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“There aren't many cars around like the mid-engined Esprit in which I've arrived at the end of every journey, no matter its length or the prevailing weather and traffic conditions, and thought, ‘Fantastic! I wouldn't mind doing that all over again.’ " Motor Sport Magazine, March 1979
How many times have we been wowed at a Motor Show or by a magazine article featuring the latest concept car or proposed future production machine only for it never to see the light of day or, perhaps worse still, arrive in showrooms some years later as a dilution of the attention grabbing original (Porsche Boxter anyone)? Not so the Lotus Esprit which jumped straight from the sketchpad of Giorgetto Giugiaro to 1972 Turin Motor Show styling exercise in just a few months and thence to the Paris Salon in 1975 and general public availability in June the following year with barely a re-ruled line on it. A tweak to the rake of the windscreen to enable the car’s occupants to actually see through it (and to satisfy the safety police who considered cracking your head on a large piece of glass in a shunt to be a bad thing) and the odd subtle aerodynamic device to stop the car becoming the flying saucer it appeared to be were the only concessions required to take flight of fancy to fully fledged production car. Actually, perhaps not that fully fledged as Lotus required the owners of the early cars to do a fair amount of hand rearing of their charges as many a niggle was addressed on the wing so to speak. This did not however prevent strong sales as the Esprit’s stunning looks, handling and performance (at least on a twisty road) prevailed, aided in no small part by being the car - and at times rocket launching submarine - of choice of one Commander Bond.
These developments, along with some instigated by Lotus engineers themselves, precipitated a Series 2 version just two years later which was universally considered to have upped the Esprit’s game considerably in virtually all areas; understeer was significantly reduced, refinement improved and engine cooling issues resolved. Externally there was thankfully little change with the front spoiler’s graduation from after-market add-on appearance to a more integrated affair while ‘elephant’s ear’ air intakes behind the rear side windows managed to look as if they had been part of the original design. Speedline were commissioned to manufacture bespoke Lotus designed road wheels and while we love a Wolfrace (as fitted to the Series 1s) as much as the next guy, these are a cut above those and the later offerings from BBS et al which could give the Esprit a bit of a ‘tuning shop’ look – no offence. Inside there were new instruments in the ‘Joe 90’ binnacle, a handy (or not handy) digital clock and slightly wider seats for the fuller figure. Towards the end of Series 2 production in 1980 the range was expanded with the Esprit Turbo, the majority of which were finished in the Formula One Team sponsor Essex Petroleum’s slightly lairy livery. Simultaneously the normally aspirated cars were treated to a revised ‘Type 912’ engine of increased 2.2 litre capacity and hence the “Series 2.2” was born. In production for barely a year, apparently just eighty-eight examples for all markets were manufactured from January 1980 to March 1981 making them the rarest of all Esprit models, Essex Turbos aside. While on paper they produced no more horsepower than the 2.0 litre ‘907’ engined cars, those horses may just have been a little more muscular, though the larger engines increased torque was quantifiable – up 20 lb/ft. to 160. However, possibly the most significant change for the Series 2.2 was virtually invisible to the untrained eye; for the first time on a Lotus car, the chassis was galvanised resulting in the Holy Grail of longevity, a fiberglass body and a virtually un-rustable chassis.
Contrary to commonly held beliefs (AKA Wikipedia), Lotus' production records are not “notoriously vague” especially regarding Esprits and we are once again indebted to the Factory Archivist for providing a wealth of build information and early history for this Esprit. The Certificate of Vehicle Provenance and Lotus Cars covering letter in the car’s extensive history file confirm that this Esprit was built as a UK market specification car, the sixteenth of just sixty-five such examples and the third of only eight cars finished in ‘L15’ black. Full leather trim and an electric aerial were the two options listed, any radio or radio/cassette (maybe even a ‘graphic equaliser’) being up to the dealer to fit. The Factory records also reveal that it was signed off from production on 16th October 1980 and invoiced (Number 15787D) to Lotus Dealers Cubleys of Ainsdale the next day. The ever enthusiastic champions of the Lotus Brand allocated it as their demonstration vehicle on 27th January 1981, registering it on 1st February.
Aside from this, not a huge amount is known about the Esprit’s early life and in 2006 it was taken off the road for refurbishment, a task which was apparently carried out over the next four years by the then owner who just happened to be one of Lotus specialists Lotusbits' top mechanics - handy really. From 2010 through to 2014 the Esprit enjoyed regular use but by then the original engine was getting a little tired and it was removed and comprehensive rebuilt to a high but road usable specification. Detailed by Lotusbits invoices in the history file, the all aluminium unit was treated to such goodies as new cylinder liners, lightweight rods and pistons, L14 camshafts, a lightweight flywheel, upgraded valves and a tuned stainless steel exhaust system from head to tailpipes. A dynomometer print-out on file confirms the engine to be good for 225 BHP, some sixty-five more than the standard S2.2 and a handy 15 more than the hallowed contemporary Esprit Turbo.
In 2015, before the engine was reunited with the rest of the car, the seller acquired it at as something of a project and over the last five years he has carried out a significant program of works. Entrusted to renowned Lotus gurus SJ Sportscars, while the power unit was out the engine bay was cleaned and repainted and a pair of new aluminium fuel tanks were fitted. A highlight of the extensive renovation program is a total interior re-trim encompassing every surface and material inside the still space-aged cockpit. During the owner’s tenure the suspension and brakes have also been refurbished by SJ as required and in May of this year they treated the Lotus to a very full service at a cost of some £1,300. All the above work is documented in the history file with photographs and numerous invoices.
Today the bodywork is essentially very good, straight with, for a fibreglass car, excellent alignment, panel gaps and fit though that of the doors could do with a little finessing. There are just a couple of minor star cracks discernible in certain lights. The paintwork is excellent and the owner suggests it might even be original; it certainly has a very good shine and no evidence of any ‘orange peel’ or micro-blistering. A period sun roof is fitted and correct S2.2 pattern gold stripes and logos offset the paintwork very nicely.
The Speedline rims are in perfect condition having been hand selected by Lotusbits from two full sets. Considerable care has been taken to ensure they are finished in the correct shade of gold paint which is itself in excellent condition with just a couple of microscopic chips evident but we are being super-critical here. The original Lotus-logo centre caps are present and again are in perfect order and virtually unworn tyres are fitted all round.
All the external plastics are in excellent condition and there are no cracks in the somewhat delicate light units. The apparently original Triplex glass is all in good condition with no de-laminating, chips or scratches. There are only two bits of external chrome, namely the screen surrounds and these are both in great condition.
Inside the Esprit is, as one would expect, in superb order, the seats having been re-trimmed in magnolia leather which, along with the new carpets, give the interior that ‘showroom’ smell and the overall impression is of a car barely a few months old as opposed to one knocking on the door of its fortieth birthday. A new headlining and contrasting dashboard and door materials have been expertly fitted while the chrome trim strips are very good. The original wooden gear knob has been refinished and a period Sanyo radio/cassette is present, sourced at great cost by SJ and internally converted to pick up that newfangled digital broadcasting (though your ‘Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark’ cassettes will still play too). A lovely leather bound Momo Prototipo steering wheel has also been fitted and bills on file attest to some £10,000 having been spent on the interior alone.
Having been detailed in 2016, the engine bay of the Lotus is very clean and tidy; while not quite to concours standard, it is very presentable indeed and the stainless steel exhaust system looks a good as it sounds. The soft cover provided to hide any items in the storage area above the engine from prying eyes is in fine condition. The tool kit is in place, secured to the engine cover which does have a few minor scuffs. The front services compartment contains all the standard items plus a fire extinguisher and it is in what we would describe as functional condition. The underside is much the same with just some good honest road grime which could be jet washed away in a satisfying hour or so, or left well alone while you get on and drive, which is what the Esprit was designed for after all.
Recently MOT tested, the Lotus drives very well indeed with all the controls feeling tight and positive including the gear-change which can be a slight issue on Esprits. Oil pressure sits at a healthy 70 psi when idling from cold and when fully warmed up the fans kick in to keep the water temperature under control even during the most un-British of summers recently experienced. Beautiful though the rest of it is, in Ferrari-esc style, the heart of the car is its engine and this expertly reworked example has power and tractability in spades with the bonus of a spine-tingling soundtrack. With 225 BHP propelling barely a ton, the Esprit’s performance compares favourably with any number of perceived ‘supercars’, something confirmed by the owner who regularly has the opportunity to drive it back to back with his Ferrari 328. The engine pulls spectacularly well throughout the rev. range proving well set up carburettors can be a match for fuel injection and the combination of low rotating masses and a bespoke extractor exhaust system give it razor sharp responses, gaining and loosing revs. with alacrity. Care and attention lavished on the cockpit’s inner panels during its re-trim also give it a degree of civilisation not often found on Lotus’ of this era.
On top of the aforementioned extensive collection of bills, the History File contains the current V5C and various MOT certificates, plus the Esprit’s Owners’ Handbook and a 2019 Club Lotus insurance valuation of £42,000.
In fabulous condition throughout and with this era and style of ‘classic’ starting to come into its own in recent years, now could well be the time to grab a wedge of 1981.