Curbside Classic: 1988 Lotus Esprit X180 – Here Comes Trouble

In the life of any CC hunter, one should expect the unexpected. Finding one Lotus Esprit in downtown Tokyo was somewhat strange, but not exactly unexpected. They really like their Lotuses, in this country. Tiny, highly-strung British sports cars that don’t rust? A Japanese car collector’s wet dream. Still, I’ve seen more Elises, Europas and old Elans than I did Esprits. Then I caught another one the same day. Finding two Esprits in one day, after not seeing any in two years (save for a complete basket case)? Now that was unexpected.

So here’s the first of two Esprit posts by yours truly. (I’ll get around to the second one sometime next year of whatever, we should pace ourselves…) The other car is a bit more recent and, crucially, has a rear spoiler. I kind of like these better without spoilers, like this slightly tatty late ‘80s example.

The Esprit had an outstandingly long career, especially for a high-performance car. Born in 1976 at a time when the company was in its prime, it was its maker’s rock through the incredible turmoil that rained down on Lotus in the ‘80s and ‘90s, finally ending in 2004, at almost 30 years young. Almost everything changed in those three decades, bar the name; just over 10,700 Esprits of all stripes and variants were made, so it remained a Lotus in that sense too – low production.

By the mid-‘80s, Giugiaro’s original work on the Esprit (which had been previewed at the 1972 Turin Motor Show on a Europa chassis) was way past stale and had started to grow mold. Lotus designer Peter Stevens was tasked with giving the Esprit a thorough makeover, which apparently received Giugiaro’s blessing. The front end was smoothed out, the rear end got Toyota lights and dozens of other little touches to refresh the design, while keeping the key elements of the Esprit…er… spirit. Strangely enough, the Stevens design proved to be less aerodynamic than the origami-like original. Style for style’s sake.

Alongside the revamped looks, the X180 featured a new gearbox. Previous Esprits used a 5-speed taken from the Citroën CX (and originally created for the SM); a lighter Renault unit now replaced it, as used on the Alpine GTA. This new gearbox forced Lotus to move the disc brakes out to the wheels, as the in-board brakes used up to this point on the Citroën gearbox could no longer be made to fit the Renault-sourced transaxle.

When the X180 was premiered in late 1987, the gearbox and rear brakes encompassed all of the major changes underneath the new skin. The rest of the car remained pretty much identical to the mid-‘80s Esprits. There were two distinct versions initially: the standard model (172hp) and the Turbo (215hp, moving to 228hp my mid-1988). Both cars used the same 2174cc 4-cyl., but the Turbo cars have a different roof with a sloping rear window. Standard cars like our CC have a simple vertical rear glass ahead of the engine cover. Not sure what the “Weber Equipped” sticker refers to, here – surely not carburetors?

Non-turbo cars like today’s CC were the last of the breed and disappeared quickly from the range. Lotus built fewer than 300 of these base-model X180s from 1987 to 1990, the lion’s share having been manufactured as 1988 model year cars. That was also the Esprit’s best year ever, with 1058 units sold – almost 10% of all Esprits were made that year! Soon, the Esprit SE (264hp) joined the fray so that the Esprit could enter the ‘90s with an appropriate amount of oomph. The SE ditched the glass back of the X180 turbos and added a pylon-mounted rear airfoil in 1991, as well as an additional chin spoiler on the front end.

After the high point that was 1988, things went south precipitously after 1989, due to collapsing American sales and Britain (as well as Japan) going into a recession. Production went down to 125 Esprits in 1991 and action was needed to remedy the situation. The X180 was replaced by the S4 in 1993, bringing the Esprit further up to snuff, especially in terms of build quality, though that was never Lotus’ strongest suit.

Speaking of which, here’s the rather sorry-looking interior of the car I found with that temporary license plate (that’s what the red diagonal bar on the plate signifies). I realize it says “Esprit Turbo” on that odd-looking green thing the console, but there isn’t anything like this in genuine X180 Turbos, either. All in all, this interior looks in dire need of attention and refurbishment, which I’m sure it will get now that it’s in Japanese hands.

And one can only hope that those horrid wheels will be high on the list of things to be addressed. This is a relatively rare version of the Esprit, but it seems to have just changed hands – perhaps fresh off the boat from the UK, given it’s RHD. And as a 35-year-old Lotus, it deserves to play a leading part in draining its owner’s savings account and be the best Lotus it can be, one repair at a time.


Related posts:


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

Vintage Review: Lotus Turbo Esprit, by Yohai71

CC Capsule: 1987 Lotus Turbo Esprit – Turbo Doorstop, by Tom Klockau