The secret of further improvement to the Esprit series was to give it a more flexible and preferably more powerful engine. Lotus, however, was such a small concern that this could only be achieved by rationalizing engine developments among other models, and for Lotus external clients.
Soon after Chrysler had approached Lotus to help them develop a new homologation special for use in motorsport, Lotus started work on a enlarged version of the engine, and it was always clear that this would eventually be used in updated Lotus modelss. This engine, known as the Type 911 when used in the new Chrysler Sunbeam-Lotus, would become the Type 912 when used in Lotus models.
Because Lotus engine designers had not built in much stretch to the original Type 907, it was not practical to enlarge the cylinder bores as there was very little space between adjacent wet liners. The only feasible way, therefore, was to lengthen the stroke, which was in any case welcome as this would provide the engine with more low-speed and mid-range torque to make the cars more flexible.
To make a 2.2 litre, the stroke was lengthened from 69.2mm to 76.2mm, and the capacity therefore rose from 1,973cc to 2,174cc. Although a new crankshaft was needed, many of the 2 litre engines major components were carried forward for use in the 2.2 litre.
As far as Lotus were concerned, another significant feature was that the new Type 912 engine developed 140lb.ft of torque (the old Type 907s peak figure) at a mere 2,400rpm, which indicates just how much more punchy the larger capacity unit had become.
This is a direct comparison between the three different engines:
For a time, however, the demands of the DeLorean project, meant that all other Lotus work had to mark time, and the bigger engine a 2174cc unit was not ready until 1980.
At the same time as the front-engined S2.2 cars were announced, the Esprit had been updated in August 1978, the differences between S2 and S2.2 were limited to the use of a galvanized chassis treatment and the fitment of the Type 912 2.2 litre engine and a revised (partly stainless-steel) exhaust system. The price of the last S2 Esprit in Britain was £14,884, and that of the first S2.2 Esprit was £14,951 a truly marginal increase. By the time is was withdrawn in favour of the S3 Esprit, less than a year later, that price had risen to £15,270. The S3 model, however, was a very different animal indeed.
The new features included in the S3 can best be summarized by quoting Lotus own press material: The Esprit Series 3 specification enabled us to rationalize a great many of the components, construction techniques and body/chassis tooling already incorporated in the Turbo Esprit ... (we now produce 76 per cent of the motor car at Hethel).
Because the new chassis-frame and suspension systems were first seen in the Turbo Esprit, they are described fully in the next chapter. The S3 Esprit, launched in April 1981, used the same rigid backbone chassis-frame, revised rear suspen-sion and modified front suspension, together with the larger disc brakes, as the Turbo Esprit, and it was also available with the 1 5in diameter Turbo Esprit wheels and tyres as an option.
The bodyshell modifications introduced for the Turbo Esprit larger front and rear bumpers, the rear bumper with the word Lotus embossed into it, and the new-style engine bay air intakes behind the rear quarter-windows were also standardized, though the Turbos spoilers and side skirts were not offered, even to customers waving wads of notes or dollar bills! A minor style change, which made much difference to the cars appearance, was that the lower sill and front spoiler mouldings were painted in body colour rather than in black.
Mechanically, the S3 used the same engine and transmis-sion as the deposed S2.2, so the performance was unaffected. Drivers, however, would probably notice a different (Turbo-type) steering wheel and some trim and sound-insulation improvements.
More important than all these changes, welcome though they were, was the considerably reduced price of the Esprit. Here was a real bargain, for the S3 was not only a better car than the S2.2 it replaced, but cheaper as well. The S2.2s final price was £15,270, while that of the first S3 was a mere £13,461. That reduction of £1,809, or nearly 12 per cent, made many people sit up and take notice. It also did great things for the demand for Esprits, most of which were being sold in the UK: in 1980, 55 S2.2s had been produced for the UK market, while in 1981 there were 20 S2.2s and no fewer than 132 of the new S3s.
With the introduction of the S3 derivative, the Esprit came of age and I can do no better than quote Motor in its test in August 1981: With a great many modifications aimed not only at reducing production costs but also at improving quality, it is a much better product all round, and a testament to Lotus development abilities
What was interesting about the Esprit 83 was not what it had, but rather what it did not have. For example, its drag coefficient was creditable at 0.33, but not sensational. As a Lotus engineer once told me: We never shouted about such things. In the early Seventies, even, we had Cd figures like that, and now other people are shouting about Cds of 0.35. We dont spend millions on advertising we just build efficient cars.
It is also quite remarkable that the 135mph Esprit 83 did not have ventilated disc brakes. Ridiculous, you may think, every high performance car has ventilated discs. But not Lotus. The engineers at Hethel looked long and hard at their braking requirements, especially when the 150mph-plus Turbo Esprit was being developed; they tested solid and ventilated disc brakes and concluded that the solid discs gave them better results over a longer period. In the past Lotus cars may have had quality and reliability shortcomings, but they could rarely be criticized on the grounds of engineering incompetence.
The Esprit S3 did not owe its splendid roadholding to exotic and expensive tyres such as the Pirelli P7, which are often found on Italian Supercars and can be extremely expensive to repair after a puncture. Instead, the 83 and the Turbo were equipped with Goodyear NCTs, which were more conventionally engineered, but still extremely grippy in all conditions nor does it cost a small fortune to have a punctured NCT mended.
In 1983, Lotus announced the latest variation on the Esprit theme to coincide with their re-entry into the large US car market. Although the basis of the design was the successful 83 model, so much effort had gone into improvements to the bodyshell, the provision of more space inside the cockpit and tailoring the car to meet every US-market requirement, that the new Chairman, Fred Bushell, claimed that it was virtually another new model. Because of this, Lotus felt justified in calling the Federal car an 84.
However, during the Seventies, Lotus involvement in the North American scene was not always happy or successful, and the entire range was withdrawn before any 2.2-litre-engined cars could be put on sale there. An explanation of this and an analysis of the problems Lotus now admit to have encountered, follows.
Export to the USA - the distribution saga
It is no exaggeration to suggest that Lotus experience in selling cars to North America has often been disastrous. The United States is the richest potential car market in the world, recession or no recession, and Lotus failure to establish a thriving market there with cars like the Eclat and Esprit was a real commercial tragedy. It is widely known that Lotus enjoyed a rush of sales in 1977 and 1978 and that sales collapsed immediately afterwards, but it is not as widely known why and how this happened.
On the face of it, any of the 16-valve-engined Lotus models should have found a ready market in North America. In engineering terms, there was no reason why the Lotus should be any less successful than cars like the mid-engined V6 and V8 Ferraris. In fact, for a short time it all looked very promising, but then everything seemed to go wrong. Why?
To summarize, I have prepared a table from figures provided by Lotus. Unfortunately, production statistics for Federal cars also include those destined for Japan, where similar specifications apply; however, I know that the last front-engined cars for the USA were built in August 1980, and the last Esprits in February 1980. That said, the table tells its own story:
Lotus production Federa1-specification* cars
*Includes cars for Japan
John Lamm, writing in Road & Track in February 1983, had this to say: When Lotus updated its car line and image with the new Elite in 1974, and the Eclat and mid-engined Esprit a year later, it seemed the company was ready to continue offering the sort of automobiles we like: light, efficient, quick. And yet Lotus managed to fumble away what promised to be one of its best markets in the world, not because it lacked the right products, but because it couldnt build and distribute them for the US with anything like the brilliance that got the cars into production in the first place... Its my suspicion that Lotus has just about used up all its credit with automotive enthusiasts in the US. It hasnt been an easy account to deplete.
When North American sales of these cars began in 1974, Lotus models were sold through a series of private distribu-tors, with no centralized marketing and little forward planning. Lotus had great ambitions, however, and when one distributor suggested organizing national distribution to look after warranty, advertising, field service and sales, Lotus welcomed him, and Lotus Cars of America was set up.
But as Mike Kimberley told me: After 18 months, it was found that the organization had simply run out of money. In 19789 we were faced with seeing the market collapse by defaulting the customer on warranty costs, or we had to move in ourselves.
As the 1979 company report then said: At the commencement of the year, we terminated our previous arrangements... and set up our distribution operation...
The new company was Lotus North America mc, based at Costa Mesa, in California, with a total staff of nine people, but it soon became apparent that the operation was far too small to cover such a vast continent. More people and more money were required, and Lotus could provide neither. Between 1977 and 1979, the output of Federal-specification cars mirrored the problem: 633 cars in 1977; 336 in 1978 and 164 in 1979.
It was at this juncture, when Lotus were agonizing over the imminent birth of the Esprit Turbo and the introduction of the 2.2-litre cars described above, that negotiations com-menced with Rolls-Royce: David Plastow saw Cohn and myself, Mike Kimberley recalls, and we came up with the idea of merging our US operations. It was not so much a marketing merger as a takeover of Lotus North American interests by Rolls-Royce, who already had an immensely well-organized, well-staffed business which had recently moved into new headquarters. A useful bonus was that this would work wonders for the Fleet Average CAFE ratings of the Rolls-Royce and be a very low overhead for Lotus. This five-year deal was announced by both companies in September 1979, when it was pointed out that Rolls-Royce Inc had 68 USA dealers, all of whom would handle Lotus sales.
Almost at once, however, things began to go wrong. As Mike Kimberley says: Rolls-Royce took over the cars which we already had in North America and ordered another 125, then the car market in the USA died and died in a big way. Rolls-Royce had their own problems because of that, for in 1979-80 the £/$ exchange rate moved against us by 42 per cent, which was appalling. The nett result was that our dollar prices had to go shooting up, orders disappeared and the distributors ordered no more cars from us. Its only fair to say that they had their own particular problems, with the Silver Spirit being announced perhaps that was quite enough, without having to bother with Lotus.
The result was that Lotus sales plummeted still further, and when the changeover from 2-litre to 2.2-litre cars was made, exports from Hethel dried up altogether. This explains why no S2.2 Elites, S2.2 Eclats, or Esprit S2.2, S3 and Turbo models were officially sent to the North American market after that.
Both companies realized that the tie-up had failed, and before the end of 1981 they began to negotiate closure and the unscrambling of a complicated situation; a public announcement followed in summer 1982, but all loose ends were not tied up until early 1983.
Financial upheavals at Lotus in the mid-Eighties
In the five years after Cohn Chapmans untimely death, the Lotus company went through a corporate upheaval. Major shareholders came and went, crises were regularly faced and overcome and in the end the company was rescued from possible oblivion by General Motors. This ensured that changes and improvements made to the Esprit S3 in those years were often introduced with very little publicity. In that time, however, Lotus kept plugging away at the specification, the final cars being significantly faster than ever before.
Fred Bushell took over the chairmanship the day after Chapmans
death, and despite Mike Kimberley and Alan Curtis both joining the
board of Group Lotus at once, the concern was in deep trouble for
a while. In the spring of 1983 Lotus were nearly forced to close,
for the five-year loan of £2.2 million from American Express
had reached maturity, and this was due to be repaid. There was neither
cash in the bank nor sufficient cash flow for that to be done at once.
As Fred Bushell quipped at the Extraordinary General Meeting convened to approve this reshuffle: We were so nearly going under, you wouldnt believe it ... Even so, in spite of this trauma, the company posted a £109,000 pre-tax profit for the first six months of the year, which compared well with a loss of £2 million for the whole of 1982.
When the dust had settled, it was seen that BCA either had, or influenced, no less than 47 per cent of the share capital, so it was no surprise to find that David Wickins was elected Chairman in October 1983. Further changes followed in November 1984, when the construction machinery giant, JCB, bought an 11 per cent stake from the Chapman/Bushell holdings.
By the middle of 1985 there had been a further reshuffle, with Toyota increasing their stake yet again, and with the company renamed Group Lotus plc. Major holdings were:
By this time, of course, the DeLoren scandal had erupted, so there was never a time of what might be called financial calm and stability at Hethel.
The last truly major change then followed, in January 1986, when Wickins and his fellow directors realized that Lotus needed a broader capital base to allow them to expand to build the new-generation Elan, described in the companion volume. As a consequence, five large companies were invited to take over the business, but in the end it was General Motors of the USA, the worlds largest and most diverse car-maker, which assumed control of Lotus, buying out every other shareholder. This transaction was formalized on January 22, 1986, and one immediate result was that David Wickins stepped down from the chair in favour of Alan Curtis, with Mike Kimberley continuing as Chief Executive.
Esprit S3 - the final improvements
In the traumatic final years just described, no visual changes were made to the Esprit, and on the surface it seemed that the normally-aspirated car, at least, was being neglected. Nevertheless, sales of the normally-aspirated model gradually rose, then fell away again. By this time most of these sales were being achieved at home, for the much more powerful Esprit Turbo had taken most sales in export markets.
In the autumn of 1984 Lotus announced that they were extending their anti-corrosion chassis warranty from six to eight years, but it was not until the end of 1986 that the HC (HC = High Compression) engine, already launched for Excel models, was made available.
The UK launch of the Esprit HC was actually delayed until early 1987, when it was seen that the latest version of the 2.2-litre engine, dubbed 912S, had a compression ratio of 10.9:1. Along with its new Nikasil cylinder liners and an improved cooling system, this allowed peak power to be boosted to 172bhp.
In the Esprit HC, peak power and torque figures were both slightly lower than in the Excel, this being because there was a slightly more restrictive exhaust system in the mid-engined Esprit. Other improvements over the old 83 (which was discontinued) were the use of adjustable-rake seats, a larger-capacity battery and full engine and transmission undertrays to improve the aerodynamics. With the car thus modified, Lotus raised the UK retail price from £18,980 to £19,590 an increase of £610, or just 3 per cent.
This, however, was merely a temporary improvement, for the existing-shape Esprit only had another few months to live. In the autumn of 1987 the old car was discontinued, and a new X180 style of Esprit took over.
from 'Lotus Since the 70s' by Graham Robson