Lotus Carlton: Meeting The Car That Made The Government Angry

I spent some time with the Vauxhall Lotus Carlton and took a look at the outrage the car caused at the time of its launch

"Will the honorable gentleman join me in condemning especially the heavy publicity that has been given recently to a Vauxhall Carlton which is capable, apparently, of achieving 170mph?"

Those were the words of Alex Carlile - now Baron Carlile of Berriew - at the House of Commons on 16 November 1990. He was talking, of course, about the Vauxhall Lotus Carlton.

The parliamentary outrage caused by the 377bhp, 176mph super saloon is something I’ve heard mentioned many times before. But only in passing. If you delve into the full transcript of the Commons session from that day, however, you get a sense at just how much concern there was about this car.

“It should not be available for public purchase, even at the outrageous price of, I think, £45,000,” Carlile also said. “Irrespective of how good a driver one may be, it is questionable whether anyone can drive well at 170mph,” Lewisham Deptford MP Joan Ruddock added.

Lotus - Lotus Carlton: Meeting The Car That Made The Government Angry - Features

Then there was the reaction from the mainstream press. Bob Murray, Autocar & Motor editor at the time, said in a now-famous column that “Vauxhall should rethink the Lotus Carlton’s top speed,” and it didn’t take long for the papers to have a field day with this apparently irresponsible car. “By the following week every tabloid in the country had another ‘safety expert’ ready to condemn the car and call for its ban,” notes Ian Adcock in his 1991 book Lotus Carlton.

What was it about the Lotus Carlton that made it so controversial, when there were faster cars around at the time? A lot of it is down to the body styling of a car that was afforded this kind of firepower - back in the 1990s, 176mph was a figure reserved for supercars, not four-door saloons. Yes, there were other super saloons around then from BMW, but they were electronically-limited to 155mph.

The Lotus Carlton was faster than an M5 and also much more exotic machines from the time, including the Ferrari 348 and the Porsche 964 911. All 964s, in fact, until Stuttgart brought out the 3.6-litre version of the 911 Turbo.

Lotus - Lotus Carlton: Meeting The Car That Made The Government Angry - Features

The fact that it came from a brand like Vauxhall - known mostly for unassuming family cars - was surely a factor. It’d be years before the VXR brand was unleashed upon the world, and save for a few rebadged Holdens, we’ve seen nothing anywhere near as unhinged as this from the British company since.

Its 377bhp is eclipsed in 2018 by even ‘semi-skimmed’ sports saloons like the Mercedes-AMG C43, but such comparisons are worthless. The Merc can handle that output easily, but the Lotus Carlton? Not so much.

What really sets it apart from the vast majority of modern performance cars is that it feels hilariously over-powered. Yes, then-GM subsidiary Lotus tried its best to improve the already lauded Carlton chassis with beefier self-levelling Senator dampers and bigger brakes (four-piston front and two-piston rear), but that wasn’t really enough to counteract what the engineers did under the bonnet.

Lotus - Lotus Carlton: Meeting The Car That Made The Government Angry - Features

Here, we have an engine that started out life as the 3.0-litre straight-six from the GSi 3000. It was bored out to make it a 3.6, and given a pair of Garrett T25 turbochargers. The six-speed gearbox is shared with the C4 Corvette ZR1, and at the back, you’ll find a mechanical limited-slip differential, which should help the power go down to the tarmac. But on a cold, greasy day, good luck.

The boost from the two turbochargers is a relatively modest 0.7 bar, so lag is not actually that conspicuous. Certainly not as bad as I’d been expecting. Boost builds progressively and reasonably quickly, although the first time I tried full throttle in the car, it felt like I wasn’t making any progress. Until I noticed the car was gradually starting to rotate. At least it gives plenty of warning.

Lotus took the Carlton GSI 3000's straight-six, enlarged it, and added two turbochargers
Lotus took the Carlton GSI 3000's straight-six, enlarged it, and added two turbochargers

Finally, with some dry enough tarmac to experience full throttle without fear of an awkward phone call to Vauxhall’s heritage fleet people, I went for it. The straight-line pace is alarming: despite a modest - for today - 5.2sec 0-60mph time, there’s so much mid-range punch from the boosted six that the Lotus Carlton feels as fast as today’s angriest super saloons. But with a chassis from the early 90s.

This is a genuinely scary combination, and it means you’ll constantly find yourself being fired towards the next corner, leaning on the just-about-adequate brakes to scrub off a considerable amount of speed, only to find out you’ve still overestimated how the Carlton is going to handle the bend. I’m sure it was considered a sharp, fine-driving thing back in the day, but times have moved on considerably since then.

Lotus - Lotus Carlton: Meeting The Car That Made The Government Angry - Features

It feels soft, nose-heavy and is determined to kick the back end out even with moderate mid-corner throttle inputs. It’s a handful, but also extremely fun. Not to mention tiring - everything about this car is conspicuously butch. The steering, the hefty gearchange, and the robust clutch pedal - they’re all extremely heavy.

I suppose it’s fitting that a car which caused so much outrage upon its reveal feels outrageous to drive - even today. The irony is, it’s the tabloid fury and grumblings from politicians that have helped cement the Lotus Carlton’s reputation as a legend, and a sought-after one at that.

Vauxhall struggled to sell the enormously expensive car - which was getting on for £100,000 adjusted for inflation - and production was cut short as a result, with 320 Vauxhall Lotus Carltons and 630 Opel Lotus Omegas sold. But now, prices are rising steadily, and you should expect to part with around £40,000 for a good one. For the backstory, the performance and the driving experience, that’s a bargain.