No doubt about it: the Lotus Excel is one of the true forgotten greats. It may have been little more than a heavily tweaked Eclat, but the modern touches employed by design genius, Peter Stevens (whose CV includes such luminaries as the McLaren F1, M100 Lotus Elan and 555-liveried Subaru Impreza WRC) brought the car bang up to date for the 1980s, thanks to the smoother nose and wider-looking body.
Marque snobs tend to sneer at this, somewhat, but considering the much-lauded Ferrari 355 is really nothing more than an extensively re-designed 348, this hardly seems fair.
It’s certainly a very handsome car; the rear is a
little bulky-looking, perhaps, but from every other angle it’s at least a match for some of its rather more famous siblings.
And boy, does it go well. The surprisingly popular SA (which used a tried and tested ZF self-shifting gearbox) is perhaps the obvious anachronism in the line-up, but the manuals, with their Lotus-designed 2.2-litre naturally aspirated engines are sports cars through and through.
The Lotus Excel’s interior is very much of an era. It feels right, from the low-set driving position and high-set transmission tunnel, to the feel of the chunky three-spoke steering wheel, but in terms of style, you can do better.
If you can get past the questionable aesthetics, however, the Excel, well, excels in pretty much every other respect. It may lack the neck-snapping urge of a blown Esprit, but Lotus founder, Colin Chapman’s maxim of ‘simplify and add lightness’ certainly applies here: 180bhp (on later cars at least) in a car that weighs comfortably less than 1200kg is always going to feel rapid, and with maximum power coming on song at a gloriously screaming 6500rpm, every journey is hugely entertaining.
And this is a Lotus, of course, so you can pretty much guarantee that the handling will be epic
Lotus may be an acronym of Lots Of Trouble Usually Serious to blinkered badge snobs who really ought to change the record, but bag a sound example, and you’ll end up with one of today’s genuine performance car bargains.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
1 The Excel was always marketed as a sports car, but while you’d therefore expect a degree of engine and road noise at speed, the Excel can border on the unbearable, since Lotus was notoriously tight-fisted with the amount of sound-deadening it fitted at the factory. Don’t let this put you off an otherwise healthy and sound car, however, since modern sound-deadening can be retro-fitted relatively easily (and relatively inexpensively, if you shop around), especially in the doors.
2 Ask any owner of a 1980s Lotus, and they’ll tell you that the biggest headache these cars present concerns electrics. Dashboard gauges (the fuel and oil pressure gauges seem to be the guiltiest parties) can tell all sorts of lies if a sender connection is either badly earthed, corroded or loose.
If all else fails, it’s worth checking the major earthing point located on the brake pedal box, since many of theelectrical harness systems and engine electrics are earthed here.
3 Juddering from any car’s steering at low speeds should always be investigated as a matter of course, since it’s usually indicative of something seriously awry. Where the Excel is concerned, however, chances are it’s all part and parcel of the car’s inherent design. For reasons best known to Lotus, the Excel’s steering geometry was designed intentionally without any form of front-wheel Ackerman angle. So the two front wheels lack the geometry whereby they describe differing arcs as the steering wheel is turned to ensure their perpendicular angle meets the rear axle line at the same point., meaning low-speed manoeuvres in an Excel can be disconcertingly scrabbly and juddery affairs, especially on loose surfaces. It sounds alarming, but the factory insisted from the outset that the Excel’s high-speed handling and steering feel was much improved as a result of this idiosyncrasy. They are pointy but ‘alive’ in your hands at speed.
4 Like many Lotus models before it, the Excel relied heavily on out-sourced parts throughout its construction, meaning tracking down spares is easier than usual. Some are obvious – the tail lights are inverted Rover SD1 units, for instance. Naturally the moisture drain holes are therefore placed incorrectly, so they can fill up with dirt and mould. Other details are less obvious; following Toyota’s involvement of Lotus in the development of its Supra sports coupé, the Mk2 Supra’s W58 manual transmission was used in early Excels (albeit in conjunction with a Lotus bellhousing), together with the driveshafts and differential. Similarly, the clutch master cylinder is shared with the Toyota Carina Mk2 and various Celicas, while the pop-up headlight motors are also used on the Mk1 Toyota MR2.
5 The Excel’s 2.2-litre slant-four Type 912 engine is generally a fairly robust unit, but again can suffer from iffy electrics. A persistent misfire and/or stalling may be traced back to fuel starvation issues, but it’s not unheard of for the distributor’s pick-up wire to create similar problems. Replacing an original or cheap after-market distributor is generally thought to be a good place to start when attempting to rectify a poor-running Excel engine.
6 You won’t suffer any rust issues with that Oliver Winterbottom-designed (and for the Excel, Peter Stevens-tweaked) wedge-shaped GRP body, of course, but look carefully for common related issues. Star cracks, crazing, mis-matched paintwork and impact damage all suggest less than kid-glove treatment.
7 Poor front seats? Those from the contemporary Jaguar XJS slot right in, using the existing seat runners. They are slightly narrower but much easier to find.
Think ‘1980s Lotus’, and most people instantly picture the Esprit turbo. That’s a shame, but it does mean that Excel values, have remained super-low for many years. Silly-priced ultra-low milers still pop up every now and then, but the fact remains that even mint Excels won’t set you back by much more than £6000 – and that’s from a dealer. Lower your sights a little, and you can still bag a perfectly good example for around £4000.
The interiors – of earlier cars in particular – might make you wince a little, with their ruched leather and faux wood trim, but get one onto a tricky back road with lots of dips and blind cambers, and you’ll soon learn to tune it out as you exploit these cars’ legendary performance and handling.
Is the Excel one of the performance car bargains of the decade? We certainly think so.