Over 20 years in the making | The story of the Lotus Esprit V8

Photography by Dirk de Jager

The year is 1996. At the Geneva International Motor Show, Jaguar steals the limelight with the XK8, a spiritual successor of its legendary E-type. 

Lotus just can’t compete with its own premiere, the first in-house V8 engine for its Esprit. By now the Esprit is already an old car, and the brand had announced its other big news just a few months earlier–the Elise. 

Lotus’ new owner at the time, Romano Artioli, used the Elise to steer the brand back to its original formula under founder Colin Chapman: Lightness is key, along with innovative design and engineering. 

At that time, more than 25 years ago, fitting a V8 engine into the Esprit might have seemed like an afterthought or a stopgap measure. However, it was the culmination of a plan put in motion long before. 

The Lotus Esprit itself dates to 1975, coming out as the most ambitious sports car Lotus ever produced under Colin Chapman. Italian design guru Giorgetto Giugiaro created the perfect wedge shape, his trademark in the early ’70s, for this first Esprit. 

This mid-engine two-seater set Lotus on a head-on collision course with Ferrari. The companies’ battles were no longer limited to Formula 1, as Lotus finally offered a luxurious take on performance motoring.

One thing, though: At Lotus, money was a little bit tight, and the ’70s energy crisis hit the brand hard. One of the first victims was the Esprit. Prolonged development meant the first examples didn’t hit the road until 1976. Plus, budget cuts in materials and finishing meant those cars were loud and course as well.

Finally, a V8–Sort Of

Lack of financing impacted another project just the same. Ever since the end of the ’60s, Lotus harbored hopes of a home-built V8. Joining two four-cylinder versions of the brand’s fabled twin-cam engine would make a four-cam V8 possible: 4010cc and a minimal output of 320 horsepower. 

This engine would have given the Esprit some serious competition against Ferrari and Porsche, but it nearly remained a dream for eternity. The problem, again, was money: Lotus had the means to develop a V8 engine of its own, but not sufficient funds for the required tooling and associated transmission. 

The Lotus Esprit made its big debut at the 1975 Paris Motor Show, but what finally pushed the car into modern times? The addition of a V8 engine, a move the brand had considered for decades. 

At the British International Motor Show in 1984–nearly a decade after the Esprit’s debut–Lotus showed a prototype of a home-built V8 engine, this one inside the Etna, a Giugiaro-penned concept coupe. Lotus estimated that this 4.2-liter V8 would produce 320 horsepower while weighing not much more than a four-cylinder unit. 

However, that was as far as that project went. We never got to see the Etna, a plush GT that would have succeeded the Esprit, and neither did we hear that V8 roar. That money thing again.

Lotus did eventually create a V8–but not for Lotus. The company’s lucrative engineering branch was asked to come up with a very strong V8 for the 1990 Chevrolet Corvette ZR-1–the now-fabled “King of the Hill” model–and some say this engine was inspired by the Etna.

When General Motors asked Lotus to design that Corvette engine, it was just a client. By the time the engine was ready for production by Chevrolet subcontractor Mercury Marine, GM owned the place. 

Even though Lotus had a new owner, a path to a V8 engine, and a car just craving more power, it never came together. Turbocharging remained the preferred solution for extracting more horses from the Esprit’s four-cylinder engine.

Under New Management

In August 1993, Italian businessman Romano Artioli, the former Opel dealer behind the brand’s success at Targa Florio in the early ’70s, put his signature on a very important contract: He became the new owner of Lotus.

His work in the auto industry goes beyond these two brands, however, as in the early ’90s he had fulfilled a lifetime ambition: reviving Bugatti. With the EB 110, he not only created a new Bugatti, but he also managed to rewrite the definition of supercar for years to come thanks to its 200-plus-mph top speed. 

Artioli had watched GM struggle with its acquisition of Lotus as the fabled Elan nameplate was revived in 1989 for an awkward, front-drive sports car. It would be the most expensive Lotus project to date–and it never really caught on. Mazda, at the same time, surprised the world by building the perfect British roadster with its Miata.

“To me,” Artioli tells us, “Bugatti and Lotus were complementary makes, two brands driven by engineering and technology. Lotus would be ideally positioned below Bugatti, and both brands would be able to help each other through their engineering divisions. With the talent we had at both brands, we would have a valuable tool to develop technology for other manufacturers as well.” 

Despite its age, the Esprit presented a worthy supercar for the ’90s: fast and exotic yet well trimmed, too. 

Two years after purchasing Lotus from General Motors, Artioli stunned the motoring world by releasing the Elise, a Lotus following the Chapman principles to the letter. The Elise was both lightweight and technologically advanced with its aluminum bonded chassis. And thanks to the mid-engine layout and rear-wheel drive, it was fun to drive as well.

But there was more work to be done. “When we bought Lotus, the Esprit was the only model in the catalog,” Artioli reflects, ignoring the Elan. “It was aging rapidly, so we decided to give it some tweaks prior to giving the go-ahead for a completely new Esprit.”

Designer Julian Thomson went to work on updating the model. The characteristic side mirrors, the ones you’ll also find on a Citroën CX, carried over to Thomson’s Series 4 Esprit, further rounding the car’s edges. At the back resides the rear cluster from the AE86-chassis Toyota Corolla. 

Thomson also opted for a revised rear spoiler, more rounded bumpers and 18-inch wheels. On the mechanical side, Lotus added power steering while updating the suspension. 

Bigger Is Better

“One of the problems we had with the Esprit was the 2.2-liter engine,” Artioli explains. “That dropped us right in the 33% tax band on the Italian market. By replacing that with a 2-liter turbo engine, we fall back to an 18% VAT tariff.”

But something bigger was required for the U.S. “To get our foot in the door on the American market,” he continues, “we needed a new engine for our Esprit. We opted for a V8.” 

A development budget of $7.5 million was allocated so Lotus could finally create the first V8 of its own making. One of the design challenges: The V8 had to fit in the same space previously occupied by the original four-cylinder engine. “We figured that a compact V8 engine would be interesting for other manufacturers as well,” Artioli notes.

Lotus ended up with a very small V8 indeed–just 3.5 liters. Attached to each cylinder bank, however, was a water-cooled Garrett T25 turbocharger. Both the engine block and the cylinder heads were aluminum, helping to limit the engine’s weight to just 485 pounds. 

Even though the V8 made just 7.5 psi of boost, Lotus still extracted 350 horsepower and 295 lb.-ft. of torque. Its 100 horsepower per liter was remarkable by 1996 standards. (And in GT1 race trim, this package could deliver more than 550 horsepower.)

So, despite all this new V8 power, what happened?

The Esprit V8 could run with the day’s best but couldn’t keep pace in the showroom. Despite nearly a decade of production, not quite 1250 examples were built.  

“Again, the transmission was our main concern,” Artioli explains. “Put simply, all the money had gone to developing the engine; there was no budget left to do a transmission. So we kept soldiering on with the Renault five-speed transmission we used in the Esprit before.

“We did manage to make some changes to spare that gearbox,” he continues. “A bigger inlet shaft was devised and, with help from the Bugatti computers, we limited torque in the lower gears to lower stress on the components. In the higher gears, you got the full package. That had the very pleasant side effect that acceleration only become stronger as you picked up speed and worked your ways through the gears.”

And Then a Mutiny

The Esprit V8 was fast, no discussion. It hit 60 mph in around 4.4 seconds, with a top speed approaching 175 mph. A Ferrari F355 was only marginally faster. 

The stage was set for an epic battle, but then the Lotus story took another unexpected turn. Artioli faced a mutiny from Lotus management, who tried to wriggle the company away from him. At the same time, his Bugatti venture ran on the rocks. 

Facing severe problems, Artioli had no other option than to start negotiations to sell Lotus. At the end of 1996, he sold the prestigious British sports car brand to the Malaysian Proton Group. 

“It’s a shame. With the Elise, we had made the most successful Lotus ever,” he reminisces. “We would love to have made a successor for the Esprit–just too bad it didn’t happen.” 

That compact, high-tech V8 was only ever fit in one other car, the revived AC Ace that was shown in 1999. This arrangement had ties to Lotus, of course: AC’s technical manager at the time was John Owen, who had previously worked at Lotus and was responsible for development of that engine.

The V8 helped stretch the Esprit’s production run all the way through the end of 2004–not bad for a car first produced back in 1976–with the V8 becoming the sole engine choice from 2000 onward. 

But in all these years, Lotus managed to sell just 1237 copies of the Esprit V8. Ferrari sold 10 times as many F355s. And Porsche? In 1998, the first full production year of the controversial 996-chassis 911, it sold 8296 copies of the 911 Carrera model alone. 

More than 25 years after the launch of the Esprit V8, however, the situation has changed quite a bit. The car’s rarity has pushed asking prices well north of $70,000 for the best models. 

If an example hasn’t been well cared for, walk away: The real problems start when something bad happens to the engine or transmission, as spare parts are hard to find and eye-wateringly expensive. 

If you decide to take the plunge, make sure to go for a good one. Trust us, it’s worth it. 

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