At the wheel: Nik Berg
Owned since: July 2021
Current condition: Fingers crossed
Hands-on or hands-off? Don’t mind getting my hands dirty, but some jobs are just too scary
22 October 2021: So far so good
Editor’s note: Nik Berg is European Editor for Hagerty US. The British journalist has driven humble cars for Auto Express, supercars for Top Gear and everything in between. His greatest claim to fame is piloting the first hybrid-powered rally to be entered in an FIA rally. He now owns this Lotus Esprit; scroll down to read the updates.
I have had my sanity questioned many times since I bought my 1982 Lotus Esprit S3, on eBay, without ever having seen it. [Yes, Berg really is that brave. Click here – you know you want to. Ed.]
One Twitter commentator suggested that it would be “basically like paying someone to repeatedly kick you in the b*lls and then thanking them afterwards”. On this very site someone suggested that my story “brought back so many memories… of the car being in the shop.”
And yet I’m 1,000 miles in and serious trouble has yet to materialise. I’ve had to get used to the idiosyncrasies of twin carbs, which require three stabs on the throttle to prime them before starting. I’ve battled with selecting reverse, but now I’m winning on that front getting the gear 90 per cent of the time.
I had one small scare when the engine developed a strange part-throttle misfire on the motorway, but after 40 miles of worry it disappeared as quickly as it came. I put it down to some crud in the fuel. Speaking of fuel, I still haven’t managed to completely fill the twin tanks. Although there’s a balancer pipe linking them, the procedure requires both fuel caps to be removed and then to gingerly trickle in the super unleaded E5 otherwise it splashes back. Once one tank appears to be full it should in principle divert to the other, but this doesn’t quite seem to be the case so, if the pump hose will reach, I pop around to the other side and fill that too. But no matter what, the fuel gauge has never quite registered full.
Talking of fuel, amazingly the Lotus-built 2.2-litre twin-cam engine doesn’t appear to use too much of the stuff, with a rough calculation putting it at 30mpg.
On a trip to the opening of Richard Hammond’s The Smallest Cog I collared fellow Esprit owner Harry Metcalfe. We had a lengthy discussion about ride heights as negotiating speed humps is extremely tricky. Harry agreed that my car didn’t look too low, but once he’d pulled out various photos and scrambled underneath mine, he reckoned it is actually riding lower than standard. I have yet to investigate whether it’s tired springs or a deliberate choice by a previous owner. Whatever the outcome, I’d like it to be a tad higher.
The official To Do list for the Esprit also includes new tyres as the rubber is mis-matched with some fairly budget rubber on the front and ancient but supercool Goodyear Eagle balloons on the rear. “Squirmy” is the best word to describe the feel when they’re loaded up going through a roundabout. It could equally be applied to my own feelings down below… One of the fronts has a slow leak, which I think is from the rim, but the wheels could all do with a bit of a refurb and a balance.
That may not sound too onerous, but there’s more. The heater doesn’t heat, the stereo doesn’t work and I have my eye on a period-look Blaupunkt. And then there’s the bodywork. A back to bare metal – oops, sorry, fibre – respray is in order, although from a distance you don’t see the cracks in the gel coat or where the paint has bloomed to a rose pink. The disintegrated capping rails and windscreen surrounds are bothering me more.
Having enjoyed the Esprit immensely on two trips to Goodwood and accidentally taking it home to Hethel, now that the weather is getting sketchy it’s time to find a specialist to go over the car and quote for the bodywork.
I’ve had a few tips already, but if you’ve got any fibreglass specialists to recommend please let me know in the comments. I’ll report back on progress in my next update and also share the story of the numberplate – which attracts almost as much attention as the car itself. I’ll leave that to your imagination…
31 January: The pain of paintwork
To paint or not to paint. That is the question that I’ve been asking myself ever since I bought my 1982 Esprit S3 last summer. The Calypso red is almost pink in places, while there are microblisters all around the rear end. From ten feet away it’s not so bad, but every time I drive it and then wash it, it does bug me.
The seller rather optimistically suggested that “a couple of grand” would sort it out, although in my head I was thinking it would be rather more. As it turns out, stripping the car back to its bare fibreglass body and restoring it to former glory is going to be considerably more costly, as I found out when I visited a couple of specialists.
Over a couple of days I added another 200 trouble-free miles visiting Allon White Sports Cars in Bedfordshire and Hilton & Moss in Hertfordshire and got almost identical estimates of around £10,000 plus stripping and refitting. By the time all is done that’ll be over half the purchase price in paint alone, which is rather scary.
The miser in me is tempted to leave it as and try to live with the patina of a Shedsprit, while there’s another voice in my head saying “wrap it”. It’s probably a false economy, but it’s what all the young influencers do, and might make the car more presentable on the road trips I’m hoping to take this year. A stop gap or just sacrilege? What do you think?
In the meantime, I was able to get the car on a ramp thanks to Josh Kemp at Hilton & Moss and that revealed both good and bad news. On the positive side the underside of the car looks solid and rot-free, on the negative there’s quite a lot of oil being sprayed about. It appears that the front crank seal is leaking and there’s possibly some seepage from the diff or gearbox, so that’s now the number one priority. Well, that and the heater because, at the moment, I’m having to wear an electric jacket and heated insoles for my shoes to avoid being frozen every time I drive.
Given that one of the places I really want to take the Esprit is the mountains above Cortina, some cabin heat will be a must if Mrs B is to persuaded to join me. Why Cortina? Well that’s down to the Esprit’s starring role alongside Roger Moore – as immortalised in the number plate.
In a lengthy letter from a previous owner he explained that BJZ 4007 was chosen because B is Bond, JZ for James, with a 4 for For Your Eyes Only, and the self-explanatory 007. Let’s just say that less high-minded individuals may have other ideas, but it’s always a talking point!
21 April, 2022: The Esprit has, ahem, broken down
“You do know what LOTUS stands for don’t you?” chuckled the mature lady as she walked past. (I kid you not.)
It’s not the first time I’d heard this but it was the first time that I’d been genuinely worried it may be true as I stood beside my stricken Esprit on the A41, near Watford, waiting for a low-loader to arrive.
The Esprit has no front tow eye and is also too low to be hooked up on the towing dolly that AA vans carry, so Gary the friendly AA man regaled me with nightmare tales of the S4 Turbo that he’d been trying to fix up for a friend as I paced anxiously up and down, trying to ignore the witty comments of passers-by.
Somewhat ironically, I was actually driving to a garage when disaster struck. I was overtaking a slower car on a short stretch of dual carriageway, pulling around 5,000 revs in second and, as I went to grab third, the throttle stuck wide open. This had happened a couple of times before, but I’d been going slower, straighter and been able to hook my toe under the pedal and free it. I’d also always been in gear. This time the needle on the rev counter spun beyond 7,000 rpm, there was a loud bang, and the engine lost power.
I coasted to the side of the road, and tried restart it without success. Gary arrived within half an hour of my call for help and, after I’d described what had happened, and he was almost hit in the face by the oil filler cap when I attempted to start the engine for him, he called for backup.
A couple of hours later I was sitting in the cab of a Kartec transporter where driver Dan was genuinely delighted by my misfortune. He’d never collected an Esprit before, took plenty of photos and even called his granddad.
I arrived very late for my appointment at The Beaconsfield Workshop, and owners Dave Redrup and Martin Hawes weren’t there, so we pushed the Esprit into a parking spot and bodywork expert Leigh Birch gave me a lift to the station.
For days I waited anxiously to hear the car’s fate. I pictured broken valves and a ruined cylinder head. Would I need a complete engine rebuild?
When I finally plucked up the courage to call Martin, I feared the worst. And yet the trouble was not as serious as I dreaded or the roadside comedian suggested.
“We got it running,” said Martin. “It wanted to start, so we figured it might be the timing. When we took the distributor cap off the rotor arm was off. So we retimed it and it’s all good. Just the carbs to tune.”
A huge sigh of relief was followed by a bout of Covid which delayed my plans to go back to Beaconsfield and discuss what I was originally taking the car there for, but eventually I did make it.
Gathering dust between an awaiting-restoration Rolls-Royce Corniche and a Ferrari was my Lotus. It looked a little sorry, but that will be changing soon.
The Beaconsfield Workshop specialises in Rolls-Royce and Bentley servicing and repair, but is also a Lotus Approved bodyshop, and panel man Leigh has been working with fibreglass since he was 15 years old, so I don’t think the car could be in much safer hands.
This won’t be a full restoration, as Martin seemed to think the car was sound enough underneath. Even the leaking crank seal may not be worth fixing as they have a propensity to just keep oozing oil no matter what you do. So, the focus will be the bodywork – which entails scraping it back to bare fibre, fixing any blemishes or cracks and then reapplying a liquid resin coating before painting begins.
That leaves me with another decision. Should I stick to red, go Bond Bronze or Spy White perhaps? A racing green or black, maybe something that stands out like an orange or yellow?
I’ve got a little time to decide as the strip down and preparation may take a couple of months or more, but in the meantime I’m open to suggestions.
23 August, 2022: Pray for my respray
Like many a Lotus owner, according to the folklore, I haven’t spent much time with my 1982 Esprit S3 this year as it’s been in the workshop.
Its throttle-sticking-induced breakdown is only a very small part of it, though. The real reason is that I decided to have it painted – and painting a fibreglass car is a major undertaking.
The chaps at the Beaconsfield Workshop have it been at it for months. It is, quite literally, a grind. All the old paint has to be sanded off, any cracks and imperfections dealt with, resin applied, and only then can it be prepped for paint in the usual way.
As it happens those cracks and imperfections were rather more serious than the first stage of paint removal revealed. Some time in its past the Esprit has had quite a big repair with a new rear section grafted on. In good news the chassis is undamaged and Leigh at the workshop was able to use his decades of experience with fibre to redo the joins and patch it up in a couple of other places, such as the rear driver-side inner wheel arch which came away in his hands.
Finally, after all the patching up and stripping back was completed, the resin and primer went on to be left for a few days to cure, leaving me time to ponder paint colours once again.
I’m keeping my decision a secret for now, opting instead for a grand reveal at RADwood, where I’ve optimistically entered the Esprit in the Show ‘n’ Shine.
Getting the car there might be touch and go, as, once the colour has gone on, there’s two coats of lacquer, a good rub down, another coat and then the final polish to be done before the car can be put back together.
Surprisingly getting parts isn’t proving to be a problem as everything from a new side indicator, which fell apart as it was being removed, to a decal kit is available from SJ Sports Cars in Devon, so fingers crossed there’ll be no issues as the car is re-assembled.
The ancient rear tyres have to go and the fronts are a budget brand that I’d never heard of, but sourcing replacements has proved tricky. For the rears at 235/60 HR15 the choice is limited. The white-lettered Goodyear Eagles that came as standard are long out of production and to match the size exactly the only options come from Pirelli or BF Goodrich. The Italian rubber is rather pricey, while the American tyres are a bit too muscly for a lightweight Brit. If I did opt for Pirelli P600s at the rear, I’d have to pick a different tread pattern for the fronts and the pedant in me would prefer them to match.
So, the only option is to downsize the rears a tad and, having scoured the forums, this seems to be quite a common solution as going to a 225/60 section opens up a whole new world of rubber to Esprit owners.
After much deliberation I’ve opted for a set of Falken ZE310s, which have won a few awards and should shore up the Esprit’s handling significantly in the wet and the dry.
I have some ambitious road trip plans for the autumn, so a good grip on the roads of Europe will be most welcome. Of course the Esprit does have to make it out of the workshop first!
13 September, 2022: The future’s bright for my Lotus. Or is it?
It was down to the wire but the Lotus made it to RADwood. And, dare I say it, we made quite the entrance.
The new, brilliant Lotus Yellow paintwork has transformed the Esprit completely. The months of painstaking stripping back, body repairs and preparation by The Beaconsfield Workshop (and the bill which came close to the original purchase price) have been worth it. [Berg didn’t write that with tears in his eyes. Honest. Ed.]
There were two other Esprits lined up for RADwood’s “Show and Shine” in front of the old hangars at Bicester Heritage and BJZ 4007 really did shine.
What’s more on the 150-mile round trip from London to Bicester Heritage the Esprit performed perfectly, with no sign of a sticky throttle and a carb tune giving the engine an eagerness I’d not experienced before.
You cannot tell me that yellow is anything other than the correct colour for this 😍 pic.twitter.com/ahKUqrvbsR— LUDEN Automotive (@LUDENClassics) August 26, 2022
The news Falken tyres also added a new predictability to cornering and I began to plan grand adventures.
However, perhaps just as predictably, trouble was not far away. I’d noticed a vibration in the steering at around 55 mph so went to a local Kwik Fit tyre fitter for what should have been a simple wheel balance.
Up the car went on the lift, then down. The mechanics called me over to ask how to jack it. I pointed out the jacking points and left them to it. After about 15 minutes of activity at the front of the Lotus I was told they couldn’t safely get the wheels off, so I went home. As I parked, coolant gushed from beneath the Esprit.
I poured as much water back in as I could and lividly limped back to Kwik Fit. A split in a heater pipe was the culprit, which struck me as quite the coincidence. On a positive note mechanic Matt rolled up his sleeves and put together a temporary repair to get me on my way again.
What that means is that as I write the Esprit is once again in a workshop. This time it’s Hoffman’s, a Lotus specialist in posh Henley-upon-Thames. Along with fixing the cracked pipe they spotted a few other concerns, so I’ll be getting a pair of new rear dampers and rear discs, a replacement for the balancer pipe that runs between the twin fuel tanks and possibly new front brake hoses, plus a few tweaks here and there such as redirecting the fuel lines on the carbs which were catching on the throttle linkage (and probably causing the stickiness that troubled me before).
Although because of its 40-year age the Lotus is exempt from having an MOT safety test, I’ll get that done as well for peace of mind.
Then, finally, perhaps I’ll be able to make good on those road trip plans I’ve been dreaming of.
Wish me luck.
16 December, 2022: Counting the cost of Esprit ownership
As the year draws to a close and the Esprit is tucked away in a dry car park under a fitted dust cover it’s time to reflect on a year that has been… expensive.
After the pricey paintwork was completed I sent the car to Hofmann’s of Henley to have a coolant leak dealt with and a general going over. Their inspection revealed a list of items that all seemed relatively minor, but added up to bill of over £4,000.
The front brakes were refreshed with re-routed brake lines, new callipers and a master cylinder, the rear dampers were renewed, a proper fix for an earlier coolant leak (see previous report) was sorted and a leaky balance pipe between the twin fuel tanks was replaced. A few sundries and some finessing of the throttle cable linkage meant that the car was finally ready for a road trip.
Or it would have been had I not opened the door to find that water was pouring in from around the windscreen. Since the respray it hadn’t been out in the rain and a torrential downpour revealed a big leak. Once again The Beaconsfield Workshop leapt into action, collecting the car and spending two days with a watering can identifying water ingress and fixing it, free of charge.
As you may have read, I finally headed north, crossing the border into Scotland to chase the ghost of Jim Clark. On the 350-mile run up the A1 the car was faultless. At motorway speeds there’s a bit of wind noise but I was still able to comfortably listen to a crypto crime podcast – picking up a few ideas about how I might continue to fund the running of the Esprit.
Over the next few days I scooted around the Scottish borders then headed south on a brilliant drive through Northumberland, deep into Kielder Forest and then across to Kendal in the Lake District. Starting early on my last day it was up hill and down dale as I yomped across Yorkshire, stopping only for photos, fish ‘n’ chips at the Magpie in Whitby and a slow lap of the amazing Oliver’s Mount road racing circuit in Scarborough.
The Esprit really was in its element. The new Falken tyres and rear shocks transformed the handling and ride – it felt light on its toes and agile, just as a Lotus should. The engine was running smoothly and used barely any oil. It wasn’t even that thirsty, achieving north of 30mpg.
It was the kind of road trip that I’d always imagined taking with the Esprit and it was going perfectly. Until it wasn’t.
Approaching the steep and sweeping curves of Garrowby Hill, made famous by David Hockney, a rather unpleasant picture began to develop. Under full load a misfire had appeared.
I stopped, checked fluids and rummaged around for anything obvious then pressed on cautiously southwards on the A1. That impressive fuel efficiency plummeted and I had to stop again to fill up, then I noticed a plume of white smoke. By the time I reached Peterborough services I was trailing a full cumulonimbus behind me.
Again, I looked for obvious signs of trouble, but seeing none, I feared the worst and called the AA. The first patrolman arrived and, after taking one look at the Lotus, called for a transporter. The last 100 miles of my journey was completed on the back of an AA truck. But, hey, at least it was colour-coordinated.
I sent the car back to Hofmann’s and, mercifully, the diagnosis was simple. “The velocity stack had come away on one of the cylinders due to no locking nuts fitted,” senior service consultant Joe Tomczyk told me. “The other velocity stacks were all loose and this damaged the air filter. We fitted a new one, new spark plugs, cleaned up the leads and balanced the carbs. The vehicle now drives how it did when it left us.”
It’s the second time that I thought I was looking at a catastrophic engine failure, only for it to be a simple problem. Joe pointed out that the rocker cover was weeping oil, and that they hadn’t managed to get it MOT tested in time for my trip (it is exempt, but worth keeping up in my view), so while it was back in the workshop I agreed to get the leak looked at, the cam belt changed and any work needed to pass the MOT. That turned out to require new rear discs, and because they’re mounted inboard it’s not the most straightforward of exercises. Another £2,700 all up, making 2022’s spend – hang on, I need to steady myself, my head’s gone all light – more than equal to what I bought the car for in 2021, given the bodywork and respray alone weren’t all that far off the original purchase price of the car, which was £23,000.
There are still some outstanding jobs, notably an interior tidy up and stereo installation, plus trying to fix the heater, but they will have to wait until I get a Christmas bonus or develop my own crypto scam.
14 July 2023: Break, fix, repeat
I have been called a masochist many times since buying my Lotus and, frankly, it’s all beginning to ring a bit too true.
It seems like almost every positive Esprit experience is followed by a negative, and yet I’m gritting my teeth and persevering.
After a couple of months under wraps in an underground car park, I decided to bring the Lotus out for a Sunday Scramble at Bicester Heritage. I checked the car over on the Saturday, it fired up quickly and everything worked, but early on the Sunday morning the indicators, which had been fine the previous day, failed, so it was arm signals all the way.
As the hazard warning lights still functioned I thought perhaps it was the relay, and ordered a replacement. A few days later I popped the new part in and it made no difference. A sequence of swearing, head-scratching and web surfing followed and eventually I simply started poking around the exposed steering column with a screwdriver. That led to a small spark and a flash of the indicators. Closer inspection revealed that the contacts for the switch weren’t actually making contact and a slight bend in the metal was all that was required for the lights to begin blinking again and me to breathe a huge sigh of relief.
There followed a full weekend without a hint of trouble when I crawled across London to attend the Southside Hustle meeting in Wimbledon and the Lotus was by now lulling me into a false sense of security.
It performed faultlessly on a run up to a cars and coffee event at Gasoline Juice and it was only on the final few hundred yards as I returned home that a slight popping on the over-run turned into a full-blown misfire. The symptoms, including plumes of grey smoke, were exactly the same ones that meant I finished a previous trip back from Scotland on a low-loader.
This time I was determined that I would fix it myself. Before, it was loose velocity stacks on one of the twin Dellorto carburetors, so that was my first point of call. However, all seemed securely attached, but fuel was clearly finding its way into the exhaust, and more worryingly, dripping out of the bottom of the carb.
Over the course of a couple of weekends I eventually discovered that fuel was pouring out of the velocity stacks, into the airbox and then leaking out. Dr Internet diagnosed a stuck float and suggested tapping the carb to free it up. When that failed I went back online to find a diagram of the Dellorto to figure out how to get to the float.
Of course, it was another ridiculously easy fix. I simply undid three screws, carefully removed an access panel and pulled out the float. A liberal spray with carb cleaner and some more, for good luck, into the velocity stacks with the engine running and all was well again. I literally punched the air with joy.
Having catastrophised the issue for a couple of weeks, mentally totting up the logistical and financial cost of getting it out of an underground car park and to a specialist, sorting the issue myself was all the more satisfying.
Owning the Esprit really does feel like when there’s no pain, there’s no gain and, worryingly, I’m starting to enjoy it.Tweet to @reallynikberg Follow @reallynikberg