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Lotus Esprit edged into supercar category in 1989

Ken Morgan's 1989 Lotus Esprit SE Turbo.

bob english The Globe and Mail

When Lotus launched its sexy Esprit in 1976, its exotic looks rivalled offerings from Ferrari and Lamborghini, and it marked a coming of age for the one-time backyard-shed car builder, but it would take a few years and a turbocharger to boost the car to supercar status.

It did, however, attain almost immediate car stardom in the 1977 Bond flick The Spy Who Loved Me, driven by Roger Moore as 007.

It reputedly cost Lotus £18,000 to provide a pair of its Esprit S1s and five body shells – one of which was turned into a submarine – and the film grossed a for-the-time huge $187-million. But the promotional value for the new Esprit was, as the commercial says, priceless. The Esprit reprised its role as super-spy transportation in the 1981 Bond movie, For Your Eyes Only.

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But those first Esprits weren't exactly world beaters despite their edgy-wedgy fibreglass bodywork by Italy's Giorgetto Giugiaro, and Lotus founder Colin Chapman-inspired mid-engine, lightweight-backbone-chassis based engineering.

Their 2.0-litre, four-cylinder, twin-cam, 16-valve motors produced just 160 hp and they required eight seconds to get to 100 km/h and had a top speed of only 215 km/h. Lamborghini's Countach and Ferrari's 365 made 350 hp plus and the Porsche Turbo 260 hp and they were an order of magnitude quicker and faster.

Ken Morgan's 1989 Lotus Esprit SE Turbo. Bob English for the Globe and Mail Bob English for the Globe and Mail

It had decidedly become a member of the supercar club's junior league by 1989, however, when the Esprit SE Turbo nowowned by Kingston area resident Ken Morgan rolled out of the Lotus works. Its turbocharged and "chargecooled" 2.2-litre engine made 264 hp (280 hp in overboost mode), the 0-100 km/h time had dropped to less than five seconds and top speed climbed to 260 km/h.

The price in that year's Toronto auto show catalogue was $104,900 versus $115,000 for a 300-hp Porsche Turbo, $215,000 for a 455-hp Countach and $230,000 for a 390-hp Testarossa.

The original 1976 version's paltry power output was resolved with the introduction of the first production Esprit Turbo in 1981; its engine pumped out a more useful 215 hp. A redesign in 1987 – by which time Lotus was owned by General Motors – gave the Esprit a rounder look and other styling and mechanical tweaks (and company owners) followed.

What would prove the ultimate Esprit and an indisputably first-rank supercar was the twin-turbocharged V-8 of 1996. With 350 hp, it could hit 100 km/h in 4.5 seconds and a top speed of 280 km/h.

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The Esprit's long run ended in 2004 after 10,675 had been built. Plans for its reappearance in 2013 have stalled following the sale of Lotus by Malaysian owner Proton to billionaire Syed Mokhtar's DRB-Hicom.

Ken Morgan's 1989 Lotus Esprit SE Turbo. Bob English for the Globe and Mail Bob English for the Globe and Mail

Morgan added his brilliant-red 1989 Esprit SE Turbo to his "not-a-collection" of bikes and British sports cars this past March and I photographed it under the leafy canopy of grand old trees on his front lawn after a tour of his garage and workshop.

During the tour, I had cast envious eyes over 20 bikes ranging from a classic bevel-drive Ducati to a modern Buell – and cars that include a stunning Jaguar E-Type coupe, an almost-restored Triumph TR6, a Spitfire and a TR8 and, hiding in a corner under an accumulation of dust, a bulgy-grilled Austin A40 Somerset.

That might sound a lot like a collection, but isn't, says Morgan, explaining it just kind of happened. The lament, "I had one of those, I wish I'd kept it," isn't one you'll likely hear from the Toronto-born Morgan. He says he'd buy a bike that appealed to him and then, because he had usually saved enough to buy the next one, find "there was no need to sell it. And, as time went along, they accumulated."

This laudable penchant for rarely getting rid of his rides has resulted in an eclectic and highly personal assemblage of two-wheeled machinery that reflects his lifelong passion for motorcycles. The four-wheelers can be blamed on seeking solace in the TR6 after an early "marital rearrangement."

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Morgan began riding at 17 on a BSA Lightning and went road racing a couple of years later on a Norton (which he still, of course, has) while working as a post clerk on the trading floor at the Toronto Stock Exchange, then as an equity trader and, for a time, in money market trading. But by the mid-1970s he was also running, on a part-time basis, a bike training course in Toronto. And by 1978, was working full-time with the Ontario Safety League's training scheme, and 14 years ago signed on to oversee the Canada Safety Council's national program, which he still does.

His involvement with British sports cars began with the TR6, purchased for $2,000 in the late 1970s, as a fun alternative to the "thousand-dollar used Datsuns" previously employed for daily transportation when riding was impractical, and was followed with the Spitfire. Things escalated seven years ago when he convinced his wife Barbara to chip in on the purchase of the E-Type, and then the TR8 was spotted parked at a farm lane entrance. "I'd always fancied them and it was cheap," he says.

Bob English for The Globe and Mail

A friend refired a long-dormant interest in Lotuses by sending along a photo of an early Esprit that was for sale. Barbara, when shown the picture, didn't like its origami-like wedge shape, but decided she could live with the more rounded form of the 1989 Esprit SE awaiting a buyer in Long Island, N.Y. The Morgans have become just the fourth owner of this original and well-kept example that show just 24,000 miles on its odometer.

Complementing its stunning exterior is a cockpit fully lined in glove-soft leather and with instruments framed in burr elm veneer. Remarkably, air conditioning and a sunroof were standard for the first time on this $100,000 car. The turbo four resides behind you and delivers a wonderfully torquey thrust through the five gears that require the driver to keep a close eye on the speedometer needle.

And it came with another first, a catalytic converter, which a magazine ad claimed gave "a whole new meaning to British Racing Green."

Back in 1989

  • Pop star Madonna divorces actor Sean Penn. Rain Man wins best picture award at the Academy Awards and musician Tiny Tim runs for mayor of New York.
  • A geomagnetic storm crashes Quebec’s power grid, turning the lights out for six million people for nine hours, which made them almost as unhappy as the Calgary Flames defeating Montreal for the Stanley Cup.
  • The first global positioning satellites are launched, a technological feat rivalled by Nintendo’s North American launch of the Game Boy portable video game.
  • Darrel Waltrip wins the Daytona 500, Emerson Fittipaldi takes the Indy 500 and the CART championship and Alain Prost the Formula One championship.
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