Lotus Exige S1: PH Carpool

Name: Andrew Swift
Car: Lotus Exige
Owned since: February 2011
Previously owned: Honda Civic Type R (EP3), Lotus Elise 111R, Peugeot 306 Rallye, various company cars, also currently have a Porsche 997.1 Turbo

Why I bought it:
"I hankered after an Elise for many years before finally taking the plunge and purchasing a lovely 111R from a fellow PHer nine years ago. This fell into duty as my daily driver and performed admirably for several months. The novelty rather wore off, though, after a particularly savage soaking during a sudden downpour while commuting home from work with the roof off. I bought a cheap Clio as a commuting vehicle and retired the Elise to weekend work only.

"After two years and 20,000 miles of faultless work, I found my feet becoming itchy and my eyes scanning the classifieds. The Elise was wonderful but as a toy it was actually starting to feel too competent and - dare I say it - normal. It was such a lovely example that I was loath to take it on track; something I really quite fancied. I decided to cast around for something sillier than my 111R.

"By sheer good fortune, Mike Stripe had decided to put his beloved S1 Exige on the market. Mike and I shared several common friends through his roles at the Vintage Sports Car Club and the Lotus Drivers' Club though we had somehow conspired never to meet in person. He was reluctantly selling the car due to ill-health. A quick passenger ride confirmed not only that Mike and I would become firm pals, but also that an S1 Exige is quite a device - and a machine of more aggressive character than my Elise. A deal was quickly concluded and I became the proud owner of Lotus Exige #447."

Things I love:
"Far beyond my interest in road cars, I am a motorsport enthusiast. My passion for Lotus was sparked by my dad, an engineer who had always admired Colin Chapman. Watching Modsports Esprits at my local Oulton Park as a child aroused an interest which was piqued when the brilliant Elise was launched in the mid-90s - here was a roadgoing Lotus to which the normal man could aspire.

"The fact that the Exige is directly derived from the Motorsport Elise is part of its particular appeal to me. Here is a drivetrain and body passed down from a genuine Lotus race car - something the later Exige variants, as amazing as they are, cannot boast. As a racing nerd, the buzz of piloting something with that kind of sporting pedigree is a critical part of the joy of owning #447.

"At a totally superficial level, I also believe it is the best-looking road car Lotus has ever made. It's a huge claim when one might cite the Esprit Sport 300 or Elan Sprint but I never tire of just staring at the thing. The bodywork appears shrink-wrapped over the internals, with that huge wing jutting into your view through the wing mirrors. It's tiny when compared to modern cars, seeming almost to be a different species. It looks comically incongruous when parked in a suburban setting - as if a shrunken LMP2 car turned left at Tertre Rouge instead of right.

"Of course, race pedigree and a daft wing would be irrelevant if the car drove poorly. Mercifully though, it's a hoot.

"I've fitted a harness bar and four-point harnesses, along with Kevlar Corbeau seats. This adds a theatrical element to every drive, even if oblique junctions are a massive pain in the backside. Pulling tight the harnesses, with the grumbling, lumpy VHPD K Series just behind your head and those wheel arches highlighting the front extremities never gets boring. It's pure escapism every drive: far too noisy to hear the stereo and too physical to allow you ever to let down your guard.

"These cars never received ABS, traction control, power steering or servoed brakes. This is indulgent, analogue motoring and the perfect antidote to my wilfully synthetic (but very competent) Golf GTD company car.

"I don't use the car often - perhaps once or twice a month averaged over the whole year - but I make sure each drive counts. I'm fortunate to have the fabulous roads of North Yorkshire and the Peak District in spitting distance of our home and my in-laws live on the fringes of Snowdonia. That means lots of early morning running over some of the country's finest driving roads. Treat an S1 Exige as a conveyance, a mere transit device, and it is pretty woeful, but as a distilled dose of intravenous driving, it's mesmeric.

"That VHPD is a proper, screaming, raging little engine. Mine has been fitted with an Emerald ECU, vernier pulleys, carbon fibre airbox (bit of a trinket in truth), sports exhaust and decat. It makes exactly 182hp and revs to 8,000rpm. Not bad for an 18 year-old motor of rather prosaic origin. Many owners have sought greater power and flexibility by swapping their VHPDs for Honda or Audi motors. These cars are super fast and my old shed wouldn't see which way they went but I still love the character of the raspy K Series. There really is an absolute fury about the way it surges round to the red line and I maintain that 250hp/tonne is the perfect balance for the Elise platform. You can confidently use wide throttle openings on the road without scaring yourself.

"Suffice it to say that this alchemic mix is hugely addictive. Every time I drive it, my frustration at commuting and ambivalence about driving in the UK generally just floats away. I'm lost in the immersion of the experience: the noise, the throttle response, the resistance of the brake pedal and the way it forms the perfect fulcrum for a heel and toe downchange. I'm an average driver at best but each journey in #447 makes me feel like a racing driver and that's the true magic of the car for me."

Things I hate:
"No Lotus owner should be blind to their car's faults. And this one has plenty.

"While I love the way the Exige makes me feel like an aspiring racing driver, it also makes me look like an aspiring racing driver. And few things are more tragic than a wannabe. That big wing, roof scoop and megaphone exhaust conspire to make you look a berk. Everywhere, all of the time. You go nowhere subtly in an Exige. Don't even think about picking your nose in a traffic jam: a child will have you recorded and up on YouTube before you've had chance to dispose of the evidence.

"It is also not a device of sophistication or engineered depth. These cars were built down to a price using many parts bin items and sometimes that tells. I've suffered a number of minor reliability gripes, though mercifully that fragile VHPD has been faultless during 40,000 miles. I've twice had to wave it away on a flatbed after maladies rendered it unable to move under its own power.

"It's also a terrible car for passengers. While a quick thrill ride might be fun, most guests will quickly tire of the din, pervading stench of fuel and unyielding seats. This is a car for drivers only and my wife pretty much refuses to travel in it, citing her Kawasaki motorcycle as a more relaxing machine for covering distance."

"Mike kept a log of every penny he spent on the car, including every tank of super unleaded that it chugged. While I've been slightly less anal, I have a file containing every single receipt or invoice for the car's entire history. I daren't add everything up as it would doubtless set off a nervous tick.

"Inherently, though, these are not terribly expensive cars to maintain. Insurance is around £300 per year including half a dozen track days. Road tax is £20 per month on direct debit and servicing through trusted independents is reasonable.

"Keeping on top of upgrades and preventative maintenance is the costly bit and I've spent thousands on it over the last seven years. I wouldn't begrudge that though - this is a rare and special little car, something to be treasured and enjoyed.

"It's also impossible to discuss cost of ownership without the thorny subject of residuals raising its head. Genuine Exiges in RHD still with their VHPDs are rare meat indeed. Mine has had only three owners, two of us for all bar six months of its life, and it could legitimately be described as having one of the most transparent histories of any Exige in the world. I honestly don't know how to value it but would suspect that I might be able to get double the purchase price if I was prepared to wait for the right owner. That's great to know but I bought the car to drive and enjoy, not to worry about capital value. I'll continue to drive it without an eye on the odometer for that very reason."

Where I've been:
"I've explored good chunks of England and Wales in #447. The North Yorkshire Dales remains my favourite spot for pure motoring but the Llanberis Pass in Snowdonia is magic if you can catch a clear run on a Sunday morning.

"Early during my ownership, I took part in a few track days and found it to be a very intuitive tool. In spite of the dire warnings of S1 oversteer, I've thoroughly enjoyed stretching it around Anglesey, Blyton and Silverstone. I haven't taken it on track for a few years but will certainly do so again - that's what an Exige ought to do. I wouldn't pretend to be a talented track driver but I love the sensation of feeling the car approaching its limits."

What next:
"I keep pondering whether to reduce my toy chest to just one car. I can't stop looking at 997 GT3s but that would mean selling both the Exige and my 911 Turbo. It's easier to consider when I haven't driven the Exige for a few weeks but I suspect even the mighty GT3 wouldn't make my heart flutter like the Lotus. There's something really magical about it and no other car I've driven imbues such a sense of raw driving pleasure. I fear I may be stuck with the rattly old thing for a while yet.

"With that in mind, I should probably get on and enjoy it as intended.

"It will make its first trip to Scotland in my hands next weekend when we visit Duns for the Jim Clark memorial weekend to commemorate 50 years since the great man was tragically killed in Hockenheim. (Sorry we couldn't use it sooner Andy! - MB). I'm really looking forward to exploring some of the legendary Borders roads. Doubtless, there will be a few little jaunts up to the Dales and who knows where else we might end up? If you see a sweaty chap who smells of petrol and looks like a wannabe racing driver in the paddock of a UK race track, it's probably me - dazed and confused but living the dream in a very silly, but rather special, little Lotus."

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Comments (37) Join the discussion on the forum

  • SFH911 09 Apr 2018

    A good Monday morning read - well balanced article :-)
    Interestingly I have exactly the same pair of toys - Exige S1 and 997.1 Turbo.
    Keeping thinking about selling the S1 as it just doesn't get used - but I've been thinking that for many years and it's still with me ;-)

  • Elesmart 09 Apr 2018

    Great write up and it's good to read of a car being used and enjoyed.

    I would echo the previous comment regarding the GT3. I too think the Exige would be missed.

    The closest experience I've had to one of these was my Dad's VX220 (2.2). I absolutely loved driving that thing. So raw.

  • Rawwr 09 Apr 2018

    It makes me feel really old, seeing these are now 18 years old. I remember the launch event at Haydon Daytune in Cambridge and having my first drive in one. Great little thing.

  • PistonBroker 09 Apr 2018

    Great read.

    I drove an Elise and an Exige at Donington years ago, egged on by a Lotus engineer in the passenger seat, and was smitten.

    Previous owner didn't want to keep his plate then?!

  • Tickle 09 Apr 2018

    Stunning little cars. I had a good look around a yellow on at Phoenix Motorsport and it looked just right, perfect proportions.

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