31st October 2008

Lotus Esprit S1/S2

posted in Car News Articles |

Just to get the inevitable out of the way right up front–yes, the Lotus Esprit S1 was the basis of James Bond’s submersible car from the film The Spy Who Loved Me. Yes, it was a great movie–probably my favorite of the Roger Moore era–and yes, submarine cars are worthy of lust regardless of their other qualifications. More on that later.

I have always lusted after the earliest Lotus Esprits on their own merits, quite apart from their fictional submarine capabilities. The first Esprits were light, responsive, excellent handlers … and drop-dead gorgeous. The Esprit would eventually evolve into Lotus’ first bona-fide supercar, but in uniquely Lotus fashion–without the excess of the Ferrari Testarossa and Lamborghini Countach.

When it debuted in 1976 to replace the quirky but ungainly Europa, the Esprit was a light, efficient sports car, weighing less than 2,200 pounds–lighter than a Kia Rio. This featherweight packed a punch by the standards of the era, with an amidships-mounted 160-horsepower four-cylinder running through a five-speed gearbox. This combination of power, light weight, and mid-engined configuration combined for handling as sharp as the Giugiaro-sculpted lines.

And, oh, what lines. I’m clearly a fan of stylish 1970s wedges–after all, I’ve already honored such purposeful wedges as the Lancia Stratos, Fiat X1/9, Triumph TR8, and the aforementioned Countach. Well, the Esprit just might be the prettiest of the lot. In today’s world of bloated cars, the original Esprit’s elegant angularity stands out as both aggressive and delicately beautiful. Oh, and it’s a hatchback. The proportions, the detailing–everything about the Esprit is just right.

Except the interior, perhaps. Like other mid-engined sports cars and, especially, exotics, the Esprit had a reputation as being claustrophobic and uncomfortable. It was a different era, in which sporting machines were not expected to be daily drivers and grocery getters. Unlike today’s sumptuous Ferraris, the Esprit made no real pretensions of luxury.

The Esprit’s original 160 horsepower made for a nice sports car, but the addition of a turbocharger in 1980 ushered in the age of the Esprit as a true exotic. With 210 horsepower on tap, and only 10 pounds of weight to saddle each horsepower, the Esprit Turbo could top 150 mph and do the 0-60 sprint in the mid 5-second range. That was serious, hard-core performance in the early 1980s–as fast as the fastest Porsches, Lamborghinis, and Ferraris. The Lotus fanatics may kill me for this, but in a way the turbo Esprit was an upper-class Dodge Daytona Turbo Z–a four-cylinder David slaying the big-engine Goliaths with the help of light weight and a turbocharger.

The advent of the turbocharger marked the end of the original S1 and S2 Esprits. The S3 bodystyle would slowly evolve until 1988, when a dramatic redesign somehow managed to completely change the Esprit’s visual character without diminishing its appeal. The car would later receive a V-8 that pumped out more than twice the original’s horsepower. Thanks to those tweaks, added to the original Esprit’s innate goodness, the Esprit soldiered on in production as a slinky, sweet-handling sports car until 2004–a mind-boggling production run of 28 years, more than a quarter of a century.

All Esprits are worthy of lust, and I’ll probably hit on the rounder 1988 redesign at some point, but my adrenal glands really kick in for the original S1 and S2 Esprits. The combination of simplicity and elegance is a seductive one, and I’d drive one in a heartbeat–even without submersible capability.

I can hear some of you saying, “Okay, that’s all well and good. But what I really want to do is cruise along underwater in a heart-stirring white Lotus.” Fair enough; I have two treats for you, one immediate and one delayed. For those in need of immediate gratification, I’ve attached the car chase from The Spy Who Loved Me below–it doesn’t include all of the underwater scenes, but it has enough to inflame Esprit passion.

The next tribute to submerged white Loti comes tomorrow (Friday).

The picture of the gorgeous orange Esprit comes courtesy of Flickr user flakacars; Flickr user hegg has an excellent collection of photos of the beautiful yellow Esprit, and the image of the white Bond-style S1 Esprit comes from Flickr user marion.macleod‘s photostream. The picture of the die-cast Bond car comes from Flickr user nickstone333–I have one just like that, but in slightly less pristine condition.

–Chris H.

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