Ask any middle-aged British petrolhead what car they aspired to own when they were younger, and you may be surprised at just how many dreamed of owning one particular super saloon. There was, and always will be, something other-worldly about exotic supercars, but for many working class lads in the nineties, it was the home grown ‘built in a shed’ charms of the Lotus Carlton that really appealed.
You see, here in the UK we love an underdog, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that we’re the home of the hot hatch. When a manufacturer takes your typical family car and turns into an unassuming big dog of the performance car world, we go mad for it. It’s been going on for years; the Ford Escort RS Cosworth is legendary with the boy racers of Essex, but before that, there was the Carlton. It’s no hatchback, but it most definitely hides its supercar-shaming performance credentials.
The Lotus Carlton’s greatest trick is that it completely flies under the radar. As I walk towards the car, what I know to be under that vented bonnet is completely at odds with what I see before me. It’s the epitome of awesome squared-off eighties design, accentuated by subtle flared arches, more butch bumpers and a rear spoiler.
The interior is wonderfully retro. The steering wheel is thick and large, and sits in front of a slab-fronted dashboard adorned with suitably chunky dials. The large leather seats do not cosset your hips in any way, and without modern crash regulations to adhere to the interior is huge and airy with great visibility all round.
After an embarrasing few minutes spent negotiating the rub your belly, pat your head immobiliser, I’m away. As I slowly roll out of Vauxhall’s Heritage Centre into the traffic of central Luton, my mind wanders to the weapon of mass organ rearrangement that’s just a prod of my right foot away.
It’s a frankly ridiculous powertrain. Lotus took the 3.0-litre straight-six from the Carlton GSi and completely overhauled it. First it was bored out to 3.6-litres, then a pair of Garrett T25 turbos were strapped on. On top of that, the team fitted an intercooler, an uprated crankshaft and reinforcing the engine block to handle the extra pressure in the cylinders.
Furthermore, the transmission was replaced with the six-speed ZF unit from the Chevrolet Corvette ZR-1, with power transferred to the rear wheels through the V8 Holden Commodore’s limited-slip differential.
That’s a hell of a lot of work, and a hell of a lot of pedigree, the result of which is 377bhp and 419lb ft of torque. 0-60mph comes and goes in 5.2 seconds ahead of its stratospheric top speed of 177mph. It’s so quick, in fact, that Autocar’s Editor at the time of the car’s release, Bob Murray, said that the top speed should be limited to 155mph - like the Germans were doing - which caused a national campaign to have the car banned. GM executives voted unanimously not to limit the Carlton, and so an icon was born.
My mind wanders to the weapon of mass organ rearrangement that’s just a prod of my right foot away
That’s a lot to take in, especially when you remember that this car was built in 1990. That means no sophisticated aids to make up for enthusiastic ineptitude. Lotus worked its famed suspension magic on the standard car’s multi-link suspension, fitted wider tyres and bigger, more powerful brakes, but the only thing stopping the wheels from turning 377bhp into thick, white smoke is my right foot… and the heavens have just opened. And I mean really opened. It’s absolutely chucking it down.
This car drives better than most modern cars. The steering is power assisted, but feels perfectly weighted and is so confidence-inspiring, that you just turn the wheel and feel it weight up in your hands so you know exactly what the front-end is doing. It shines a spotlight on the disconnection you feel using modern electric systems.
The ride is also sublime, expertly combining those seemingly mutually exclusive traits of communicating the road surface while also soaking up bumps like a soft cruiser. The steering and ride come together to allow me to turn in and just hold the car on a steady line. Until you start to introudce the throttle…
Modern forced induction cars hardly feel forced at all. During hard driving there is rarely any perceptible lag, allowing you to turn your attentions towards placing the car where you want it. Not so in the Carlton. The turbos run the old school way - spinning up via exhaust gases - which means there isn’t just lag, rather a long and serious conversation with the car every time you plant your right foot: “So you’d like to go quick now, yes? Are you sure? Are you really sure? I’m about to give you a kick up the arse, are you definitely prepared? Okay, here we go….
When the power comes, oh boy, do you know about it. Especially on these damp roads, the delivery is comically terrifying. I’m giggling like a kid on a rollercoaster. The first time (of many) I nearly soiled my underwear was about five minutes after getting in the car. Halfway through a roundabout I pushed slightly on the throttle, just to get my first taste of all that power. Nothing. Okay, a little bit more, then…and half a second later I became aware of a surge that sent the rear wheels spinning and the back-end getting loose. I caught it, managing to play the moment off like I’d meant it, silently hiding the fact that my heart was beating out of my chest. This is not a car to take lightly.
Over the next hour or so, the Carlton reveals both of its characters. With the rain falling, driving it hard is a frenetic experience, but once you acclimatise to the power delivery, it’s an all-consuming riot. The back-end loves to get loose, but with the long wheelbase and lovely steering feel you have the confidence to reign it all in - the joy comes from taming the ‘I want to kill you’ Carlton.
On the flip side, once the roads turn to rivers and spoil my fun, the big Lotus does ‘chilled out cruiser’ just as brilliantly. It’s a four door saloon, so there’s a massive boot and loads of interior. Despite its age it never feels frail, imbuing a sense of solidity you’d expect from modern saloons, with a steering feel that the new boys would kill for.
I know I keep gushing about the steering, but it just has to be experienced. I’m a big believer in always moving forward with technology, but piloting that thick-rimmed wheel brought out my inner-luddite - modern engineers should drive this car, then do whatever they can to replicate it. For once, we must go back.