Curbside Classic: 1977 Lotus Esprit S1 – Giorgetto Giugiaro Takes Up Origami

(first posted 2/9/2012)     Yes, every car has a story; it’s just that some are a lot easier to tell than others. This Esprit punches its way into the latter category with the full force of its 140 hp engine (let’s not get hung up on that just yet). First, there’s the sheer length of it: the Esprit’s story spans four decades. The Esprit was an endless work in progress, with more variations, permutations and face-lifts than Cher over a similar time span. So we’re going to have to narrow down the story somewhat, to the Esprit’s birth and design, and how it (and Lotus) had to adapt it to very changing circumstances.

The Esprit’s genesis was the Lotus Europa, which Colin Chapman specifically created to be a low-cost  alternative to the front-engined Elan. A true original, and quite the performer, especially in its latter variants, when the big-valve Ford-Lotus engine replaced the Renault R16 motor. A curb weight of 1350 lbs, a height of 42 inches, and 126 hp resulted in o-60 in 6.6 seconds and a 123 mph top speed.

The design of the Europa was polarizing, never mind the almost total absence of rear visibility, even in the modified Twin Cam body (above). Ron Hickman, Lotus’ director of Engineering gets credit for the body design. Yes; let engineers design cars, and the results are often predictably…unusual. In so many ways, the Europa was the prototype for the Elise: maximum effectiveness; minimum weight.

The Europa, which arrived in 1966, and was often considered the closest thing to driving a F1 car on the street, soldiered along until 1975. But as early as 1970, Lotus Director Tony Rudd identified the need for a replacement. The strategy then being concocted turns out to be rather similar to what Lotus is going through right now; creating a line of bigger, more expensive front-engine and mid-engined replacements to broaden the company’s portfolio, in the never-ending quest to make Lotus a viable player in a difficult market.


The front-engined coupe project (M50) became the Elite (above) , and the mid-engined one was referred to as M70. Both were to use the Lotus 907 engine, a 2 liter DOHC sixteen-valve alloy four (all once exotic) that first saw the dim light of a cloudy day in the Jensen Healey (CC here). In the usual Lotus way, cash was tight, and development of both cars simultaneously was not possible. The Elite arrived first, not without some raised eyebrows. A four passenger coupe patterned very much on the Lamborghini Espada, except with a four instead of a V12. Light weight only goes so far.

There was no real plan for the design of the mid-engine M50, except that it would obviously have to be somewhat more conducive to human usage by others than short, lean and young yoga instructors. But as coincidence would have it, Colin Chapman and Giorgetto Giugiaro happened to meet at an automobile show in 1971, and struck up a conversation. One thing led to another, and Giugiaro got the nod to come up with some sketches and a quarter-scale model.

According to an interview with the master designer, Chapman turned down the design and cancelled the project, because it did not meet his criteria for aerodynamics, with a Cd of 0.34. That’s hardly a bad number for such a small and low car. But Giugiario was not so easily deterred, and went ahead and built two full size models, and even gave them the name Esprit, in keeping with the “E” Lotus nomenclature.  It was among the hits of the 1972 Turin Show, along with Giugiaro’s Maserati Boomerang, behind it.

The mid late sixties and into the early seventies were the golden era for exotic mid-engine supercars, and Giugiaro was perhaps the leading exponent of them. The De Tomaso Mangusta of 1967 kicked off his parade of hits.


The Bizzarrini Manta of 1969 took the evolution a step toward what the Esprit would encompass, especially with its very flat and severely raked-back windshield.

I can switch to my own pictures now, since what I stumbled into on my constitutional walk a few days ago is an S1 Esprit, the very first of so many variants. Why it was sitting there at the curb is another matter, but there’s no doubt it has been the most unlikely find yet in the over 2000 cars I’ve found and shot so far. I almost didn’t believe it when I saw it from a block and a half away. About as likely as finding a submarine on the streets here. Oh, wait a minute…

Yes, the Esprit’s role in the Bond movie “The Spy Who Loved Me” was a memorable first, and a very favorable publicity boon for the new Esprit, which finally arrived in 1975 after three years’ slow gestation.

The Esprit’s body was made of fiberglass, so why not? Well, we’ve managed to get off track here, so let’s get back on terra firma and continue the Esprit’s main story.

The Esprit concept car was built around a somewhat lengthened and widened Europa chassis, with the Lotus-typical backbone frame. The production Esprit merited its own new chassis, but it still paid substantial debt to the Europa’s. To be enlarged, yes, that’s a relative term, as the Esprit is almost shockingly small. It looks so much like the typical supercar in pictures, but it’s only somewhat larger than the a Series 2 Elise, and weighs almost exactly the same (2000 lbs).

tail lights borrowed from a Fiat X 1/9

The Esprit started out to be a semi-affordable Europa replacement, with a projected price well below the Elite coupe. But that turned out to be a gross miscalculation, literally. By the time the Esprit actually arrived in 1976, its UK price was 35% higher than what had been held out to the public just a year earlier. The delivered price in California, $16,844 (65k adjusted) was a bit tough to swallow too, given its actual performance envelope. Lotus and the Esprit were was now on a different trajectory, but the problem was the car needed to catch up first.

The Esprit’s S1 907 engine delivered 160 hp in European trim, and 140 hp in de-smogged US configuration. That resulted in 8-plus second 0-60 times, and a top speed of just barely 120 mph (US version). Well slower than the Europa Twin-cam, and not exactly eyeball squeezing, even for the times, especially for the money.

Perhaps because of the effect of the Bond movie, the Esprit had an excellent first year in the US (474 sold); in fact, its highest sales year ever. But the deficiencies of the S1 were all-to apparent, and the improved S2 arrived in August of 1978.

There were complaints about excessive engine noise, which this cover apparently didn’t subdue sufficiently. Press reviews were none-too flattering; the Esprit appears to have suffered for Lotus’ tight development budgets. Or was it changed expectations? The Europa would never have been criticized for being noisy or crude. But then its mission and price point were in a totally different league.  Lotus was forced to price the Esprit substantially higher, then endlessly improve its performance envelope to justify it. Which it mostly did of course, starting with the first Esprit Turbo a few years later.

Even if there were performance and refinement shortcomings in the S1, Giugiaro’s design wasn’t part of them. It’s a period piece, of course, at a time when flat planes suddenly gave the curvaceous Pininfarina lines a serious run for the money. Obviously, we know who won out in the long run. But the influence of Giugiaro’s origami period was vast: angular design predominated in the eighties, especially in Japanese cars. The Japanese took to the origami look as though it was their own.

The Esprit was majorly re-styled in 1987, by Peter Stevens. Sorry, but it just doesn’t do a thing for me, even if the origami look was by then obsolete. The front end looks like it was ripped off a Toyota Supra or such; ironic, since it was the other way around just ten years earlier. And I’m not going to tackle the Esprit in its later life, which included the twin-turbo V8 engine. To sum it up: its performance was often ahead of its main competition, the various mid-engined V8 Ferraris, but it was ultimately a futile battle for Lotus. Which resulted in a huge change of direction with the brilliant Elise. The Esprit finally bowed out in 2004, over thirty years since it was first shown.

And now, a whole new Esprit is on the drawing boards, for 2013. Along with front-engined coupes. History is circular, at least some of the time.

Enough speculation. Right now I’m firmly in love with Giugiaro’s original design.  And this one is totally original, right down to the 14″ Wolfrace alloys, shod with tiny 205/215 70 R14 tires (front/rear).

Maybe those mini-donuts will help put the size of the Esprit in better context. I should have stood next to it, but there was nobody around to shoot the camera. Not even a car close by to get some perspective.

As delightful as the Esprit is too look at, some angles are better than others. The worst one is straight-on. Oh well.

Obviously, the US-mandated 5 mph bumper isn’t its greatest feature either, although it actually works fairly well, compared to so many other sports cars of the era that were absolutely butchered by them.

I was thrown a bit by this badge on the rear deck. I couldn’t remember all the Esprit’s vital dates from memory, but something told me this car was built before the 1978 F1 season finished. Which is why I even took a shot of the VIN plate; yes, it’s a 1977. Someone must have added it later.

The other side has this very vintage lettering style. Does that ever take me back…

Needless to say, this Esprit was a ray of sunshine on top of an already unusually sunny winter day. I know it doesn’t always hold up, but I generally find that first editions exhibit a purity that is usually diluted all-too soon. It’s a phenomena particularly common with super cars, as they battled each other with ever more and bigger spoilers, wheel well extensions, and sprouting other signs of testosterone-augmentation.

So I’ve finally found a pre-pubescent “supercar” I could gladly take home, with all of 140 hp. Of course, getting into it is a bit of a question. Better stop skipping that yoga class.

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