With fewer than 900 cars built, the Esprit Series 1 is a rare beast. We show you around one of Hethel’s finest ever supercars
For anyone over 6ft tall, the Esprit’s cabin is quite a tight squeeze and the fore/aft seat adjustment is limited by the engine firewall. But once you acclimatise, it’s the grip that amazes. The limits of the Esprit’s adhesion are so high that if the rear does slide, you’ll need good reflexes to catch it, as you’ll be doing silly speeds. With well-judged suspension and responsive steering, it’s a proper driver’s car. The 907 engine is flexible and tractable, pulls beautifully and is well mannered once the carbs have warmed up. As an everyday car, its lack of practicality would annoy, but as a weekend car it’s a joy.
The Lotus Esprit might look a million dollars, but it could end up costing close to that in repair bills alone if you land a bad one.
The Esprit started life as a concept car at the 1972 Turin Motor Show, the first of Giorgetto Giugiaro’s ‘folded paper’ designs that forgot curves in favour of finely chiselled lines and angles. And anything that is born as a concept is pretty damn spectacular if it ever escapes into the mainstream.
The Esprit heralded Lotus’ true transformation from kit car specialist to supercar manufacturer, although the first cars, with their Jensen-Healey two-litre engines, did lack the speed and acceleration that one might have expected from such a spectacular looker. As the ious series progressed, performance improved, as did Lotus’ attention to build quality, which was initially pretty woeful. However, it was only in 1980, when Lotus strapped on Garrett AiResearch T3 turbochargers onto the engines of limited edition Essex models that what the cars could do finally correlated with the stunning presence. That put top speed up to over 150mph and the 0-60mph to five seconds.
It may be a two-seater, but unlike some sports cars, the Esprit provides plenty of space inside its cosy cabin, with a plunging dashboard, bucket seats and high transmission tunnel resulting in a luxurious cabin that totally envelops passengers.
Lotus’ focus has always been more on handling than straight-line speed, and the Esprit conforms to its benchmark standards of manoeuvrability. With its light weight, ground-hugging profile and midmounted engine, the Esprit is an utter treat on twisty roads – you’ll lose confidence long before the car will lose grip, although if you do get silly, an Esprit can break away in a shockingly scary way. That balanced, flickable ability on bends means you can forgive it not actually being that fast, unless you’re in a Turbo, in which case all the essential supercar elements are in place. The Esprit does share one of the major foibles of mid-engined supercars however – rearward visibility is far from great. It’s a nightmare to park.
Owning an Esprit isn’t a proposition you enter into lightly. As tempting as it may be to own something with supercar looks for much less than you’d pay for a mainland European equivalent, just be wary that these are high maintenance cars, and unless you’re prepared to do some of the basic jobs yourself, ownership costs can be high. That said, if you’re prepared to open your heart and wallet to an Esprit, it can be an immensely rewarding classic. It is one of the most eye-catching British sports cars ever constructed. Find the right road, where you can exploit the handling prowess, and there’s very little to compare with an Esprit. The word itself stands for ‘liveliness of mind or spirit’ and this is one of those machines that completely fulfils the title bestowed on it.
Lotus Esprit S1
Power (bhp@rpm) 160bhp@6200rpm
Torque (lb ft@rpm) 140lb ft@4900rpm
Top speed 124mph
Gearbox 5-spd manual
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
BODYWORK & CHASSIS
The good news is that rust is not an issue on the GRP body, but you do need to check for stress cracks around any moving parts, such as the boot, door and tailgate hinges, as well as around the A-pillars. Paint lacquer can lift on metallic cars, so budget for a respray if this is the case.
Items sliding around in the boot can cause starburst cracks to appear – as well as stonechip impacts. These can only be repaired by rebonding in new fibreglass and repainting.
The fit and finish of the moulding is usually very good, so if there are any alignment or poor fit issues, check for evidence of crash damage.
The Series 1 didn’t have a galvanised chassis, so check it with care on a ramp. While the bodywork does protect it to a certain extent, cars that have been driven hard tend to burn the coating off the chassis around the exhaust manifold, so check this area in particular, together with the fragile box section parts on the front of the chassis.
Another rust spot are the fuel tanks – there are two of them – each located behind the seats. They’re fiddly to get at and replacement aluminium tanks costs £250 a side.
Oil leaks from the 907 engine’s rocker covers are common but easy to fix with rubber gaskets available to replace the original cork items. The carbs need to be checked for leaks around the fuel lines – fires have claimed many Esprits. Check the banjo bolts on the fuel lines are tight and the cast exhaust manifold for leaks – it’s difficult to get at and the bolts often shear, meaning the cylinder head has
to be removed.
Regular servicing is key to this engine and clean oil, together with translucent coolant, are vital to its health. The oil needs changing at least every 6000 miles and check for a genuine Lotus oil filter.
As the filter is mounted high up on the engine, it’s vital it has a filter with an anti-drain valve. You should see 35psi at around 3500rpm when the engine is warm.
The cambelt and tensioners are easily available but it’s a difficult job due to the access. Check the water pump for leaks; these can be pricey to replace, but Lotus specialists can usually recondition them for less than £100.
Ensure the electric fans kicks in and that there are no drips from the long pipes that connect the front-mounted radiator to the engine, or any corrosion in the expansion tank. Washer bottle spillage can cause the electrical fan connections to corrode.
The Citroën SM gearbox is not the toughest of units, but can cope with the S1’s modest power. The spigot bearing must be changed during clutch swaps – check the receipts for this as it can damage the crankshaft if it fails. Equally, the clutch release bearing is not cheap (£140-£300) so check the clutch with care. The gears should select easily, too – if they don’t you’ll need to budget for the various linkage bushes to be replaced.
The Esprit uses inexpensive brake discs at the front, but the inboard mounted rear discs can be fiddly to get at and cost around £90 a disc – so check they’re in good order. Bear in mind that the driveshafts need to be removed to change the rear pads and discs, which adds to the cost. Handbrake cables are prone to seizing, too.
The front suspension uses unequal length wishbones with Maxi wheel bearings. The front trunions have grease nipples and, together with the bearings, need to be greased at the correct intervals. Long rear trailing arms link to a fabricated hub and transverse lower link. The driveshaft forms the upper wishbone, so the UJs at either end have a lot of work to do. These must be greased regularly and checked for play. Dampers are inexpensive at around £60 for the fronts and £85 for the rears and it’s wise to fit polyurethane bushes during any suspension work as it saves MoT issues in the long run.
The Esprit S1’s dramatic styling is like nothing else on the road and the rust-free body means that it’ll stay looking great for years, providing you buy a good one in the first place. The compact cabin takes some getting used to and it’s certainly not a car you’d want to use every day, but on a twisty road on a sunny day it delivers an incredible driving experience.