1987 Lotus Esprit SE

   Colin Chapman brought renowned F1 engineer Tony Rudd to Lotus in 1969 and during their discussions in 1970 future projects came up. Two projects were decided, the first being the “Project M50” which yielded the Lotus Elite of 1974, and secondly a two-door fixed-head mid-engined coupé, successor to the Europa, titled “Project M70”. Mike Kimberley and Tony Rudd were working from the new Lotus HQ of Ketteringham Hall to produce the mechanicals when designer Oliver Winterbottom arranged a meeting between Chapman and Italdesign founder Giorgio Giugiario to look at body styling. Giugiaro had recently designed the ground-breaking Maserati Boomerang concept car and Winterbottom suggested that this idea, the polygonal "folded paper" design, would be a good way forward for the new Lotus.

   Giugiaro's “folded paper” designs resonated through the next two decades with many car designers taking their cue from the Boomerang Concept. But when the 1:4 scale model of Giugiaro’s design for the new Lotus went to the wind tunnel the results did not please Chapman and he decided to cancel the project.

   However, Italdesign remained undaunted and pressed on with the idea. Using an elongated Lotus Europa chassis they built a full-size mock-up of the car and displayed it on Giorgio Giugiario's Italdesign stand at the 1972 Turin Auto Show. The then un-named concept car became known as "the Silver Car", and it created quite a stir. It was enough for Italdesign to gain Colin Chapman’s approval and a second prototype was developed. This car became known as "the Red Car", and registered as `IDGG 01' for test and development work at Hethel. Chapman became so convinced by the design that the new car was actually announced to the press despite the mechanical designs being incomplete!

   Through 1973/74 a continuous programme of development led to the Project M70 becoming the Lotus type 79 and shown at the 1975 Paris Motor Show. This show featured several designs clearly influenced by the Giugiario Boomerang concept. Alfa Romeo’s Eagle spyder and the Ferrari 308 GTB both came from the Pininfarina design studio, Bertone designed the Fiat X1/9 and the Sbarro Stash concept, by Pierre Cardin, all feature angular design and some almost as rakish as the Boomerang.  But the car that stole the show with its sleek yet aggressive looks was the Lotus Esprit. The car, which Giugiaro wanted to call "Kiwi", now had a name; and one in keeping with the Lotus tradition of names beginning with the letter E. And, the Lotus Esprit was awarded “Star of the Show”.

   The first Esprit came off the production line in June 1976 and the stood out from the crowd immediately. A light weight fibreglass body with such modern design looks was mated to a steel backbone chassis carrying a 160bhp, Lotus 907 4-cylinder, 2ltr engine and the Lotus’ design team’s suspension designs. In all it made for a stunning car with legendary ride and handling that took it to very edge of the “Supercar” bracket. Less than 1000 kg going from 0-60mph in 8sec’s, and a top speed of about 133 mph, wasn’t as blistering as the new supercars of the continent, and actually didn’t meet Lotus’ own predictions of 0–60mph in 6.8 seconds and a top speed of 138 mph, but it was very good and the looks were to die for. Sales of the Esprit were good and it turned heads everywhere it went. When production of the series one Esprit was stopped in December 1977, 718 had been built. This number might have been more but for the emissions crackdown in the US. Esprits exported to the US were reduced to 140bhp in order meet Federal regulations and this was quite a handicap to the performance of the car. Plans were already made to improve the Esprits various weaknesses.

   From early 1978 the Series 2 (or S2) Esprit was in production. It had some detail changes to the body including intake changes and a faired in front spoiler. A new rear valance and rear quarter lights.  The rear lights now came from the Rover SD1. Mechanically the engine remained the same but had a new camshaft which boosted performance and raised the top speed. The rear suspension was upgraded and with new Lotus designed 14in Speedline alloy wheels the handling and looks were even more stunning.  The S1 Esprit had some issues internally, most notably noise. This was much reduced in the Series two. In order to accommodate larger clients wider seats were fitted and the previous Veglia instrument cluster was replaced with an array of six individual Smiths gauges and illuminated switches on the fascia. Perhaps a less modern look but certainly very British.

   1978 was a good year for Lotus in Formula One culminating in winning both the World Drivers and Constructors Championships. To commemorate this achievement in 1979 Lotus decided to build 100 Special “Commemorative Edition” Esprits carrying the familiar John Player & Sons black and gold livery. These were actually the regular 2ltr S2 cars with a special paint scheme but they were exclusive. The notoriously vague production records at Lotus say there were 300 built, each numbered sequentially, but most historians estimate around 150 is closer to the truth.

   A new engine was unveiled for the 1980 year and the S2 became the S2.2 courtesy of the 2.2ltr type 912 engine being fitted from May of that year. This was really just a gap filling model as Lotus were working on a motor that would really put the Esprit into the Supercar League. The 2.2ltr engine had little horse power advantage over the 2ltr unit but did have more torque.

   In the February of 1980 an unrated Esprit was launched at a big party at the Royal Albert Hall. This was called the Type 82 car and had a new 16-valve, High Compression (HC)Turbo engine; a long stroke 910-turbo engine capable of 215bhp.  Interestingly the Garrett AiResearch turbocharger isn’t on top of the engine but behind the cylinder block, on top of the bellhousing for the clutch. A ribbed cast-alloy unit passed air at 8psi above atmospheric pressure from the turbocharger to the Dellorto carburettors. It is reported that a Renault racing engine designer thought this was an intercooler, it wasn’t actually designed to be so but did do the job all the same. The Lotus press releases pointed out the scope of the new engine’s development saying :-

“... this new addition to our model range is not an Esprit with a bolt-on Turbo pack, but a fully developed and redesigned motor car in its own right.”

   Suddenly the Esprit had a top speed of 150mph and could do 0-60mph in 6.1 seconds.

   Much more than just an engine change, this new version had an improved, galvanised, backbone chassis, partly needed to accommodate the new engine but also to allow further suspension improvements. An additional upper link was put onto rear suspension to help spread the torque strain on the half-shafts. This allowed the driveshaft to have sliding joints and the previous vibrations from cornering stresses to be dampened, much reducing the noise transfer through the chassis to the body and interior. Coil spring/damper units remained in use all round but, of course, the brakes were uprated, larger in diameter but still not ventilated. The increase in engine power also required the clutch to be increased in diameter, by an inch, although the Citroen SM gearbox was unchanged.

   Externally Giogetto Giugiaro revisited his design to improve the aerodynamics of the body. A new, more substantial, wrap around front bumper and integrated splitter, and a body kit of rear spoiler and side skirts, prominent louvers in the rear hatch and new three-piece 15" Compomotive rear wheels all changed the look of the Esprit Turbo. A special edition paint scheme was also introduced. Just like the special edition JPS Esprit edition in 1980 the special edition car was a Turbo car in the colours of the F1 team, now sponsored by Essex Petroleum Corporation. A startling blue, red and chrome livery was transposed onto the Esprit Turbo for the “Essex Turbo Esprit”.  Internally these cars had read leather trim and seats and a Panasonic stereo fitted in the roof. The first 100 of the new Turbo cars were supposed to be the “Essex” special edition cars but the bold colour scheme wasn’t as universally appealing as the classic JPS scheme and relatively few Essex Esprits were built.

   At this point in time Lotus was selling three distinctly different Esprit models. Each had a different chassis and required different body moulds. These were the standard Esprit S2.2, the US Export S2.2 and the dry sump Turbo Esprit.

   Lotus announced that there was to be a new “Series three” Esprit in 1981. The Type 85 was to replace the S2.2 but the Turbo would of course remain. This new car was still driven by the 2.2ltr engine but Lotus now produced 76% of cars components in their factory at Hethel. This afforded a reduction in costs of around 12% and meant the S3 could be sold as a truly affordable Supercar.

   At the same time Lotus also started to more intently pursue an idea to fit a large 4ltr, four-cam’, V8 engine into the Esprit. The Turbo chassis had been amended with this in mind and had a larger engine bay, this was now standardised to all Esprits. In 1982 the Esprit Turbo was Lotus’ best-selling model, it was described by “Motor Sport” magazine as ‘The perfect driving machine?’ and by “Autocar” as a ‘paragon of the turbocharged’.

   Through 1982/3 Lotus worked on an Active Suspension system for the Esprit. Former F1 driver John Miles did the driving development work and the work done at this time pioneered the 1987 Lotus active suspension F1 car. All the miles of testing also proved something the Lotus engineers had suspected for some time, conventional wet-sump engine lubrication worked perfectly well on the turbo engine so from March 1983 all Turbo Esprits had this lubrication system instead of the dry-sump system. Federal acceptance of the Esprit Turbo in the U.S, was eventually gained in 1984 with the HCi variant. Higher compression, a catalytic converter and Bosch KE-Jetronic fuel injection helped develop the same output as the carburetted car and within the stringent emissions requirements.

   In April 1986 the final Giugiaro-styled Esprit was announced as the S3 'HC’ cars. The naturally aspirated engine now produced 172 hp.

   The only real major change in outward appearance of the Esprit came when the Stevens designed X180 version of the Esprit was released in October 1987. Still officially the series three the project code X180 is more usually used to separate this new Esprit from all those that came before. Peter Stevens would later design the McLaren F1 supercar and his softened interpretation of the original Giugiaro design was apparently approved of by Giogetto Giugiaro himself. Steven’s re-draft didn’t alter the silhouette very much but was a rounder less angular looking car than the earlier Esprits. It probably reflected the fact that design had moved on a great deal in the last 15 years and there was a definite movement toward lowing the drag coefficient of cars in the name of economy and ecology. While Giugiaro apparently thought the new car was a little too close to his idea it certainly rang a bell with the consumer and gave the Esprit a new lease of life.

   If the design changes to the panels had been more in the way of detail changes the manner in which they were produced was a big leap forward in production car methodology. Lotus used their new, and patented, VARI (Vacuum Assisted Resin Injection) process. Kevlar reinforcement was added to the major parts of the body shell and roof increasing side impact and roll-over protection greatly. It also had the effect of increasing the cars torsional rigidity, by 22%, with the resultant improvements in traction, road holding and handling.

   The interior was likewise overhauled with an emphasis on giving more space for the driver and passenger. Note it is still passenger, singular, no space for so much as a child was included and luggage space remained enough for little more than a small overnight bag.

   Mechanically speaking the exterior face lift was just that. The X180 inherited its bones and muscle from the earlier HC Esprit and Turbo Esprits. Citroën’s gearbox remained but the new Renault UN-1 transaxle was now in place forcing the rear brakes to be moved to the more conventional outboard position. U.S. Export models retained earlier transaxle and Bosch fuel injection system though. Lotus’ Type 910 turbo engine was putting out the same power but the 0-60 mph times was pushed down to as little as 5.1sec’s

   1988 also happened to be Lotus’ 40th anniversary and to mark the occasion another special edition Turbo Esprit was made available. Unlike the earlier special editions this car did not have the F1 teams livery on in. A much more understated, but equally exclusive, White Pearlescent paint (with matching body colour wheels), adorned the 40 cars limited units which also had a special body kit and distinctive rear spoiler. Internally a beautiful blue colour scheme set of the interior scheme which featured a special numbered plaque on the dash and a tilting glass sunroof. These “limited-edition” cars could command as much as $20,000 over the usual price of an Esprit Turbo!

   The SE (Special Equipment) Turbo Esprit went on sale from May 1989 and was the fastest Lotus production car to that time. The 910S 2.2ltr 16valve Turbo engine pushed this car to 264mph because of a new Lotus/Delco multi-point fuel injection (MPFI) system and a Lotus air-water-air intercooler which they chose to call a “Chargecooler”. On overboost this engine could push out 280hp and all this combined to the Citroën C35 5-speed manual gearbox could now allow a skilled driver to equal the 0-60mph time of 4.7sec’s claimed by Lotus.

   The Lotus Esprit was now without doubt a Supercar.


   Originally conceived to take Lotus from the sports car bracket into the supercar league it took more than a decade of development to achieve this accolade. But the Esprit was always much more than a mid-priced, reasonably fast, sports car anyway. It’s looks were influential throughout its production life and claimed it not one but two starring roles in James Bond films (“The Spy Who Loved Me” in 1977 and “For Your Eyes Only” in 1982), the metamorphosing car/submarine remains an iconic moment in the film and motoring minds.

   While later Esprits look good on the modern “track days” the earlier Esprits didn’t take their looks into consideration when racing. The few Esprits transformed for silhouette racing didn’t look pretty, and they didn’t perform to any high standard either; but they did show the promise that development of the concept would eventually lead to. Style and handling were the key to the Esprits success rather than raw pace or super-quick 0-60 times, although both did come in the fullness of time.

    While many still see Lotus in terms of seven grand Prix Constructors Championships and six Drivers Championships the die-hard Lotus aficionado sees Lotus as the “Seven” and the Esprit; and many people still think Britain’s first true supercar, was the Esprit Turbo SE.

1/24th scale kit.
Built by Rod.

  The first Lotus Esprit kit was released by Monogram in 1990 titled as the Lotus Esprit Turbo US Version, kit# 2789. The followed this up in 1994 with the Lotus Esprit Sport 300, kit# 2970, which included some new parts. the following year a new box version of this kit was released before the Lotus Esprit Turbo U.S. version's moulds were passed to Hasegawa who released the same original kit as HM19 in the late 1990s. 

   Built in the mid-1990s this model, from the original Monogram kit, is painted with Halfords acrylic car spray paints and Humbrol enamels. It is one of Rod's earliest efforts with spraying from a rattle can. It is built straight from the box with minimal frills and is a fairly faithful representation of the Lotus SE.