By the mid-seventies the British car industry was in an irrevocable decline, and the smaller, specialist concerns, many of whom I listed last week, became the early casualties. The heyday of the British sports car had come to an ignominious end, killed off by a dire economic climate and, ultimately, the waning appeal of the ‘Special’. Even Lotus, Britain’s foremost sports and racing car manufacturer, was feeling the pinch. Founder Colin Chapman’s philosophy however, had never been to play things safe, and at the 1975 Paris Motor Show, he unveiled the Esprit, the car he hoped would permanently erase the memories of Lotus’ kit car roots, and establish them as the constructors of supercars capable of rivalling any Ferrari, Maserati, Porsche or Lamborghini.
Having pioneered the ‘wedge-shape’ in Formula 1 with the Championship winning Type 72, it seemed only natural that Giorgetto Giugiaro’s design would eschew any hint of curvaceousness in favour of stark angularity, the polygonal design remaining remarkably similar to that which first appeared as a concept car at the 1972 Turin Motor Show. The shape would prove controversial, though aesthetics weren’t the issue, poor visibility would become a recurrent gripe in reviews, along with cockpit noise levels, though the latter could hardly be considered a serious issue in a performance car.
Lotus had produced a world-class machine, one that drew acclaim from all who managed to squeeze into it, for incredible handling and roadholding. There was praise too for the price tag, which at around £8000 was no bargain, but still in the region of £3000 less than a comparable Porsche. The price however, allied with the Lots Of Trouble Usually Serious badge on the nose might have justifiably set alarm bells ringing. Chapman’s design mantra had always been that of performance through lightness, and though his racing team enjoyed immense success, his cars were equally reputed for their (occasionally perilous) fragility. The Esprit soon lived up to the Lotus reputation: it overheated dreadfully, the electrics were suspect, the headlights refused to retract, fumes leaked into the cockpit.... But such issues would be addressed - replaced with others on later models - and, frankly, there was no mechanical issue on earth that could have deterred customers from buying an Esprit, for it was the beneficiary of perhaps the greatest marketing coup in motoring history.
A World-Class Machine
The enduring popularity of what was probably Moore’s best Bond outing, combined with the immense success of the Corgi Toys miniature guaranteed that the Esprit was indelibly etched into the popular consciousness for years.
Just how the Esprit came to appear in The Spy Who Loved Me is unclear, some say Chapman had one parked outside Pinewood Studios in order to draw attention, others that producer ‘Cubbi’ Broccoli simply saw the car at the Motor Show and ordered it on the spot. Regardless, as Roger Moore raced down a Sardinian mountain road, pursued by the girl from the Lamb’s Navy Rum ads in her helicopter, there was no doubting that they’d picked the right motor – the Esprit looked almost otherworldly, to the point where its subsequent transformation into a submersible seemed fairly plausible. The enduring popularity of what was probably Moore’s best Bond outing, combined with the immense success of the Corgi Toys miniature guaranteed that the Esprit was indelibly etched into the popular consciousness for years.
The original British supercar remained in production until 2004, undergoing several redesigns and power increases along the way. Honestly though I’m not sure anyone could have improved upon Giugiaro’s original design, but then perhaps I’m biased because I can count myself among those for whom the Corgi model was a treasured, if well-battered, possession.
You can see the Wheeler Dealers working on an Esprit S3 on Discovery on 21st September at 10am.
Exhaust Notes 11 - Triumph Spitfire - Winning The Battle Of The Budget
Exhaust Notes 10 - Mini - A Miniature Marvel