As an engineering specialist and chassis supremo, Lotus has helped a vast array of manufacturers go faster over the years. From the DeLorean DMC12 to the Sinclair C5, Lotus has had a hand in numerous projects and helped companies such as Isuzu, Volvo, Nissan and Vauxhall to realise the potential of their models. Today, however, we’re focusing on a trio of cars worthy of receiving not only Lotus power, but also the famous name: the Sunbeam, Cortina and Carlton.
Colin Chapman had eyes on helping Ford build a go-faster version of its new executive saloon before the standard car was even on sale, and the ‘Lotus Cortina’ followed just a year later in 1963. The 1.6-litre twin cam engine is based on the durable Ford Kent block and development work was aided by Keith Duckworth, of Cosworth fame, before it first powered the Lotus 23 race car. Ford thought that motorsport success would help to sell its sleek new saloon car and so a partnership between Ford and Lotus was forged. An initial run of 1000 cars were commissioned for homologation purposes but, of course, the ‘Lotus Cortina’ name lived on through the later Mk2.
In road form, the twin-cam motor produced around 110bhp and was bolted to a close-ratio gearbox. Lotus also tweaked the standard car’s suspension, especially at the rear with the use of an A-frame to provide additional axle location, and encouraged the use of lightweight panels. The result was a saloon car that gave unheard-of performance for the time: 0-60mph in under 10 seconds, a top speed of well over 110mph and famous handling. The only place it went faster than on the Tarmac was out of the showrooms.
If the ’60s produced the Cortina, the ’70s spawned the Lotus Sunbeam. The Rootes Group had already tried to boost the image of the Sunbeam by launching the Ti model, but management identified the need for more oomph in order to achieve rally success. Lotus sprinkled the rear-wheel drive hatch with its customary chassis magic and fitted its 2.2-litre ‘slant-four’ engine and five-speed ZF gearbox longitudinally.
Launched at Geneva in 1979, the road cars were arguably one of the first hot hatches and sported a whopping-for-the-time 150bhp, which gave a 0-60mph time of just over 6-and-a-half seconds: still fast 40 years later. Race-trim pushed that figure well beyond 200 and closer to 300bhp. Unfortunately, they were produced for only a couple of years and so are now incredibly scarce.
The third of our trio is the legendary Lotus Carlton. Available in only one colour which, contrary to popular opinion, is not black but a dark green. The Carlton was the fastest production four-door saloon for the few years it was rolling from the production line in 1990-92, boasting a conservatively-stated 377bhp and a top speed of 177mph. It wasn’t just fast by four-door saloon car standards, but supercars and fighter jets.
Lotus began with the 3-litre, straight-six Vauxhall engine and took capacity out to 3.6 litres before adding two Garret turbochargers alongside latest technologies such as a wasted spark system to replace the original distributor. No component was left untouched; even the engine block was reinforced. Of course, chassis dynamics were further enhanced by Lotus. Sadly, it seemed the financially hamstrung ’90s were not the place for near-180mph Vauxhalls and so production ended earlier than anticipated: 950 cars (including the European market Omega) were produced, cementing its place as an automotive legend.
Do you have any experience of these iconic cars, or can you think of another manufacturer which has given its expertise and name to so many game-changing collaborative projects? We’d love to hear from you. Or, if you already are lucky enough to own a Lotus - why not check out our classic car insurance?