A new era is upon us. The now Geely-controlled Lotus brand stands on the brink of a move to all-electric vehicles, drawing a line under their history of internal combustion engine greatness. What better opportunity to delve into some of the most innovative and interesting of road cars made by the late, great Colin Chapman and under his Lotus banner? After all, there is choice aplenty.
The six best Lotus road cars
Lotus Seven – 1957
One has to start at the beginning with the 7. In its earliest forms it had little power – 40PS (29kW) – delivered by hopped-up proprietary engines (side-valve engines), but it met the design brief back in 1957 with pinpoint accuracy, just as the somewhat evolved Caterham does today without peer.
There's a certain period charm to an early, alloy-clothed Super Seven. A car that swung before the Sixties. Images of Graham Hill winning at Brands Hatch in a Coventry Climax-powered Seven reveal a car that was visually and technically closer to a contemporary GP car than anything else. That you could buy one, assemble it at home, drive to the track and be dicing for the lead all for less than £600 made it real and relevant in a way that no other car was.
The knowledgeable might contend that the best resolved Sevens were delivered by a chap called Graham Nearn – and Jez Coates – and not the great Antony Colin Bruce Chapman. Perhaps that's true, but the team at Caterham were assisted by being able to select proprietary engines of far greater sophistication, and while the chassis and suspension has been continually improved, the basic recipe and the Seven's DNA has barely changed.
Lotus Elite – 1957
Never has a manufacturer’s philosophy been applied with such rigour as at Lotus. “Adding power makes you faster on the straights; subtracting weight makes you faster everywhere,” therefore is the perfect quote to open a treatise on Lotus’ first pure, road-going coupe: the Elite.
The Lotus Elite epitomised Chapman’s maverick, entrepreneurial spirit: its highly innovative glass-fibre monocoque construction – which formed the entire load-bearing structure – kept weight down to just 500kg. The body shape itself – though beautifully proportioned – was also aerodynamically advanced for its time. Thanks to the pen of Peter Kirwan-Taylor and the brain of aerodynamicist Frank Costin, the Elite achieved an extremely low drag co-efficient of just 0.29. To add context, an early Jaguar E-type was a bricklike 0.44 and a Porsche 911, 0.34.
Light weight and low drag allowed the Elite to reach 115mph, reaping true sportscar performance from a relatively meagre 1.2-litre, four-pot, Coventry-Climax engine. However, v-max was not what it was all about. On any B-road its irreproachable handling would enable any half-skilled driver to average 60mph while never exceeding 70mph. So light and nimble, it would simply outpace most other sportscars of the day.
Not surprisingly, being a Lotus, similarly amazing stats were gained on the track. Lotus took the car to Le Mans every year from 1959 to 1964 – and every year it won class. Twice it also won the treasured Index of Thermal Efficiency, that is, when the race authorities couldn’t find a way of ensuring their own Deutsch Bonnets and Panhards triumphed.
Lotus Elan – 1962
The Elan continued the Chapman “simplify, then add lightness” philosophy – though perhaps not in the way he had intended. Burned by the difficulties of utilising a stressed glass-fibre monocoque in the production of his Elite – and its failure to succeed commercially – Chapman’s planned successor required a step back from the state-of-the-art. The Elan, instead utilised a steel backbone chassis upon which a vastly simplified glass-fibre body was fixed. Not only did this increase ease of production for the Elan, it informed Lotus’ production process for the next three decades. This adjustment also helped the Elan undercut the Elite by £350 and consequently, the new car outsold it in the first year. Not only was the Elan a commercial success – one that propped up Chapman’s racing efforts – it handled like a dream. The low mass, near-perfect weight distribution, exceptional stiffness and all-round independent suspension made the Elan as close to a Formula car for the road as one could buy in 1962.
Accurate and agile, the Elan delivered incomparable “feel” that allowed you to be on the limit without tip-toeing over the point of no return. The Elan is a personal favourite of the legendary F1 designer Gordon Murray, who owns two. The Elan had such influence on the man himself that he set the diminutive Lotus as the benchmark for the McLaren F1's handling, though Murray claims this target was never quite achieved. Praise indeed.
Lotus Esprit Turbo – 1980
Made famous by a certain Martini-swilling spy with a license to kill, in the films The Spy Who Loved Me and For Your Eyes Only, the Lotus Esprit certainly had the looks to complement its Hollywood mystique. But take note, we are speaking about the Turbo: the original Esprit or ‘76 was borderline fraudulent.
The original, oh-so-‘70s wedge silhouette was penned by il Maestro, Giorgetto Giugiaro, and debuted alongside his Maserati Boomerang concept at the Turin Motor Show in 1972. Dubbed ‘The Silver Car’, the then unnamed Esprit stole the show and took aim at the junior supercars of the day from Porsche and Ferrari. But a four-year gestation ensured the looks of the production car had faded, sadly in parallel with many buyer’s appetite. Ferrari now fielded Fioravanti’s shapely 308GTB and Maserati had Giugiaro’s other star '72, the Merak. The latter was an alternative that had great sophistication.
True of any Lotus, the handling was excellent, but the Esprit’s measly four-pot struggled to dash to 62mph in 8 seconds: it didn’t cut it. In truth it was little more than a better-looking Europa. Notorious unreliability – in the form of dubious build quality, engine ventilation and electrical issues – also dogged the Esprit from the start.
But then the Turbo arrived. The Essex Turbo Esprit – an unfortunate tribute to Team Lotus’ dubious F1 sponsor of the time – upped the ante, bringing 213PS (156kW) to the party. This forced induction upgrade returned true supercar-killing figures: 0-60mph in 6.1 seconds and a top speed of over 150mph. Chassis, suspension, brake reworks and a new Giugiaro aerodynamic body kit complemented the new dry-sump 910 engine. It was good enough to wipe smiles in Modena and Stuttgart.
Now, for the first time in its history, Lotus had a road car that was right up there with the Grandees. In the 1980s turbochargers added F1 kudos. Just for a while, multi-cylinder engines didn’t point to superiority. The Lotus came from a genuinely successful stable, it looked a million dollars, was lighter and faster than the competition, cornered on rails and communicated with the driver in a way no mid-engined, road-going Ferrari ever had. For one, the driving position was superior – bearable, even – as was the gearshift. It worked with the driver, who would have to drive like a rock ape to experience that peculiar ‘will it bite’ feel that’s seared into every 911 owner’s memory banks.
Lotus Carlton – 1990
It was not uncommon for Lotus to work with other manufacturers to add some spice to certain models. Ford and Lotus’ collaboration in the ‘60s produced a high-performance Cortina so potent it became a mainstay in touring car racing throughout that decade and still remains a dominant force in the St. Mary’s Trophy at Goodwood to this day. It was not uncommon to catch the likes of Jim Clark waving the Cortina’s inside front wheel in the air around Brands Hatch nor a strange sight to see it tackling the toughest of rally stages. However, evocative imagery aside it is a rather different collaboration to be included on this list of best Lotus road cars.
Enter, the Lotus Carlton. Some younger readers might be thinking “that’s just a fat Vauxhall”. Hold your horses. This is the weapons-grade, body-kitted, Ronal-wheel clad, 176mph, Lotus-badged four-seater that so wantonly pricked the pomposity of the ‘90s press, police and government that dared call for it to be banned.
While the once heady performance figures of 382PS (281kW) may seem moderate in the context of most modern performance cars, it caused quite the stir in the ‘90s when this Lotus badge bearing beast held the title of the world’s second fastest four-door saloon. Indeed, the Carlton’s performance even left Ferrari, Lamborghini and Porsche nervous at the prospect. Calls for the Carlton to be limited to 155mph were ignored, and the full 180mph potential was left un-restricted. The beefed-up 3.6-litre, twin-turbo sixer allowed the Carlton to accelerate from 0–60mph in 5.2 seconds. Gulp. Oh, and the 0-100mph time reveals its true monstrosity: 11.1 seconds. Double gulp. If one can master the dreadfully heavy clutch and the dead-spot in the steering, the long gears and turbochargers really will deliver a supercar level white-knuckle ride. And then there was the torque. 568Nm (420lb ft) at 4,200rpm is rather crazy for 1990, but then consider that 470Nm (348lb ft) comes kicking from 2,000rpm. Quite the ride. Needless to say, a more substantial transmission was needed to deal the strain, so in went a Corvette ZR1 ‘box with power transferred through a limited-slip diff from the contemporary V8 Holden Commodore.
Lotus Elise – 1996
The Elise was a return to form for Lotus after some troublesome years following Colin Chapman’s death, an economic recession and a GM ownership. More than that, the Elise is a Lotus that Chapman himself would be proud of. Every facet of the Elise project screamed Lotus – achieving performance by “adding lightness” through innovation – it proved Chapman’s minimalist philosophy remained strong, even in the ‘90s. Though a healthy cash injection from a certain, Bugatti-owning, Italian businessman may well have helped turned the tide.
Out went Chapman’s steel backbone type chassis of old – used in every Lotus road car since the ‘60s Elan – and in came a totally new vehicle construction method: an extruded and bonded aluminium spaceframe design. Not just innovative for Lotus, but revolutionary for the industry. The chassis itself weighed just 68kg. Add to that the now-iconic clam-shell bodywork, a lightweight, mid-mounted, 1.8-litre K-Series engine and – Robert’s your father’s brother – the result was a wee Lotus sportscar weighing around 700-odd kilos. For comparison, a standard Mk 1 MX-5 weighed around 960kg and a contemporary Audi TT over 1,200kg!
The S1 – while not the fastest – is perhaps the purest Elise. Power of 120PS (88kW) may not sound much, but Lotus’ typical obsessive focus on minimising weight enabled the Elise to punch above its weight: acceleration from 0-60mph in 5.8 seconds and a top speed of 126mph. By small ’90s sportscar standards, that was more than nippy.
The Elise-derived spin-offs – the hard-topped Exige, limited edition 340R, stripped-out 2-Eleven and Europa – all brought an extra spice to the Lotus brand and are almost worthy of their own segments. Though it all began with their ‘90s magnum opus: the S1 Elise. Now Lotus have announced the end of the Elise’s life in 2021, what better time to reflect on the original and the dynasty it spawned?
Elan at Goodwood image courtesy of Motorsport Images.
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