DRIVEN: LOTUS CARLTON
We reacquaint ourselves with a bonafide PH hero
Some cars, and it's hard to pinpoint exactly why this should be, give off a peculiar blend of motoring electricity. This charged automotive current can only be felt by those susceptible to it; you've got to love cars, have a passion that makes life seem that little bit better given your exposure to them. As you're reading this on PistonHeads, there's a fair chance that you and I share this - for want of a better word - complaint.
PistonHeads entered the Lotus Carlton into its pantheon of 'Heroes' back in 2008, so there's no point in this piece covering old ground. Many of you will know the story well: the conversation between senior management of then-GM bedfellows Vauxhall and Lotus that brought about its inception; the weapons-grade spec - the already talented Carlton GSi3000 force-fed a high-protein diet resulting in a 3.6-litre, twin-turbo 'six' producing 377bhp and 419lb ft of torque, Lotus fairy dust sprinkled over the chassis, the biggest brakes Hethel could find and a Corvette ZR1 'box - all handmade in Norfolk from a GSi delivered virtually complete.
So instead here are just some thoughts from someone who has dreamed about getting behind the wheel of one of these cars for a very long time, and how the driving experience feels some 21 years after the car's launch.
The Lotus Carlton tingle begins the moment your eyes see it, but it ramps up significantly when you've got that cheap, weathered, plastic key in your palm. Approach it and it's still obviously a 'big' car, in line with its once 'large executive' status, but the light, airy and yet relatively narrow cabin emphasises the common truth when comparing cars from a bygone era with their modern counterparts: that modern safety regulations and customer demands have made vehicles much larger on the outside and often slightly claustrophobic on the inside. The flipside is that those spindly A-pillars and low waistline make you keenly aware of your mortality.
There are two areas where the Lotus Carlton leaves me stunned. Firstly, it's that mighty engine. It doesn't matter how much of an icon an old performance car is, appreciating it lies with expectations and mindset. Technological progress means that most of our 'legends' would be left for dead by something like a Renault Megane RS250, particularly point to point, but that doesn't mean they're any less enjoyable, or magical.
Put simply, given the full beans the LC subtly pulls in a wrung-out 2011 VXR8. Once you've lit the turbos you're harnessing a spiteful surge of torque that piles on speed in fat increments and leaves my co-pilot and I giggling like idiots. If you ordered a sports saloon today and it had this level of performance you'd not be disappointed, so what on earth must it have been like back in 1990? That's the question that I can't stop asking myself for the next week or so. What must it have been like to drive a £48,000 Vauxhall with the acceleration to dismiss a Ferrari Testarossa? It just blows the mind thinking about it.
Once off the autoroutes, the LC seems to be working in its ideal environment as we tackle the sweeping, fast roads north of the Route Napoleon. By modern standards the suspension is relatively soft, so there's a split second on corner entry when you wait for the car to adopt a stance - exacerbated by fairly slow steering: someone present who drove them when new suggests the modern tyre fitment may be exacerbating it.
Some days later I contact a friend and fellow PHer who used to own one and he's not overly complimentary about the handling. Perhaps on slower, tighter roads, or driven to the limits on a track, it could very well become a handful, and in the wet it would clearly demand a huge amount of respect. But like I said, traversing these fast, rural roads of France seems to suit it very well, and it's a privilege to be able to stretch the car's legs.
Personally speaking, the Lotus Carlton remains a dead cert for that extensive, barn-housed, imaginary car collection. In reality, I may never own a Lotus Carlton, perhaps scared off by the running costs and torn between other must-haves on the list and limited cash. But I salute those who put their money where their mouths are, and I know that whenever I see an LC making its way through traffic, like a shark navigating a municipal swimming pool, it'll be radiating that same old electricity.