Never meet your heroes, that’s what they tell you. Well I’m not entirely sure who ‘they’ are, but let me just put it on record, that ‘they’ are talking nonsense. Because last week I met one of my all-time heroes – the Lotus Carlton – and not only did it match my lofty expectations, it positively sent them into hyperspace.
Being a PetrolBlog reader, you’ll know all there is to know about the Lotus Carlton. So there’s no need to remind you that when launched in 1989, it was the fastest four-door production car in the world. A machine so powerful it upset the Daily Mail. The kind of car that only comes along once in a generation and – some 25 years after it first terrorised our streets, we’re still left wondering just what the people at General Motors were smoking at the end of the 1980s.
Actually no, we do know what was being smoked at General Motors – tyres. Lots and lots of tyres.
When people talk about the impact of the Jaguar E-Type, they’ll often put things into context by referencing some of the other cars available at the time. Such a comparison isn’t possible with the Lotus Carlton and it would be wrong to suggest that the super-saloon had the same mass-appeal of the Jag, but for enthusiasts and petrolheads, it became an icon.
Cast your mind back to 1989. Vauxhall was still thrusting the Belmont upon us, many years before it would achieve notoriety as Britain’s most stolen car. And the Lotus Carlton was launched at the year’s Geneva Motor Show, alongside the likes of the Skoda Favorit and the Daihatsu Applause. So a Lotus-engineered Vauxhall Carlton was a bit out of the ordinary.
By the time this particular Lotus Carlton rolled off the production line in 1993, I was driving a Vauxhall Viva HB, the cheese to the Carlton’s chalk. Twenty-one years later, I’d finally get a chance to drive the legend. And bloody hell, it didn’t disappoint.
Climbing aboard the Lotus Carlton, it feels every bit the late 80s/early 90s saloon car. It’s a sombre affair and – aside from the LOTUS inscription on the rev counter and the small matter of the indicated 180mph on the speedo – there’s little to suggest this is anything other than a mildly-breathed on Vauxhall Carlton.
I spent some time getting acquainted with the car, finding out where everything was situated and ensuring I made the most of my brief time in the company of a legend, figuring that having waited over two decades, another two minutes wasn’t going to hurt.
I dipped the clutch and bloody hell, how heavy? It would need a leg of Fatima Whitbread proportions to use this every day. No matter, having dipped the clutch and ensured the Carlton was in neutral, I twisted the key and waited for the 3.6-litre straight-six engine to roar into life.
Only it didn’t. Thanks to one of those nasty period immobilisers, it did nothing, meaning I had to source help from the Vauxhall Press Office. After a few seconds fumbling, the immobiliser was…er…mobilised and the full fury of the Lotus Carlton could be unleashed.
Blipping the throttle resulted in a terrific burble from the engine and exhausts, with the body rocking from side-to-side in a manner I haven’t experienced since selling my Capri 280. It’s wonderfully evocative and it only managed to raised the level of anticipation even further. With a fair dollop of extra gas to ensure I didn’t stall the old girl, I tentatively lifted the clutch and exited the car park in Luton.
You immediately feel the full potential of the thing. With 377bhp and 419lb ft of torque on tap, the Lotus Carlton is no slouch – not even by today’s standards. The fabled top speed and 0-62 time of 5.4 seconds are testament to this. But it’s a surprisingly easy car to drive.
Yes, the clutch is heavy and the Corvette ZR1’s six-speed gearbox isn’t the most precise in the world, but – thanks to great visibility and light steering, it’s a simple car in which to navigate heavy traffic. The driving position is relaxed and the leather seats deliver comfort in the way only an early 90s executive super-saloon can.
But nothing – not even two decades of people waxing lyrical about the potency of this thing – can prepare you for the moment when the traffic clears and you plant your right foot for the first time. There’s a momentary lag as the Garrett T25 turbos spool up and – woosh – the dirt is gone. Oh no, wait, that’s not right. Woosh – the Lotus Carlton takes off.
The noise, the immense pace, the sense of occasion – you get the impression that this thing would quite literally take off, given the chance. The power delivery on Vauxhall’s 30k-miler is smooth and linear, only encouraging you to explore the entire rev range. No, the aforementioned gear change isn’t the last word in satisfaction, but you can forgive this for what happens either side of the up or down shift.
It’s the pure theatre of this thing that lives longest in the memory. To drive the Lotus Carlton is an event, the kind of which modern cars can only dream of. You can forgive the whine from the differential, the creaking interior, the heavy clutch and imprecise gearbox. You can even look beyond the comically offset pedal arrangement, with the clutch pedal in the place where you’d normally find the brake.
You can forgive the Lotus Carlton for all its sins, because it delivers a driving experience quite unlike any other. The pace of a supercar, the look of the 90s and the soundtrack of a muscle car. But equally, it has the tearaway tenacity of a modern hot hatch.
Sure, it’ll be less forgiving than a hot hatch, but the Lotus Carlton somehow manages to shrink when the going gets twisty. It’s at this point that you realise that the big brute isn’t just about outright top speed. When cornering, the steering weights up beautifully, giving you more and more confidence with each passing bend.
And the balance of the thing is incredible, helped by the self-levelling, Lotus-engineered suspension. As a driver’s tool, the Lotus Carlton has it all. It’s an intoxicating mix of noise, smells and nostalgia. And yet, it’s a car you sense would make an excellent everyday companion.
There isn’t a B-road long enough to enjoy the full extent of the Lotus Carlton’s armoury and, in a blur of Imperial Green paint, I soon found myself sat in Harpenden traffic in 24-degree heat. All of a sudden, the Carlton felt old, but not in a bad way. A heat haze appeared above the bonnet, complete with its period air vents. The car smelt hot and – thanks to the engine cooling fans – I knew she was hot.
But like a kid, I couldn’t stop myself from blipping the throttle at every given opportunity. To do so in a Ferrari or a Lamborghini would be too showy, too look-at-me. But in a Lotus Carlton, it seemed right. Nobody could mistake the Lotus Carlton for a Vauxhall Carlton with a bodykit. Lotus got this just right, with the subtle Lotus badge on the boot and the famous Lotus roundels on the front arches the only literal giveaway as to what this really is.
I also adore the typically British thing of leaving the Vauxhall badge on the bonnet. An act of comedy genius, worthy of inclusion in a ‘Carry on Carlton’ film.
I really, really didn’t want my time with the Lotus Carlton to end. But I knew it was the star attraction of the Vauxhall media day and I’d already spent far longer in the car than I should have done. My time was up.
As I drove back, I passed people going about their daily business. A chap was eating a pork pie at the wheel of his Rover 400. Another guy was talking on his mobile whilst driving a BMW. They were oblivious to the presence of this iconic vehicle.
I, on the other hand, was coming to terms with the fact that I may never get a chance to drive a Lotus Carlton again. And this makes me sad. I pulled back into the car park, turned off the engine and sat there for a while, contemplating what I had just done. What a tremendous way to spend an hour. My motoring year may have just peaked.
I don’t mind admitting that I was shaking – maybe through excitement, perhaps through nervousness. But whatever, I knew I had just met a hero. And this hero didn’t let me down.
The Lotus Carlton – a true legend.