FORTY YEARS OF ESPRIT

LOTUSí WONDERFUL WEDGE HITS MIDDLE AGE

ITíS ONE OF the most iconic shapes of the 1970s. In a decade that brought us some stunning car designs, the origami folds, fl at planes and bold proportioning of Giugiaroís Lotus Esprit sits at the very top table.

Underneath, the Series 1 car was a hastily-developed lash-up, with abysmal quality control and unresolved dynamics. Colin Chapman's steel backbone idea was a typical of the man himself, an ingenious concept both in terms of rigidity rigidity and weight saving, but safety?

Occupants were best minded to consider the fact that they were, in effect, sitting outside the chassis. There were other bold engineering fl ourishes, such as the independent rear suspension with the driveshafts acting as part of the suspension. It was a great idea in theory but owners reported premature wear.

When the Esprit arrived in UK dealers in July 1976, it was a huge step in ambition for Lotus. The £7979 price tag might have compared favourably with the £11,660 Ferrari 308 GT4 and the £11,500 Porsche 911 but it put the Norfolk company amongst a customer base with far higher expectations of fi nish and service than Chapman had been used to.

Lotus claimed a top speed of 138mph and 0-60mph in 6.8sec, fi gures which Motor magazine didnít match.

Perhaps the greatest achievement of the Esprit was not its underwater abilities or sheer longevity Ė the car enjoying a 28 year

production run across four generations Ė but Lotusí commitment to improve the vehicle. Slowly but surely, the Esprit morphed from a show car put cheaply into production to a car with solid engineering and sharp handling. The Peter Stevens-bodied cars marked a step change for Lotus in terms of fi nish and reliability, and it was these and the later Julian Thompson-styled cars that really saw the Esprit realise its potential, including such greats such as the GT3 and the Sport 350. Unfortunately, management changes at Lotus saw the pretty Donato Coco design for a new generation of Esprits get the axe, but itís doubtful weíve seen the last of a nameplate with such equity.

The Esprit will return, but until then, letís raise a glass to a forty year old that took its time, but eventually came good.