Over the course of time, the name of Lotus has become synonymous with many things that appeal to Joe Petrolhead. An evocative range of cars, with just a mention of the names Elan, Espirt, Elise, Evora and Exige bringing to mind images of lightness, delicacy, thrills and fun. Then there’s the rich motorsport heritage to add to the mix, culminating what is arguably the greatest sports car brand in the world. OK, so our friends in Maralleno and Stuttgart might wish to engage in a battle of fisticuffs over this claim, but when the carbon fibre dust has settled, Colin Chapman’s legacy would still carry a lot of weight in the argument. Which, based on Chapman’s vision, may not necessarily be a good thing…
Of course, over the past 40-odd years, the Lotus name has also been bolted on to humdrum saloons and hatchbacks to create some of the greatest icons ever to grace this island of ours. I speak of course of the Lotus Cortina, the Lotus Carlton, the Lotus Sunbeam and the Lotus Eater. OK, so the latter is, (or perhaps was), a Chinese-takeaway in the town I grew up in, but they did do a mean chow mein. They were never too pleased when we only ordered chips though. But I digress.
Back to Lotus then. Do you remember the Isuzu Piazza? Someone mentioned the name to me the other day and I could only think of an Italian exchange student from my schooldays with a remarkably similar name. Then there’s the countless piazzas dotted around the UK, dreamed up by city councils to bring some glamour to an otherwise miserable city centre square. Calling a square a piazza magically transforms it from grey slabs, pigeons and litter bins into something resembling the Piazza Navona in Rome. But none of this has anything to do with Lotus and for the second time, I’m digressing.
So to the Isuzu Piazza. Available in the UK from 1985 until 1990, the Piazza was Isuzu’s first foray into the UK market. Today, the brand is solely associated with light commercial vehicles, but the Piazza was a small coupe, designed by that man Giugiaro again. Yep, he of Hyundai Pony fame. I’m not going to let him live that one down.
It would be fair to say, the Piazza had a very shaky start in the UK. A year after launch, the official importers went bust, leaving over 500 unsold cars stranded at Sheerness Docks. Here they stayed until 1987 when the stock was bought by an independent car dealer and sold on at a knock-down price. That helped residuals then! Some time after, the IM Group were awarded the official contract by Isuzu and subsequently set about sorting out the other shaky issue – that of the car’s dynamics. Handling was poor in the extreme, so in 1987 the car was shipped off to a shed in Hethel and emerged a few hours later with a ‘Handling by Lotus’ badge on the back. Job done – instant credibility!
In truth, Lotus did a little more than that. Improved suspension, brake and tyres sorted out the dynamics, whilst some minor cosmetic changes improved the interior and exterior look of the car. Performance from the 2 litre engine equated to 147.5bhp and a top speed of 127 mph.
But it was too little, too late. Poor press for the pre-HBL (Handling by Lotus) cars had dented the car’s reputation and the lack of brand equity did little to engage a sceptical buying public. The car was doomed, with only some 650 cars sold between 1987 and 1990. In all, only 1662 cars were sold across five years, of which only 55 were said to be left in December 2008. This makes it an extremely rare car today and arguably a future classic, especially in Lotus guise.
I could only find three for sale, two of which are HBL editions. Best of the bunch is this 1989 specimen with only 72k miles on the clock. Most importantly, it is finished in the best colour for any self-respecting 80s hot hatch or coupe – white! Link here – http://www.carandclassic.co.uk/car/C141615/#
In truth, the Piazza was always going to struggle in the UK. Maybe if Lotus had been involved from the outset, the car would have stood a better a chance. But in a market that contained the likes of the Toyota Celica, Honda Prelude and the Scirocco, each with stronger heritage and bigger marketing budgets, the Piazza needed to be spot-on to succeed. Sadly, it wasn’t. But it is a rarity and having spent some time in the Lotus position, I hope a few of them remain in the hands of enthusiasts.
Thanks to IPTOC for info (http://www.iptoc.com/). Pre-HBL image from Wikipedia.