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I bought a Lotus Esprit – and broke every car-buying rule in the book

by Nik Berg
10 September 2021 4 min read
I bought a Lotus Esprit – and broke every car-buying rule in the book
Photos: Nik Berg

Lots of Trouble, Usually Serious. I can’t say how many times this well-worn phrase has echoed through my mind since I won an eBay auction for a 1982 Lotus Esprit S3.

Yes, you read that right. I bought a Lotus. A Lotus Esprit, a car with something of a reputation for having, how to put this, the occasional off-day. But that’s not all. I bought it sight unseen, from someone I’d never met, who may have reached the end of their tether with the car and wanted to offload the troublesome wedge of British sports car to some other numpty.

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I’d been mulling over the idea of an Esprit to replace my Caterham Seven for months, narrowly missing a couple of cars that looked well-priced at specialists and even bidding up to my self-imposed limit on a Car and Classics auction. But I drew the limit at remortgaging the home to bid on Richard Hammond’s Esprit Sport 350 that he recently sold.

Nik Berg with his Lotus Esprit that he bought on eBay
What’s the worst that could happen? Nik literally has no idea…

I hadn’t actually driven one, however. Never mind the “at least five cars” that the very helpful Lotus Esprit World website guide reckons are a must. That’s not to say I hadn’t ever driven an Esprit, but it’s been at least 20 years (when you could still buy them new). I remember thinking it was brilliant and skidding about the factory test track with a massive grin on my face.

Obviously I’m a little more mature now and I’m not planning to drive a 40-year-old car sideways. Especially since I’ve no real idea whether it would self destruct before you can say “dab of oppo”.

Without coming over like an over-excited youtuber, I may have just bought cheapest Esprit in Britain, having secured a car for less than the price of one I’d seen that required a total restoration and another that was a Category D repair.

The other crucial piece of advice I ignored was to get a professional inspection. But there is some method in the madness. The ad for the car listed a huge amount of recent work, including the fitment of new aluminium fuel tanks, new clutch slave and master cylinders, new exhaust, airbox, headlight lift motors and a rebuilt engine with a heavy duty head gasket and cam cover gaskets, plus new cam belt and bearing. Brake pipes and pads had been replaced, suspension arm ball joint covers were renewed, the steering column universal joint was fixed. Bills totalling more than £6,000 were shown and the last MOT had no advisories.

And then there was the seller himself. Julian had three other Esprits on his drive and a Capri undergoing a ground-up restoration in his garage. On the phone he tried to dissuade me from buying the car (it was his only Giugiaro-designed model), which pretty much had the opposite effect.

With Hagerty insurance in place I headed off with my son in the Caterham early one rainy July morning to meet Julian at his home in Worcestershire. Again, probably not the best weather to inspect a classic.

Still, the skies brightened by the time we arrived. Julian’s ad had been honest about the paintwork, but from six feet away it didn’t look too bad – and certainly not as faded as his photographs suggested. The capping rail trim was faded and crumbling (very common), and the closer I looked the more flaws I found, but in my head I had already put aside the money for a respray, so I wasn’t too concerned.

The interior was in much better shape, albeit beneath quite a thick layer of dust and grime. Only a small rip in the driver’s seat side bolster and tiny area of vinyl peel seemed to need attention.

Julian started the engine on the first turn of the key and nothing untoward spat out of the exhaust. A couple of short test drives (one with Julian alongside and one with my son for a second opinion) were convincing. The Lotus-built 900 series twin cam revved eagerly beyond 6,000rpm, the long-throw gearchange was a little ponderous, but I figured this would get easier with practice. The brakes pulled the car up straight so the key mechanicals seem sound. We shook hands (or, more accurately, COVID fist-bumped) and the deal was done.

The 150-mile drive home revealed rather more. It’s a little more old-school than I’d anticipated. It’s very physical to drive, with unassisted steering, a heavy clutch and gear shift, pedals that are ridiculously close together, and a near-horizontal driving position. Despite the acres of glass it’s very hard to judge where the front and rear of the car end. And it’s pretty wide.

Nik Berg's Lotus Esprit S3 and Caterham 7
Take note: two British sports cars and not a pool of oil in sight…

Ergonomics is a science that apparently didn’t exist back in the Seventies and the Lotus approach to switchgear is hilariously haphazard. The choke (remember that?) is between the front seats next to the window switches. The heater controls are in the crazy angular instrument binnacle and have to be adjusted by reaching through the steering wheel. But hey, at least there are ashtrays and cigarette lighters for driver and passenger.

Stopping for fuel is an exercise in patience. The Esprit has two tanks and you need to remove both filler caps, although in theory it should fill up from just one side as there’s a balancer pipe between them. Despite numerous pauses to count to ten between fuel pump clicks I haven’t yet managed to fill it beyond about three-quarters. Maybe next time I’ll park in the middle of the forecourt and use two pumps.

Other than this rather longer-than-intended pit stop and an embarrassing inability to find reverse in a car park that required my son and a helpful, ahem, older lady to push me into a parking space, the trip home along A and B roads and a solid stretch of motorway went smoothly.

Nik Berg bought a Lotus Esprit S3

It cruises comfortably at around the legal limit and, while the acceleration and handling isn’t as exhilarating as the Caterham, I was able to keep up with my son who was making the most of his solo time in the Seven.

Ultimately, though, the driving performance isn’t why I picked the Esprit. Like so many schoolboys of the Seventies I was smitten by the car’s screen performance in The Spy Who Loved Me and For Your Eyes Only. This one certainly beats a Corgi model.

I’ll be documenting my adventures with the Esprit right here, on Hagerty’s media site. So stay tuned and come back for more, when I can let you know what other car-related rules I’ve broken during my attempts to return the Esprit to its former glory.

Read more

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Opinion: Don’t let emotions ruin your next car-buying adventure
The light show is over: Driving the final Lotus Elise

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Comments

  • Simon Jordan says:

    Excellent buy – Beautiful British Automotive Engineering Art – real iconic sports car, shape, style & lines 🇬🇧👍

  • Dale says:

    Living the dream! Will the re-spray be in White?

  • Nik says:

    I’m definitely tempted, or Copper Fire Metallic with gold stripes to go full For Your Eyes Only. Shame I couldn’t afford a Turbo…

  • Ron says:

    I did the same as you buying my esprit’s SE did not see it until it turns up on my drive the drive was areal workout but l still love the car let me know how it goes

  • Colin says:

    Beautiful car, an all time classic indeed. Can you post a link to follow your adventures please.
    Colin

    • James Mills says:

      Hi Colin, Nik’s adventures with his Esprit will go live on the site soon. Keep an eye on the homepage and you won’t miss it – and also make sure you’re signed up to our twice-weekly newsletters as we’ll flag it in those, too. Should be a fun one to follow…
      James Mills, Ed.

  • John Ellerington says:

    I owned a S3 Esprit Turbo for a couple of years and 24000 miles. Only problems were a clutch master cylinder failure and the ridiculous cost of major servicing.
    Great car, but I had to sell it to fund a house purchase deposit, no doubt a more sensible use of my financial resources but a lot less fun!

  • Stefan Cork says:

    That plate !!! Comedy gold

  • Harry says:

    Is an S1 right all very familiar l eventually replaced with an S3 Turbo….totally different car ha ha

  • Mark says:

    Turbo is the one to have, still goes like stink. I love mine. Better than money in the bank and nicer to look at

  • Bryan says:

    Hi Nik, I’m guessing you’re the same Nik Berg that I beside in a Toyota Prius in the desert in Jordan as we drag raced a Holden Monaro?
    I spent most of the event in a Proton Compact. Glad to see we’re both still having automotive adventures.

  • Howard Cox says:

    If they started off rare then they’re even rarer now with only about 300 S3 N/A made and about 370 Turbo’s. Get one while you can before the climate brigade drives everything off the road.

  • Nik Berg says:

    Yes Bryan – possibly the most mismatched drag race in history! Nice to hear from you!

  • RobT says:

    Having owned an Esprit, I loved reading this. It brought back so many memories….. of the car being in the shop. When it ran right, it was amazing but something always seemed to go wrong. I was never stranded, but there was always something to repair. It looks awesome, but the repair costs, and my partner hating the seating position forced me to sell it…. Well that, and not being able to get it to pass emission inspection

  • George says:

    I did exactly the same with my Renault Alpine GTA Turbo. Train to Rotherham, for filming (my wife didn’t need to know). The car needed work but was the right colour and had suspension and chassis work done and was a good honest car, from a great Alpine specialist (thanks Terry). The 300 mile drive back to London in torrential rain in an unknown car was interesting but uneventful. Like the esprit, it’s a physical car to drive but very rewarding. With the added fun factor of massive turbo lag followed by warp speed. It has since proven to be my most reliable classic. Massively underrated cars.

  • David Watkinson says:

    This is so interesting I am on the verge of doing the same thing! Do you have an email to question you about the experience?

    Best

    David

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