‘It just wants to go and go – it re­ally zings’

Af­ter driv­ing 9000 miles across the globe in a pre­tend Lo­tus Es­prit, James Cartwright was keen to find out if the real thing lived up to its 007-tinged rep­u­ta­tion

Classic Cars (UK) - - Contents - Words RUSS SMITH Pho­tog­ra­phy JONNY FLEET­WOOD

The num­ber and va­ri­ety of rea­sons that read­ers have given us for want­ing to drive a par­tic­u­lar car have prob­a­bly been even more var­ied than the cars them­selves. But few if any have been as odd, and frankly as hard-earned, as James Cartwright’s wish to drive a red Lo­tus Es­prit. That got our at­ten­tion. When some­one is that spe­cific you know there’s a story, so we had to ask. We’ll let James ex­plain, ‘With two friends, I did the Mon­gol Rally a few years ago in a Nis­san Mi­cra MKI that we crudely con­verted into a trib­ute to Roger Moore’s red Lo­tus Es­prit Turbo from the Bond movie For Your Eyes Only. Com­plete with roof-mounted skis. If you squint there’s a good joke in this, and peo­ple got the joke with our team name ‘For Urals Only’. It was set, and also the idea of tak­ing skis to Mon­go­lia for no good rea­son ap­pealed greatly. The Nis­san sur­vived and we com­pleted the rally in 31 days, so af­ter 9000 miles in a ‘fake’ red Es­prit I wanted to ex­pe­ri­ence the real deal.’

The back lanes near Alder­shot in Hampshire may be slightly less ad­ven­tur­ous than the Ulaan­baatar by­pass, but from a driv­ing dy­nam­ics point of view we’re surely star­ing at an open goal by hand­ing James the keys of a Lo­tus Es­prit S3. This one might not have a tur­bocharger, but it’s miles – pos­si­bly 9000 of them – away from driv­ing a one-litre Mi­cra.

Colin Parry’s Lo­tus, a show-win­ning 1986 nor­mally as­pi­rated S3 model which he has owned since 1989, has dur­ing the course of a spe­cial­ist engine re­build been tweaked to al­most Es­prit Turbo out­put lev­els, though the car re­mains oth­er­wise stan­dard. That power boost fur­ther raises James’ an­tic­i­pa­tion lev­els. ‘I ac­tu­ally pre­fer nor­mally as­pi­rated en­gines, and for me a sports car needs a spe­cific out­put of at least 90bhp per litre. That gives them an edgy, slightly stressed feel, like I had in my Clio 182 Tro­phy.’ It’s time we took the scenic route.

De­spite be­ing a rel­a­tive stranger to low-slung and in­ac­ces­si­ble sports cars James in­stinc­tively adopts the least in­el­e­gant and, as Colin con­firms, most ef­fi­cient method of get­ting over the sill and into the driver’s seat – left leg, swing back­side, right leg. Once in he is quick to of­fer praise. ‘It feels so ex­otic and Ital­ian from in­side. It’s ob­vi­ously been styled with buy­ers of Ital­ian cars in mind. I love the way the busi­ness part of the dash­board with all the dials cre­ates a wrap­around feel – like it all be­longs to the driver. And very Bri­tish touches like the pol­ished wooden gear­knob on top of what looks like a rather in­dus­trial, un­re­fined metal stick. It’s like the han­dle on a lathe; a mod­ern ref­er­ence to the feel­ing of op­er­at­ing ma­chin­ery.’

‘It feels so ex­otic and Ital­ian from in­side – it’s ob­vi­ously been styled with buy­ers of Ital­ian cars in mind’

Off down a lightly traf­ficked mi­nor A-road, James is quickly flick­ing that lever be­tween ra­tios like it’s his own car. ‘The gear­knob po­si­tion is re­ally nice and you nat­u­rally shift with an open palm, like in an older car, not by grip­ping the top of the lever like most mod­ern cars. It feels so right. In an odd way it re­minds me a lot of the Golf GTI MKI that I used to own, the way it feels re­ally planted and ac­cel­er­ates through the gears with that won­der­ful pro­gres­sion you only get with a good nat­u­rally as­pi­rated engine; I’m lov­ing it. With so much power squeezed from a small engine it re­ally zings! The only neg­a­tive is that in some lights the re­flec­tion of all the dash­board’s pale leather in the wind­screen makes it hard to see the road ahead. But even know­ing that I feel you’d still spec it that way, it sim­ply looks so good.

‘If I were to have a week­end clas­sic, this would be it. But you’d maybe also want a lit­tle place off the Route Napoleon; some­where sexy with some moun­tain roads to play on. The ap­peal of hav­ing one of th­ese in your garage is as a re­minder of days like this – open roads, sun out – and a bea­con of hope for fu­ture days of no work.

‘The steer­ing is just as good as I’d ex­pected – quick and direct but with the very slight pe­riod way­ward­ness you wouldn’t get in a mod­ern; there’s just a frac­tion less im­me­di­acy of re­sponse when you turn the wheel. That’s not a crit­i­cism at all, and you quickly learn just to dial it into each cor­ner a lit­tle bit ear­lier. And over­all the road­hold­ing and con­trol is im­mac­u­late.’

We find some twistier ter­rain as James’ con­fi­dence in the Lo­tus starts to grow. ‘The nice long, flex­i­ble sec­ond gear re­ally helps get the best out of it on cor­ners like this. You get that lovely raspi­ness at high revs, though it sinks to a bari­tone at low speeds, which is more what I would have ex­pected from the Turbo ver­sion than this. But it all sounds good.

‘The steer­ing weight is good at speed, but not hav­ing power as­sis­tance, the car’s low-speed steer­ing is more what I’d call man­age­able. It doesn’t spoil things but you do need to learn the knack of balanc­ing speed with turn­ing the wheel to avoid it be­ing too heavy. But I don’t know what it would be like at 5mph on a series of hair­pin bends. That would take some prac­tice.

‘It’s a funny thing, but you can sense the styling from in­side. You don’t get that with many cars. You know when from the out­side some sports car de­signs look fast just stand­ing still? Well this looks and feels fast from the in­side. In most mod­erns you could be sat in any­thing, but this feels prop­erly spe­cial. When you look in the rear-view mir­rors it’s like a Stratos but less so; squareshoul­dered like a Mk1 Golf – very Gi­u­giaro. The only thing is, those air in­takes be­hind the side win­dows are more sub­tle than they could be. There’s room for more Coun­tach-style drama there.

The other thing that strikes me about the in­te­rior is that it’s much bet­ter qual­ity than I ex­pected. But I don’t know how much that’s down to Lo­tus or if it’s the work that’s been car­ried out on

this car, but some of the stitch­ing looks like it’s in an As­ton Martin.’ We ques­tion Colin Parry later and find the car has only been partly re­trimmed and not the ar­eas we were fo­cus­ing on – they re­ally were this good from new.

We stop for a breather and James turns his at­ten­tion to the Es­prit’s ex­ter­nal pro­file. ‘The body has a nice un­com­pli­cated sil­hou­ette that gives the im­pres­sion of light­ness that goes with the Lo­tus ethos. The later Stevens ver­sion looks heav­ier, es­pe­cially round the front end where it’s fussier, less clean. This has such a straight and sim­ple sill line, and it has great style be­cause it isn’t over­done. Apart, maybe, from the front bumper and spoiler – that looks a bit heavy, not quite in keep­ing with the rest of the car. Was that done for US reg­u­la­tions? I’m sure it was less bulky on ear­lier Esprits.

‘Whereas the in­te­rior looks very Seven­ties, and very Ital­ian, the ex­te­rior is more Eight­ies; more home­spun and more Lo­tus. And you can see it’s a glass­fi­bre body in things like the panel gaps. It’s like with Jensens and TVRS: there’s a very Bri­tish look in the way it’s all put to­gether. That said, this is a rare in­stance in an ex­ploded clas­sic car mar­ket where prices of them haven’t gone crazy. You can still pick up Esprits like this for less than £20k and that’s as­ton­ish­ing. That’s a level that feels achiev­able yet what you are buy­ing looks so ex­otic. And maybe that’s be­cause it’s Bri­tish. If this were an Ital­ian car in badge and not just de­sign they would surely be twice the price. The glass­fi­bre bodies have per­haps held it back in the past, but that may be not such a turn-off now that so many cars are built with com­pos­ite pan­els or bodies; it’s be­come the norm. It’s true that hav­ing a four-cylin­der power unit makes the Lo­tus seem a bit less spe­cial, but with­out it you’d not have the char­ac­ter of this engine, and that’s part of what makes the Es­prit what it is.’

Back be­hind the wheel – the temp­ta­tion to drive an Es­prit is not some­thing that’s easy to re­sist – James is re­ally get­ting into the groove. ‘From the mo­ment I first climbed in I got the sense that it just wanted to go and go. It still feels like that and I don’t think I’ve ever got into a car and had such an im­me­di­ate un­der­stand­ing of how it is go­ing to be­have. And that as­ton­ish­ingly small steer­ing wheel makes you feel like you’ve joined the Lo­tus rac­ing team. At road speeds the Es­prit isn’t

hard to drive quickly at all; it flat­ters you and on th­ese bob­bly B-roads we’ve been on since the break it feels re­ally well damped and sur­pris­ingly at home. It’s easy to place too – the width isn’t a prob­lem at all. And that engine sound pass­ing next to a hedgerow, it was just fan­tas­tic back there with the win­dow down.

‘The gear lever has a longish but quite pos­i­tive throw. It feels what I can only de­scribe as well-oiled and the sense of en­gage­ment with the car that al­lows gives you the con­fi­dence to come off the clutch that split sec­ond ear­lier. Like ev­ery­thing else in the Es­prit it seems de­signed to speed your progress.’

That old Lo­tus magic seems to be work­ing its way into James’s soul, but surely the Es­prit can’t all be that per­fect? ‘It does have its idio­syn­cra­sies. Like the steer­ing wheel not be­ing straight ahead of you; it ac­tu­ally points at my right shoul­der. I reckon you’d start to feel that af­ter, what, about ten hours or so. Al­ready I’m find­ing my­self sit­ting to­wards the out­side of the seat to com­pen­sate.

‘The in­ner whee­larch is quite in­tru­sive on the ac­cel­er­a­tor pedal, and all the ped­als are quite close to­gether. That’s not a bad thing, but in th­ese shoes at least it is quite easy to catch one of the other ped­als. I think that the pack­ag­ing en­gi­neers tried to keep the ped­als right ahead of the driver, un­like the steer­ing wheel, and per­haps they didn’t need to. There’s space to move the pedal box slightly to the left to cre­ate a bit more room for your feet on them. Or I sup­pose I could just change my shoes.

‘I’m also now get­ting mixed feel­ings about the dash­board. I know I was en­thu­si­as­tic ear­lier but I’m start­ing to think maybe those wrap­around ends are too close, the way they come out to­wards you? That might get a bit claus­tro­pho­bic af­ter a while. But shoul­der to shoul­der there’s a huge amount of room and the seats are re­ally com­fort­able and sup­port­ive. In fact the driv­ing po­si­tion it­self is pretty much per­fect.

‘Over­all it’s hard to fault the way the Es­prit drives. But…’ He pauses for thought. ‘I feel it’s some­how miss­ing some­thing. Like – dare I say it? – an Ital­ian badge. Driv­ing it has given me a real taste for own­ing some­thing Seven­ties. But I’m not sure it would be an Es­prit. Some­thing wedgy, def­i­nitely, that would pro­vide the spur to make me want to suc­ceed in busi­ness. A Maserati Shamal or Kham­sin; some­thing like that.

‘But I’m glad to have driven the Lo­tus; there’s so much to like about it. In­clud­ing one thing that might sound re­ally odd – I love the way it’s so low that you can sit on the wide sill with the door open and look across the roof.’ Thanks to Colin Parry for use of his su­perb Es­prit.

James ad­mits he’s a sucker for a nat­u­rally as­pi­rated engine

Tiny steer­ing wheel could al­most be­long to a Lo­tus F1 car of the era James says the in­te­rior de­sign gives a sense of speed even when the car’s sta­tion­ary

James’ Es­prit en­counter has left him with wedgy han­ker­ings – but prefer­ably of Ital­ian ori­gin...

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