faded glory: 1982 Lotus Esprit S3

leOf all the cars I’ve ever owned, the Esprit is the worst. Trouble is, it is also the most beautiful – in my opinion – and for that reason I excused it a multitude of sins. It’s one of the few cars ever made that has so much road presence that pedestrians stop in the street and stare. Yes, of course it’s rare – but it’s also that striking, wind-cleaving Giugiaro shape that gives it such visual drama. Even parked next to a modern supercar, as I did several times, people would flock around the Esprit, leaving the other car as invisible as a silver Vauxhall Vectra in a nineties company car park…

Unveiled as an ItalDesign concept at the Turin Motor Show in 1972 and first showed as the Esprit at the Paris Auto Show of October 1975, it came at the very zenith of the wedge-shaped supercar movement, with the Lamborghini Countach and Ferrari 308 its brothers in arms. It was, and still is, a essay in striking ruler-flat lines, with a heavily raked windscreen and ‘cab forward’ orientation. The pop-up headlamps add visual drama and side air ducts bring all the more aesthetic appeal.

Developed on a stretched Lotus Europa chassis, the Esprit is a nice large size inside, and surprisingly smooth riding thanks to state-of-the-art double wishbone front and rear suspension. Unlike the sort of bloated saloon-based supercars you sometimes see from Germany, it is pliant and supple on the move – despite the hard sportscar seats. Visibility is the main downside; the rear window is like looking out of a letterbox, and the door mirrors give you a better view of the doors or the sky than anything happening behind.

Despite being mid-engined, the non-assisted steering is more efficient at bodybuilding than it is turning the car under 20MPH, but once on the move it’s crisp and beautifully precise. The gearbox on the S3 has the dubious honour of being designed by Maserati and built by Citroen – neither company proved its mastery of the subject here. The result is an action that’s akin to shaking a stick of celery in a tar-filled vase, and it isn’t helped by a pig of a clutch. Given that it’s more like an on-off switch than a linear, progressive control, Lotus should have fitted precisely this – at least it would spare you the hip-twistingly heavy pedal!

The dashboard is a random collection of Smiths gauges and British Leyland-era switchgear, with Princess and TR7 controls playing a major part, set into a concave black plastic tub, seemingly shoved into the leather trimmed fibreglass dashboard. The heater and cold air ventilation are united in their inefficiency, and the rear window steams up the moment the car is started, as the condensation on the engine transfers itself to the bit your supposed to see out of. Needless to say, my (then) twenty-five year old heated rear window, err, didn’t.

Then there’s the engine, the all-alloy Lotus 912 4-cylinder as seen in the Jensen Healey. This engine displaces 2.2 L, produces 160 bhp and propels the car to 60MPH in about 6.5 seconds, thanks to it weighing less than 1,000kg and putting its power down in a linear way. Sadly, ‘lively’ driving in my car soon sent the temperature gauge north, and the oil pressure gauge ran the other way…

Having inboard rear brakes – common racing practice in the seventies – the previous owners had long since abandoned them, and the front discs weren’t very effective either. Mine had ‘racing’ pads which didn’t work until you’d made several emergency stops from well over the legal limit and then began to act like an on-off switch, until they rapidly cooled down and didn’t work again. All of this made for a car that was – in so very many ways – a dog to drive.

Overall, the Esprit was a thing of beauty, but get closer than a few paces and you could begin to see its flaws. The fibreglass body was poorly surfaced, despite my car being a surprisingly intact example, the mechanical bits were prosaic, the build awful. The steering, drivetrain and brakes all just didn’t seem to work as well as they should – and the engine was simply unlovely in a car that deserved something special. My previous factory Triumph TR8 with its silky, turbine-smooth fuel-injected Rover V8 engine, made it look positively agricultural.

The Lotus Esprit was a gorgeous concept, but was – as I’d often muse as I wrestled it down the road – spoiled by the detail execution. If only it had been meticulously screwed together complete with a sweet multivalve V6 engine, Honda rolling gear and Nippondenso electrics, it would have been a star. But hang on, that’s called a Honda NSX!

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