Past Masters: The Lotus Carlton

Words: Mike Humble

Pictures: Mike Humble & Hamish Scadding

 

An old saying goes that you should never meet your hero’s. Ive been lucky to have not been disappointed with the ones that I have that include entertainers such as Robert Lindsay, Sir Michael Caine, Mark Knopfler or automotive names including Derek Bell and Paddy Hopkirk. Yet hero’s come with four wheels too.

This is an automotive hero I have waiting to drive for so many many years… and this didn’t disappoint either…

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Universally regarded as being one of the finest, if albeit one of the maddest cars of the `90s… The Vauxhall Lotus Carlton.

It started off as being an invite to Vauxhalls UK HQ in Bedfordshire to try out some of their recently launched vehicles such as the Mokka X and Zafira Tourer, but if the truth be told, I was there for a rather different reason. Amongst the new metal on display that also included the 2016 European Car of the Year – the new Astra, was a hand picked selection of cars from the companies extensive heritage collection that dates back to the turn of the last century.

One of which was a vehicle I drove last year – the 2.3 litre Chevette HS. A car ever so slightly more substantial than the standard 1.3 version, and certainly more entertaining on the road than the A plate Vauxhall Chevette Silhouette special edition driven by one of my English teachers from my comprehensive school (God bless you Mrs Marco). But for me at least, the star of the show and an itch I so desperately needed to scratch was the incredible Vauxhall Lotus Carlton.

“The (standard) Carlton was seen as a sensible almost bordering on the boring type of car – respectable yes but aspiring or sexy or sporting? erm…. sadly not!”

It kind of didn’t make sense back then to produce a car of this level of performance. Prior to its arrival there was a quick version of GMs middle manager motor for sure – the Carlton GSi 3000. Sadly though, the Carlton GSi, despite its power and accessory body kit had an image of your eldest Uncle wearing Nike Air Max or your dad trying to freestyle rap on a Karoke machine. The Carlton was seen as a sensible almost bordering on the boring type of car – respectable yes but aspiring or sexy or sporting? erm…. sadly not! The Lotus Carlton addressed the aforementioned and much more.

In a production run that lasted barely two years, the Lotus Carlton was the first Lotus collaborated production saloon car since the Cortina Mk1. In fact the Lotus Cortina pre-dates the Carlton by some 27 years but in the case of the Carlton, it was a case of right car – wrong time. It had been planned to produce 1100 cars in both left and right hand drive (European examples being known as the Opel Omega) but the savage European financial recession of the early 90s saw production curtailed after just 950 – the majority of them being LHD Opel Omega’s.

 

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What started off as a standard 207bhp 3.0 dual ram unit was reworked by Lotus engineers into a 3.6 litre twin turbo-intercooled mobile power station developing almost 380bhp

 

To power the car onto a maximum speed of almost 180mph, some feats of engineering needed to take place. The  Opel sourced “dual ram” 3.0 litre 6 cylinder 24v engine was enlarged to 3.6 and treated to twin turbo chargers with water to air intercooling not to mention a bespoke crankshaft, specifically designed Mahle pistons, Lotus developed connecting rods and a radically strengthened cylinder block. Power was increased from the standard engines 204bhp to a hefty 377 with over 75% of the engines 420lbft torque at your disposal from as low as 2000rpm.

Only available with a six speed ZF manual gearbox, the gearing is amazingly high. Driving the car in 6th gear sees the dials showing a whisker over 46mph at 1000rpm in top gear. The shift action takes a little getting used to owing to a strong spring bias towards 1st and 3rd gear planes, if you have driven an old Volvo 200 series think of that shift action with a weightier spring action and you’re getting there. The uprated clutch feel more like something you’d find in a commercial vehicle, its quite heavy but easy to adjust to. The Lotus Carlton is certainly a car you really have to drive, its not for the faint hearted especially around town.

 

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Apart from some subtle Lotus decals and 180mph speedo, the Lotus Carlton is a textbook lesson in restrained opulence. Once the clutch and gearchange is accustomed too, the car is amazingly serene to drive off the boil and yet totally controlled when tickled. Motorway refinement is superb even by todays standards.

 

The driveline shunt when stop-starting in heavy traffic is akin to something you’d find in a well worn Land Rover Discovery but the torquey nature of the engine helps to keep gear changes to a minimum. Point it towards some long and winding black top and any regrets you might have will vanish as quick as the following traffic. The performance in its day was breath-taking, but even now some twenty four years after production stopped the Carlton makes an unseasoned driver or passenger whimper in equal amounts of fear and ecstasy when the pedal is pressed and your grip on the wheel is tightened.

Its not as whiz bang! as I thought it would be. In fact… its rather like the standard car in Diplomat trim – all very civilised and refined when cruising along at speed. That is until you glance down at the display and realising you are attempting to sling shot time travel around the sun. The way it filters through the power is most impressive – a steady build up to around 1800rpm and then, if you allow it too, all hell breaks loose. All in all the car feels incredibly well engineered… and there again for a price tag back then of almost £50,000 it bloody well ought to.

“…in fact when cruising on the motorway its easy to forget you are at the helm of what once used to be the worlds fastest production four seater saloon car – there’s a kind of hush that even the Carpenters would have been envious of!”

The ruched leather seats look as inviting as a Directors Parker-Knoll and the hide extends right up to roll tops of the door trims. Despite the accent of sportiness with heavy bolstering of the seats up front on the flight deck, they are blissfully comfortable and adjust in every way you’d like. A discreet sprinkling of burr walnut graces the floor console and doors to give that true executive feel, in fact when cruising on the motorway its easy to forget you are at the helm of what once used to be the worlds fastest production four seater saloon car – there’s a kind of hush that even the Carpenters would have been envious of!

 

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The European recession that bit hard in the early 90s saw the Lotus Carlton become a slow selling and loss making car. Initial plans of 1100 units were cut back to 950 with the Lions share being European Opel Lotus Omega’s. Production ended in 1992.

 

Push on that little harder and you’ll find the only thing that’s limited is the drivers ability. The chunky Ronal produced alloys shod with sticky Good Year tyres provide some pretty impressive grip. The racing developed brake system with A.P racing four piston callipers up front chewing into 13 inch vented and drilled discs rub off the any excess speed with absolutely no drama. Only the occasional heat induced squeal from the hard pad lining material during light brake applications gives the driver any clue of the race developed system beneath that middle pedal.

As the Carlton was always noted for, there’s plenty of room in the comfy cabin, a huge boot – even the ride (albeit notably flatter and firmer) is perfectly acceptable for everyday jaunts and adventures. In fact very little disappoints you in general. The only thing I noted was vague and over light steering at low speeds. Amazingly the Lotus Carlton still uses a worm and roller steering box system shared with the rest of the range and the Senator using the GM “Servotronic” system which in layman’s terms is a simple form of speed sensitive power steering – the faster you go the less assistance is given.

 

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After a roll along the M1 the Lotus Carlton prowls along the Luton inner ring road fly over. Brutal clutch aside its surprisingly forgiving and nice to drive in an urban environment. All in all a wonderfully well engineered car – nothing rough, nothing substandard and a lovely feeling of quality – a great car even now after 26 years since the first one was built.

 

If the car used a modern rack and pinion system I reckon the drive would be… as George Michael once crooned… absolutely flawless. Its hard to fault the handling and feel of the car, its got grip and poise and wears its years rather well. But overall the car is every inch an icon now as when launched back in 1990 – if anything more so. Having previously only ridden shotgun in the Lotus Carlton I can now tick off another great car I have always yearned to drive.

To reiterate, they say you should never meet your heroes… with the astonishing Lotus Carlton I’ll strongly argue against that!

Some Lotus Carlton Facts:

  • Produced from 1990 to 1992
  • Bodyshell produced in Russehiem with final construction in Hethel Norfolk UK
  • 3.6 litre in-line 24v six cylinder with twin intercooled T25 Garrett turbo chargers
  • 377bhp with 419lbft of torque
  • ZF S-640 six speed gearbox
  • Limited slip differential from the Australian GM Holden division
  • 0 – 60 in 5.1 seconds with 177mph maximum
  • All round independent suspension with self levelling function
  • Worm and roller power steering with GM Servo-tronic variable assistance
  • Bespoke Lotus seam welded strengthened floor pan to cope with the driveline power
  • Total build of 950 units (320 RHD Vauxhall Lotus Carlton 630 LHD Opel Lotus Omega)
  • Cost when new £48,000 (list) current values around £21 – 22,000 (in good condition)

 

Thanks are due to Simon Hucknall, Laura Margott, Andy Boddy, Terry Forder and the team at Vauxhall Motors UK for a cracking day at their Luton Headquarters.

 

 

 


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