Why you’d want a Lotus Excel
Linking up with Toyota gave Lotus access to excellent and well-proven components, which were used to good effect in making the Excel a much better car than the Éclat that preceded it.
Styled by Oliver Winterbottom and Peter Stevens, the Excel featured a Toyota gearbox, diff, clutch, vented discs, doorhandles, heater controls and air-con.
The body was smoother and more aerodynamic, reducing the drag coefficient from 0.356 to 0.32Cd, while increasing rear-seat space and headroom.
Even better, the Éclat Excel, as it was first known, was £1100 cheaper.
Refinement was greatly advanced, the Excel living up to its name in flexibility, comfort and high-speed cruising ability without strain on car or driver.
This was combined with outstanding handling, ride and gearchange, its brilliantly executed chassis dynamics aided by perfect 50:50 weight distribution, making the Excel a hugely enjoyable car to drive for both short or long journeys.
Rearward vision was criticised, though electric door mirrors helped alleviate that.
The 180bhp SE took the Excel almost to the top of the class in performance terms, though the trade-off was that it was just a little harsher-riding, less flexible and less mechanically refined than the standard car, which continued in production alongside it.
And for those who saw the Excel’s potential as a seriously cool executive express, the automatic SA with standard air-con, leather trim and upmarket Clarion sound system was the perfect answer: it even kept the SE’s ‘red-top’ 180bhp engine and the ZF transmission was set up to compensate for the engine’s relatively high powerband.
The galvanised chassis lasts much longer than the mild steel of earlier cars but still needs checking, and other steel components within the structure can corrode: door beams and window frames rot and hinge pins seize, so check door fit carefully and look for telltale rust particles where they close: replacement is very labour-intensive.
The steel inserts for seatbelt mounts, especially at the rear, also rot, but can be replaced with stainless steel.
For a highly strung unit the Lotus 912 twin-cam is stronger than you might expect, but it depends on regular maintenance.
Stained cloth trim and sagging ceilings can make an Excel look very tired – leather tends to last better and the headliner, which is stuck to the roof, is fiddly but not too expensive to fix.
Images: James Mann
Lotus Excel: what to look for
See above for what to check when looking at Lotus Excels for sale.
Conceived in the 1960s, the Lotus 900-series twin-cam engine was well sorted by the time of the Excel, giving a throaty four-cylinder soundtrack and great performance.
This is a 180bhp SE with very high 10.9:1 compression: faster but more peaky than the 160bhp standard unit, which lacked the red cam covers.
Check rear suspension (above, left) mounts and legs for rust, plus dampers, bushes and hubs for wear. Calipers seize with infrequent use; test the handbrake, too.
Worn front suspension dampers, weak springs and failing bushes will turn sharp handling into porridge-stirring; look for power-steering leaks.
Check all the electrical components including the instruments: these can become temperamental with age, worsened by lack of use and damp.
Leather trim is more durable and easier to clean than the standard cloth. Check that the headlining isn’t sagging and all is present and correct.
Lotus Excel: before you buy
Expect nothing less than superb handling and a great ride from an Excel – if the car feels at all unsteady, something is wrong.
Don’t walk away though: just budget for new dampers and bushes, possibly a steering rack and accurate alignment.
Provided the chassis is sound and straight (checking for accident damage here is vital), everything else can be sorted relatively easily.
The twin-cam slant-four engine needs regular maintenance, especially cambelt changes every 24,000 miles or a maximum of four years: broken cambelts cause major engine damage. Provided it’s been well looked after, it’s a surprisingly strong and durable unit.
The SE had Nikasil-coated liners, for which regular oil changes are even more important – look for proof of frequent attention.
Check the exhaust manifold for cracks (visibly, and by listening for a ticking sound).
The standard 160bhp unit should feel quite flexible and pull strongly through the rev range; the SE is more cammy, with less torque low down but stronger pull higher up.
Both should have instant throttle response and a throaty tune; rough running may be down to worn spindles on the Dell’Orto carbs (tri-jet on the SE).
Check for exhaust smoke, excessive breathing, knocks and rattles indicating a worn engine.
Infrequent use leads to brake calipers seizing and damp getting into the electrics – make sure everything works and be prepared to rebuild the brakes if necessary. Brake upgrades are popular, giving modern standards of retardation, though the original set-up is perfectly adequate.
Lotus Excel price guide
- Show/rebuilt: £15,000-20,000*
- Average: £5000-9000*
- Restoration: £1500-2000*
*Prices correct at date of original publication
Lotus Excel history
1982 Sep Launch as the Éclat Excel: 160bhp, cloth trim, 14in Speedline wheels; optional power steering, air-con, half/full leather
1983 Dec Body-coloured bumpers, louvred bonnet, spoiler, optional Toyota Supra alloys
1984 Oct Flared front arches, bigger boot opening, optional 15in Speedline wheels
1985 Oct SE added: round-tooth cambelt, red cam covers, higher compression, tri-jet carbs, 180bhp; all get improved dash, heater, air-con, wipers, Toyota headlamp motors
1986 Oct SA automatic added: cruise control, central locking, new timber dash
1988 Oct Facelift: new spoilers, bonnet vent moved, mirrors moved to door tops, revised body mounts/suspension, 15in OZ wheels
1990 Nov Celebration (non-SE) launched: 35 Green, 5 Red, tan leather, CD autochanger
1992 Production ends
The owner’s view
“I had an Excel 27 years ago,” explains Shaun Wapshare. “It was my only car and I had no garage, so it became impractical – it’s the only car I ever regretted selling.
“It’s all about the drive: the instant throttle response, rifle-bolt gearchange, direct steering, the driving position, the sound of the engine. The ride is very good for a sports car, yet it’s also great fun to take on the track.
“So, 11 years ago, I spent £5000 on another. It’s the only Excel built in Pacific Blue with Magnolia leather.
“I thought I wouldn’t need to spend much to get it driving as well as the first one, yet I have spent £13k! The paint is largely original, but I’ve replaced the headlining, steering rack, water pump, rear dampers and springs, door beams and hinges. I’ve upgraded the brakes, radiator and exhaust.
“I did all that myself, but had an uprated clutch and lightened flywheel fitted professionally because I didn’t have the space.”
A class-leader for performance, economy and sales, but almost 10in taller with far less rear-seat space. Rust is the big enemy, along with some parts prices, though everything is available used.
Sold 1982-’92 • No. built 163,820 • Price now £2-30,000*
Renault’s bargain rear-engined supercoupé boasts a light, aerodynamic glassfibre 2+2 body, stiff backbone chassis (which can rot), and gutsy V6 engine: Turbos absolutely flew. Some parts are scarce.
Sold 1984-’91 • No. built 7291 • Price now £3-30,000*
*Prices correct at date of original publication
Lotus Excel: the Classic & Sports Car verdict
For such a handsome, practical and well-sorted Lotus, the Excel still represents incredible value for money.
This does mean that many cars have not been looked after as well as they should have been, and past neglect is a big consideration when purchasing.
Surprisingly, there is not much difference in price between early and late cars, 160 or 180bhp, or even manual and auto, so take time to find the best example in your chosen specification.
- Great value, performance, handling and looks
- Excels last well and, if well-maintained, can be reliable
- Parts supply is not bad, with many components sourced from other marques
- Some items are unobtainable
- Many cars have been neglected at best, abused at worst
- Restoration costs outstrip current resale values
Lotus Excel specifications
- Sold/number built 1982-’92/2160
- Construction steel chassis, glassfibre body
- Engine all-alloy, dohc 2174cc ‘four’, twin Dell’Orto 45 carburettors
- Max power 160-180bhp @ 6500rpm
- Max torque 160-165lb ft @ 5000rpm
- Transmission five-speed Toyota manual or four-speed ZF automatic, RWD
- Suspension independent, at front by upper wishbones, lower transverse links, anti-roll bar rear lower wishbones, upper transverse links; coil springs, telescopic dampers f/r
- Steering rack and pinion, optional power assistance (standard on SE)
- Brakes ventilated discs, with servo
- Length 14ft 4¼in (4375mm)
- Width 5ft 11½in (1815mm)
- Height 3ft 4½in (1030mm)
- Wheelbase 8ft 1¾in (2485mm)
- Weight 2482-2640lb (1128-1200kg)
- 0-60mph 8.8-6.9 secs
- Top speed 128-134mph
- Mpg 18-27
- Price new £17,590-22,900 (1987)
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