Return of the Lotus Super-Saloon?
By Andy Bannister
A resurgent Lotus Cars could soon turn its attention to a new generation of BMW-rivalling hot super-saloon modified from the line-up of an existing manufacturer.
British magazine Autocar is quoting Lotus Group CEO Mike Kimberley saying he would like the company to build another car in the mould of the GM-based 377bhp Lotus Carlton/Omega, the 186mph cult saloon of the early 1990s.
Lotus’s current owner, Proton of Malaysia, has no car large or credible enough to modify, so the field seems open in terms of which maker might be chosen.
Given the recent history of co-operation with GM’s British Vauxhall division – which more recently marketed a small Lotus Elise-derived sports car, the Vauxhall VX220 – that company would seem a possibility.
However, Vauxhall (though perplexingly not Opel) now has its own in-house super-saloon, courtesy of Holden of Australia – the VXR8, a close cousin of the Pontiac G8 sold in America.
Launched back in 1990, the Vauxhall Lotus Carlton, and its identical twin the Opel Lotus Omega, are fondly remembered. Their launch transformed the staid image of the Carlton/Omega, GM’s long-running but rather dull European larger car.
The original GM 3-litre unit was expanded to 3.6 litres, with power output soaring to 377bhp. With a six-speed gearbox from a Corvette ZR-1, the big Lotus version was said to be the fastest production saloon car in the world, and left competitors like the BMW M5 standing.
Lotus even managed to attach a half-decent body kit which improved the car’s stability and gave it much-needed road presence without looking too ridiculous. It also had a surprisingly comfortable interior.
It was expensive and specialised, though, and in the end, only around 950 Vauxhalls and Opels were made, so it is a seriously rare collector’s car nowadays.
By a strange twist of fate, all America’s Big Three have indirectly enjoyed link-ups with tiny Lotus over the years.
This modification of standard production cars dates back to the early 1960s when Colin Chapman of Lotus was commissioned to develop a twin-cam version of the Kent engine fitted to a number of small English Fords.
The eventual result was the 1588cc unit fitted in two-door special versions of Ford’s first-generation Cortina, a tremendously successful small family car of the early 1960s.
The Cortina Lotus had a distinctive white livery with a green stripe (though a few bright red ones were built for racing).
It was built by Lotus itself and was hugely faster and more capable than any other UK Ford, so was a very separate model from the mainstream Cortina range.
The car was, however, sold through normal Ford dealers in Britain – many of whom completely failed to understand it or service it properly – and it was sold in other markets too, with a sprinkling of them even making it to America.
In many ways the Cortina Lotus was a truly pioneering car, its significance hugely outweighing its relatively low sales. It was one of the very first true small GTs and showed how an ordinary little saloon could be transformed with a stronger engine, different suspension, a racier interior, stiffened body shell and much better brakes.
Such was the car’s success that when Ford replaced the original Cortina with the bigger, squarer Mark 2 of 1967, a Lotus version was inevitably part of the package. To solve problems of reliability with the Lotus-built cars, Ford decided to make the car themselves at its giant Dagenham works.
Perhaps for this reason the new car never had quite the same magic – it looked much duller, for a start – and although it was sold until 1970 the experiment was never repeated by the Blue Oval, and future hot Fords in Europe would be RS versions of the smaller Escort.
The next outing for the Lotus badge on a mass-market car would take nearly a decade to happen, and be courtesy of an unlikely company, the troubled United Kingdom arm of Chrysler, towards the end of its life.
In a last-ditch attempt to stay competitive, Chrysler had developed an emergency smaller hatchback programme which resulted in a curiously dated rear-wheel-drive three-door model called the Chrysler Sunbeam, built at the company’s Scottish plant and debuting in 1977. The base version had a puny 928cc engine, with 1300cc and 1600cc derivatives available.
To inject some much-needed sparkle into its newcomer, Chrysler decided to take the Sunbeam rallying, and commissioned Lotus to do the work. A 2.2-litre litre version of the sometimes-troublesome Lotus sports car engine was shoehorned into the car, and with a few further modifications and extra equipment it was signed off for production, debuting at the Geneva Show in 1979.
By the time production versions were on sale, Peugeot had bought out Chrysler Europe and the car was renamed the Talbot Sunbeam-Lotus, and sold originally in black but later in metallic blue.
The car did succeed beyonf all expectations as a rally champ – winning the company the Manufacturer’s Championship in 1981 – although with buyers deserting Talbot in droves that hardly helped sales of the road car, which was attempting to compete with much more sophisticated models like the VW Golf GTi.
With 155bhp on tap it was undoubtedly brutal and fast, and almost 2,300 were made – nearly all sold in Britain – before the Sunbeam design was confined to the scrapheap in 1983.
History seems to have repeated itself several times with these Lotus models. Having teamed up with first Ford, then Chrysler, and finally GM, in each case the cars won media acclaim and plaudits from enthusiasts but ultimately either failed to sell or reached the end of their production life without being decommissioned.
The association with big manufacturers, however, undoubtedly gave exposure to the Lotus badge which allowed the company to punch well above its weight on the world stage.
Today, with the recent launch of its new Evora sports car, Lotus seems to be on the up once more. Apart from Proton, its current partner of choice is Toyota, which supplies a range of mechanical components and technical know-how, including the 2.4-litre unit from that staple of Middle America, the Camry.
The recent launch of the 5.0-litre Lexus IS-F shows the Japanese can do very nicely on their own when planning a super-saloon. Despite this, the possibility of a Toyota-Lotus, however unlikely, remains an intriguing one.
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