as is the master cylinder. The front suspension of the S1 and S2 came from the Opel Ascona. Front GT3 Brake Pads (Brembo) are the same as on a Fiat Coupe turbo or a Peugeot 406 3.0 v6.

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