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  • Writer's pictureFrank Oles

(Another) One that got away...

I have been chasing this Series 1 1977 Lotus Esprit ever since 2008! I always had an interest in the Lotus Esprit. Who could forget its appearance as the best spy car EVAR!!! in the James Bond classic The Spy Who Loved Me, where it turned into a frickin' submarine! The fact that primo restored examples of the Series 1 Esprit are still a 40K proposition at best does reflect the fact that these cars were woefully underdeveloped at launch. They had overheating problems, fiberglass problems, electrical gremlins, weak pop-up headlights and the engine earned itself the nickname "the torque less wonder!" But I still love 'em! The Giugiaro-designed shape is pure 70s wedge, having made the transition from stunning show car to stunning street car relatively intact. Too bad Lotus didn't get the design right until the debut of the Turbo edition later in the 80s.

On to this particular example. It was owned by a gentleman who is a contractor for the company where my father and uncle work. The topic of cars came up, and he mentioned he might be interested in selling it. Holy shit - a Lotus Esprit in my own backyard? They only made 700 of them. I had to see it!

Unloved. Dusty. A bit out of focus. This poor thing was begging me to take it home!

I first looked at the car in 2008 after I sold my NSX, so I was feeling a bit blue and looking for a more bargain level exotic sports car. The owner purchased it around 1990. He really wanted the turbo version, but they were a bit more money, so he decided to change the wheels, bumpers and side skirts to make this Series 1 look more like the Turbo. He purchased it with 14K miles and the odometer currently read 34K. Most of these early Esprit are low mileage - they seemed to implode because of their needy maintenance routines, exotic engineering, poor mechanical access and fragile nature. Unfortunately, this car had not moved since about 1994, according to the license plate sticker. The paint had some cracking and other issues (common), the interior was a bit faded and musty smelling, and it really needed some mechanical attention. He was able to start the car, but it did not idle well. The car needed a thorough reconditioning. The seller wanted 9K. I thought it was worth more like 6K. The owner parked it back in his garage.

Here is the interior in all of its 70s brown glory. The Series 1 Esprit had two choices for interior - green Tartan plaid with orange (!) carpeting OR Brown on Tan fabric. The dash was actually covered with a velvet-like material called Marcasite. It is no longer available. Unfortunately, it picks up a greenish tinge when faded from the sun, like this car. Also, the “fuzz buster” was velcroed to the instrument binnacle, and the fabric underneath was ripped - unfortunate to say the least.

A few years passed, but I still kept in touch with the owner. Every now and then, I would reconsider making an offer on the car, but my Dad, my Uncle, and my friends always talked me out of it. "Too much trouble." I went and looked at the car again a few years later. It had not moved since the last time I looked at it. It smelled mustier inside (I was gagging), the tires were flat, and it needed attention. The seller wanted 6 grand. I offered 3, since by this point the car was nothing more than a rebuildable Lotus shell. Everything rubber would have to be replaced. It needed new fuel tanks. Every part I placed my hands on needed some kind of attention. We pushed it back into his garage.

A few more years passed. I was purely focused on the Mustang search. But I could not get the image of that Lotus out of my mind. Life is all about timing. And for me, with cars, timing rarely seems to work out. So why would this Lotus story be any different?! One day, about a week after being let go from Leo Burnett, the owner gives me a call. "Hey, I know you always liked my Lotus Esprit. Would you be interested for the fire sale price of 3 grand?" SHIT! could timing be any worse. It's probably not a good idea to go looking at broken down exotic cars when you are out of work. But still, like my favorite Top Gear Episode ever (series 7, episode 4 "Budget Italian Supercars") the lure of a cheap exotic sports car is just too irresistible. I had to see it again. The owner said "I'll have it running in the driveway." I just about fell over - it runs? He said he had it towed to a nearby shop who got the car running again. I couldn't believe it. A running, driving Lotus for 3 grand? It sounded too good to be true. And it was! The soonest the owner could show the car was a week later. That meant a week of dreaming, researching, and planning. When Saturday finally came, I packed up my car with ramps and tools and my Dad and I went to go look.

See that red gas can there in the corner? The car was running off that as a fuel tank! And when I say running, I mean stumbling, coughing, and generally protesting its poor neglected life. The car was towed to the repair shop, the shop charged this guy money for doing hardly anything, and then the car was towed back to his house again. It was not road registered or insured. I was crushed. It was the same needy project from a few years ago. Nothing had changed.

The frame did not appear to be rusty, but that doesn’t mean the top of the backbone didn’t have some rust hiding between it and the body - unfortunately it is impossible to inspect that area without removing the body from the frame. See those two holes there? There is NO WAY a person could access the timing belt through those - this area of the frame was later redesigned for access in the Turbo model. This car desperately needed its timing belt (original?) replaced, along with every other rubber bit on this car - brake seals and hoses, coolant hoses, EVERYTHING. There was oil weeping out of every gasket surface. Sure, it had spent most of its time in the garage, but there was a lot of work to do here. It wasn’t a car that was left to rot in a field, but it was no show pony either. I didn’t know what to do. For 3 large it was probably worth that in parts alone, but it was plainly obvious that the engine would have to come out to get it serviced. And that changed things in my mind from a small project to potentially YEARS of work ahead. Initially, I thought we could get it running for a 5-6K total spend. A scruffy but running and driving 6 grand Lotus Esprit? Sure. A years long project that needs everything - not appealing.

I didn't know what to do. My heart told me to buy it. But by head told me it would not be a "path to happiness." I always listen to my head when it comes to cars. I asked the owner to please give me a couple of days to do some research on parts prices, and find a place to keep it. I thought we left on good terms.

I spent the next couple of days doing exactly that - researching prices, finding out how difficult it was to change timing belt (the engine was coming out, there was no question about that). Still, for 3 grand I had to have it. Until I checked eBay... An identical 1977 Lotus posed up on Ebay on Wednesday. I recognized the wheels, the gas can in the trunk, etc. Was it sold? I texted the owner. Yes it was sold. A work colleague of his looked at it the next day and got it. I was gutted. I figured that in some strange way, after all these years, I was meant to have this car. And there it was. On Ebay. With a 22K BIN. What a nightmare. The seller was obviously hoping for a quick flip.

And then the story gets even worse. A few days later, a 1977 S1 Esprit pops up on BAT - a beautiful, red, restored example with AC (a rare option on these). That car ends up selling for 34K, which is some kind of record price for a Lotus Esprit. In the mean time, the seller pulls down the eBay ad and puts up a new ad on Craigslist... for 29K! The gas can is still in the trunk! The interior is "perfect!" I am floored. Clearly the seller things his car that needs EVERYTHING is worth the same price as a restored example that has had a years worth of restoration effort. Nobody is going to pay that price. I thought about trying to contact the new seller and try and work out a deal but then I came to my senses. He is clearly delusional. The car is going to have to age a little bit in his possession until he realizes it will not be a quick flip and he just wants to get rid of it. Nobody wanted that car. Not even the repair shop that tried to get it running! I am sure that seller does not have a garage for the poor Lotus. I can just see it sitting in the driveway, under a tree, freezing all winter long. Maybe our paths will cross again some day...

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