Auto Tech

Profile: Lotus Carlton

Vauxhall's new VXR8 goes on sale in December, which had me thinking about Luton's previous big bruiser saloons -- and the king of them all, the Lotus Carlton.

Then, as now, Lotus earned more from using its technical skills on behalf of other manufacturers than it did from building its own cars, and it had just finished engineering the mighty Corvette ZR1 for its General Motors stablemate Chevrolet. First thoughts on a high-performance Vauxhall Carlton/Opel Omega involved inserting the whole ZR1 powertrain into the saloon body, but that was soon shelved in favour of a highly developed version of the Carlton's straight-six engine, mated to the 'Vette six-speed gearbox.

p>By today's standards, a big saloon with 3.6-litres, twin turbos and 377 bhp sounds mildly interesting rather than completely outrageous, and it pales beside the new VXR8's 6.2-litre supercharged V-8, which develops 577 bhp. The Lotus Carlton's 17-inch wheels, regarded as "enormous" back then, are a mid-range hatchback diameter today. But you have to judge cars in their proper context, and in 1990 when the Lotus Carlton arrived only a small handful of saloons were available with 300 bhp or more. Even a BMW M5 only offered 315 bhp, and like most fast German cars then and now, it was limited to a top speed of 155 mph.

The LC wasn't limited, and it's top speed really made the tabloids choke: 176 mph. And you could do it leather-lined comfort, with three friends along for the ride, as Lotus proved in a test run at the Nardo track in southern Italy. Brummie comic Jasper Carrott boggled at a family saloon with that sort of performance. "Who's the family?" he asked, "Mr and Mrs Fittipaldi?" Police and road safety groups were aghast. But joy riders and getaway drivers were delighted: the Lotus Carlton had plenty of room for a few mates, even if they were carrying, and could out-run anything the police had available to chase with.

GM planned a production run of 1100, all of them in almost-black Imperial Green, but the combined effects of a recession and crippling insurance costs ensured only 950 rolled off the line at the Lotus factory in Hethel, Norfolk before the plug was pulled in 1992. Of those, 320 were right-hand drive Lotus Carltons for the UK and 630 had left-hand drive and Lotus Omega badges for Europe.

It proved to be an era of mad saloons -- take your pick from the Alpina B10, Mercedes 500E, Lancia Thema 8.32 Ferrari, and new V-12 limos from both Mercedes and BMW -- but none had quite the impact of the Lotus Carlton. These days the Imperial Green machine is an under-appreciated classic: you can pick one up for less than the new VXR will depreciate in its first year...