Driving Colin Chapman's Lotus Esprit

Colin Chapman’s final company car was by no means a regular fleet vehicle. Andrew Frankel takes the Lotus boss’ Esprit Turbo on the track to experience the original factory modifications

Lotus Esprit of Colin Chapman cornering in the wet

Jordan Butters

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It would be hard to underestimate just how bad things must have been at Lotus the day Margaret Thatcher came to visit on August 5, 1981. The original plan had been for her to come to the factory at Hethel, but a prime minister’s schedule is a busy one, so in the end it boiled down to a photo op at Norwich Airport a dozen miles away.

For props to represent its racing and road divisions, Lotus had brought a Formula 1 car and Lotus Esprit, the latter of which Thatcher drove and was reported in the local press to have said, “I was tempted to drive away in it.” The Formula 1 machine was the Lotus 88, perhaps the most revolutionary grand prix car in F1 history, boasting not only its famed twin chassis, but also a carbon-fibre monocoque that predated that of the McLaren MP4/1 (which usually takes the credit for being the first of its kind) and which was Lotus’ own work rather than farmed out.

What Chapman may not have mentioned was that the 88 had never actually raced and now, having been slung out of the British Grand Prix little more than a fortnight earlier (as it already had at Long Beach and Rio earlier that season), it never would. His last transformative F1 car, the 79, had won Lotus its seventh constructors championship in 1978, but Team Lotus had been winless ever since and the 88, the car that could have changed the racing world, was already a museum piece.