Lotus Esprit Buying Guide

One of the most dramatic designs of the 1970s, the Lotus Esprit was fast, fragile and oh so desirable

Prices
• Project £5000 • Good £15,000-20,000 • Concours £30,000-45,000

Practicality ★★★
Running costs ★★★
Spares ★★★★
DIY Friendly ★★★
Investment ★★★★
Desirability ★★★★

When Giugiaro unveiled a far-out concept at the 1972 Turin Salon, it looked way too outlandish to go into production. But four years later the car was displayed in road-ready form wearing Lotus badges; that original show car was based on a Europa chassis that had been lengthened and widened.

The build quality of the earliest Esprits was pretty dire, but things improved with the introduction of the Series 2.2 and again with the arrival of the Series 3. What didn’t change at all was the sensational look, which arguably peaked with the Turbo, although the earliest Esprits hardly lack visual drama.

Power came from a slant-four engine initially displacing just two litres; by the time the turbocharged 2.2-litre engine had been dropped in, the top speed was over 150mph and the 0-60mph dash took comfortably under six seconds. By 1987 the Esprit had been redesigned with softer lines, which lack the impact of those earlier cars. The market certainly thinks so, with values of the Giugiaro-designed models rising sharply.

Your AutoClassics Lotus Esprit inspection checklist

Engine

All of these Esprits were fitted with an all-alloy twin-cam Lotus engine. The 2.0-litre edition carries the type 907 codename, the 2.2-litre is the type 912 and in turbocharged form this is the type 910.

Despite a poor reputation these engines will last for 100,000 miles between rebuilds if the oil and filter are changed every 6000 miles; a genuine Lotus filter needs to be used, with a non-return valve. A fresh cambelt should also be fitted every two years or 24,000 miles; expect big bills if this fails.

Fitting a cheap filter can lead to the big ends being starved of oil on start up, so listen for rumbling when you start the engine. It should have 35psi oil pressure at 3500rpm once warm. Expect 45psi at 6500rpm but it can fall away to as little as 5psi at tickover, which is normal.

The wastegate can seize on turbocharged cars, so watch the boost pressure gauge, which should peak at 0.8 bar. If the wastegate is working properly you’ll hear what sounds like a light sneeze as you accelerate through the gears.

Any misfiring as you accelerate is probably because oil from the uppermost cam cover has collected in the spark plug recesses. The cover is consequently often overtightened to stop the leaking, causing distortion and worsening the leak.

Exhaust manifolds crack and replacement on a Turbo takes up to 12 hours; it’s four hours on a naturally aspirated car. Overheating can occur if the radiator has got blocked with silt, so check for white 'mayonnaise' on the underside of the oil filler cap. The cylinder head is unlikely to warp but the head gasket may have failed.

Gearbox

All of these Esprits came with the same five-speed manual gearbox as a Citroën SM. It’s tough but won’t take ham-fisted use, so ensure there’s no baulking when changing gears. Some parts for these gearboxes are scarce, but hopefully all that will be needed is fresh bearings; listen for rumbling at low speeds and whining at higher velocities.

The spigot bearing needs to be greased or it will fail, destroying the crankshaft. It should be done when the clutch is replaced so if the car has had a new one, make sure a marque specialist did the work.

Suspension and brakes

The unassisted steering should be light and precise. If it’s not the rack is ready for replacement; they can last up to 50,000 miles but wear much faster if the car is driven hard. From the S3, wider wheels were fitted, which accelerates the rate at which the steering rack wears. There’s a universal joint in the steering column which can seize, leading to the steering not self-centring; replacements are cheap and easy to fit.

Clonks from the transmission as the drive is taken up will be down to worn universal joints; problems are especially likely on S1 and S2 models, which also have weak wheelbearings. The Turbo and S3 brought a new suspension design that’s far more reliable, while the Toyota-derived front suspension that was introduced in 1985 lasts far better than the earlier design. Earlier Esprits featured trunnions that must be lubricated regularly to prevent rapid wear, while the lower wishbones can crack near the anti-roll bar mountings.

The handbrake mechanism seizes up as it can’t be lubricated, and because it’s mounted on the sill it gets knocked about. On S1 and S2 editions it can break away, but the the S3 brought a stronger mounting.

The clutch slave cylinder pipe is plastic and it goes brittle then fails. This leads to brake fluid being pumped onto the inboard rear discs which then catches fire. Converting to a braided hose eliminates this failing.

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Bodywork

The Esprit’s plastic bodyshell is tough, with cracking and crazing not an issue, but the nose can suffer from stone chipping; in extreme cases this can damage the plastic itself. Check also for star cracks from impacts with flying stones.

The beauty of the glassfibre construction is that it can be mended invisibly – by someone who knows what they’re doing. The problem is that low-quality repairs are common, so look for paint sinkage and uneven glassfibre. The rear wings can be damaged by objects in the boot moving around; the battery protects the one side however.

The chassis is strong, but accident damage and rot are not easy to repair, which is why a lot of Esprits have had a replacement frame by now. The Esprit S2.2 brought a galvanised chassis, but if you're looking at an earlier car you must inspect it from underneath.

There’s a layer of felt between the chassis and bodyshell. This absorbs water and corrodes the chassis, and because the top of this is hidden you must tap the metal with a hammer and listen for a crisp clang. A dull noise means the metal has rusted.

Any significant crash damage means the chassis must be replaced, which is a big and costly job, but the parts are available.

Interior

Some Esprits were trimmed in leather, some with cloth while others feature Marcasite (like a crushed velvet). The leather tends to crack but the others usually wear well.

The S1 and S2 have a bonded-in windscreen, which should have been resealed by now. Doing this isn’t expensive but if the windscreen cracks as it’s removed (which is likely) the cost shoots up. It’s worth checking the footwells for evidence of water leaks; if the carpet is sodden the windscreen is probably to blame.

The electrical system doesn’t normally give much trouble, although the window motors can seize through corrosion and the fusebox in the glovebox can get knocked by luggage, but that’s about it. If electrical glitches do start, things just get worse. Other potential problem areas include the headlamp relays and the TR7-sourced headlamp motors.

History

  • 1973: The Esprit debuts at the Geneva salon in prototype S1 form.
  • 1976: The Esprit S1 goes on sale; 744 are built.
  • 1978: The S2 appears with an improved interior, Speedline wheels and SD1 tail lights; 1060 are produced. To commemorate Mario Andretti becoming F1 World Champion, 147 JPS black and gold special editions are built.
  • 1980: The engine is stroked to 2174cc and the Esprit becomes the S2.2. A galvanised chassis is standard, but only 88 S2s are made.
  • 1980: The Esprit Turbo launches, as the Essex. 100 are planned but just 57 are made, with much-improved rear suspension and split-rim Compomotive alloy wheels.
  • 1981: The normally aspirated Esprit becomes the S3, with the same chassis and suspension as the Turbo for greater refinement. 767 are made. The Turbo becomes a regular production model with a reduced trim specification. 1608 are produced.
  • 1986: The final Giugiaro Esprit surfaces; the 215bhp Turbo HC (High Compression).
  • 1987: Peter Stevens' restyled Esprit goes on sale.

AutoClassics says…

Series 1 and 2 Esprits make great collector’s pieces but they’re not very usable, so if you want to drive your Esprit regularly you need to home in on something newer. If you want to take on a project make sure it’s an S2.2 or later; anything earlier is suitable for professional restoration only, while parts availability is especially poor for the S1 and S2.

Whether you’re buying to restore or to use, the S2.2 and S3 are probably your best bet. However, if you’re thinking about being able to sell on the car later, some buyers want only what they see as the ultimate edition, the Turbo – whether it’s a standard model, an Essex or an HC, although the Essex is particularly rare.

The key, as ever, is to make sure that you don’t buy an Esprit that’s in really poor shape when it’s being sold as a good buy. Poor parts availability is an issue, while some of the bits that are available are costly. Pay strong money for an Esprit that’s not all that good and you can soon be left out of pocket.

Specifications

Lotus Esprit S1
  Power 160bhp
  Top speed 124mph
  0-60mph 8.4sec
  Economy 23mpg

Lotus Esprit S2
  Power 160bhp
  Top speed 126mph
  0-60mph 7.3sec
  Economy 20mpg

Esprit S2.2
  Power 160bhp
  Top speed 138mph
  0-60mph 6.7sec
  Economy 20mpg

Esprit S3
  Power 160bhp
  Top speed 135mph
  0-60mph 6.5sec
  Economy 23mpg

Esprit Turbo
  Power 210bhp
  Top speed 152mph
  0-60mph 5.6sec
  Economy 22mpg

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