Most of you probably first laid eyes on it in the 1977 James Bond movie – The Spy Who Loved Me – and fell in love with its sleek wedge shape, and its ability to carve up through a twisty mountain road, while evading villains.
Its appearance in the ‘007’ flick was my first introduction to this British beauty, and it’s been a car I’ve lusted after ever since.
Given that I spent most of my pre-teen years living in South Asia – the chances of seeing an Esprit on the road was highly unlikely. However, as I stepped into my teen years, my family had moved to the Middle East – and given the wealth of the people in this area, I thought I’d be tripping over exotic cars all day long, and find Esprit’s by the dozen.
I was wrong. While there were plenty of exotic sports cars in this oil rich region, I had not seen a single Esprit – which was very disappointing. The reason for that might have been because of its engine. While most exotic sports/super cars have eight or twelve cylinder motors, the Esprit for most of its production life was only offered with a four cylinder unit – which did not win it favour among the Arabian crowd.
Performance wasn’t far off the big engined cars however. While early Esprit models (1976 was the first year of production) had a naturally aspirated 2.0L motor that offered just 160 hp, but since the car was light (around 1,000 kg) the car was reasonably fast – 0 to 100 km/h in about 8.4 seconds, and a top speed of about 200 km/h. Certainly entertaining numbers, but more oomph would be even better. When the 1980 Esprit Essex Turbo was launched, it took performance on a much higher playing field. With 210 hp on tap, the Essex Turbo could cover the 0 to 100 km/h sprint in just 5.6 seconds, and top speed was now about 250 km/h. The Essex Turbo proved so popular, that from then on, the forced-induction Esprit was the one to have, and Lotus would eventually stop producing the naturally-aspirated model by the end of the decade.
Despite some successes, the 1980’s was also a troubling time for the automaker. It’s founder, Colin Chapman, died of a heart attack in 1982 at just age 54, and the British investors who backed the company could not afford to do so for much longer. So, a buyer was seeked to keep the company going, and in 1986 Lotus was sold to General Motors.
The American auto giant however had no idea what to do with a niche British sports car company, and while it helped develop and launch the second-generation Lotus Elan model, it hadn’t done enough for the flagship Esprit.
So after a few profitless years, GM wanted to step away from Lotus, and search was under way to find it a new caretaker. This got the attention of a suave Italian businessman – Romano Artioli – who came to its rescue. Artioli was a successful car dealer in the 1980’s – dealing mostly with Ferrari’s. Artioli was also the mastermind behind reviving the Bugatti brand – which had been dead for about 40 years – and did so by acquiring the legal rights to the brand, and then developed and marketed one of the most brilliant supercars of all time, the EB110.
Artioli had huge respect for Lotus Cars, and started talks with GM to take the Norfolk, England based Lotus out of their hands. With an agreement set at £30 million (approx. $60 million at current exchange rates), A.C.B.N. Holdings S.A. – Artioli’s company – took control of Lotus. This was the start of one of the most interesting chapters in this British manufacturers history.
With Artioli at the helm, Lotus was about to get the boost it needed, and it did so by coming out with faster, and even more stunning offerings.
At the time of the take over, Lotus was developing some new variants for the Esprit, and Artioli wasted no time in bringing them to market. First among which were the Esprit S4 and the Esprit Sport 300 (both models first appeared in 1993).
The S4 was the pretty one, which was penned by Julian Thompson – a talented designer. The Sport 300 was the aggressive one – featuring wider wheel arches, race tuned suspension, as well as a stiffer chassis to improve the cars’ already impressive handling. Oh, and one more thing, the Sport 300 had more power too. While the Esprit S4 offered 264 hp (which is plenty to move its 1,320 kg of mass), the Esprit Sport 300 was tuned to produce 302 hp from the same 2.2L turbocharged four-cylinder motor. The Sport 300 was also lighter, tipping the scales at just 1,243 kg. All this helped make it one of the fastest Esprit models ever put into production, with the 0 to 100 km/h dash covered in 4.7 seconds, and a top speed of about 270 km/h. With just 64 examples ever made, it is one of the most collectable Esprit models ever put into production.
The rarity of the Sport 300 model would make finding one even harder, but luck was on my side, on two separate occasions. First one came in 1994 – during a visit to England. I had been wanting to get up close to see a Lotus, and had found out where its dealer was in Leicester, the city I was staying in. The day I finally got to go, not only did I see an Esprit S4 for the first time, but also two Sport 300 models in the showroom. As I walked inside, a friendly salesman approached me, saw me in awe of the Sport 300, and asked if I’d like to sit in it – I surely took him up on his offer. So yes folks, the very first Esprit I ever sat in was a Sport 300.
In the last 20 or so years, I have been lucky enough to drive quite a few Lotus models, and also a couple of Esprit variants. However, the car I had been longing for the most was the Sport 300, a car that sadly was never officially imported to Canada.
However, Canada has a wonderful loop-hole for car importation, that any car that’s 15 years old (or older), can be brought into the country, and through this channel many interesting cars end up on our shores.
This is what lead Francesco Iorio – an Italian, research scientist who now works in Toronto – to undertake a very interesting task. Iorio has the utmost love for the Lotus Esprit, and had previously owned an Esprit S4 for 11 years, while living in Europe. He regretfully had to sell his car when he moved to Japan for work, but when opportunity brought him to Canada, he began a search for not only an Esprit, but the model that he loved the most; the Sport 300.
After a long search, and looking through several examples, he came across the car you can see in the pictures here. To make things even better, this is not just a Sport 300, this particular example lists Bugatti Automobili as its first owner, and this car (chassis no. 25 out of 64) was made specifically for the use of Mr. Mario Barbieri – the Vice President of Bugatti Automobili S.p.A., and Mr. Romano Artioli, the Chairman of Bugatti and Lotus. Artioli and Barbieri had this car made with special options, hence the unique blue paint, the comfier leather seats, and the fact it has the glass roof; rather than the solid roof – talk about a rarity among rare.
After their initial use, Artioli sold this Sport 300 to his friend, Paolo Bertotti – who used the car quite hard for a couple of years, until a heart issue forced him to stop driving it. For a period of eight years, this car sat in storage, collecting dust.
That is the state Iorio found the car in. While most people would turn around and walk away upon seeing a car in such a condition, but Iorio knew the significance of this particular unit, and made arrangements to buy it.
Knowing it would need a lot of work, Iorio first sent the car to Birollo Ruedi – a chief mechanic at Lotus Trivellato in Padova, Italy. Then the car was sent for a partial strip down in France, which was undertaken by Mike Sekinger. However, when it was learned that the car is in need of a complete make over, Iorio sent his car to T.R. Techniques – a famous Lotus restorer. Brian Angus – who used to be a platform engineer at Lotus Cars, and is nicknamed “Mr. Esprit” – took on this project.
So, in 2011, the car was delivered to Angus for a full, grounds-up restoration. Everything was removed and worked on. The goal was to not modify it, but to just bring it to its original spec as the car was back in 1993. No expense was spared, and after months and months of detailed restoration work, the project ended at 8:00 PM on May 31, 2012.
I could not believe my eyes when I saw the car at the show. Meeting its owner made things even better, because Iorio was more than happy to talk about his car in detail. We exchanged contact information, and planned to meet again.
That happened a week later, as Iorio and I met up in Mississauga. For me, it was going to be just a thrill to see the car again, and hopefully go for a ride. Iorio however, offered me to drive his car!
While I get to drive a different car every week, getting behind the wheel of a car that I had been day dreaming about since I was a teenager… this was a treat on an all new level.
Having driven Esprit models before, I was aware of some of this models – how shall I put it, personality traits. I mean, stuff like limited rearward visibility, and a heavy clutch (which makes traffic jams quite painful), and a gearbox that is not the slickest unit ever produced, but none of that mattered, I was being given the opportunity to drive a car I never thought I’d ever even see again in my life – I was on cloud 9.
Surprisingly, it took me no time to get used to the car. Iorio’s Sport 300 is superbly well kept, and drives like it should – which means, it handles beautifully (although I was mostly stuck on the highway), its electric power steering offered lovely feedback (history note: the Sport 300 was the first production Esprit to be offered with a power steering system), and the thrust from its charge cooled turbocharged motor is mighty impressive – trust me, this is much faster than any modern 300 hp car.
This car is just how I like my sports cars; light, agile, and with no electronic aids. As a result, the car is much more involving to drive, and more predictable too. The driver is always kept aware that crossing the Sport 300’s limits is taking things into their own hands – no traction or stability control system will intervene and save you. This makes the car feel alive and exhilarating, and in my view, much better than most modern supercars.
Iorio knows his car well and enjoys it accordingly, hence he takes his Sport 300 to race tracks as often as he can, and drives it likes its suppose to be driven. He says, that on twisty back roads, this car really comes into its element – I hope I get to experience this wonderful car on such roads one day.
The Sport 300 was not the last Esprit made by Lotus, not by a long way (last ones rolled off the production line in 2004). Artioli really wanted to take the Esprit to a higher level to compete with other exotic sports cars of the day, like the Porsche 993 Turbo and the Ferrari F355, so he got the Lotus engineers to develop a 3.5L twin-turbo V8 motor for it – so in mid 1996, the Esprit could finally compete with the big boys on the cylinder count.
However, one thing had always puzzled me – why did this new motor which featured an additional turbo charger and a much larger displacement, make only 50 hp more than the four-cylinder Esprit?
I got the answer from Elisa Artioli, Romano’s grand daughter – and the girl the Lotus Elise is named after. Elisa asked her grand father on my behalf, and he told her, that while this V8 engine could develop a lot more power (about 500 hp), the gearbox couldn’t take it. Lotus was using a Renault five-speed manual gearbox for the Esprit, and this transmission could at the most handle about 350 hp reliably.
If the gearbox was the weak link, why not use a different box?
Elisa mentioned, that there was no further development money left, so Lotus had to make do with the old Renault gearbox.
Elisa also mentioned that her grand father still has an Esprit in his collection (despite selling the company to Proton Motors of Malaysia in 1996). Artioli’s Esprit V8 Twin-Turbo however has more power than any other production Esprit. Knowing of the power handling limitations of the gearbox, Artioli still wanted an Esprit that was just a bit more special, and by using it within its tolerances, he can enjoy the fact that his car is the King of all Esprits.
Those who have driven all generations of the Esprit models – including Lotus test and development engineers – have often claimed that the Sport 300 was this models finest specimen. Having tested a few myself, I will have to agree with them. This car is special not just because it is rare, but mainly because, it represents the pinnacle of one of the greatest supercars ever made. I am just extremely grateful that I got to realize a childhood dream, and it certainly did not disappoint.