1986 Lotus Esprit S3 road test

2017 Drive-my and Jonny Fleetwood

‘It just wants to go and go – it really zings’ The List. Your dream drive made real. After driving 9000 miles across the globe in a pretend Lotus Esprit, James Cartwright was keen to find out if the real thing lived up to its 007-tinged reputation. Words Russ Smith. Photography Jonny Fleetwood.


The List When James Cartwright told us he wanted to sample a Lotus Esprit, we wondered why he specifically requested a red one. His underlying reason was even more peculiar than we ever hoped it would be…

The number and variety of reasons that readers have given us for wanting to drive a particular car have probably been even more varied than the cars themselves. But few if any have been as odd, and frankly as hard-earned, as James Cartwright’s wish to drive a red Lotus Esprit. That got our attention. When someone is that specific you know there’s a story, so we had to ask. We’ll let James explain, ‘With two friends, I did the Mongol Rally a few years ago in a Nissan Micra MkI that we crudely converted into a tribute to Roger Moore’s red Lotus Esprit Turbo from the Bond movie For Your Eyes Only. Complete with roof-mounted skis. If you squint there’s a good joke in this, and people got the joke with our team name ‘For Urals Only’. It was set, and also the idea of taking skis to Mongolia for no good reason appealed greatly. The Nissan survived and we completed the rally in 31 days, so after 9000 miles in a ‘fake’ red Esprit I wanted to experience the real deal.’

1986 Lotus Esprit S3 road test

1986 Lotus Esprit S3 road test

The back lanes near Aldershot in Hampshire may be slightly less adventurous than the Ulaanbaatar bypass, but from a driving dynamics point of view we’re surely staring at an open goal by handing James the keys of a Lotus Esprit S3. This one might not have a turbocharger, but it’s miles – possibly 9000 of them – away from driving a one-litre Micra.

Colin Parry’s Lotus, a show-winning 1986 normally aspirated S3 model which he has owned since 1989, has during the course of a specialist engine rebuild been tweaked to almost Esprit Turbo output levels, though the car remains otherwise standard. That power boost further raises James’ anticipation levels. ‘I actually prefer normally aspirated engines, and for me a sports car needs a specific output of at least 90bhp per litre. That gives them an edgy, slightly stressed feel, like I had in my Clio 182 Trophy.’ It’s time we took the scenic route.

Despite being a relative stranger to low-slung and inaccessible sports cars James instinctively adopts the least inelegant and, as Colin confirms, most efficient method of getting over the sill and into the driver’s seat – left leg, swing backside, right leg. Once in he is quick to offer praise. ‘It feels so exotic and Italian from inside. It’s obviously been styled with buyers of Italian cars in mind. I love the way the business part of the dashboard with all the dials creates a wraparound feel – like it all belongs to the driver. And very British touches like the polished wooden gearknob on top of what looks like a rather industrial, unrefined metal stick. It’s like the handle on a lathe; a modern reference to the feeling of operating machinery.’

1986 Lotus Esprit S3 road test

1986 Lotus Esprit S3 road test. James admits he’s a sucker for a naturally aspirated engine. A specialist rebuild has given this unblown four-cylinder almost Turbo-rivalling performance.

Off down a lightly trafficked minor A-road, James is quickly flicking that lever between ratios like it’s his own car. ‘The gearknob position is really nice and you naturally shift with an open palm, like in an older car, not by gripping the top of the lever like most modern cars. It feels so right. In an odd way it reminds me a lot of the Golf GTI MkI that I used to own, the way it feels really planted and accelerates through the gears with that wonderful progression you only get with a good naturally aspirated engine; I’m loving it. With so much power squeezed from a small engine it really zings! The only negative is that in some lights the reflection of all the dashboard’s pale leather in the windscreen makes it hard to see the road ahead. But even knowing that I feel you’d still spec it that way, it simply looks so good.

‘If I were to have a weekend classic, this would be it. But you’d maybe also want a little place off the Route Napoleon; somewhere sexy with some mountain roads to play on. The appeal of having one of these in your garage is as a reminder of days like this – open roads, sun out – and a beacon of hope for future days of no work. ‘The steering is just as good as I’d expected – quick and direct but with the very slight period waywardness you wouldn’t get in a modern; there’s just a fraction less immediacy of response when you turn the wheel. That’s not a criticism at all, and you quickly learn just to dial it into each corner a little bit earlier. And overall the roadholding and control is immaculate.’

We find some twistier terrain as James’ confidence in the Lotus starts to grow. ‘The nice long, flexible second gear really helps get the best out of it on corners like this. You get that lovely raspiness at high revs, though it sinks to a baritone at low speeds, which is more what I would have expected from the Turbo version than this. But it all sounds good.

‘The steering weight is good at speed, but not having power assistance, the car’s low-speed steering is more what I’d call manageable. It doesn’t spoil things but you do need to learn the knack of balancing speed with turning the wheel to avoid it being too heavy. But I don’t know what it would be like at 5mph on a series of hairpin bends. That would take some practice.

‘It’s a funny thing, but you can sense the styling from inside. You don’t get that with many cars. You know when from the outside some sports car designs look fast just standing still? Well this looks and feels fast from the inside. In most moderns you could be sat in anything, but this feels properly special. When you look in the rear-view mirrors it’s like a Stratos but less so; squareshouldered like a Mk1 Golf – very Giugiaro. The only thing is, those air intakes behind the side windows are more subtle than they could be. There’s room for more Countach-style drama there. The other thing that strikes me about the interior is that it’s much better quality than I expected. But I don’t know how much that’s down to Lotus or if it’s the work that’s been carried out on this car, but some of the stitching looks like it’s in an Aston Martin.’    We question Colin Parry later and find the car has only been partly retrimmed and not the areas we were focusing on – they really were this good from new.

1986 Lotus Esprit S3 road test

1986 Lotus Esprit S3 road test. Tiny steering wheel could almost belong to a Lotus F1 car of the era. James says the interior design gives a sense of speed even when the car’s stationary.

We stop for a breather and James turns his attention to the Esprit’s external profile. ‘The body has a nice uncomplicated silhouette that gives the impression of lightness that goes with the Lotus ethos. The later Stevens version looks heavier, especially round the front end where it’s fussier, less clean. This has such a straight and simple sill line, and it has great style because it isn’t overdone. Apart, maybe, from the front bumper and spoiler – that looks a bit heavy, not quite in keeping with the rest of the car. Was that done for US regulations? I’m sure it was less bulky on earlier Esprits.

‘Whereas the interior looks very Seventies, and very Italian, the exterior is more Eighties; more homespun and more Lotus. And you can see it’s a glassfibre body in things like the panel gaps. It’s like with Jensens and TVRs: there’s a very British look in the way it’s all put together. That said, this is a rare instance in an exploded classic car market where prices of them haven’t gone crazy. You can still pick up Esprits like this for less than £20k and that’s astonishing. That’s a level that feels achievable yet what you are buying looks so exotic. And maybe that’s because it’s British. If this were an Italian car in badge and not just design they would surely be twice the price. The glassfibre bodies have perhaps held it back in the past, but that may be not such a turn-off now that so many cars are built with composite panels or bodies; it’s become the norm. It’s true that having a four-cylinder power unit makes the Lotus seem a bit less special, but without it you’d not have the character of this engine, and that’s part of what makes the Esprit what it is.’

‘The body has a nice uncomplicated silhouette that gives the impression of lightness that goes with the Lotus ethos’

‘It does have its idiosyncrasies, such as the steering wheel pointing at my right shoulder’

Back behind the wheel – the temptation to drive an Esprit is not something that’s easy to resist – James is really getting into the groove. ‘From the moment I first climbed in I got the sense that it just wanted to go and go. It still feels like that and I don’t think I’ve ever got into a car and had such an immediate understanding of how it is going to behave. And that astonishingly small steering wheel makes you feel like you’ve joined the Lotus racing team. At road speeds the Esprit isn’t hard to drive quickly at all; it flatters you and on these bobbly B-roads we’ve been on since the break it feels really well damped and surprisingly at home. It’s easy to place too – the width isn’t a problem at all. And that engine sound passing next to a hedgerow, it was just fantastic back there with the window down.

‘The gear lever has a longish but quite positive throw. It feels what I can only describe as well-oiled and the sense of engagement with the car that allows gives you the confidence to come off the clutch that split second earlier. Like everything else in the Esprit it seems designed to speed your progress.’

That old Lotus magic seems to be working its way into James’s soul, but surely the Esprit can’t all be that perfect? ‘It does have its idiosyncrasies. Like the steering wheel not being straight ahead of you; it actually points at my right shoulder. I reckon you’d start to feel that after, what, about ten hours or so. Already I’m finding myself sitting towards the outside of the seat to compensate.

‘The inner wheelarch is quite intrusive on the accelerator pedal, and all the pedals are quite close together. That’s not a bad thing, but in these shoes at least it is quite easy to catch one of the other pedals. I think that the packaging engineers tried to keep the pedals right ahead of the driver, unlike the steering wheel, and perhaps they didn’t need to. There’s space to move the pedal box slightly to the left to create a bit more room for your feet on them. Or I suppose I could just change my shoes.

‘I’m also now getting mixed feelings about the dashboard. I know I was enthusiastic earlier but I’m starting to think maybe those wraparound ends are too close, the way they come out towards you? That might get a bit claustrophobic after a while. But shoulder to shoulder there’s a huge amount of room and the seats are really comfortable and supportive. In fact the driving position itself is pretty much perfect.

‘Overall it’s hard to fault the way the Esprit drives. But…’ He pauses for thought. ‘I feel it’s somehow missing something. Like – dare I say it? – an Italian badge. Driving it has given me a real taste for owning something Seventies. But I’m not sure it would be an Esprit. Something wedgy, definitely, that would provide the spur to make me want to succeed in business. A Maserati Shamal or Khamsin; something like that.

‘But I’m glad to have driven the Lotus; there’s so much to like about it. Including one thing that might sound really odd – I love the way it’s so low that you can sit on the wide sill with the door open and look across the roof.’

Thanks to Colin Parry for use of his superb Esprit.

‘It feels so exotic and Italian from inside – it’s obviously been styled with buyers of Italian cars in mind’


Maserati A6G/54 ‘Or any other derivative – just as long as it’s special enough to get into the Mille Miglia.’

Lamborghini Miura ‘In orange. The most beautiful car for me. The physicality of the drive appeals too.’

Bristol Fighter ‘I like the narrowness of the body – and the cab-rearward cockpit, like a Mercedes SLR.’

Lancia Delta Integrale ‘Race pedigree and muscular design of the Evo II – it’s a hot hatch on steroids.’

Aston Martin V8 ‘Handbuilt gentleman’s GT with a gruff V8; less of a design cliché than the DB5.’

Bentley R-type Continental ‘The sort of thing you might see gathering dust in the corner of an NCP in the West End.’

Ferrari 550 Maranello ‘The teenage dream car – V12, FMR layout, naturally aspirated, manual.’

Citroën SM ‘Autoroute de Soleil fast-laner, so cool with yellow headlamps.’

Fiat Jolly Beach Car ‘The ultimate car for picking up baguettes in the morning.’

TECHNICAL DATA FILE 1986 Lotus Esprit S3

Engine mid-mounted 2174cc aluminium inlinefour, dohc, two Dell’Orto DHLA4SE carburettors

Power and torque 160bhp @ 6500rpm; 160lb ft @ 5000rpm

Transmission Five-speed manual, rear-wheel-drive

Steering Rack and pinion

Suspension Front: independent by twin wishbones, coil springs, telescopic dampers and anti-roll bar; Rear: independent with lower wishbones, radius arms and lateral link, telescopic dampers

Brakes Front: discs; Rear: inboard discs, servo-assisted

Weight 1067kg (2349lb)

Performance Top speed: 135mph; 0-60mph: 6.5sec

Fuel consumption 24mpg

Cost new £17,800

Values now £8500-£18,500


James clearly prefers his cars naturally aspirated – even his ‘Esprit Turbo’ was a free-breather

MINI COOPER MKII 1275 S 2002-03. My first car at 17. It set very high expectations in terms of speed and handling.

VOLVO 240 ESTATE 2004-05. The build quality of Volvo’s 240s makes them great everyday classics.

VOLVO AMAZON 121 FAVORIT 2005-07. Imported from Sweden and one of the last home-market right-hand drive cars. I drove it to the Sahara.

VW GOLF GTI MKI 2008-2012. In excellent condition these cars still have that RAF Weekender vibe.

FORD CORTINA 1600E 2010-12. Bought in ‘rat-rod’ condition for £200, I restored/ruined it further with a roller and Rustoleum paint.

LAND ROVER SERIES 3 110 2013. The only car I’ve ever made money on. Bought for £2000, sold for £3000.

RENAULT CLIO 182 TROPHY 2014-15. Tweaked for an extra 10bhp and with rose-jointed suspension it drove like it was on rails. I’ve never smiled so much. A future classic.

NISSAN MICRA MKI ‘ESPRIT TURBO’ 2015 My Mongol Rally entry – £250 gets you across the world. The engine’s durability was astonishing – we thrashed this car.

MERCEDES-BENZ W124 300TE-24 2016-present. Bought as a nostalgic childhood reference. As a daily runaround it feels special.

1986 Lotus Esprit S3 road test

1986 Lotus Esprit S3 road test. James’ Esprit encounter has left him with wedgy hankerings – but preferably of Italian origin…


How useful was this post?

Click on a star to rate it!

Average rating 5 / 5. Vote count: 1

No votes so far! Be the first to rate this post.