1990-2020: Thirty years of the ground-breaking Lotus Carlton

30 Years of the Lotus Carlton

It was the opinion-dividing, headline-grabbing new car from Lotus and it celebrates its 30th anniversary this year.

To suggest that the 174mph Lotus Carlton was controversial at the time of its launch would be something of an understatement. A 3.6-litre twin-turbocharged intercooled four-seater executive saloon, it was a unique motoring proposition back in 1990. Priced at a relatively affordable £48,000, it was a Ferrari Testarossa-beating machine for the masses. It sounds incredible now, but questions were raised about the car in the UK Houses of Parliament and the Daily Mail newspaper started a campaign to have it banned.

Taking the standard Vauxhall Carlton/Opel Omega off the production line at Russelsheim, Germany (West Germany until October 1990) and bringing it to Hethel, Lotus Engineering increased capacity of the 3.0-litre straight-six petrol engine to 3.6-litres. A pair of Garrett T25 turbochargers were added, developing 568Nm of torque at 4,200rpm. The front suspension and rear multi-link set-up were re-engineered to meet Lotus’ renowned ride and handling standards. The tyres were changed to Goodyear Eagles, the same as on the Esprit Turbo SE, and braking capability was significantly increased.

And the result? Arguably the most famous ‘Q car’ of all time. Given the Lotus Type number 104, the Lotus Carlton – or Lotus Omega in Europe – could sprint from 0-60mph in 5.0 seconds and 0-100mph in 11.1 seconds. Top speed was officially 174mph, though it was widely known to be capable of 180+. In 1992 Autocar magazine in their famous 0-100-0 challenge recorded a time of 17.0 seconds, placing the Lotus Carlton second behind the considerably more expensive Ferrari F40.

Mike Kimberley, who was CEO of Group Lotus at the time of the Lotus Carlton’s development and introduction, explained: “Back in 1987, when GM had acquired Lotus and also owned Vauxhall and Opel, I proposed to GM’s senior management that we jointly carry out a mutually beneficial brand image-building project between Vauxhall and Lotus similar to the very successful Lotus Cortina from the 1960s. The Carlton GSi four-door saloon was chosen as the base vehicle due to its advanced and robust platform.”

Calling the result “a real wolf in sheep’s clothing”, Kimberley said Lotus was very proud of the car as it met all the company’s performance targets, was great to drive and worked as a brand-builder for all parties. “The Lotus Carlton was a real winner and still is a much-sought after example of outstanding Lotus design, engineering excellence and driving enjoyment.”

Speaking of the reaction of the UK’s politicians and mainstream media, he added: “The campaign to try to supress the performance was surprising bearing in mind the supercars that were already available, and the top-of-the-range models being planned and eventually produced by other premium brands in Europe. We had to work hard to lobby our MPs and block attempts to put British cars and engineering at a disadvantage to our German and Italian competitors.”

Kimberley said Lotus even created a cartoon image of a man walking ahead of a modern car waving a red flag – as per the UK’s Locomotive Act of 1865 which applied to self-propelled vehicles – as a way of trying to make some media and politicians understand that technological progress is inevitable.

“I asked for and received the full support of Bob Eaton [President, GM Europe] in pressing ahead without restricting the Lotus Carlton’s performance. That said, we did quietly lower the top speed in our publicity materials to 174mph from what we were originally going to claim – which was the full 180+!”