Still hectic, after all these years

Late in 1976 DSJ and I were swept around the Lotus Cars facility at Hethel in Norfolk. A succession of interviews and a memorable first drive in a then new Esprit made it a day that could justifiably be headlined Hectic Hethel.

Some 16 years later I was back at company HQ to write a belated Part II of that feature. There was no DSJ, no Colin Chapman (its now 10 years since the founder passed away), nor would there be Tony Rudd on hand to interview. Yet there were other familiar faces and another very special Esprit, one which averaged nearly 90 mph around the 2.1-mile track, which has not visibly been resurfaced in the intervening decades.

True to the Lotus tradition for high speed variety, there were three track outings to savour. These covered three facets of Lotus life. The first two were commercial sales (an American Federal Elan) and engineering research and development, represented by the quaintly acronymed SID, which stands for investigations into Structural design for improved rigidity, vibration Isolation and chassis Dynamics. SID sported 'active' suspension, 4x4 and a V6 of Metro 6R4 origins, all within an Esprit outline. SID had an obvious bonus in body strength thanks to low cost composite construction and a chassis that could be tuned to provide any characteristic desired from the latest in Lotus Active Ride. Thus far, we had been conducted around the circuit but, most enjoyably of all, facet three offered a lengthy opportunity to drive one of the 300-330 bhp Esprits that has enlivened American races since 1990.

Our host was Lotus Engineering and the company of former Lotus Grand Prix driver John Miles gave an air of continuity and establishment. Miles also ensures that a genuine interchange of information can take place between General Motors-owned Lotus at Hethel and the still privately owned Grand Prix team at nearby Ketteringham Hall, attending all Grands Prix to offer practical chassis tuning assistance for the revitalised team.

Today Group Lotus has 1325 employees, the majority (577) employed in Lotus Engineering. Some 207 are really employed in an associate basis, for they work at Lotus's proving ground, Millbrook, where MOTOR SPORT conducts its performance tests.

Lotus Cars had a dreadful time in 1991. True, the Elan looked optimistic in growing from an output of 1193 in 1990 to a 1991 sales figure of 2081 (the minority, 775, sold in Britain). Without the Elan, GM and Lotus Cars would have had to think whether it was worth keeping the shop open. For 1991 saw the demise of the front engined Excel (a strangely underrated Porsche 944 competitor), whilst the Esprit in its previously popular SE Chargecooler form was hit hard by market conditions in Britain and the USA. Just 173 were sold last year, 98 of those in the UK. In stark contrast 759 Esprits were made in 1990 and 1058 in 1988, when a variety of specification were manufactured.

Lotus Cars staff levels have fallen in line with this slump in Esprit output and the unfortunate fact that the Elan fell far short of its American targets.

Blame the MX-5.

In 1990 Lotus Cars employed around 1000 personnel: today that is less than 500. Thus the American racing programme heavily populated by the Japanese was vital to keep even a glimmer of interest in American eyes for the expensive Esprit, though its biggest rivals were ironically GM's Corvettes. Lotus Engineering undertook its first factory racing Esprits in March of 1990, building a pair of LHD Esprits around the intercooled turbocharger specification. These electronically fuel-injected machines corresponded to a modified Esprit SE (if it were a saloon, you would describe it as close to Group A regulations, but running tricky road tyres) and used some Lotus Omega/Carlton technology massively to improve braking and to add a modest 20 bhp.

Lotus coyly claimed only 285 bhp for its 2.2-litre 1990 race unit with enhanced intercooling and reprogrammed GM-Lotus electronics. The Hethel-constructed machines were sold to Lotus Cars USA in time to contest the 1990 SCCA Escort World Challenge Series. Entered by Pure Sports, it appears the works Lotus Esprits caught the existing Chevrolet Corvettes, Nissan 300 ZX turbos, Porsches, Mazda RX-7s and sundry other marques by surprise. Lotus won its first event and went on to set six pole positions with three more victories. Doc Bundy nearly took the overall title for Lotus in that debut season and you may remember the racing Esprit being shown at the 1990 Birmingham NEC Motor Show.

Whilst the Esprit was receiving its Lotus showcase applause, Hethel was busy concocting a better basis for the racing Esprit, and a machine that is a must for Lotus collectors. The X180R was produced in just 20 street legal copies and took on some of the racer's features, including a roll cage, 100 mm diameter rev counter and revised aerodynamics. Nearly two years ago these Esprits cost approximately £70,000. The 1991 season saw Lotus get a little more ambitious, spending approximately £450,000 under the Lotusport logo. The factory supported nine SCCA events and three of the Bridgestone-backed rival IMSA events (the province of serious Porsche 911 Turbos for professionals such as Hans Stuck). A trio of new Esprits was built from scratch at Hethel in March 1991 and one Lotusport-supported privateer machine was a renovated 1990 car. The 1991 season again saw Lotus score four victories and take second place in the SCCA series. This time, its showbusiness warrior was Bobby Carradine.

It was a 1991 works Esprit that we drove, often referred to as the 'star car' since screen actor Paul Newman drove it from time to time, a habit he has maintained for 1992. He finished sixth at Road Atlanta recently, where the Lotus team scored a 1-2 win over the dreaded Hans Stuck's Porsche. Whilst Lotus attacks the IMSA/Bridgestone American series this year, Team Lotus Holland has two rather more showroom specification Esprits on winning form in Holland and a two-litre 'tax break special' is being built at Hethel for the Italian market. The American rule makers used the Esprit to set weight and rim width benchmarks, tending to improve the competitiveness of the Corvette. It's also worth remembering that Chevrolet and Goodyear work together to create tyres for the production Corvette, so there was never any lack of competitiveness in the tyres for the V8 Chevrolet. The irony was that Lotus also gained access to such rubber in 1991. We drove on massive 315/35 ZR17 rears, 245/45 ZR16 fronts. Mounted on 8.5 and 10 in wide Revolution three-piece alloy wheels the Goodyears, complete with scanty tread pattern from the mould, allowed the highest levels of adhesion I have experienced on an alleged road tyre.

The best performance is obtained via substantially altered aerodynamics, an obsolete Excel extended front spoiler blended into deflectors that shroud the giant tyres, whilst the back wing droops in familiar SE style (rather than the Sierra Cosworth-style aberration intended for 1992 production) but has been relocated substantially aft. The result is still slippery (under 0.35 Cd), but hours of wind tunnel time have allowed a degree of downforce that adds enormously to the Esprit's fourth and fifth gear cornering poise. The body is also lighter than standard – or that of the X180R series – in having decreased weight for the panels forming bootlid, engine cover and both doors.

There is no heater or window winding mechanism to worry about and the side 'glass' is actually polycarbonate whilst a simple (and mandatory) meshed net provides a breezy ride, whatever the speed. Kerb weight varies according to the series and the racing season, but the test car was designed to operate at 2600 lb, little lighter than the rival Corvette. The suspension changes are modest in principle the double wishbone front and transverse link rear remain, along with the use of an anti-roll bar at the front. Even the dampers were modified production items from Monroe and the spring rates were – in the Lotus tradition – quite modest, up some 20 per cent (rear) and 40 per cent (front) over standard. However, with Miles and company at work, the detailing of bushes and geometry was exceptionally rewarding. Also, the foundation on which the suspension was built was far stronger than standard, both non-galvanised chassis and suspension arms being reinforced.

Inside, the Esprit is a LHD single-seater with a simple Momo two-spoke steering wheel, stark Lotus seat and Luke safety harness. There are eight dials, vestigial Alcantara trim and team warnings to mother a fragile clutch and modified Renault 25 five-speed transaxle. A red warning light blinks that Lotus has switched the usual ABS braking system off (it is best in the wet), leaving us to appreciate the 13 and 12 in diameter disc brakes. A comprehensive roll cage winds throughout the cabin, which also houses mysterious electrical boxes on its rear partition. The Lotus designed, Safety Devices-constructed cage betrays a source to some of that 20 per cent bonus in chassis torsional strength.

Lotus engineers around the unassuming primary white Esprit – Messrs Miles, Alan Nobbs and former TWR Jaguar mechanic Colin Marriott — made modesty an art form. Under questioning the engineers allowed that this Esprit was geared to reach 174 mph, this from an engine that might now generate 300 bhp — rather than the standard 264 from a consistent one bar boost. Otherwise, the 2.2-litre mid-engined turbo was left to speak for itself. There were three outstanding impressions: braking efficiency, engine muscularity and immense road grip. The aluminium 16-valve ran powerfully from 3000-7800 rpm. Any straightline speed that the motor and outstanding chassis can provide is counterbalanced by ex-Lotus Carlton brakes. These allow even a stranger to flick past braking marker boards at 120 mph in fifth, counting off the distance to a tight third gear loop with equanimity.

Cornering ability of the racing Esprit has markedly different characteristics, according to the speed of the corner, but there is always a lot of adhesion to deploy. In 40-70 mph curves, this Esprit has to overcome some of the showroom understeer that spoils the standard car for folk braver than me. Once the Lotus is striding along in fourth and fifth, those crafty changes are seen at their best. You have to work at the steering rim with quiet determination (also leaving the brake pedal alone at these apparently impossible cornering velocities), but it tells the driver so much that receiving such track chatter and manipulating the vast resources of cornering capability become a true Lotus pleasure. The American Esprit racer whips through bumpy and damp swerves at more than 100 mph with a deftness and bump absorption that reminded me more of a 1985 Group C Porsche rather than any converted production car.

Yes, there were snags to the transmission, and this factory workhorse could have been smarter within, but it was an experience to savour. It also underlined for me that, GM owned or not, the engineering heart of Lotus beats on with exciting rhythms that promise as much for the company's future as its legendary past.