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Man Maths: Lotus Esprit

4 weeks ago

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Andrew Frankel | Ti co-founder


29 June 2024

I bought it from a bloke called Barry who worked at a place called Len Street Motors just off the Fulham Road. Almost unbelievably I was 21 years old and owned a Lotus Esprit. But that’s what could happen when you wore red braces, a chalk-stripe suit and worked in The City in the middle of Thatcher’s bull market. At least until you bought something at the selling price and got slung out on your ear.

It was a black S3 with gold BBS wheels and its singular claim to fame was not once during my brief ownership did it complete a journey of any significance without something going wrong. Sometimes it would be the full three hours at the side of the road, at others it would be more trivial – I remember driving it through Hammersmith with its pop up headlights winking salaciously at random pedestrians. Sometimes the journey wouldn’t even start because a car I’d parked in perfect health the night before had developed some incurable malaise overnight. Really it is the last car I should be writing about.

Except we’d never have commissioned this column if it only related to sensible buying decisions. The whole, glorious point of man maths is it should wear its sensibleness like a diaphanous veil somewhere between barely there and a trick of the light, the thinnest film of common sense to cover the arrant stupidity beneath.

Choosing the right Esprit is no easy task...

So here it is: an Esprit is a brilliant buy because its body is plastic so it can’t rot, all the badly built bits would have been put right years ago and almost all its components from its gearbox to its door handles are off the peg parts from enormous OEMs that will never go wrong. Hmm…

Okay, so I’m not really buying that sell either, but this I do know: the right Esprit on the right road is still one of the world’s great driving experiences. I bought the S3 hoping it might help abbreviate some of the rather lengthy pauses in my love life to date (and so it absolutely did), but soon realised that, until that moment, I hadn’t really driven a proper car. Discovering that level of grip and steering feel was an automotive epiphany to me.

So which one? There have been so many, but I’d probably duck all the early cars including my S3: with just 160bhp it never had the engine to do justice to the chassis and the early Turbos were just too crude. The 264bhp SE from around 1988 is tempting, but I found it hideously uncomfortable. And yes, the best of all was, of course, the Sport 300 (and the only Esprit fitted with a limited-slip diff) but they only made 64 so good luck finding one of those. And even better luck affording it.

Avoid the early cars, says Andrew...

...and choose the GT3 (if you can find one)

To me, the standout Esprits were the later S4 cars, whose development had been paid for by GM dollars. They were more reliable, less clunky, easier to live with and just as much fun. I’d avoid the V8, not just because of its largely unfair reputation for poor reliability, but also because it’s rather characterless.

A stock S4 is nice, an S4S even nicer – very similar too but at around £45,000 a fraction of the price of a Sport 300; but the best of them all, at least to me, is the GT3. Remember that? Conceived, I am told, because Lotus had a bunch of Italian tax break 2-litre engines it couldn’t sell, the GT3 is best thought of as an Esprit ClubSport. So aircon, sound deadening, plush seats and entertainment were all options. It was meant only to have 240bhp, but in cool air that rose to at least 264bhp and in a car some 150kg lighter than the contemporaneous V8, it was mesmeric to drive.

Our friends at PistonHeads have two listed right now, one 75,000 miler for £35,000, another with just 35,000 on the clock for £39,950. Tempted? How about if I told you just 190 were made, making it considerably rarer than, for example, a Ferrari 288 GTO? Tempted now? Then just let man maths do the rest.

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