Lotus Esprit Design Analysis

The design aesthetic of the original Esprit concept was straight lines, flat surfaces, and razor sharp edges. It is difficult to appreciate the degree to which they succeeded unless you see one in real life. Photos don't do it justice. You can get a feel for the basic shapes and lines, but you can't get a sense for how striking the appearance of the car is unless you're experiencing it in the flesh. What doesn't come across in pictures is how very low and flat it is, and how broad the stance is. It looks like a much larger car that's been run over by a steam roller.

The paradox of the sophistication of the design of the Esprit body is it's utter simplicity. In some ways it looks like a cardboard mockup, with "insert Tab-A into Slot-B" technology. It is so simple, in fact that it dances on the edge of being simplistic. It is only after very close inspection and scrutiny that the subtle genius of the design becomes apparent.

The front bumper, hood, windshield, top, hatch, rear panel, and bumper surfaces are all dead flat, with just the most subtle curvature and slope to the roof, and extremely minimal arcing on the lower edge of the front bumper. The hood and windshield do not form one, uniform plane. Other wedge designers experimented with this, but it was never successful. It took the wedge concept too far. On the Esprit there is a contrast between the angle of the hood and the angle of the windshield, with the latter being slightly steeper. The angle of the windshield was actually chosen for practicality and workability, but from a stylistic standpoint it is just exactly right to create what is arguably the best application of the wedge concept.

Looking at the car in profile, the main horizontal lines such as the sill seam and the accented main seam half-way up the body, are true and straight, and perfectly level to the ground. The belt line is contiguous from the front bumper to the rear spoiler. It follows the angle of the hood until it bends gracefully at the base of the windshield to turn horizontal and extend straight and uninterrupted to the rear. A close inspection reveals that there is actually an almost imperceptible incline to this line, creating an extremely subtly accent to the overall wedge shape. The rear seam of the door and the rear edge of the window frame are straight, they line up with each other, and are perpendicular to the ground. The line creates a subtle "T" at the firewall, establishing a literal separation between the front and rear sections of the vehicle.

The extension of the roof line behind the passenger compartment, the shape of the rear quarter window, and the angle of the hatch (exactly half-way between that of the hood and the windshield) create the perfect volume of space for the rear section of the car. Its fullness expresses the presence of the power plant that is housed within it, yet it fits proportionally within the rest of the whole. The minimal rear spoiler has just enough of an upward flip to resolve the rear end, and it too is dead flat from side to side. In fact it conveys the belt line contiguously around the rear of the car, creating one uninterrupted line that flows all the way from the front, around the full length and width, and back up to the front where it started.

The sides bow out subtly to counteract the uncompromising flatness of the top surfaces, but in such a restrained manner as to compliment, not conflict with, the appearance of the planar surfaces. Similarly the rear quarter buttresses have an almost imperceptible curvature to them, with just a hint of a taper inwards as the lines move to the back. And at the bottom of the body around 360 degrees of the car, all surfaces curve inward towards the undercarriage. This serves to resolve the shape in its entirety, and gives the appearance that the car is floating. In fact these are the most curved surfaces on the entire body, and it is this stylistic element that made the car so successful as a submarine in the 007 movie.

Despite all this focus on rectilinear shapeliness, the wheel wells are actually semi-circular. There is no stylistic, geometric monkey business here. The wheels are allowed to be wheels, with the wheel wells complimenting them in a simple and straight forward manner. There is no flare, trim, or other accent applied beyond the seam line following around the upper edge. They are just clean, unadorned spaces for the wheels to fit. But the fact that they extend a bit above the seam line makes the stance of the car that much lower and more spry in appearance. It is like an animal poised on its haunches.

Ultimately the car is flat on the top, a little bowed on the sides, and curved inwards towards underneath. Had every surface been entirely flat everywhere, and every joint sharply squared off, the design would have been an amateurish failure. It is the combination of the flat and the curved, in concert with the angles and proportions front to back, side to side, and top to bottom that transform a simple design into a sophisticated whole.

 Stylistic Evolution

 In The Beginning - The Giugiaro Era
 Series 1
Clean, uncluttered lines and appearance. Broad, smooth, uninterrupted surfaces. Fluid, rounded underbelly. Unadorned beauty. Confident, understated brawn.
 Series 2
Integrated air dam introduces sharpness to the previously fluid underbelly, and creates visual imbalance at the nose. Air vents behind rear quarter windows interrupt the smooth profile.
 Series 3
Ridges at the bottom of the rocker panels further interrupt the fluidity of the underbelly, creating ridges where there was smoothness.
Rectilinear air dam and rocker panel treatment fully obscures fluidity underneath. Rear spoiler enlarged to counterbalance enhanced nose. Original beauty cloaked in adornment. Overall appearance cluttered.

The original "blade" style air dam does look a little peculiar, almost like an add-on, but the advantage visually is that it preserves the all-around curvature at the underbelly. In some cases this whole body component was painted black to simply make it disappear in the shadows under the nose. There is something particularly appealing about the appearance of the soft taper up from the dark undercarriage to the lower edge of the front bummper. The wedge concept could very easily be overdone, creating something that looked more like a snow plow than a car. This was addressed in the Esprit first by the contrast in angles between the hood and the windshield, but also by the way the air dam treatment raised the focal point of the front bumper up from the ground. From a visual standpoint, the whole front end was quite effective as it was originally presented.

The original air dam was barely visible

The first changes to the appearance began as function over form. The redesigned air dam for the S2 was superior from a functional standpoint. It was much more efficient aerodynamically, and it provided better stability at speed. But in terms of the form, it changed the look of the front end, which sets the tone for the rest of the car. It wasn't hideous by any means. It didn't appreciably compromise the wedge treatment because the front bumper remained at the same level, but it did change the silhouette of the nose. It removed the taper up from the undercarriage, and it introduced a hard horizontal line down low where previously there had been only soft curves. In my opinion, visually speaking, this change was not for the better.

The S2 air dam was visibly prominent

Similarly, the little "ear" vents behind the rear quarter windows provided functional advantages with respect to ventilating the engine compartment. And visually they don't ruin the appearance of the car. But again, compared with the purity of the smooth, uncluttered, uninterupted look of the original, I feel it to be a visual compromise.

The only stylistic tweak on the S3 was a little ridge that ran along the lower edge of the rocker panels. Here there was no functional improvement. It was purely a visual element. It could be considered to extend the new underbelly line established by the new air dam, and thus establish more balance visually. But in my opinion it serves to reinforce a visual compromise, and makes matters worse. However it was nothing compared to what was to come...

For the turbo era, ushered in by the Essex model, the new stylistic dirction that evloved through the S2/S3 models was taken over the top. It was representative of the transition of the Esprit's reputation from sports car to super car. The Esprit was initially to be simply the generation to follow the Europa, but it caught the automotive world's attention to the degree that it created a momentum that it could not contain. The buying public is never satisfied with "understated." They continuously want more and more.

Performance improvements were inevitable as the model was enhanced and refined, and there was a huge leap forward with turbo charging. The designers chose to make a commensurate leap forward with respect to the car's appearance. It didn't just need to be quicker, it needed to look more aggressive. In its Turbo garb, with its boxy air dam, flared sills, and exaggerated rear wing, the Esprit looked more like a race car than a street car. This was by design. The car did indeed look like more of a performer than its older brothers, and the market gobbled it up, but the charm of the original was lost. Race cars are built strictly for performance, not styled for appearance, and the Turbo Esprit reflected that sensibility. The new stylistic philosophy was a marketing success, but to the purist the car was a work of art that had become obscured by the trappings of excess and pragmatic placation. Looking back on it today, the turbo styling looks very much dated to the 80's, whereas the purity of the original design still remains timeless.


 Reboot - The Peter Stevens Era

In 1987, a little over 10 years into the product run, Lotus decided to modernize the styling of the Esprit. I make no secret of the fact that I think they got it right the first time, and neither adornment nor redesign was necessary, but it is an interesting exercise to compare and contrast the two.

The first observation is that the redesign was very true to the original. The overall shape and proportions were preserved to a large extent. The angle of the hood and the windshield, always iconic to the Esprit, were replicated almost exactly. The shape of the door, and the shape of the rear quarter window and the rear buttresses, also immediately identifiable to the Esprit, were re-shaped somewhat, but retained the spirit of the original nicely. And the general aesthetic philosophy of broad, uninterrupted surfaces was also carried forward.

The real crux of the redesign was to soften some of the formerly razor-sharp edges, and bring just a little bit of contour to the surfaces that used to be dead flat. The difference was most pronounced in the nose. The front surface and the side surface originally formed two distinct planes. In the new version, a rounded corner formed one joined surface. The front bumper, which was previously strictly rectilinear and separate from the body, was now rounded off, fully integrated, and wrapped around all the way to the front wheel wells. This was a design concept that was made possible by new building materials, and was becoming widely adapted across the automotive world.

The slope of the roof became more pronounced, and melded seamlessly into the rake of the rear hatch. The angle of the hatch was lessened such that it more closely matched that of the hood. The rear spoiler, which was originally a subtle lip but was made more pronounced in the Turbo era, was now turned around to be flush on top but to create a small overhang above the rear panel. Initially this was as it was, but very quickly a separate rear wing was added. And like the front bumpers, the rear bumpers were integrated, rounded off and wrapped around to the wheel wells.

The original Giugiaro design, as initially presented, stood on its own. All of the additions up to the redesign looked conspicuously like add-ons. By this time they had become accepted, and there would be no turning back to that original, unadorned look. So as part of the redesign, these elements were cleanly integrated. No longer would they look like add-ons. They would look like an integrated part of the design concept. For better or worse, they were now part of the car.

In the end what we were left with was a restyling that brought the look of the Esprit up to the more modern look of the day. There are those, myself included, who feel that part of the charm of the Esprit was that it reflected the era in which it was born, and that it should have remained the way it was. But it can't be denied that the new version paid great homage to the original, and that it was in every way an Esprit.

Original concept, shape, and proportions honored. Super car enhancements integrated, not tacked on. In some ways a return to the basics, however softened lines dilute the original, not improve upon it.
Air dam enhanced. Rocker panel treatment straightened. Addition of a rear wing. Super car look more successful with this style, but still untrue to the original.
Oversized air dam, rocker panel treatment, and rear wing are too much. Air ducts all swirly. Looking cluttered up again. Too big for its britches.


 Future Shock - The Dany Bahar Era
In 2010 Lotus announced that they were re-introducing the Esprit, and produced a concept car. While it's great that they wanted to bring back this classic, the design had virtually no connection to the original Esprit whatsoever. All of the styling queues, the broad, flat surfaces, the horizontal linear profile, the iconic side window and buttress silhouette, the square rear deck, were utterly absent from the new concept. The nose, which was always what made an Esprit an Esprit, looks like it was cloned off a Lamborghini.

Unlike the Peter Stevens reboot which paid great homage to the Giugiaro original, the new concept just wasn't an Esprit in any way. If Lotus wants to introduce another true mid-engined car, then fine, great, more power to them. But if they're not going to honor the Esprit design ethic, then they shouldn't call it an Esprit. By all accounts this new model will be one hell of an automobile. They should let it stand on its own merits, and let the dead rest in peace. IMO.


For a look at a rescued, early prototype, see:

For a comprehensive, detailed list of the complete evolution of the Esprit, see:
Lotus Esprit World
see also:
Esprit Production Figures