Driven: Lotus Carlton

A fast four door; they’re ten a penny now, but in 1990 this big barge was something special…

If somebody launched a saloon car today with 377bhp and a top speed of just shy of 180mph, nobody would bat an eyelid. Go back to 1990 and it would have been something of a surprise, given that even the legendary BMW M5 could only manage 311bhp and 155mph.

Such a car was launched though, and not by Mercedes, BMW or Audi. No, it was Vauxhall. Yes, that Vauxhall. The Vauxhall that was responsible for the Nova and Belmont. It was as shocking as Marks & Spencer adding a rubber dress and gimp outfit to its Middle England clothing range.

Image © Adam Tudor-Lane

What Vauxhall had produced was the Lotus Carlton. GM owned all the brands back then, so handed the Carlton over to Lotus who went to work on it. The standard 3.0-litre engine was enlarged to 3.6-litres, a couple of turbochargers were bolted on, and a new intercooler system was put in place. A six-speed manual gearbox was was lifted from the Chevrolet Corvette, and Holden donated the limited-slip differential from the Commodore V8, while countless other changes worked together to increase performance and improve reliability.

More power needs more control, so the multi-link suspension was modified to improve handling and high-speed stability, while the self-leveling suspension from the larger Vauxhall Senator was fitted to keep things straight and level when fully loaded. Finally, large (at least in 1990) 17-inch wheels were fitted, with Goodyear Eagle tyres, covering AP four-pot brakes.

Image © Adam Tudor-Lane

The result was an executive saloon that could carry five passengers at speeds of close to 180mph. It was such a switch from normality that, famously, the car was briefly discussed in Parliament.

“Will the honourable Gentleman join me in condemning especially the heavy publicity that has been given recently to a Vauxhall Carlton which is capable, apparently, of achieving 170 mph?” asked Alex Carlile MP. “It should not be available for public purchase, even at the outrageous price of, I think, £45,000.”

“I entirely agree with the honourable and learned Gentleman,” replied Sir Anthony Grant MP. “I would not, however, confine my criticism to the Vauxhall company. I could mention many other motor car manufacturers, but I shall not do so.”

Image © Adam Tudor-Lane

I was 14 when I first saw the Lotus Carlton. I struggled with the feelings I had, but as I grew up I realised it was pure lust. That feeling never faded, even as ever faster cars appeared on the market. I’d resigned myself to never owning a Lotus Carlton, but I knew I’d at least drive one. One day.

That day took 28 years but, finally, I had the keys to car no. 820. This is Vauxhall’s own car, kept in near perfect condition at its Heritage Centre. It’s maintained to within an inch of its life, and feels almost like new. I eased it onto the mean streets of Luton very gently…

Image © Adam Tudor-Lane

The Carlton is surprisingly docile initially. The heavy clutch pedal makes stop/start traffic tiresome, but it’s easy enough when rolling. Then you roll just a little bit more and those twin Garrett T25 turbos kick in and the scenery starts to get blurry. Keep the rear wheels connected to the tarmac and it’ll hit 100mph in just 11.1 seconds, which is quicker than a Ferrari Testarossa or Porsche 928.

The Carlton behaves better than either of those, too. Those turbos don’t spool up very quickly, so getting off the line is easy enough, the car moving and traction established before all the power is unleashed. The gearbox is pleasing smooth and accurate, especially once warmed up, although the throw is quite long. It rides well too, settling nicely as speed increases. Then a corner arrives, you brake and, well, not much happens. Hit the brakes harder and you start scrubbing of speed, but it’s worth noting that even these 328mm discs and AP Racing calipers aren’t exactly up to modern standards.

Image © Adam Tudor-Lane

Turn into the corner and you’ll find a lot of dead space around straight ahead on the steering, the car requiring a bit more of a tug of the wheel to tuck the front end in. The body rolls and flexes, as you’d expect from a 30-year old design, but it’s not untoward and markedly better than many rivals of its time. Learn how it balances itself and adjusts mid corner and it becomes something you can trust and rely on.

Thanks to that long chassis, the limited slip differential, the somewhat on/off nature of the turbos, and the fact that there’s no traction control or stability control, it’s possible to make roundabouts more, er, entertaining than in most cars. And if you do, it’s easy to keep under control and manage angles, once you’ve remembered that you need to spin the steering wheel rather more briskly than on a modern car.

Image © Adam Tudor-Lane

Passing a police car on the M1 got some knowing nods. Back in the day this car was, literally, untouchable. The police had nothing that could keep up with it, which was something of a shame for them considering how popular the Lotus became with joyriders.

It’s safe to drive it once again, respectfully but forcefully. It won’t keep up with the super saloons of today, but it’ll still show a clean pair of tailpipes to most things one the road, and you’ll have a lot of fun doing so.

Image © Adam Tudor-Lane

Vauxhall – Vauxhall! – made a masterpiece in 1990, but hasn’t hit the same heights since. Nobody has. Everything since has been improved iteratively, there’s been no leap so huge that parliament got involved, nothing else that’s struck fear into the police force.

That’s good news for the Lotus Carlton, its stories not belittled by the latest model that does more for less. It sits there, knowing it’s been beaten but not bettered.

Model Tested: Lotus Carlton
Price new: £48,000
Price now: £40-50,000 est
Top speed: 176+ mph
0-62 mph: 5.4 seconds
Power: 382 PS (377 bhp)
Torque: 568 Nm (419 lb ft)
Monthly PCP*: N/A
Official fuel economy: 34.9 mpg at 56 mph
Road test economy: N/A
CO2 Emissions: N/A
Car Tax: £255
Insurance group: N/A
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Phil is a motoring writer for print and web, failed racing driver, car hoarder and banger rally competitor. Nominated for the Headline Auto Rising Star award and a MGMW member, Phil freelances for outlets as diverse as Diesel Car magazine, DAD.info and Cambridge Magazine, amongst many others. He also maintains a fleet of unloved motors, but spends most of his time driving an old Corvette.

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