These are the best cars Lotus has ever made
Presenting 11 lovely Lotuses. Or is it Loti? Anyway, these are the best ones ever
Shahzad Sheikh – AKA Brown Car Guy – is an automotive journalist with three decades of experience on various titles including the Middle East edition of CAR Magazine and Used Car Buyer.
Contrary to popular opinion, and especially you sniggering Porsche owners at the back there, Lotus does not stand for 'Lots Of Trouble, Usually Serious'. In fact, the essence of the Lotus ethos is encapsulated in the edict 'simplify, then add lightness'. You may have noticed the deliberate excessive use of words starting with the letter 'e' just then, and that's in tribute to the Norfolk sports car company's penchant for naming most of their cars thus.
Anyway, the quote comes straight from the legendary genius and founder of Lotus itself, Colin Chapman – which is why Lotus fans like myself get alarmed when the company starts to talk about making SUVs. Anyway, that's a digression. At present I'm not worried, I'm elated, because of the Evija, Geely ownership, all-new Lotus sports cars in the pipeline and even talk of the return of an iconic nameplate that's number one on our list below, which is a look back at some of the greatest hits of Lotus.
The original 1958-63 Lotus Elite was remarkable for being a fibreglass monocoque construction, apart from a steel subframe for the engine and front suspension, and a steel square section to hold the windscreen and act as a rollover hoop. It weighed only 500kg and was so aerodynamic that it had a drag coefficient of just 0.29 – remarkable by even today's standards. The later 1974 Elite was a bulkier thing but still mostly fibreglass, presented in a unique shooting brake style. Marketed as a luxury grand tourer, it was the most expensive four-cylinder car in its day.
10. Ford Cortina Lotus
There have been several brilliant Lotus collaborations with other manufacturers – the Lotus Carlton, Lotus Talbot Sunbeam, even the 1998 Proton Satria GTI (developed by Lotus) – but the Lotus Cortina, especially the Mk1 from 1963-66, is a legend in the worlds of race and rally. Ford would deliver two-door body shells to Lotus, which would fit the drivetrain and replace the bonnet, doors and boot for lightweight versions. Inside there were race seats, additional dials and a wood-rimmed steering wheel. Externally they were all painted white with green stripes (except for one car with a blue strip because the owner was superstitious about green).
A contemporary of the Lotus Esprit, this was a more practical four-seat version and despite being front-engined (with the same motor as the Esprit S3) it had superb handling thanks to a 50:50 weight balance, plus a reliable Toyota gearbox. James May once turned one into a motorhome, and Richard Hammond converted another into an actual submarine in tribute to Bond's Esprit in 'The Spy Who Loved Me' - both for Top Gear.
We're going to ignore the 2006 version and focus on the 1966-75 original, one of the oddest and most intriguing looking sports cars of its era. Significant for also being one of the very first mid-engined road cars ever sold. It utilised the Y-shaped backbone chassis design and featured a fibreglass body. The most desirable of these are the JPS editions finished in the same John Player Special livery (black with gold pin striping) as Lotus GP cars at the time, to commemorate Team Lotus winning the 1972 F1 World Championship. Originally only 100 were to be made (the first hundred carry a numbered plaque) but these were so popular they became part of series production.
Why is this Lotus the odd one out? Do you see an ‘e’ in the name? Even its successors, the 2-Eleven and 3-Eleven kind of did. This beach-buggy-gone-beserk was originally a concept, and when it did go into production they were all sold even before they made the 340th and final car. Now the 340R lives in collections or is occasionally seen on track, but is a definite rarity – and arguably a modern-day Lotus 7 featuring exposed wheels, stripped back feel, no doors or roof, transparent side panel and track-car dynamics.
The 1962-73 Elan was so good, Mazda has been using it as a template for its MX-5/Miata since 1989, not just because it epitomised the great British roadster, but also because of its perfect steering and handling. It was a commercial success for Lotus, mitigating the lukewarm financial achievements of the Elite and sprouted a number of versions including a 2+2 (that’s 2 little kids at most actually). It was the first Lotus to employ a steel backbone chassis. The newer 1989-95 Elan M100 may not have been as successful, but was acclaimed as the best handling front-wheel-drive car ever.
The Evora is the only 2+2 mid-engine sports car on sale apart from the BMW i8, though you wouldn’t really want to put a real human in the back seats. Also hard to believe is that it’s a slightly bigger and heavier car than the original Esprit but of course considerably quicker. Designed to be more practical and comfortable than its current stablemates, the Evora nonetheless remains as hardcore and thrilling as Lotus dare make it.
4. Lotus 7
It's the evergreen Lotus icon, even though it was only built by the company between 1957 and 1972, it lives on in the guise of not only the Caterham 7 (which took over the licence to build it from Lotus) but also as countless replicas and imitation kit cars. It's a simple formula, easy to reproduce and highly customisable and reconfigurable. Above all, it remains the purest form of driving this side of a single seat formula race car.
It's hard to believe that the Elise is nearly a quarter of a century old as despite being in its third generation, it essentially remains the same platform as the original 1996 car. Of the current range it is the most accessible, exciting and drivable offering. These days, fitted with Toyota engines and transmissions, it's reliable too. If you're pliable enough to easily get in and out of one, you can daily drive it, take for a Sunday morning B-road thrash or deploy it as track day car.
Talking of track day cars, the Exige is everything the Elise is, but turned up to 11. It gets a meatier V6 in place of a four-cylinder engine and a firmer, more performance-orientated setup. If you believe every commute is like the first lap of LeMans then this is the car for you.
To a lot of people, think Lotus and you picture the 1976 Esprit S1. A true superstar of a supercar it's been made famous in movies like 'Basic Instinct', 'Pretty Woman', and even 'Ghost in the Shell'. But of course it's most recognisable as 'Wet Nellie' the car that converted to a submarine in the James Bond movie, 'The Spy Who Loved Me', as well as appearing in 'For Your Eyes Only'.
Aside from stardom, it's recognised as a giant slayer - beating rivals from Ferrari and Porsche in group tests despite only having a four-cylinder engine for most of its early life. It did finally get the V8 it was always destined to have in S4 guise from 1996 to the end of production in 2004. Acclaimed for its dynamic handling, but most admired for its pure wedge-shaped form, it will always be the ultimate Lotus legend.