Thin edge of the wedge

Lotus only built 894 S1s, but the Esprit became one of the longest-lived designs of all time

WORDS MICHAEL STAHL

LET’S SAY you’re a technology billionaire who’s big in space exploration, satellites and energy, with almost the means – and perhaps the will – to take over the world. You’re looking to buy a car, but heck, you already have your own car company. What to buy?

In 2013, SpaceX/Tesla entrepreneur Elon Musk plonked down £612,000 ($1.05m) to buy ‘Wet Nellie’, the white Lotus Esprit from the 1977 James Bond film The Spy Who Loved Me. It must amuse Musk that this car doesn’t actually have wheels and can only be driven underwater.

The Lotus Esprit had its genesis in 1970 as project M70, successor to the mid-engined Lotus Europa (1966-’75). Key goals were to modernise the Europa’s quirky styling and create more occupant space. Giorgetto Giugiaro, who had left Ghia in 1968 to found ItalDesign, was personally commissioned by Lotus’s Colin Chapman. With shades of Giugiaro’s earlier Maserati Bora and concurrent Maserati Boomerang concept, the Esprit prototype was shown at the 1972 Turin motorshow.

Giugiaro’s first design for fibreglass required long production engineering, the process also allowing time for Lotus’s new, all-alloy ‘907’ four-cylinder engine to be developed, and a sufficiently strong transaxle gearbox to be found. The production prototype was completed in December 1974, though it was another 10 months until the public launch at the 1975 Paris Motor Show – and customer deliveries did not begin until mid-1976.

With its light weight (990kg) perfectly distributed, the Esprit was hailed for its handling, but the four-potter’s performance was hollow and the cockpit harsh and noisy. The first customer deliveries in June 1976 were not only eight months late, they were around 35 percent above the launch price quoted in October 1975 – and were often mechanically unreliable.

Much of that, however, was forgiven after July 1977, thanks to Bond … James Bond.

In August 1978, the Esprit S2 introduced more refinement along with styling and mechanical changes, progressing through a stroked 2.2-litre and Turbo (1980), an S3 (1981), a new generation (with body designed by Peter Stevens) in 1988 and Lotus’s own 3.5-litre twin-turbo V8 (1996). Esprit production ended in 2004 and in those 28 years, Lotus built only 10,675 Esprits – of those, a mere 894 being the Series 1.

05 Fast & factual

1 Full metal jacket

John Z DeLorean couldn’t engineer a sports car; the DMC-12 was essentially a rear-engined Esprit with a stainless steel skin.

2 Wet storage

Bond’s ‘Wet Nellie’ had been lost in storage for 12 years in New York; the container, with unknown contents, was auctioned in 1989 for US$100.

3 Colour run

The first 100-odd Esprits were gel-coated and available only in white, red or yellow, but this boat-making process was hard to colour-match.

4 Mixed breed

Parts-bin approach saw Esprit use Fiat X1/9 tail lights, Morris Marina door handles, LR Defender switchgear and a Citroen SM/Maserati ’box.

5 Grand Prix gloat

The Esprit’s brochure boasted that its maker had “won more F1 Grands Prix … and in less time than its principal competitor.” Cop that, Enzo.

In detail

Sporty slant

The 1973cc, dohc, 16-valve fourcylinder ‘907’ engine had its block cast at a 45-degree angle for a low bonnet line and later V8 expansion. With twin Dell’Orto carbs, its 119kW at 6200rpm and 190Nm at 4900rpm were modest (US versions had only 104kW), but were at least aided by a 990kg kerb weight, mid-mounted location and (Citroen-sourced) five-speed transaxle. 0-100km/h took around 6.8 seconds.

A ’glass act

In Lotus custom, the Esprit comprised a fibreglass monocoque body on a fabricated steel backbone chassis. It was low, at just 1090mm, and 4190mm long. Front suspension was by double wishbones with coils, rear by trailing arms and lateral links with coils. Sublime steering was by unassisted rack-and-pinion; braking by 246mm front and 270mm (inboard) rear discs, within 14-inch Wolfrace alloy wheels.

Tartan it up

The signature Esprit S1 interior was the green and red tartan from James Bond’s example. S1s eschewed leather for ‘washable’ fabric. Inside was as angular as outside, with a tall and broad centre console ramping up to the dash, a curved ‘three-panel’ binnacle (housing lighting, instrumentation and ventilation controls), and laid-back, one-piece seats that butted against the rear bulkhead, leaving the shallow glovebox as the only interior storage space. Front and rear boot space totalled a meagre 198 litres.