Industry insight: Lotus cars

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Finally it was time to see how a decade of Esprit progress felt in motion. The demonstrator and engineer were summoned for a few laps around the Hethel circuit.

The new Esprit’s 215 bhp still runs without intercooling, for the elongated and finned cast-alloy induction tube emblazoned with the word “TURBO” does much to cool incoming turbocharged mixture. It also continues with Dellorto carburation rather than fuel-injection in European trim.

More important from a service and driver viewpoint is the departure of the Citroen SM-based five-speed transaxle in favour of the Renault 25 five-speeder which has also seen service in the Alpine GTA coupes.

Utilising 7000 rpm and speeds of up to 110 mph, the new Esprit, despite the lumpy track, was squeak-and rattle-free in a way that was not possible with the previous body. Ride over bumps at speed, on Goodyears of markedly unequal widths (195 front, 235 rear), was composed, even in strong crosswinds. Body roll was higher than I recall it on the second and third-gear U-bends which emphasise remarkable rear-end traction.

Inside pre-production number 008, the fit and finish of the blue-trimmed cabin was “all of a piece” in a way Lotus has not achieved previously. Black and white VDO dials imparted information with a dignity and speed many found absent in the digital dials GM prefer from Astra/Kadett GTE to Corvette.

This 887-mile Turbo Esprit was not perfect, pronounced wind-noise intruding on the otherwise far quieter cabin. Yet you begin to hear and feel why they cost more than £20,000 more than the 1976 model: the rebodied Esprit takes all that was good about the 1980-87 run of 2097 turbocharged Esprits, and presents it in an internationally competitive package— one priced at £28,900 in the UK (not outrageous today for a mid-engine machine capable of 150 mph) or £22,950 for the 172 bhp non-turbo which remains rated at 138 mph maximum.

Lotus Cars now has a future, one assured by the resources of GM and that healthy engineering consultancy. I do not think I would like to hear again how strictly GM leaves Lotus alone managerially, but even my cynicism is abated by the obvious signs of expansion and investment throughout Lotus. And all this at a rate and expense which Colin Chapman, for all his acknowledged design genius, would have been unlikely to sustain.

I suspect those who really miss their founder’s extraordinary talents are the engineers. Particularly those now faced with the task of executing a safe 200 mph supercar with handling to cosset the most inept millionaire.

Yet this new Lotus, of which there is presently one running prototype, must also satisfy drivers all the way to the contracted Grand Prix stars whom the company may wish to be seen in its products. Just the tyre development will be a saga, as you can tell from Porsche’s pioneering association with Bridgestone for its technical knock-out, the 959. JW

Escaping from clutches

The older BMW 7-series coachwork slid into a stream of its newer namesakes as we departed the crowded and clammy show halls of Frankfurt’s 52nd International Motor Show. As for so many large saloons, BMW or otherwise, our 7-series lacked a clutch pedal .. . yet there was a conventional manual gearshift.

Aside from a stop plate where the clutch pedal would have been, the interior was as for any other well-used five-speed BMW. However, driving it was a different experience and sporting drivers will, by 1989 if all proceeds to plan, be able to enjoy the virtues of manual gear selection and mechanical efficiency alongside the clutchless convenience of an automatic.

Yes, many have tried to combine the attractions of manual and automatic gearboxes. But when Europe’s largest manufacturer of shock absorbers and clutches enters the pre-production stage, with a firm order from a major German car maker, (thought to be Mercedes) it must be taken seriously.

The manufacturer is Fichtel & Sachs and the product is a combination of their AKB (automatic clutch operation) and E-clutch (E for electronic operation) systems. As for the Automotive Products Group in Britain, Sachs has an alternative version of automatic clutch operation using hydraulic principles, a system shown in 1985 for commercial vehicles. From the driver’s viewpoint the system is already virtually foolproof, extremely tolerant and has obvious potential for competition fine-tuning. Indeed Audi has already featured both Porsche Double Clutch (PDK) and an electronically-commanded clutch in their rallying quattros, the latter in association with five or six-speed gearboxes. However, Audi retained the clutch pedal in its Group B supercars in the belt-and-braces traditions of rallying.

Ingolstadt did not restrain either the pedal’s sympathetic gearshift movement, or the rate of engagement. The result was a pedal that could flatten a stray left foot, plus the thumping engagement of a learner driver on downshifts, if the rpm of the 8500 rpm 480 bhp works quattros was not carefully matched.

By contrast the Sachs automated clutch has an electronic control box for smooth engagement. It feels a little odd to simply push the five-speed gear lever into a slot without depressing a clutch, but the engagement of the plates, in traffic particularly, is efficiently equivalent to having an experienced chauffeur at work: no lurches, no graunches.

As yet the Sachs system still has further development goals to achieve before one could totally endorse its use on a product such as a Mercedes. For instance, there is a slight pause before drive is taken up in a situation such as a hill restart, with a consequent tendency for a slight and audible patch of jerkiness as the clutch fully engages.

However, its tolerance can easily be reset, as can the facility to move away in second gear, or the speed of clutch plate engagement. The electronic element means that the driver could well be offered alternative clutch engagement speeds, along the lines of Sachs’ electronic damper control system (featured on some 750i BMWs) which provides “sport” and “comfort” choices. Incidentally Sachs has recently enlarged its selection of sports damper kits, which include any relevant spring replacements and a 35mm/1.4in lowered ride height. Sachs sports suspension packages are naturally available for most vehicles of German origin from Audi to VW, as well as Mitsubishis, Ladas, plus France’s faster hatchbacks from Peugeot and Renault. JW