Cars We Love: 1976 Lotus Esprit S1

1976 Lotus Esprit S1

The 1976 Lotus Esprit S1 marked Lotus’ entry into the supercar market. Beginning with the basic Lotus Seven, through the Elite of the 1950s, the Elan, and the Europa, Lotus road cars became progressively more sophisticated without losing sight of founder Colin Chapman’s philosophy of creating extremely lightweight sports cars with phenomenal handling. The Esprit was the next step up for Lotus, intended to beat both the Porsche 911 and the Ferrari Dino in handling. Lotus had big plans to offer two engines – a two-liter four-cylinder producing 160 horsepower and a flagship V8 engine.

A mid-engined supercar from Lotus

When the Esprit S1 went into production in June of 1976, it was available only with the two-liter four-cylinder engine, placing it at a bit of a disadvantage in its competition with Porsche and Ferrari. Thanks to Chapman’s obsession with lightweight cars, the Esprit S1 weighed in at only about 2,205 pounds. The inline four putting out 160 horsepower in European trim and 140 horsepower in the U.S. market gave the Esprit a claimed 0 to 60 mph acceleration of 6.8 seconds and top speed of 138 mph, although later tests proved those figures to be 7.9 seconds and 124 mph. Not bad figures for the time, but slower than Porsche and Ferrari.

The wedge-shaped design made a strong visual impact with the public, especially its incredibly low height. The longitudinally-mounted engine was dramatically tilted over to one side, allowing the top of the Lotus to be only 37.5 inches above the ground. The steel backbone chassis and fiberglass body, coupled with the five-speed transaxle, and four-wheel disc brakes, inboard at the rear, gave the Esprit typically superb Lotus handling, but the feeling persisted among potential buyers that it needed more horsepower.

1976 Lotus Esprit S1

Extraordinary design from Giugiaro

The stunning design of the Esprit S1 from Giorgetto Giugiaro at ItalDesign was the culmination of styling exercises to clothe both four- and eight-cylinder versions of the replacement for the Lotus Europa.  A prototype having the main features of the Esprit was shown on ItalDesign’s stand at the 1972 Turin Motor Show. The design generated so much positive feedback that Colin Chapman wanted to get the car into production within eighteen months, using the new Lotus two-liter, twin cam type 907 engine. Various disruptions in the Middle East oil supply in the seventies delayed the development of a running prototype until January of 1975.

The production version of the Esprit was finally unveiled in October of 1975 at the Paris Auto Show, and the Esprit went into production in June of 1976. Approximately 714 Esprit S1s were made in 1976 and 1977, before it was superseded in 1978 by the Esprit S2, which had improved aerodynamics and engine cooling. The S2 did not address the lack of performance of the S1 – and in fact, the added weight made the S2 slower than the S1.

Lotus Esprit becomes a movie star

Thanks to the success of James Bond movies throughout the sixties, we associate the Bond character with driving an Aston Martin. When someone inside the production crew supposedly tipped off Lotus’s public relations chief Don McLaughlin that they might be looking for another car brand for their upcoming movie, “The Spy Who Loved Me”, he sprang into action. McLaughlin parked a prototype Esprit S1 so that it could be seen from the windows of the office in which the production staff was meeting. All of the exterior identification had been concealed, generating much discussion among the production staff about the make of the car. Following several days of wondering about the mysterious car, the set designer insisted on using that car in the movie.

The white Esprit S1 driven by Roger Moore as James Bond acquired the nickname “Wet Nellie” during the movie shoot, since the car, at least in the movie, could transform into a small submarine. Four “Wet Nellies” were used, with all but one being merely hollow look-alike shells. One was shot off a pier into the water; one had panels covering the wheel wells; one had diving planes that extended from the wheel well covers; and one car could move under its own power, operated by scuba divers.

The movie was a giant success, grossing about $46.8 M, and making the Esprit a famous movie star. Following the movie release, demand for white Lotus Esprits went through the roof, to the extent that new customers were put on an extensive waiting list.

James Bond’s submarine car
James Bond’s Submarine Car

A collectible classic?

The Lotus Esprit S1 has an impeccable design pedigree and is one of the purest wedge designs that were so popular in the seventies. Also among the pluses are its rarity, as only about 700 examples were made; its Giugiaro design heritage; and its role as a James Bond movie screen hero. On the flip side, the Esprit suffers from a cramped cabin, floor-mounted seats that are difficult to get into; sparse luggage space; and a build quality below that of Porsche and Ferrari.

Hagerty places the average value of a 1977 Esprit S1 at $20,500, ranging from a high of $38,400 for a #1 concours condition car to $12,500 for one in #4 fair condition. All conditions of Esprits showed a marked increase in value beginning in May of 2015.

Classic Driver magazine in August of 2014 included the Lotus Esprit S1 in its list of six young classics that are “worth investing in right now.” The other cars on the list include the Alfa Romeo Montreal, BMW Z1, Porsche 968 Club Sport, and the Ferrari 400/412 – not bad company for the Esprit S1.

If you’re looking for a classic sports car that is truly representative of its era, the Esprit S1 may be for you. However, if you find a white one that has odd wheel well covers and smells slightly like a fish market on the inside, you may have found the original “Wet Nellie.”




Hagerty –

Classic Driver –

Autozine –

Lotus Esprit World –

Practical Classics –

IMDb –

SuperCars –

Wikipedia –


Photos by Steve GloverJeff GreenlandThomas doerfer, and Karen Roe

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