Lotus Excel SE | The Brave Pill

No spreadsheet is necessary to calculate the appeal of this one

By Mike Duff / Saturday, 16 April 2022 / Loading comments

Many of us have used the sports car excuse over the years. This is the get out of jail free card frequently played when volunteers are being asked to step forward for transport duties for an expedition involving family or friends: “I’d love to drive, obviously – but I’ve only got a two seats.”

Yet some more sociable types want to have both a sports car and the ability to give a lift to more than one other person at the time, which is where the sub-genre of four-seaters comes in. As a category these obviously blend with the comfier grand tourers, which, more often than not, come with the luxury of rear accommodation. But despite its extra pews the Lotus Excel definitely qualifies as being a proper sports car thanks to the combination of twin-cam power and a kerbweight lighter than a modern Mini.

While the imminent arrival of another four-seat Lotus started the thought process on this one, it didn’t take long to decide on an Excel. This was based on rational criteria – the sensibleness of some shared Toyota parts and the fact that there are two in the classifieds, versus the grand total of zero Éclats. But also on the entirely emotional grounds that the Excel was one of the very first cars I experienced as a motoring journalist in the late 1990s.

I was a part-timer in those days, combining a day job selling software with a weekend gig doing small write-ups on interesting cars found in the back pages of a well-known classic car magazine. Beyond an instruction not to select anything too obvious – so none of the MGBs, Triumph TRs or Merc SLs that would inevitably be found in the features section – I had free rein as to what to choose, only needing to persuade the vendor to let me have a go. So, naturally, I immediately set about trying to fill in some of the many gaps in my automotive education.

Many of the cars I drove fell short of my fresh faced expectations, but the Excel comprehensively exceeded them. From memory it was a very similar SE to our Pill, but finished in black and being sold by a nice chap in darkest Oxfordshire who let me have a comprehensive test drive on some tight, slippery local roads. It was my first experience of a Lotus twin-cam engine – rorty, muscular – but also of the brand’s chassis magic. The Excel had a plaint ride, a pointy front end and a rear axle which surrendered grip unscarily – even with the owner sitting next to me and egging me on. It went straight onto my list of personal dynamic heroes.

The Excel had been developed from the earlier Lotus Éclat, that being a stylish four-seater that – alongside the related Type 75 Elite – owed a substantial debt of inspiration to the Lamborghini Espada. Being a ’70s Lotus the Éclat had also quickly developed a reputation for expensive shonkiness, especially chassis corrosion.

By the early 1980s Lotus was working closely with Toyota on what would become the A60 Supra, and so the decision was taken to use a fair amount of Toyota componentry for the new improved car. This included the rear differential, gearbox and both steering column plus the wheel itself for what was initially branded as Éclat Excel, but which was soon pruned to just become Excel. Power came from Lotus’s long-serving slant four, this mounted as close to the front bulkhead as possible to help with weight distribution. The combination of a galvanised steel chassis and glassfibre bodywork – the rubbing strip hiding the gap between upper and lower mouldings – translated to an impressively svelte 1,168 kg kerbweight. So while there wasn’t much mass to share between the axles its static balance was a perfect 50:50.

Despite generally positive reviews, demand was limited, and after four years of slow sales Lotus tried to increase interest with the launch of the SE version. This was a separate variant above the regular Excel, but in reality it seems to have effectively replaced the basic car in short order. The SE got a brawnier 180hp version of the 2.2-litre engine, indicated by a red cam cover, although one that still breathed through twin Dellorto carbs rather than the fuel injection most contemporary rivals had already switched to. It also got a walnut dashboard, electric windows an adjustable steering column and a chunkier front air dam. For £19,590 in 1986 it was just over £1,000 more than the regular car.

The price tag emerges from the inflation calculator at £61,000 in 2022 pounds, but it still made the SE look like strong value compared to posher rivals: the similarly powerful Porsche 944S started at £25,300. But reviewers seemed less keen on the SE than they had the original car, with criticism of the limited refinement of the slant four when worked hard. The SE only revived fading sales numbers briefly, and during ten years of production Lotus sold just 2,075 Excels of all types.

Yet despite the modest numbers out there, Excel values haven’t made for the stratosphere as interest in other ’80s neo-classics has risen. For £15,995 this one looks like fair value for a low-mileage car being sold by a dealer whose specialist credentials are underwritten by also having the only other Excel currently in the classifieds.

The advert claims our Pill comes with good service history, and the MOT history confirms both attentive care in its cleanliness, but also that mileage has been creeping up both slowly and constantly. So although the Excel has only covered a couple of hundred miles between its recent tests, they do pretty much run together without gaps – a sign of the sort of constant use which is much better for cars of this era than long periods off the road. The official record shows the Excel passed the 50,000 mile barrier just before its 2017 test, with that figure having only increased to 51,123 by the time the most recent ticket got digitally stamped in February.

Don’t worry; as you would expect for any Pill this one is spared the heresy of perfection. The original buyer opted for the standard tweed cloth trim instead of the £1,000 upgrade to full leather, and although the grey fabric still looks nice it is sagging on the passenger door card, and a patch of rear headlining also seems to have lost the fight against gravity.

Although widely spread throughout a generation of Lotus products, and widely known to specialists, the slant four engine also suffers from enough issues to be considered courageous, and while the late high-compression 912 iteration featured here is one of the tougher members of the clan, owners still report a tendency towards bearing wear on some. The Toyota bits should be tough, but, ironically, may actually be harder to replace if they do go wrong than the better supported pure Lotus componentry.

Although we don’t have finalised pricing for the all-electric Eletre it seems likely that you’d be able to nab this Excel SE for well under 20 percent of the EV’s price tag, and it wouldn’t be surprising if the Excel also turns out to be less than half the weight, too – while able to transport an equal number of people to the next local chapter meeting of the Lotus Owners’ Club. You’d almost certainly feel more welcome when you get there, too – and wouldn’t need to ask permission to hook up an extension cord.

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