Lotus Carlton – road test

2015 / 2016 Drive-My

We let loose a lucky reader in a Lotus Carlton. The List Reader Tim Dubois wants comfort and lots of power – so we grant him his dream drive in a Lotus Carlton, the ultimate bad-boy saloon. That’s the view most people see – two square exhaust pipes and those huge rear tyres.  Tim Dubois’ two main classic car needs are comfort and power, lots of it. So we put him in the ultimate bad boy saloon – a Lotus Carlton. Will it impress as much in real life as it does on paper? Words Ross Alkureishi. Photography Jonathan Jacob.

Lotus Carlton - road test

See this in your mirrors? Not for long you won’t.

Oh, so that’s what you’re going for a drive in,’ said Tim Dubois’ wife, shrugging when he showed her a printout of the car we’d lined up for him. You can forgive her response for at first glance it does look like any other big Vauxhall lump, but allow the eyes to linger and the fine detail becomes clear; from pumped-up bodykit through to the Imperial Green paintwork and Lotus badges. For enthusiasts of a certain age, these are key identifiers for a car that still holds an almost mythical status. ‘I remember the press being full of it when it was launched,’ says Tim. ‘That 176mph top speed caused an outcry, especially as the German opposition were limited.’ To just 155mph, as it happens – poor things. ‘I’m glad they stayed true to their values, stuck two fingers up at the establishment and resisted the temptation to do the same.’ In the real world, sans bragging rights, that extra 21mph was a moot point. It was what it stood for – a family saloon capable of supercar performance – that created such a media frenzy.

‘There’s a hooliganism about this car, it’s always at the back of your mind’

Lotus Carlton - road test

Tim was astounded by the Carlton’s blend of epic heave and compliant handling. Twin turbo six-cylinder delivers a 377bhp hobnailed boot to the German opposition’s groin.

‘There’s no doubt it had to be on my list. My interest is more towards front-engined cars, whether grand tourers or very fast saloons; something you can put four people in, decide where you want to go and get there rapidly. And this is the daddy.’ The example we’re using today is a bit special – a one owner, multi-concours-winning car with just 13,814 miles on the clock. It’s for sale at Cars of Extinction (carsofextinction.com) and, as proprietor Bernard Hoggarth raises the door to the premises, Tim says, ‘I expect it to be an iron fist, with no velvet glove.’ When it appears it looks brutal, but paradoxically discreetly so.

‘Beauty and the beast rolled into one,’ says Tim, re-evaluating. ‘It has a bit more presence than a similarly aged M5 but, while it really looks like it packs a punch, there’s still an element of glorified saloon car.’ Come back Mrs Dubois, all is forgiven. That illusion is shattered as its tuned in-line six is fired up, and the deep resonance of the exhaust note reverberates off the walls. I catch Tim’s eye. ‘I wasn’t expecting that,’ I explain. ‘It’s a bit more devilish-sounding than I thought it’d be.’ His iron fist analogy seems to be under constant review from both of us – once more, there is no glove.

‘The performance figures were staggering – 0 to 100mph in 11.1sec’

He parks himself inside the cabin. ‘I have duck’s disease,’ he explains. ‘My bum’s too close to the ground and my legs are too short.’ There are no supercar compromises here, though – this is repmobile-friendly territory and he’s quickly comfortable. ‘It’s a really good seating position, and visibility is first class.’ The cabin isn’t quite up to the standards of period BMW and Mercedes rivals but there’s a profusion of soft Connolly leather and quality carpets.

At low speeds there’s a constant muted rumbling noise, like the portent of some murderous storm shortly to erupt. ‘The clutch is predictably heavy,’ says Tim. ‘There’s about an inch and half of travel that does nothing, then it bites and when you let it out gradually it suddenly engages. It’s a bit of an acquired taste. The gearshift is deliberate and positive, and first is incredibly long. It’s really quite docile low down but it’s not its natural habitat and at around 1500rpm you can feel both turbos wanting to come on song; it just has all those horses wanting to get out.’

Tim applies some heavier throttle pressure and the result is instantaneous; no lag, ferocious cascades of torque and a roar from the twin exhausts. I can hear and feel that Lotus-engineered drivetrain working as it belts us forward. ‘No effort whatsoever. There’s an underlying element of hooliganism about this car, and it’d always be at the back of your mind. Sixth gear has really long legs,’ he says, pointing at the rev counter. ‘It’s at just 1000rpm at 60mph; you can see how it reaches that incredible top speed.’

Lotus Carlton - road test

Despite the exotic badge, the interior can’t shake off its repmobile origins. The plush leather chairs suited Tim’s proportions perfectly, however. Tim liked the Carlton’s blend of presence and relative subtlety.

Out on the sweeping B-roads of the North York Moors National Park Tim settles into an easy rhythm, using mainly gears one through three and not coming close to touching the Carlton’s outer limits – the straights being too short. ‘It does everything so capably; those big brakes shave off speed so well, and it turns in and grips with plenty of feedback for such a big, nose-heavy car. I’m glad it’s not raining, though – today, with 377bhp and 419lb ft of torque on soft tyres it’s great but on a wet day it’d be a handful.’

We pull over and swap places. I have giraffe syndrome but I’m just as easily accommodated in the cabin. He’s right about that seating position, it’s perfect; there are no offsets or other irritating annoyances and the seats have just the right mix of sports bucketand leather sofa. My first ten minutes behind the wheel are devoted to trying to work out how to use the clutch and ZF gearbox most efficiently. Once I’ve learned how to get the best from them neither detracts from the awe-inspiring performance. Bury the accelerator, feel the rear tyres grip then light up as you’re launched forward – a visceral assault on the senses. I need to choose carefully where to deploy full power because it just wants to go and go, and then add further dollops of go to the equation. Overtaking is done before you know it. That Lotus was able to make the car deploy its colossal performance this safely is testament to the prowess of its engineers; the turbos kick in smoothly and always predictably.

‘I expect the Lotus Carlton to be an iron fist, with no velvet glove’

That fact allows it to be thoroughly enjoyed as an A- and B-road blaster. The level of grip from the tyres is prodigious and, although the steering was criticised in period for lacking feel, it’s responsive enough. Braking technology has also come a long way since this car’s release but as I employ the anchors the Group C racing-derived AP system still impresses and pulls it up on the spot – that phenomenal 0-60-0mph time of 8.5 seconds still firmly in evidence. Back at HQ Tim and I reflect on the exhilaration of the day’s driving. ‘It’s been most entertaining and revealing,’ says Tim. ‘Expectations have not been diminished at all; it’s lived up to everything I’d heaped upon it. Back then a 175mph-plus car would have been the preserve of your Porsche, Ferrari and Lamborghini owner – it wasn’t for the masses.’ Strictly speaking, the £48k price meant that neither was this and it took a brave decision to fork out such a sum for it, but then it is the car that raised the bar.

‘It has all the get up and go you need, but still remains understated – the perfect Q-car,’ adds Tim. ‘That said, if you have your foot on the accelerator, you need to be pretty dialled into it and always aware.’ He’s right, losing your licence remains just an enthusiastic throttle squeeze away. In a supercar you have visual reminders of its capabilities, but the Carlton’s docility can lull you into thinking you’re in a normal car. ‘If funds were available it would be my weapon of choice for a big road trip,’ he adds, as we take one last look at it. ‘That’s the view most people see – two square exhaust pipes and those huge rear tyres. If my lottery numbers were to come up I’d be back to see Bernard to buy it.’ Where then? I ask. ‘A wee trip to Germany and the autobahn,’ he adds with a raised eyebrow.

Thanks to: Bernard Hoggarth and Cars of Extinction (carsofextinction.com)


Built as a technical showcase, the Lotus Carlton was much morethan another Hethel ‘special’ – it took on the Germans and won.

Stuart Harris, then Product Analyst (Large Cars) at Vauxhall, acted as the go-between linking Opel Germany with chief engineer Simon Wood and the team at Hethel. ‘The Lotus-developed Chevrolet Corvette ZR1 engine was never considered,’ he recalls. ‘Opel would only release the project if it were taken as far as it could within the company, so the engine was always going to be six-cylinder. It did help that the 3.0-litre 24v unit was in development.’

The only transmission capable of handling the torque was the Corvette’s six-speed ZF and this was used with a heftier 9.5-inch clutch. The former was linked to a Holden-derived rear axle by a three-piece propshaft. ‘The cylinder head remained unchanged but the rest of it was all new,’ says Harris. This included a stiffened block, increased to 3.6 litres, forged alloy Mahle pistons, new connecting rods and a forged steel crankshaft – with a dozen counterweights, for extra-smooth running. This was helped by a new induction system and manifold, while two liquid-cooled Garrett T25 turbos – utilising a single intercooler, but each with its own wastegate – were added.

‘The main engineering took place at Lotus but if there was a problem on a GM part then our engineers got involved,’ says Harris. AP Group C-derived brakes – four-pot calipers with 330mm ventilated discs at the front, and two-pot ventilated rear – sat behind specially developed Goodyear tyres. ‘Weirdly it was the braking system that led the car to become type-approved as a Lotus,’ says Harris. ‘The Opel guys said they weren’t signing it off as they didn’t do the development work; other than that it would have remained an Opel.’

A wind-tunneldeveloped body kit was added. And underneath, chassis engineer Tony Shute went to work on the MacPherson strut front and multi-link rear suspension, with the latter’s semi-trailing arm gaining an extra link and twin tube automatic self-levelling dampers. The end result, substantially lower and stiffer, dramatically improved its dynamics. ‘The old Lotus magic,’ as Harris calls it. The resultant performance figures in a 1990 Autocar road-test were staggering – 0 to 100mph in 11.1sec. ‘The Lotus guys said they could have gone a bit more, but they would say that. The Opel guys wanted to limit it to 155mph but at Vauxhall we thought “it can do what it can do, so let’s run with it”.’

Vauxhall Carlton

The Lotus Carlton caused a storm when it was unveiled at the 1989 London MotorFair.



1978 Vauxhall Carlton

Essentially a four-cylinder Royale, this Opel Rekord clone came with a smaller range of engines than its mainland European cousin. A trace of droopsnoot Firenza on the front profile allowed it to maintain a smidgeon of Vauxhall identity. Available as a four-door saloon or five-door estate, it launched with a 2.0-litre engine and a price tag of £4600. 1.8-litre petrol and 2.3-litre diesel units arrived in 1982, with a facelift and fuel injection for the range-topping CD the following year – capacity increased on the latter to 2.2 litres in 1984.


1986 Vauxhall Carlton II

Mark II was larger in every way and had an increased frontal area, but improved aerodynamics – Cd down from 0.36 to 0.28. Curved contours and fine detailing resulted in better resolved styling. Re-jigged engine – lightened pistons and conrods, lengthened rods, heavier flywheel, long curved inlet tracts – meant ultra-smooth running, and a wider spread of pulling power. Its mapped electronic ignition could be reset for 91 or 95RON lead-free fuels. It was still available in four- and five-door guises, with 1.8, 1.8i, 2.0i and 2.3D engines on offer.

1987 CARLTON 2.4I, 3.0I, GSI 3000

Vauxhall Carlton II

Six-cylinder power arrived in 1987 with or without emissions control equipment, depending on the market. The 2969cc DOHC units were fed by Bosch LE-Jetronic fuel injection but non-cat cars had a 9.4:1 compression ratio and a resultant 177bhp, with catalytic converter examples 8.5:1 and 153.5bhp. This equated to the latter being 5.6mph slower, added a second to the 0-60mph sprint and reduced fuel consumption by three to four per cent. A 2.4-litre 4-cylinder engine arrived in 1988, followed by the 204bhp 24v GSi 3000 in 1989.



Vauxhall Carlton II

Using the GSI 3000 as a base, twin Garrett T25 turbos were strapped to the existing in-line six-cylinder unit to deliver a hefty 377bhp with 419lb ft of torque. MacPherson strut and multilink rear suspension was lowered and stiffened to improve handling. Top speed hit a stratospheric 176mph, with 0-60mph achieved in just 4.8sec. A technological marvel. An almighty media firestorm ensued on its release – not only was it mentioned by name in Parliament and tabloid news fodder, it also made it into one of comedian Jasper Carrot’s routines.


Engine 3615cc 24-valve dohc in-line six-cylinder, Rochester fuel injection and twin Garrett T25 Turbochargers.

Power and torque 377bhp @ 5500rpm; 419lb ft @ 4200rpm

Transmission ZF six-speed manual, rearwheel drive, limited-slip differential

Brakes Ventilated discs front and rear, ABS


Front: independent by MacPherson struts, coil springs, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar.

Rear: independent by semi-trailing arms, coil springs, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar.

Steering Recirculating ball, power-assisted

Weight 3726lb (1690kg)

Performance 0-60mph: 5.1sec;  Top speed: 176mph

Fuel consumption 22.3mpg

Cost new £48,000

Value now £10,000-£20,000

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