Lotus Esprit Turbo | The Brave Pill


It might seem remarkable that Brave Pill has reached its 37th outing without having featured a Lotus, plus the attendant opportunities to put ticks against the bingo card of well-worn jokes about the brand. That's a situation that this patina-heavy 'X180' Esprit Turbo should correct. It also breaks new ground as the first BP subject to make do with just four cylinders.

The Esprit never really needed more, something the expensively developed V8 was later to prove. While memories from this period are becoming cloudy, the X180 was a critical darling and a car that used to regularly better the most exotic machinery in the world in comparison tests. As such it was the epitome of Colin Chapman's do-more-with-less ethos, which had led to the development of the first Esprit Turbo, the final car developed under his personal direction.

These days you can buy a mid-ranking BMW with a four-cylinder turbo engine producing similar power, but when it was new this 264hp Esprit Turbo was one of the quickest cars in the world, and faster from 0-60mph than the porky Ferrari Testarossa and its 390hp flat-12.


While the supercar market was considerably smaller back then, the Esprit was widely considered to be a proper member of the clan, albeit one that sold at a substantial discount to the mostly Italian alternatives. One of the seminal moments of my early car enthusiasm was the purchase of a copy of the original 'Test Drive' for my mighty 520Kb Atari ST. The most popular driving game of all time at that point, although with graphics that will doubtless amuse those familiar with slicker software offerings, it featured just five cars: Testarossa, Countach, 911 Turbo, a C4 Corvette (for the predominantly American audience) and the Esprit Turbo. The Lotus had a marked power disadvantage but - in lieu of any actual physics modelling - seemed capable of tackling the scrolling mountain course at full speed without the need to ever lift.

Then there was the spectacularly successful product placement that came from loaning a car to the producers of Pretty Woman, the rom-com about Julia Roberts' tart-with-a-heart. Both Porsche and Ferrari refused to supply cars on the prudish grounds of Roberts playing a lady of the night. But Lotus had so such inhibitions and supplied a silver Esprit SE that got a respectable chunk of screentime, including a scene where Richard Gere's character gets schooled on driving a manual by Roberts. The film was one of 1990's biggest hits, introducing the Esprit to a whole new audience.

In slightly realer life, magazines raved about the Esprit's combination of performance and what was then the novelty in something so fast of handling secure enough to keep the gussets of road testers' pants unstained as the limits approached. Yet even before the internet arrived to pour petrol on the flames, the X180 Esprit was following its predecessor's reputation for both scary unexpected bills and mechanical maladies. Something that even as a non-driving teenager I was already aware of. The first time I ever heard the notcronym "Lotus of Trouble, Usually Serious" was in connection to problems with a nearly-new example that, from memory, had devoured its gearbox a couple of months out of warranty.


Looking back, Peter Stevens should probably have received a knighthood for the work he did on the X180, or at least the right to herd sheep through the city of Norwich. It was developed on a budget that was shoestringy even by Lotus standards, a high percentage of structure and mechanics coming straight from the 1975 original. Yet the resin-injected bodywork and less angular take on the wedge theme of Giugiaro's masterpiece transformed it into something that looked both similar and different, much sleeker and more modern.

One of the problems Stevens faced was the fact Lotus's marketing department had long since given up on factual justification for some of the claims they made for earlier Esprits. He was very proud of the X180's ultra-slippery 0.33 coefficient of drag, which was a substantial improvement on the Series 3. The problem was that the outgoing model was already being advertised as having a score of 0.32.

Lotus had been one of the pioneers of road-going turbocharging with the original Esprit Turbo in 1980, and the range-topping X180 used a developed version of the company's long-serving slant four engine, working in conjunction with a Garrett blower and with electronic fuel injection; the earlier blown Esprit had breathed through a pressurised carburettor. Our Pill is the brawnier Esprit SE meaning it gained an intercooled version of the powerplant and sat at the top of the range when it was launched.

The X180 revisions - and possibly that brief moment in the Hollywood sun - gave the Esprit a new lease of life and it enjoyed several good years in the early 1990s. That means there are plenty out there to choose between, and also a decent infrastructure of specialists who know how to keep them running, but it also means that values of less immaculate versions have barely risen as interest in supercars from this period increases. There are cheaper project-grade cars out there, but our Pill looks attractively priced for a Turbo - it's less than a quarter the entry price for that slower Ferrari Testarossa.


It's not perfect, of course. The vendor reports that it wears a Category C insurance marker from as long ago as 1995, which would have represented a serious amount of damage at the time. It also has several of the known Esprit niggles including a non-functioning driver's window and air-con. But the more obvious problem is the peeling lacquer over the Calypso red paintwork - clearly this didn't just effect the many pink Vauxhalls of the period - and which is pronounced enough to probably require a substantial respray to sort properly.

But there's no reason the car can't be driven and enjoyed in its current condition and restored gradually. Although maintenance intensive, with 6,000 mile oil changes and 24,000 mile timing belts, the basic Turbo engine is generally regarded as pretty tough. Any exotic of this era in late middle age is going to require frequent fettling and likely cause a fair amount of swearing and bloodied knuckles. That is a perverse part of its appeal.

While Brave Pill is loathe to give financial advice beyond "have fun" the X180 Esprit does look conspicuously cheap considering the rise in values that some less worthy contemporaries have enjoyed. Smart early Esprits have been appreciating steadily for years and the serious prices are being asked for the late Sport 350s. With Lotus's Geely-funded revival set to include new sportscars interest in the Esprit could be set to increase soon; as one of the finest cars from the period to actually drive the X180 deserves to be taken a little more seriously.


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Comments (68) Join the discussion on the forum

  • richinlondon 02 Nov 2019

    Lovely car at heart, but would not buy a cat c without knowing exactly what happened

  • No ideas for a name 02 Nov 2019

    Even the advert says " Large amount of history and bills."
    And probably more to come?

    Actually, like the previous poster, it would be the Cat C that would say " a no from me" unless I had full details.

  • Dave Hedgehog 02 Nov 2019

    EV conversion candidate

  • g7jhp 02 Nov 2019

    Always had a soft spot for these which were amazing cars back in the day.



    My football manager used to take us to games in his Excel and then got the Esprit Turbo SE. They still look exotic.

    The gearbox and electrics always seemed to be playing up.

    Never been brave enough to pull the trigger and buy one. Had an Elise before moving on to better build older aircooled Porsche.


  • Turbobanana 02 Nov 2019

    richinlondon said:
    Lovely car at heart, but would not buy a cat c without knowing exactly what happened
    A quarter of a century ago?

    I reckon any problems may have appeared and been dealt with by now...

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