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Lotus Esprit S1/S2

Esprit1 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.

Esprit2 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.

Esprit3 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.

Esprit4 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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For those more interested in the Bond angle than the car itself, this Fifth Gear clip is worth watching. I love that the producers were frustrated by the Esprit's sweet handling and high limits - no matter how hard they pushed it, they couldn't make the car look as if it was working particularly hard!

These are cool for their time, but I am still inclined toward the newer Lotus (Loti?). The idea that my car could be light enough I could lift one end off the ground by myself is appealing.

Chris: Thanks for the Youtube clip, that was great. Loved the car when saw the movie as a seven year-old, and I had a die-cast toy of it myself. (I seem to remember the red spring-loaded rockets on top got lost pretty quickly, but at least they actually shot out, not like in these days risk-free-toys grumble grumble lawn get off.)

BTW - love the site, always a good read.

Chris: ps - I meant thanks for the Youtube Fifth Gear clip. (drinks are good, thanks) ...always interesting to get first-hand behind-the-scenes accounts of Bond films.

"quirky but ungainly Europa" UNGAINLY!?!?! Quirky yes, the first mid-engine production car and its british and it's a lotus designed by Colin Chapman. but UNGAINLY the europa is not! While maybe not the gem that the lotus 23 was, the Europa was and is a stunning car. Kind of curvy is a special english sort of way. Given the option of an Esprit and a Europa i'd grab for the Europa in a nano-second.

i love the esprit, as recently proven, they are even affordable. but a europa has an air that surpasses its successor in a special kind of grace influenced by great brit cars like the XKE.

I don't think there's a lotus out there i wouldn't want to have in my stable. One thing i did notice recently was if you notch the back on an esprit, put on ground effects skirts and then kind of squish it sideways, you get a first gen MR2:)

Gotta second that one! It's a macho, sci-fi futuristic 2001-space-odessey uber-hoodride. Looks & sounds like a good honest rally machine, I like how the awesome handling of the Lotus is the only thing that saved Bond from the rocket-sidecar-warhead. Awesome explosions, awesome driving, that clip is what every day would be like if you owned this car.

210 horsepower, 2200 pounds, and a Lotus suspension with Lotus handling . . . sweeeeeeeeet!

I always enjoy a good wedge. Give me an Esprit with a Subaru XT as a daily driver and a wedge of cheese for lunch and I'm a happy guy.

The last turbo 4 Esprit was the S4. Except for the ungainly wing, it was gorgeous. And very, very quick.

The later turbo V-8 models were scary fast, and a whole lot more refined, but they lost the edge of the originals.

Calling agent Triple X...come in agent Triple X...

Mochi Mochi: ""quirky but ungainly Europa" UNGAINLY!?!?! "

Yeah, I thought that might get your attention. :-)

For whatever reason, the Europa has always looked a little awkward to me. That doesn't mean I don't like Europas - on the contrary, I tend to just stare at Europas trying to figure them out. It's the imperfection that makes them interesting.

Mochi Mochi: "One thing i did notice recently was if you notch the back on an esprit, put on ground effects skirts and then kind of squish it sideways, you get a first gen MR2:)"

I totally agree on the parallel. They even both smoothed their wedges out into similarly gorgeous organic shapes around the same time too, almost in lockstep.

Brian: "Awesome explosions, awesome driving, that clip is what every day would be like if you owned this car."

That should have been Lotus' advertising tagline. Hey, I'd be sold.

The white Lotus also made a brief appearance in the Bond film "For Your Eyes Only", where it was "Burglar Protected". Corgi still makes 2 versions of the car, a smaller and then slightly larger one with all of the usual refinements (actually a third, counting the bronze ski-equipped one from later in "FYEO"). Walgreens sold the larger ones for about $7 this year; they are over twice that online: . The touch of one button makes all the fins pop out of the car... I can't believe they work so well. Yes, it also shoots small missiles out of the backlight that are easily lost, but Q Branch puts in a few extra with the model for just such an emergency.

HAPPY HALLOWEEN, everybody! ~Chuck

chris: "It's the imperfection that makes them interesting." there were actually several different body versions for the europa. i think the non-retractable headlights and the resultantly higher front fender line might contribute to the effect you're experiencing. but for me it is perfectly imperfect - and beautiful in all of its oddity :) seen in the car-scape of the times it was incredibly unusual and ground breaking.

looking at the history of lotus car designs all of them are "imperfect" and even a little awkward. the esprit is probably the least so, and therefore just a tad less interesting. it's so clean and beautiful. it needs something like bug eyes or buckteeth to make it really work as a lotus ;)

I'm rewatching that video. You know, I just love this movie. I love the disco danger music. I love the Esprit's engine note. I love that the helicopter pilot villainess is dressed the way she is and finds time to wink at James Bond before trying again to kill him. I love that the Ford sedan (a Cortina?) manages to stay with the Esprit on a windy road. I love the crazy tilted tight crop on the Esprit at 4:36.

It's just all gold.

Someone in my hometown had a bright yellow Europa. I'd see it from time to time and think to myself "That sure is an ugly car". I still think they're ugly. So they're ugly - and they have Renault drivetrains? I wonder who made the electrical system? Lucas? Now THAT'S a trifecta!


If you're a fan of the "wedges", you should check out the one that arguably started the whole wedge or folded paper era... The Porsche Tapiro

I remember the cover of Road & Track's December(?) 1983 issue: an Esprit and the new CRX. The blurb: 'One for the few, one for the masses.'

And the second blurb for the Esprit: 'Blindingly quick, 0-60 in 6.6 seconds.'

Blindingly quick, indeed.

"quirky but ungainly Europa"

While the styling of the Europa could arguably be called awkward, referring to one of the best handling cars ever built as "ungainly" just seems wrong.

Loti are fingers and toes cars.

My favorite Lotus tshirt shows an Europa going around a corner with the motto, Lotus, The Shortest Distance Between Two Points.

"So they're ugly - and they have Renault drivetrains?"

Only the S1 Europas had the Gordini engines. The later models with the cut down side panels that give it a quasi el Camino look all had the Lotus Twin Cam engine. By 1972 or 73, they'd already replaced ever Lucas part that was practical to do so. My buddy had (well, still has) a 73 JPS Europa that came from the factory with an AC Delco alternator and some other non-Lucas electrical bits. The car's never been overhauled and still starts right up.

Loti may be fragile, but the drivetrains are usually reliable enough to use as a daily driver. My series 2 Elan never failed to start.

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