Dark, brooding clouds scud across the Norfolk skyline as a consistent deluge soaks Lotus HQ. Frustrating for our photographer, yes, but somehow an appropriately moody vista for the pair of angry Esprits we’ve brought with us. These rare, circuit-honed wedges – a black Sport 300, based on the 2.2-litre Turbo SE, and a silver V8 Sport 350 – were, in their time, the battle-hardened riposte from Hethel to the armada of Porsche 911s then dominating track days. But whatever their shared ethos, as we shall see, their gestations and characters were and are quite different.
First the Sport 300, and to unravel its story is to dissect the very essence of a small British engineering project. There was no time. There was no money. Just a small band of trusty employees, prepared to go above and beyond the call of duty, their efforts creating something sensational.
Legendary Lotus engineer Dave Minter picks up the story: ‘It was early 1990 and there was a new SCCA race series [Escort World Challenge] in the USA. It was decided that we should build a pair of cars, but we got the go-ahead to make them only about six weeks before they had to be shipped to America – in typical Lotus style!’ Even now, 20 years on, Minter’s enthusiasm for the project is palpable. ‘We didn’t really have a brief; just some regs. So a few of us sat round and thought about it, built the thing in five weeks, had one week’s worth of testing and then it went over to America and won its first race. It was fantastic – everybody had given up all their leisure time for it.’
In fact, the Type 105 racer, based on the Esprit Turbo SE, would take four victories that year, including a brace of one-two finishes and six pole positions. In 1992 it would clinch the drivers’ crown for Doc Bundy in the Bridgestone Potenza Supercar Championship. Following the success of the racers, Lotus decided to build 20 close copies for track day use in the USA, known as the X-180R. Nevertheless, these cars weren’t Type Approved for road use, and the team back at Hethel still yearned to feed back what they’d learned from the racer into a true road car. And so the Sport 300 project was born.
‘The cars [Sport 300s] were done by a handful of people,’ recalls Minter. ‘It was all very hands-on: no Excel spreadsheets or project briefings. The character of the car is based very much on the guys who did it. It was Roger [Roger Becker, currently vehicle engineering director at Lotus] who kicked it all off. We were trusted to do what we thought was best. We’d have an update with him in the corridor, or he’d drop by at, say, nine at night to see how we were getting on.’
In essence, they’d achieved their aim of building a road car as close as possible to the racer. The glassfibre bodies were hand-laid for extra strength and lightness; the wheelarches extended, like the race car’s, to the widest they’d ever be; the huge, hoop-like rear wing was retained, albeit slightly further forward on the rear deck than the race car’s; and an air dam graced the frontage.
There were now two crucial differences under the engine cover: first the motor was tuned to squeeze out 300bhp (up from 264bhp) while retaining low-rev driveability and emissions compliance (the racers had 385bhp), and second a crucial four-point bracing frame was added to boost torsional rigidity, always an Esprit weakness. Fatter rubber shod gorgeous new wheels, a power-steering system was developed for the first time, and, unusually for Lotus, a limited-slip differential was standard fitment.
Russell Carr styled the finer details and, according to Becker, the car was ‘hidden behind a curtain in the corner of the design studio’. These were the dying days of GM ownership, with expenditure increasingly under scrutiny, but as the team worked on the car in their own time there was little that could be done to stop them. And it wasn’t just GM that was interfering, as Becker recalls with characteristic forthrightness: ‘The sales guy forbade us from spraying it in this bright yellow we had chosen for the motor show, but we thought it looked fantastic, so we all told him to “f**k off”. It wasn’t his car; he hadn’t built it, and if he wanted to use it he would have to have it in the colour we thought was appropriate! It blew everyone away as the star of the NEC show in ’92 because it was so unexpected.’
Just 64 Sport 300s were eventually built over a two-year production run, 14 more than had originally been planned. It therefore follows that driving this black 300 today is a rare yet very real pleasure. A good Esprit still has the ability to wow just about everyone present, wherever you may be, but the 300 is something else again: its unique width-to-height ratio and detailing are perfectly outrageous.
Today, we’ve arranged for Roger Becker’s son Matt to drive both cars and give us his thoughts. As executive engineer for vehicle dynamics at Lotus, Matt is well used to flying round this deceptively tricky little aerodrome circuit, and we’re soon splashing our way around its confines.
‘It feels completely different to a modern car,’ says Matt, even before we’ve nailed the first corner apex. ‘It’s still nicely phased front to rear – you can still feel it’s a Lotus; the roll axis is straight down the middle, it’s nicely balanced and easy to place on the road.’ Rain lashes the glassfibre body as the wipers struggle to clear the ’screen, but the 300 is in its element.
Nevertheless, I’ve been surprised at the squeaks and assorted noises emanating from within this very low-mileage example, and Matt is quick to point out the culprit: ‘Structurally, it’s not so good – even with the extra bracing cradle. You’re limited on the spring rate you can put into the corners because the structure will end up twisting more than the actual springs. Torsional stiffness is only about 20% that of an Elise – that’s what has really improved; a stiff structure is the starting point nowadays.’
It’s a sobering reminder of technical progress, but it doesn’t dampen our enthusiasm. I sense again that trademark balance to the chassis, marvel at the surprising acceleration from the zingy, peaky, turbo ‘four’, and observe the sly grin it’s still able to plaster over Matt’s face. ‘I was just a technician preparing press cars when this came out, but I can remember thinking at the time that it was something special…’
The Sport 350 is a very different animal. Conceived in 1999, three years after the debut of the final Esprit generation with its twin-turbo, home-brewed V8, it was an attempt to repeat the halo effect of the Sport 300. Brian Angus, a Lotus engineer often referred to as ‘Mr Esprit’ around Hethel, remembers Sales and Marketing looking for something like the 300, but ‘…emissions and legislation had changed – there was less we were allowed to do. It never had any more performance, it just gave you a little more torque in the lower gears.’
The engineers were simply running out of options: the Esprit was by now in its twilight years, and the V8 project had placed increasing strains on the basic architecture. The reason the V8 had to be torque-limited in the first place was the weakness of the Renault-sourced gearbox: without that restraint the V8 would have belted out plenty more power than the 350bhp it came with. And there were still, more than ever, the usual issues with torsional stiffness inherent with the backbone design of the chassis.
So the Sport 350 would be much nearer to the standard V8 in character and performance, benefiting from a more track-focused suspension set-up, magnesium wheels with wider rear tyres, better brakes and visual changes such as the memorable carbon rear wing, blue cam covers and plenum (instead of red), and a sporting interior with lightweight bucket seats and carbon trimmings.
Lotus planned to build 50 of them but eventually made 47, and Roger Becker is clear about the car’s limitations.
‘The 350 was like this coiled spring, ready to unleash itself the moment you even thought about backing off the throttle [in a bend]. The V8 was just an engine too far for the car, which meant it could be intimidating: no Lotus should be that. I always felt as if I was going quicker than I should in the 350, and I never really got the pleasure from it. I jump into a 300 and drive it hard, on the throttle mainly, just like you should in a Lotus, but not the 350.’
Don’t go thinking the 350 is some lame duck, however.
It may have had its limitations for the engineers who were forever seeking perfection, but it remains to this day a gloriously quick and emotive car. From inside, the flat-plane-crank V8 doesn’t sound a great deal different in tone to the four-cylinder in the 300, but there’s considerable shove from just about any revs. Nearly ten years on, it still feels exuberant.
Matt Becker is soon into the groove out on the circuit, but there are fewer smiles this time. Matt’s career had progressed by the time the 350 was in gestation, and he played his part in the development of the improved brake package. ‘We’d do a lot of our sales and marketing at Club96 track days, and in a V8 you could really hassle Porsche 911s, but you always had to watch the brakes. Although with the 350 we could change only the front calipers, it did make a big difference.
‘The throttle and clutch efforts are higher,’ continues Matt as we pour out of the long exit of the North Hairpin, the inside wheel spinning on the damp surface. ‘This feels clumsier – it’s a quieter, more civilised model, but a 300 communicates better; you’re aware of the increased mass at the rear in this, and the car just doesn’t seem to talk to you so much. The primary responses are softer and the power delivery much more linear but it hasn’t got a [limited-slip] diff, as you just saw, so it’ll spin up an inside wheel. This is more a car for long-distance work.’
Two very special Esprits, then, each with its own place in the Lotus hall of fame; but it’s the bespoke, quasi-racer feeling cut right into the very heart of the Sport 300 that has won over just about everyone here today. Please Lotus, when you do finally give us the next Esprit, make sure it has some of the spirit bursting out of this old Hethel warrior…