S1 - 1976
The Esprit was launched at the 1975 Paris and London auto shows and went into production in June 1976. These first Esprits eventually became known as S1 (or Series 1) Esprits. These fiberglass bodied cars were initially powered by the Lotus 907 4 cylinder engine previously used in the Jensen Healey. The engine displaced 2.0 liters, produced 160 bhp in European trim (140 bhp in US/Federal trim), and was mounted longitudinally behind the passengers (similar to the Lotus Europa). The transaxle was a 5 speed unit previously used in the Citroën SM and Maserati Merak; it also featured inboard rear brakes as was racing practice at the time. The series 1 embodied Lotus’ performance through light weight mantra, weighing under 1000 kg. The car gained some fame through its appearance in the James Bond film The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) where it converted into a submarine.
The original Esprit was lauded for its handling and is said to have the best steering of any Esprit. However, it was generally regarded as lacking power, especially in markets such as the U.S. where the engine was downrated for emissions purposes, and Lotus’ claim of 0-60 in 6.8 seconds and a top speed of 138 mph may be thought of as optimistic. Actual road test times indicate a top speed of around 133 mph and 0-60 in 8 seconds.
The S1 Esprit can be distinguished from later Esprits by a shovel-style front air dam, Fiat X1/9 taillights, lack of bodyside ducting, and Wolfrace alloy wheels. Inside the car, the most obvious indication of a S1 Esprit is a one-piece Veglia instrument cluster.
S2 - 1978
A series of improvements made to the Esprit during its initial run culminated in the S2 (or Series 2) Esprit. The most obvious of these changes are intake and cooling duct "ears" located behind the rear quarter window, Rover SD1 taillights and an integrated front spoiler. S2 Esprits also used 14" Speedline alloy wheels designed specifically for Lotus. Other changes included relocating the battery from above the right side fuel tank (under the rear quarter window) to the rear of the car, adding an access door to the engine cover and replacing the Veglia instrument cluster with individual gauges made by Smiths and a different style of switches.
During this era, a claimed (but improbable) 100 Special Edition cars were made to commemorate Lotus’ racing victories, commonly known as the John Player Special (JPS) among collectors after Lotus’ racing sponsor at the time.
The S2.2 was produced as a stopgap model in 1980, identical to the S2 but with an enlarged (2.2 liter) type 912 engine used. This kept horsepower the same, but bumped up torque to 160 lb ft. from 140. These cars are extremely rare even among Esprits and only 88 are thought to have been produced.
Essex Turbo Esprit (1980)
In 1980 the first factory turbocharged Esprit was launched. Initially, this was another special edition model commemorating F1 ties and reflecting current sponsorship, this time in the blue, red and chrome livery of Essex Petroleum, and is therefore known as the Essex Esprit. The new turbocharged dry-sump type 910 engine produced 210 hp (157 kW) and 200 lb·ft (270 N·m) of torque. 0-60 mph could be achieved in 6.1 seconds, with a top speed of 150 mph (240 km/h).
These performance improvements were coupled to a redesign and strengthening of the chassis and rear suspension, where an upper link was added to alleviate strain on the driveshafts, along with brake improvements. The Essex cars introduced a Giugiaro-designed aerodynamic body kit with a rear lip spoiler, prominent louvered rear hatch, more substantial bumpers, a deeper front airdam, and air ducts in the sills just ahead of the rear wheels, which were 15" Compomotive 3-piece items. Internally, scarlet leather, combined with a roof-mounted Panasonic stereo, made for a dramatic environment.
45 Essex Esprits were built, followed by a number of non Essex-liveried but otherwise identical specification dry-sump turbo cars. Two Essex-spec Turbo Esprits - one in white and the other in copper - were featured in the James Bond film For Your Eyes Only (1981), although these were scripted as the same vehicle; the white one was blown up by an anti-burglar explosion system in Spain, while the red one was a "rebuild" of the original.
Turbo Esprit and S3 - 1980
By the close of 1980, Lotus were effectively building three different models of Esprit, with distinct chassis designs and body moulds - the Domestic (i.e. UK) S2.2, the Export S2.2, and the dry-sump Turbo Esprit. Introduced in April 1981, the Turbo Esprit and S3 (Series 3) Esprits marked a necessary consolidation: both new models had a common chassis, inheriting much of the configuration of the Essex cars, whilst body production was based on a single common set of moulds.
The S3 continued to use the 2.2 L type 912 engine of the S2.2, whilst the Turbo Esprit reverted to a less complex wet-sump lubrication system, retaining the power and torque outputs of its dry-sump predecessor. The interior for both cars was revised and featured new trim; combined with changes to the body moulds this resulted in more headroom and an enlarged footwell. Externally, the Turbo Esprit retained the full aerodynamic body kit of the Essex cars, and featured prominent 'turbo esprit' decals on the nose and sides; the S3 gained the more substantial bumpers, yet retained the simpler sill line and glazed rear hatch of the S2.2 body style. Both models were supplied with 15" BBS alloy wheels.
For the 1985 model year, the S3 and Turbo underwent some slight alterations to the bodywork and to the front suspension.
In April 1986, the final incarnations of the Giugiaro-styled Esprit were announced, with raised engine compression giving rise to the 'HC' moniker. This increased the output of the naturally aspirated engine to 172 hp (128 kW; 174 PS) and 160 lb·ft (217 N·m) for the Esprit HC, and to 215 hp (160 kW; 218 PS) and 220 lb·ft (298 N·m) for the Turbo Esprit HC, with the increased torque available at a lower rpm.
For markets with stringent emissions requirements (mainly the United States), Lotus introduced the HCi variant, teaming the higher compression engine with Bosch KE-Jetronic fuel injection and a catalytic converter- the first fuel-injected Esprits. This engine had the same peak power as the carburetted version, but at a somewhat higher engine speed, and torque dropped to 202 lb·ft (274 N·m).
Peter Stevens redesign (1987)
In 1987 a new version of the Esprit was introduced, incorporating rounder styling cues given by designer Peter Stevens of McLaren F1 fame. A new Lotus patented process was introduced to create the new body called the VARI (Vacuum Assisted Resin Injection) process, which offered more advantages than the previous hand laid process. Kevlar reinforcement was added to the roof and sides for roll-over protection. This time the tail-lights were sourced from the Toyota Corolla Hatchback. Giugiaro is said to have liked the restyling, claiming it was perhaps too close to his original design. The Stevens styled cars retained the mechanical components of the previous High Compression Esprit and Turbo Esprit, but introduced a stronger Renault transaxle, which necessitated a move to outboard rear brakes. The North American Esprit Turbo retained the Citroën gearbox for 1988 MY only. The Esprit's Type 910 engine retained 215 bhp and 220 ft-lbs, but reduced its zero to sixty from 5.6 seconds to 5.1 seconds, with a top speed of over 145 mph. The exterior style changes were accompanied by a freshening of the interior, allowing a little more space for the occupants. The Stevens styled Esprit is often known by its project code of X180. The Stevens Esprit was in the short lived TV series "The Highwayman" in 1988 but it was only seen twice as the show was cancelled after only 10 episodes.
The Esprit was again improved with the addition of a water to air intercooler known as the chargecooler producing the SE. Horsepower was increased to 264 with 280 available on overboost, and zero to sixty times reduced to an amazing 4.6 seconds, with a top speed of over 160 mph. The chargecooled engine was known as the type 910 S. Modifications to the body kit are also noted. Again the Esprit continued to keep a small or nonexistent gap between itself and competition from rivals such as Ferrari and Porsche.
Along with the SE, Lotus produced the little seen Esprit S, a midrange turbocharged car offering fewer appointments and 228 hp, as well as the standard turbo still offering 215 hp. The N/A and turbo were cancelled after 1990, and the S in 1991.
Esprit SEs were in the films Basic Instinct and Pretty Woman.
The Esprit was a popular and successful addition to the American Bridgestone Supercar Championship and as a result Lotus produced the SE-based X180R, with horsepower bumped to 300 and with racing appointments. The Sport 300 was a derivative of the X180R sold in Europe. These are known as the fastest of the 4 cylinder Esprits and among the most desirable.
In 1993 another exterior and interior revamp of the car resulted in the S4 which was the first model to include power steering. This car was succeeded in 1995 by the S4s, which upped power to 300 bhp while retaining the comfort of the S4. This car was to be the end of the line for the Esprit but a cancelled project for a front engine car had left Lotus with a compact V8 and no car to put it into.