Simplify, lighten, add power, drive.
If Ferrari had been founded by an engineer turned race car driver rather than a race car driver turned entrepreneur, it would have been Lotus. Company founder Colin Chapman initially built cars because he wanted to better vehicles to compete with, but became one of the most influential design engineers the automotive industry has ever seen. His first notable car was a modified 1928 Austin Seven adapted for British trials competition, which is best described as autocross on the side of a hill. Chapman made enough money in 1948 to develop a second car, also based on an Austin 7, and named it Lotus for reasons that have never been made clear. He also developed a reputation for being creative within the rules as his cars started to outclass his competition drastically.
In 1952, Chapman founded the Lotus Engineering Company and sold kits of his Lotus 6 model. However, in 1957, it was the Lotus 7 that put Chapman on the path to trailblazing his way through the motor racing formulas. When he reached Formula 1 alongside John Cooper, they revolutionized the sport. At the same time, Lotus began to branch out, making full production cars rather than kits owners had to build themselves. It also began lending its engineering expertise out to major automakers.
Chapman died in 1982 and left one hell of a legacy. To this day, the rear equivalent of MacPherson struts in a car’s suspension are called Chapman struts. He popularized the monocoque chassis in racing, led the way in introducing aerodynamics to Formula 1, and was a pioneer of “ground effects.” He’s also responsible for the term “adding lightness” to a car.
Since Chapman’s death, Lotus has maintained a singular focus on engineering lightweight cars for drivers, whether for racing or the road. Lotus race cars would make a whole separate list, as would “cars Lotus has helped design,” so today we’re going to focus on the road cars following the Lotus 7.
Lotus Elan Sprint
The S1 (Series 1) Lotus Elan debuted in 1962 and became one of the most influential sports cars ever made. It’s the car Mazda based the MX-5 on, and Gordon Murray once said that his only regret with the McLaren F1 is that he couldn’t give it the perfect steering he considered the Elan to have. It was also the first Lotus to use a steel backbone chassis and a fiberglass body, contributing to the “add lightness” philosophy Chapman had embraced. The Elan weighed just 1,410 lbs and grew very little by the time peak Elan was reached with the Sprint model in 1971. Lotus developed a “big-valve” cylinder head for the 1.5-liter twin-cam engine, giving the Elan Sprint 126 hp.
Lotus Evora GT
The Lotus Evora GT is the pinnacle of the Evora’s development. It’s a little flawed, but it’s flawed in a specifically Lotus manner. Basically, Lotus wanted the original Evora to be an extreme sports car you can drive every day, so the engineers slapped a single cupholder in the first available space, added an aftermarket head unit from a catalog, called it “job done,” then went right back to making the Evora lighter and faster, which led to the 400, the GT430 and this North American GT. Its mid-mounted, turbocharged V6 churns out 416 hp and 317 lb-ft of torque, and the best place to drive it on the road is to the track. There, you can find out just how much grip the chassis generates and how sublimely accurate the steering is.
Lotus Essex Turbo Esprit
If you ever want to troll a Lotus forum, wander in and ask which is the best Lotus Esprit model. There’s no definitive answer as the car was built from 1976 to 2004 and evolved drastically through the decades. There is a strong argument for the S1 as it set the standard for the first Lotus supercar. Its shape was the first of designer Giorgetto Giugiaro’s “folded paper” body designs – a design that would influence cars until the 1990s. It also introduced Lotus’s first factory engine, the slanted four-cylinder 900-Series. However, for the S2 Essex Turbo Esprit, not only was Giugiaro brought in to design the added aero kit, but it was also the first Lotus to to be turbocharged from the factory. The 910 engine is a dry-sump design, generating 210 hp and 200 lb-ft of torque.
Lotus also revised the chassis to give it 50% more rigidity, and the engineers upgraded the brakes. Topping it off was the blue, red, and chrome livery of the Essex Overseas Petroleum Corporation. Only 45 official Essex Turbo Esprit models were built, but Lotus sold more with the same specs but without the livery.
Lotus Europa Special
It’s one of the most forgotten Lotus models, but it’s also one of the most fascinating. In 2005, Lotus used the Europa name again for a small sports car; however, the original Europa was an exotic looking mid-engined GT car built from 1966 to 1975. It may have looked wild at the time, but the Europa was designed to be an affordable mid-engined coupe built to Chapman’s ethos of “simplify, then add lightness.” One of the keys to keeping costs down was using a 1.5-liter Renault engine, which was already lightweight before Lotus set its engineers loose.
In 1971, Lotus introduced the Europa Twin Cam, featuring the 1.5-liter, 105-hp Lotus-Ford Twin Cam engine. Following that, Lotus switched to the 126-hp “Big Valve” engine and celebrated its 1972 Formula 1 championship win with a commemorative Special. It was upgraded with a five-speed transmission to replace the Renault four-speed unit, and with the iconic black with gold pinstripe livery to match the John Player Special-sponsored F1 cars. Due to the popularity of the color scheme, Lotus left it available as an option for the Europa, but only the first 100 have the numbered JPS dashboard badge.
Lotus Elise Cup 240 Final Edition
The Lotus Elise first appeared in 1996, weighing just 1,598 lbs. That’s insanely light, which meant that despite only having a 118-hp engine, the roadster could still hit 60 mph in 5.8 seconds. The Elise has evolved through three generations and now ends production in 2021. To finish its run, Lotus is offering two final editions. For the record, it’s current 240 models weigh just a few hundred pounds more than the original, despite additional safety equipment and a larger engine. The 240 is powered by a supercharged 1.8-liter Toyota engine making just under 240 hp, and the combination delivers a 0-62 mph time of 4.5 seconds. In its full lightweight spec, the Lotus Elise Cup 240 Final Edition shaves weight with details that include a lithium-ion starter battery and a polycarbonate rear window.
The 250 Final Edition comes with a little more power, an aero kit, as well as Bilstein dampers and adjustable anti-roll bars. However, lighter is always better with a Lotus.
Lotus Exige Cup 430 Final Edition
The Exige was originally a hard-top and more hardcore version of the Elise, but it separated itself later by being the larger-engined car. The fully evolved Series 3 Exige uses the same supercharged Toyota V6 as the Evora and weighs 2,593 pounds. Like the Elise and Evora, 2021 is the Exige’s final year of production and has some ballistic level final editions. Topping the range is the ultimate Exige, the Cup 430 Final Edition. The supercharged V6 delivers 430 hp here, and the car rides on suspension featuring adjustable Eibach anti-roll bars and three-way Nitron dampers. The Cup 430 Final Edition will hit 62 mph in 3.4 seconds and, with help from the rear wing adding 377 pounds of downforce, sticks to the road like Gorilla Glue to a blanket.
Lotus Elise GT1
The ultimate Lotus Elise is the fabled GT1. Only one road-going version exists, as Lotus figured out it only needed to build a single model for homologation in 1997 to enter the FIA GT Championship. It hasn’t been seen in over a decade. It has the Lotus Type 918 3.5-liter V8 mounted behind the cockpit, although the factory race cars used the Chevrolet Corvette’s ZR-1 LT5 V8 as the Lotus engine wasn’t reliable enough for the race team. The Elise’s chassis was strengthened, but it was fitted with a longer and wider carbon fiber and Kevlar body, resembling the stock Elise. It weighed 2,314 pounds while making 542 hp sent through a five-speed transmission.
Where the GT1 is now is not known. The two likely possibilities are that Lotus still has it packed up in a warehouse, or the rumor Lotus sold it to a Dutch collector is true. Either way, it is the ultimate road-going Elise.
We’ve talked about power-to-weight, and the Lotus 3-Eleven comes in at 467 hp per metric ton. The 430 Edition weighs 2,028 lbs and makes, as indicated, 430 horsepower via the Lotus supercharged-and-tuned Toyota V6. It may not be peak Lotus as a new era is starting for the automaker, but it’s likely peak piston-power Lotus. The 3-Eleven is a track-focused but street-legal menace that will hit 60 mph in 3.1 seconds and make supercar owners wonder where their extra money went as it walks past them on track days. It’s a distillation of Lotus’s ethos of simplicity and lightness, but with the added bonus of gobs of power.