PH Heroes: Lotus Esprit Turbo HC

When you bring out the new flagship of a supercar range and it only has 215bhp, you better have either a good sense of humour or a very good product. When Lotus wheeled out the Esprit Turbo HC in 1980 the Hethel carmaker clearly hoped it had the latter.

The first Esprit had arrived in 1976 with a rakish Giugaro design that gave it the looks to wander into the supercar party, but was powered by a less than exotic 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine that pushed out a paltry 160bhp.

Four years later Lotus decided to give the Esprit a kick up its Rover SD1-adorned backside and embraced the blossoming trend for turbocharging. A slightly larger 2.2-litre lump was chosen and a Garrett AiResearch turbocharger was mounted above the clutch bellhousing.

The engine gained a different camshaft profile and the boosted inlet air was fed to the Dellorto carburettors to a peak of 8psi above atmospheric pressure. This equated to a power boost to 215bhp at 6,250rpm and peak torque rose to 200lb ft at 4,500rpm.

Lotus was keen not to appear to be cutting corners by simply bolting on a turbo, so a number of aerodynamic tweaks were made to the shape, including a new deep front spoiler, side skirts, extra plastic around the tail, and of course huge louvres over the engine bay.

New 15” BBS alloys were fitted – 7” wide at the front and 8” at the back – with larger brakes sitting behind them. There was also a series of suspension tweaks to ensure the Turbo stayed firmly on the tarmac.

Power was way down on the Esprit’s rivals, namely the 250bhp Porsche 944 Turbo and the 270bhp Ferrari 328, but of course to judge the car just on its power output was to miss the point. A combination of relatively low weight (1,147kg), a slippery shape, and some form of voodoo, meant that the car had true supercar performance anyway. Some road testers reported a 0-60mph time of 5.4seconds and in the right conditions Esprit Turbos were good for 154mph.

The Esprit scrapped away with the supercar elite all the way until 2004 and in true Lotus traditional was constantly fettled and tweaked to bring it in line with its next combatant. The latest cars, including the V8s, may have been more accomplished but for me the Guigaro shape is the most iconic, and the decision to turbo-charge is arguably one of the most forward thinking ideas in the Esprit’s long life.

I tracked down perhaps one of the best Turbo HCs, which was available in Leyton, east London – a Commemorative model from 1987, which is number 15 of just 21 built. This model was basically a stock HC with a few extras thrown in: Shadow Grey metallic and Silver Frost two-tone paint, and slightly iffy side graphics. This particular example has just 9,000 miles on the clock and is immaculate. It is currently for sale by Barry Ely Sportscars (, a Lotus dealer that has 30 years experience.

I meet Barry on a drizzly afternoon at the dealership and can think of no worse time to get to grips with a special edition supercar that makes hen dentists seem understaffed. In the dull light the grey/silver paintwork makes this Esprit look like no other, and gives it an almost industrial quality.

Opening the lightweight door, I squeeze myself into the cabin and instantly feel like I am staring out of the standard-fit sunroof. OK, so I’m 6’ 2” but my first impressions are slight claustrophobia, and since the seats are fixed I’m guessing my nose will stay pressed against the roof. But push yourself down a bit and it’s not so bad, and quickly your mind is diverted by the oh-so eighties interior, which looks very much the rage these days.

We head out of the urban sprawl with Barry behind the wheel, and he quickly shows me what the result of 215bhp and a wet road means. The rear tyres can be lit up at will and straight away you are faced with that eerie prospect that 215bhp really did seem to be totally different a few years ago than it is now.

The Esprit Turbo feels scarily quick, and even though it is just a four pot behind my head it has an angry growl, combined with a constant chatter from the tortured wastegate. It may look unwieldy, but as Barry shows me the rear can be coaxed round in the wet, but caught easily.

It is time for my go and I’m not feeling so heroic. But despite the slightly awkward driving position – knees scuffing the wheel, pedals offset to the left – it is easy to drive and quickly dishes out confidence. The clutch is ridiculously light and the Citroen SM gearbox is a joy to use, but the real trump card is the Esprit’s power delivery.

Turbo lag is almost non-existent, giving you instant, clean-revving power, on tap. This means it doesn’t have any nasty surprises and you are not wrestling with a mid-engined supercar coming on boost mid-way through a corner.

The lack of lag is helped by the fact that there is a smaller exhaust turbine and housing to reduce inertia and help the turbo spin up quicker. It is admirable engineering feat, and something most manufacturers still grapple with today. The two-spoke wheel sits nicely in your hands and provides intuitive steering feel that is heavy but reassuringly so. The brakes need a decent shove but once they grip will haul off the speed very effectively.

Despite learning quickly how a gold fish feels, the Esprit is a nice place to be. This example really does feel like new and drives impeccably. It feels like a proper Lotus and makes me wish the Esprit was still around. In the end you can easily forget any niggles and flaws about the Esprit and just enjoy the traffic-stopping appearance and impressive performance and road holding. After all you never heard James Bond grumbling about rear visibility…

Comments (63) Join the discussion on the forum

  • bencollins 07 Nov 2008

    IMO the Europa S is the natural successor to the Esprit, before the moaners say "why dont Lotus make cars like this anymore" etc.

  • shentodj 07 Nov 2008

    Ride height looks a bit high?

  • soxboy 07 Nov 2008

    Esprit Turbo came out in 1980, 'HC' (High Compression) didn't arrive until 1987. Lovely car but you're right about that awful writing on the side.

    PH - Pedantry Matters!

  • BlueCello 07 Nov 2008

    Lovely car thumbup I'm terrified though that if I ever do get a chance to have a go in one, I won't fit!

  • missing the VR6 08 Nov 2008

    What a cool car, one of the later ones is a definate fantasy garage material for me.

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