Mercedes, BMW and Audi may be the kings of the super saloon these days, but in the nineties a Vauxhall ruled the autobahn
The police wanted to ban it, road safety campaigners despised it, and it had Daily Mail readers spluttering into their Earl Grey. Seriously, what is there not to like about the Lotus Carlton? A 377bhp sledgehammer created by a company that made its name building light cars with modest power, wrapped in the body of a car more commonly seen at taxi ranks not race tracks, and with a top speed to match a Ferrari Testarossa.
These days we may be used to the likes of Mercedes and BMW rolling out 500bhp+ uber-saloons, but in 1990 a Vauxhall Carlton that could reach 179mph created a national scandal.The Association of Chief Police Officers reportedly labelled the Lotus Carlton ‘an outrageous invitation to speed’, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents said it was a ‘high speed safety hazard’, and tabloid newspapers demanded the car be banned. Even today 179mph seems unbelievably fast for a saloon but in the early nineties if a supercar hit 200mph it was worth talking about. The Germans had limited their cars to 155mph and must have been livid when GM merrily blew them off the autobahns with its modified mini cab.
Everyone was talking about the Lotus Carlton and it didn’t take long for the car to secure legendary status, while in the meantime Vauxhall was trying to focus attention on anything other than the car’s astonishing top speed. The legend began in the eighties when GM acquired Lotus and, hoping to up its image a bit, set about making a super saloon that would carry the Hethel badge.
The basis was the Carlton GSi 3000 and Lotus re-engineered the 3.0-litre powerplant to 3.6-litres, before adding twin Garrett T25 turbochargers to give 377bhp.The six speed shift was lifted from the Corvette ZR-1 and transferred the power to the rear wheels. AP disc brakes with ventilated callipers were fitted and the car was finished in Imperial Green, a colour so dark it looked black in most lights. The car was fitted with a chunky bodykit and a huge rear spoiler, with Lotus badges on the front wings. Then there was the price - £48,000 – which even today is a lot of money, although in the nineties the only cars that could match the Carlton’s speed were bona fide supercars. 0-60mph was achieved in 5.1 seconds and peak torque was a crushing 419 lb/ft.
To start with the car looked fantastic. Although it didn’t appear that far removed from a GSi, the Lotus Carlton managed to pull off the feat of being utterly desirable. Seeing one today is still an arresting site. The 17” wheels may be small by today’s standards, but the whole car looks so right; sinister and purposeful with enough stealth that only those in the know would give it a second look. Inside, it has big multi-adjustable leather seats, a wheel that is ever-so-slightly too big and the dashboard from a standard Vauxhall Carlton.
The immaculate 19,000 mile example from the Vauxhall Heritage centre I am about to drive looks intimidating, and my nerves are not helped by the fact the rain is lashing down. After fiddling with the old school immobiliser the Carlton roars into life, the engine giving its first warning of the immense power within. Apart from the heavy clutch the Carlton’s huge torque wafts you along and makes it easier to drive around town than you might expect.
Some people stare at the Carlton, others ignore it, but you can’t help feeling you are in something very, very special. Pulling on to the motorway I decide this would be as good a time as any to open the taps. 40 to 70mph goes in the blink of an eye, the surge so severe I don’t have time to look at the rev counter to see how much power would be left in third. A lot I suspect, and the whole experience is made even more intense by the fact the car feels so raw, the driver inherently connected to the experience. Palms sweating slightly I slow down to more of a crawl, with a certain smugness that the dark, K-reg Vauxhall I am piloting could undoubtedly obliterate almost anything on the road with one press of my right foot.
The car feels totally planted on the motorway and it was undoubtedly developed with high-speed cruising in mind, but I thought I would see how it faired on twisty back roads. The Lotus Carlton doesn’t have the kind of driver aids we take for granted today and the combination of rear-drive and 377bhp meant I wasn’t looking to explore the limits of adhesion. That said the car was not as scary as anticipated and flowed beautifully through a series of sweeping bends. With the huge amount of torque on offer it is an effective tool, powering between the turns and turning in neatly, with a huge amount of grip on offer.
The brakes worked well too and, although a large amount of concentration is required, especially in conditions like these, it is a great way of getting from A to B. Having negotiated mud, standing water and poor surfaces, the Carlton and I were still in one piece so I figured I had pushed my luck enough and headed back to Vauxhall HQ in Luton. On the way back I thought about the Lotus Carlton’s impact on the world.
When it was launched it had to be one of the first cars to make people question the point of a supercar, considering you could now go just as fast with four doors and a boot. Big uber-saloons are commonplace now, and the German power war means that soon we will have a 572bhp Audi RS6 estate, with 600,700 and 800bhp saloons on the horizon. Did the Lotus Carlton play a part in all this by changing our definition of a performance car? I think it did. An unlikely pairing, the words ‘Lotus’ and ‘Carlton’, but when they came together they meant a very special car indeed.
PH Hero Rating: 9/10