PH Service History: Lotus position

There's been a bit of a Lotus theme to PH this week, what with Matt Bird's review of the stonking Exige Cup 430 and Shed's bargain-bucket, Lotus-tweaked Proton Satria.

It got me thinking: what comes to mind when we think of Lotus? Lots of Trouble Usually Serious maybe, or - more positively - Simplify, then add lightness? Does any other British car company inspire such a wide-ranging host of reactions as Hethel's finest? It's either pilloried by acronym for fragility or lauded for its individual sports cars; each supposedly embodying the philosophies of its founding father, the legendary Colin Chapman.

Matt loved the Cup 430 so much he called it one of the most desirable and wildly exciting Lotuses ever made. It costs £100,000, mind, and weighs 1,000kg, which for a car that consists of little more than that whopping big engine could be seen as a teeny-weeny bit disappointing.

After all the firm's reputation was built on lightweight speedsters, started many years ago by its innovative road and racing cars from the era when ACBC was still in charge. It started with the successful Mk lll 750 racer, and then went on, working through such beauties as the aerodyne Mk Vlll, the beautiful Type 14 Elite road car and the iconoclastic GP racers, the 18, 25, 72 and 78.

Chapman was a man of rare engineering prowess - industrious, intelligent and purposeful - continually striving to improve his own products, most of which weren't quite good enough for his own perfectionist personality. He was a gifted designer, and he was also clever enough to employ talented people around him, men like Frank Costin or Tony Rudd or Peter Wright, or to choose suitable engines and parts from the likes of Coventry Climax, Triumph or Ford.

Now, even a used Lotus is a costly thing to buy, never mind to run. Any lover of the marque must surely tempted by this wonderful 1961 Type 14 Elite, though, spotted in the PH classifieds and on offer for £60k. The Elite was a car as brilliant in its design as it was dreadful in its execution, but such beauty as it possesses must surely, like love itself, be worth the pain. Buy with caution. Own with enormous pleasure. In fact keep it in your living room and just look at it and you shouldn't have any problems with it at all.

The Elan followed soon after; to some even prettier than the Elite in certain guises and more modern, with a steel backbone chassis. Alas, despite much work, its reputation for mechanical fallibility, as with the Elite, goes before it. This was the car, though, that, in tiny drop head form, inspired the MX-5. Driven by Emma Peel in The Avengers, it inspired a whole lot more than that.

But it was the lightweight, low-drag Europa that caught the enthusiast's eye, with a stunning body no taller than a packet of crisps. This fiberglass dream machine was a driver's delight - provided he or she could get in it, for the interior was tiny. We found this relatively late 1975 model, with a 105bhp 1.6-litre twin-cam engine, in our classifieds for a modest £30k. Remember, this car could knock off the 0 to 60mph sprint in 6.6 seconds, according to contemporary road tests, and gripped like the proverbial limpet.

A brace of eye-catching Esprits and Eclats and new Elites followed in the 1970s and '80s, and prices for them range these days from temptingly low to outrageously expensive. For example there's a 1988 2.2 Excel in our classifieds for £6,400 which, on the face of it, looks good value for something that's so handsome - but be warned: you'll need a sizeable reserve of dosh.

However, the most surprising Lotus is now one of the cheapest. The 1989 M100 Elan was front-wheel drive, for Heaven's sake, the only such time Lotus has used this layout so far, and it also came with an engine from an Isuzu. In fairness, this was breathed upon by Lotus and was also available in turbocharged 162bhp form, with which the new Elan Turbo SE proved a 6.5 second 0 to 60mph flyer. It had a plastic body and a backbone chassis, too, just like the original Elan. Now, around £8k would secure you this one.

As Shed mentioned, there are a whole heap of cars that have used Lotus know-how over the years, including Proton (who were also previous owners of the firm) and Isuzu, a leaf on the GM tree, as was Lotus for a time. There was also the Lotus-Cortina, of course, the Vauxhall Lotus Carlton and the Talbot Sunbeam Lotus, among others. There's no need to dwell on the unfortunate DeLorean project, except to say that if you can put up with what the car eventually emerged as, you could purchase what must surely be, in the inconceivable logic of the classic car market, an appreciating asset, for just £32k here.

But if you want something more mod and truly covet the Exige 430 Cup (and why wouldn't you?), then what you want is a proper Lotus; something that positively screams Hethel - or at least positively screams.

The Elise is all very well, but it's just too heavy and compromised. Enter the 340R, a stripped-down and extreme version and a concept car dream that made the showrooms. Extreme? No doors; no roof. Power came from the familiar Rover-derived engine, so expect 0-60mph in 4.3sec and a top speed of 130mph. With its stiffened suspension the 340R was super sharp, amazingly agile and wonderfully rewarding on road or track, and grip was immense, thanks to bespoke semi-slick Yokohama tyres.

Only 340 were built (see what they did?) and finding one is tricky. It's rare to catch one in our classifieds, but this one is a mere £70k, £30k less than the 430 Cup. Worth taking a risk? Worth taking a helmet, maybe, and some good waterproofs.

Mark Pearson

P.H. O'meter

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Comments (30) Join the discussion on the forum

  • Gemaeden 19 Nov 2017

    I think you'll find that Lotus didn't start with the Mark III. There were a couple of cars before that.

  • V8 FOU 19 Nov 2017

    So. This week my Excel V8 nears completion..
    Then starts the build of my Europa TC with a Zetec 2.0

    So it's a bit of a Lotus week for me too.

  • highway 19 Nov 2017

    There are a generation of younger drivers who don’t know how good a rear wheel drive mid engine sports car steers and feels to drive when not bloated with excess weight. The Elise is far more usable than a Caterham. Just like all Ferrari’s make the noise all Lotus feel special to steer.

    Much is made of the lots of trouble bit. I’d compare my Elise to a pair of swimming shorts. Perfect if you want to go swim. As in there’s nothing better. You could wear swim shorts to the shops. You would look a bit odd. That’s the Elise for commuting etc.

  • angelicupstarts 20 Nov 2017

    Gemaeden said:
    I think you'll find that Lotus didn't start with the Mark III. There were a couple of cars before that.
    I heard somewhere Colin Chapman started with the mk 3 , as he wanted buyers to think they were allready successful and had sold some . .

  • james_gt3rs 20 Nov 2017

    highway said:
    I’d compare my Elise to a pair of swimming shorts. Perfect if you want to go swim. As in there’s nothing better. You could wear swim shorts to the shops. You would look a bit odd. That’s the Elise for commuting etc.

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