The Story of the Vauxhall Lotus Carlton

This is the story of one of the most legendary super-saloons in history...

3y ago
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Today, if you're in the market for a super-saloon that can transport you and 4 others to the edge of the earth in comfort, while embarrassing 911 Turbos on the journey, you will almost certainly end up with a BMW M5. Unless you require the added practicality of an Estate – an option which has been available on some M5 models – the M5 has absolutely no equal. And that's an accolade that has stayed with the breed throughout its life. Well...almost.

The E34 M5 that was around in the early 90's was a fine car, with plenty of poke – but it most certainly wasn't the king of the super-saloon castle. Something with much more humble roots – an automotive people's champion – dethroned the M5 with considerable aplomb: that car was the legendary Vauxhall Lotus Carlton. And this is the story of that wonderful car.

The Vauxhall Lotus Carlton – or Lotus Carlton as it's more succinctly referred to – can trace its origins back to the Vauxhall Carlton GSi 3000. The GSi was a fairly sporty saloon in its day; when equipped with a 24 valve version of its 3L Straight-6 engine, it produced a healthy 204bhp. Back on the dawn of the 1990's, it most certainly wasn't a slouch.

Credit: keeperlit19 on photobucket.

Credit: keeperlit19 on photobucket.

Back then, Vauxhall was owned by General Motors – as was Lotus. GM therefore thought it would be a good idea to give Lotus a Carlton GSi with the simple instructions to go absolutely mental with it. And they certainly didn't disappoint.

Lotus began the transformation process by bequeathing the 3L Straight-6 with a number of juicy modifications. The first thing they did was increase the displacement from 3 to 3.6 litres. Then – rather wonderfully – they bolted on 2 Garrett T25 turbochargers, pumping out 10.2psi of boost. But the changes didn't stop there.

Due to the high horsepower increase that would come from Lotus' influence, they thought it important to dedicate a number of modifications to preserving the reliability. The external webbing of the block was reinforced, the crankshaft was upgraded, as was the pistons and connecting rods. The distributor was removed in favour of a three-coil waste-spark system – but the drive for the defunct distributor found itself being recruited to run the water-pump for the new and improved intercooler. And finally, to reduced the risk of engine knock, the compression ratio was reduced from 10.0:1 to 8.2:1.

In order to help the rest of the car cope with the added oomph, the gearbox was replaced with the 6-speed manual from a C4 Corvette ZR1 – the same gearbox that was used in the supercharged Aston Martin Vantage. The drivetrain upgrades were accentuated with a limited slip differential that had been taken from the V8 powered Holden Commodore. Then, Lotus' handling wizards set to work on the suspension.

While the Lotus Carlton retained the original GSi suspension, Lotus modified it considerably to improve the high speed stability, and the overall handling balance. Then – and perhaps the most important modification of all – the brakes were upgraded to large discs and callipers. With 12.9 inch (328mm) discs up front gripped by 4-piston AP callipers, and 11.8 inch (300mm) discs at the back gripped by 2-piston callipers, the Lotus Carlton had the stopping power required in order to quell the fury of the acceleration. And the acceleration was most definitely furious!

The engine modifications had resulted in power going through the roof, from 204 to 377bhp! Not only that, but due to the Twin-Turbo's force-feeding the 3.6L engine, torque sat at a massive 419lb-ft. The Carlton wasn't a light car, at 3644lbs (1653kg) - but with the power available under the driver's right foot, it was still capable of going from 0-60mph in 5 seconds flat, 0-100mph in 10.6, and onwards to a top speed of at least 177mph. Notice I use the words "at least" - and that's because when members of the motoring media were invited to max the car, they saw the top speed rise to an even more astonishing 186mph!! And remember, this was back in 1990!

Comparably, the E34 BMW M5 of the time produced a mere 311bhp, and a massively inferior 266lb-ft of torque. It also weighed more – at 3858lbs (1750kg) – resulting in it getting from 0-60mph in 6.3 seconds, 0-100mph in 14.4 seconds, and eventually reaching a limited top speed of 155mph. As you can see, not even in the same league as the Carlton.

So amazing was the Carlton's speed, it could be compared to some supercars of the day. If you were driving a Ferrari Testarossa back then, and you found yourself at the lights next to this Lotus tuned Vauxhall family car, if you wanted to avoid unbelievable embarrassment, you'd be wise not to bother getting involved in a drag race. Despite the Testarossa's 12-cylinders of Italian might, it would reach 100mph 1 whole second after the relatively modest looking Vauxhall.

Despite the visual modifications being apparent to the trained eye of a motoring enthusiast, to the majority of people, it just looked like your average Vauxhall saloon. The changes were subtle – but just enough. Sporting a slightly beefier body, a small boot-spoiler, and – most importantly – a unique colour called "Imperial Green".

At this point, you're probably staring at your computer, amazed to learn that a colour which appears to be a shade of black has the word "Green" in its name. But if you look very closely at the Lotus, in absolutely perfect light, you can see it has an incredibly subtle hint of green. Not only was the shade unique, but it was also the only colour option available for the Carlton. The colour of the body however was of little to no importance, as this car was all about speed.

The German establishment went about their performance in a refined, gentlemanly manner; whereas the Lotus was far more of a heavyweight bruiser. The world hadn't seen a car as extreme as the Carlton before, and as a result, it didn't really know how to cope. You would've thought that a "family" car capable of such staggering speed would've made it an automotive hero at the time – and it did, in certain circles. But mostly, it was a magnet for controversy.

There were outcries to have the top speed limited to 155mph, like the German equivalents. Why people thought 155mph was somehow more acceptable however, I don't know. I mean, if you're travelling at 155mph, you've already surpassed the point at which speed results in certain death – so you might as well aim to jettison through the Pearly Gates as fast as you possibly can!

Joking aside, the Lotus also garnered negative attention from important figures in motoring media – such as then Autocar magazine editor Bob Murray, who went to the trouble of saying that no one who ever buys the car will ever be able to use the top speed. While that may be true (of all performance cars, and not just the Lotus), that fact didn't stop certain groups of people from trying.

The Lotus Carlton was one of the most desirable cars of the era – for criminal gangs! Through the eyes of thieves, nothing was more appealing than a car that them and their cronies could use to ram-raid off-licenses – something which the Lotus was actually used for – that could escape the Police like they weren't even there. The fastest cars in the Police's arsenal were 149mph Vauxhall Senators; in urban areas however, the Police were stuck using panda cars that were limited to just 90mph. Not exactly the correct tools for catching something as fast as the Carlton.

So shocking was the Lotus' performance, that comedians wrote sketches about it. Brummie comedian Jasper Carrott wrote a piece in which he exclaimed his shock by saying "this is a family saloon that can do over 175mph! Who's the family? Mr and Mrs Fittipaldi?".

Bitter cynics however – those with nothing better to do with their time than find things to complain about – refused to see the funny side. There were even calls to have the car banned altogether. But Vauxhall's European cousins – Opel – refused to allow the car's potential to be hushed, or even limited, thank the lord!

Production commenced in 1990, with a target to make 1100 units. The price was £48,000 – the equivalent of £110,000 in today's money. While that may sound expensive, the only way you could buy something with the Carlton's performance was if you forked out twice as much on a supercar with half the practicality. While the Lotus did prove popular, the curse of the early 90's recession hit hard, and production was halted after just 950 units.

Out of the 950 made, 320 were sold in the UK as Vauxhall Lotus Carltons, and the remaining 630 were sold in Europe as Opel Lotus Omegas. And every single one of them was feared by Police constabularies across the continent.

Nowadays, the Lotus' performance might not appear to be anything of all that much importance. But perspective is everything. Can you imagine a Vauxhall Insignia today not only outpacing the BMW M5, but also the Ferrari 812 Superfast? Well, that was the magnitude of the Carlton's achievement back then.

Unfortunately, the Lotus Carlton is not a treat that the average car enthusiast can enjoy quite so easily nowadays thanks to the fact that the market has started to swell dramatically for it. A couple of years ago, you could've been driving away in a good low-mileage example for around £20,000; now, the only way you'll get one that cheaply is if you acquire it at gunpoint – which considering the car's history, is probably something it's seen before. Without resorting to weaponised encouragement however, you won't find a good example now for less than £100,000!!

That price however is a direct reflection on the significance and specialness of the car. If the E34 M5 was considered a super-saloon in its day, the Lotus was a hyper-saloon: a title that you can only accurately apply nowadays to crazy tuned Brabuses. It's one of the most iconic figures in performance-saloon history – and yet it was once abhorred for the reasons that made it great. That is a dishonour that is now only being pardoned by how loved it is today. Oh how much I wish I had one sitting on my drive.

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Written by: Angelo Uccello

Twitter: @AngeloUccello

Tribe: Speed Machines

Facebook: Speed Machines - DriveTribe

Photo credits: boldride

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Comments (7)

  • I remember seeing one when they came out I looked fantastic. .looked like it was doing 100 mph stationery

      3 years ago
    • I second that. The first time I saw one, I was in complete awe. I think I was only 12, and it was - and still is now - a hero car of mine. Seeing it was magical.

        3 years ago
  • Lovely Article, keep it on !

      3 years ago
  • That car was the ultimate sleeper of the 90's

      3 years ago
  • Great car and article 👌 🤘 👏

      3 years ago
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