Lotus Carlton

Total Production: 950 1990 - 1993
Ah, Britain. Tea time, the Queen, quaint little taxi cabs… and the fastest sedans in the world. If that latter facet of British culture sounds at all out of place, take a moment to ponder all of your choices when shopping for a 200mph luxury land-yacht. Brabus can make you up a nice Mercedes-Benz with plenty of gusto, but how about a production car? Looks like the only option is Bentley's latest iteration of the successful Continental Flying Spur, the Speed.

Was it always like this? How about all those pricey pieces with M or S or AMG scribbled on the deck lid? There will always be a place for the Teutonic über-sedans of BMW, Audi, and Mercedes-Benz, but since the early 1990's Britain has been capable of building quiet athletes that often deliver even crazier quantities of speed.

Back in 1990 a car called the Lotus Carlton was unleashed upon an unsuspecting public.
It was based on the inconspicuous Vauxhall Carlton (Opel Omega in some markets), a family-hauling sedan with no more sporting intentions than the most sensible Volvo or Toyota.

The boring Vauxhall Carlton was an accurate representation of the Vauxhall brand as a whole. The marque was nearly lifeless and in need of resuscitation. A GM subsidiary, Vauxhall produced drab cars with too little personality and too much anonymity. To remedy the boredom bug, Vauxhall contacted Lotus. Like Vauxhall, Lotus was a British name. Unlike Vauxhall, Lotus knew how to produce some seriously quick and colorful machinery.

The ensuing project involved much more than throwing some Lotus badges at a family sedan. The engineering virtuosos at Lotus developed and built their own thoroughly enhanced version of the Carlton. With a tunable straight six and rear-wheel-drive, the Carlton made a good starting point for a high-performance vehicle. The sports car mavens at Lotus improved upon everything.

Rear suspension was by a Lotus-designed multilink axle. Combined with excellent dampers used all around, the Lotus Carlton could safely hold its muscular stance while powering through apexes. The composed sedan was endowed with tenacious grip courtesy of the very wide tires, which were 235mm up front and 265mm out back.

The deep dish rims necessitated by the thick rear tires hinted at huge performance, but there were few other visual clues to inform onlookers of the car's potential. Wide fenders, side sill extensions, and spoilers front and rear were all present, but their tasteful shapes could easily be missed by the uninformed. Louvers in the hood were there as well, but again the modification was subtle and in good taste. Even the requisite Lotus emblems on the front fenders were quiet enough to keep BMW pilots in a state of blissful ignorance.

Subtle or not, the Lotus Carlton had a definite bad-boy look to it. Like biceps rippling beneath a tuxedo, the performance potential permeated to the car's surface and created a face that was equal parts sophisticated and sinister.

To create the muscle bulging beneath the Carlton's skin, Lotus stroked the car's engine to 3.6-liters. Two Garret T25 turbochargers were added, and the result was a 213% power increase. The Carlton 3000 GSi engine, a hearty family car mill in its day with 177hp, had its output jacked to 377hp in Lotus tune. Now that a BMW M3 has 414hp, the number 377 doesn't seem quite as impressive. The Lotus Carlton, though, was around almost twenty years ago when plenty of families thought their 110hp Mazdas were quick for sedans. The deep reserves of power were hooked to the rear axle through a 6-speed gearbox lifted out of the Corvette ZR-1, another road-bound missile that Lotus helped to develop. The transmission's gearing was perfect for the Lotus Carlton's gentlemanly approach to speed. Cruising at 140mph in overdrive, the car's engine was turning over at just 3,000rpm.

At 3,600lbs, the Lotus Carlton was no lightweight. Yet its manic power still delivered an impressive power-to-weight ratio that was good for some impressive figures. In 4.8 seconds, 60mph had arrived. The official top speed was given as 176mph. That kind of speed was unbelievable for a sedan built during the Lotus Carlton's 1990-1993 lifespan.

Don't forget that if something seems too good to be true, it probably is. Sure enough, the Lotus Carlton's claimed top speed was something of a hoax. Real-life testing revealed some substantially different numbers. Try 186mph. The fastest production car of the Carlton's era was the Ferrari F40. It could hit 202mph. It could also attract law enforcement agencies from bordering nations through its trumpeted exhaust, and arrest all local attention with its racecar looks and mammoth rear spoiler. The Lotus Carlton lost a paltry 14mph to the Ferrari, and made up for it with a cabin that could seat a driver and a few friends within a cocoon of elegant British ambiance as time and space were warped into the English countryside.

A new Lotus Carlton was 48,000 British pounds, a price that translates to about $120,000 now. The cost was inordinately high for a Vauxhall, and even the low sales goal of 1,100 was not met. The total count came to just 950 cars. Of those, 630 were sold in markets where the Vauxhall Carlton was called the Opel Omega. Accordingly, those vehicles were marketed as Lotus Omegas. Only 320 were actually sold with Lotus Carlton badging, but the Lotus Carlton's catchier name has led to its label being used widely in reference to the Lotus Carlton/Omega vehicles. There's another name for the Carlton, too. Lotus was so involved with the project, they gave the car their own designation of Type 104. The Lotus Carlton was a lethal combination of mild looks and wild performance, and a great example of one of GM Europe's excellent machines that never reached the Unites States. Whether chauffeuring the whole family for an afternoon outing or destroying Porsches on the freeway, the Lotus Carlton operated under the unsuspicious banner of prim and proper potency.

Sources:

Hackett, Kevin. 'Turbo Top 10: Lotus Carlton.' European Car Mar 2008: 54. Print.

Hughes, Mark. 'Lotus Carlton: 1990-1993.' LotusEspritWorld.com Web.13 May 2009. http://www.lotusespritworld.com/LotusModels/LotusCarlton.html.

Ireson, Nelson. 'Lotus Carlton Voted Favorite Vauxhall Ever.' Motor Authority 01 Dec 2008 Web.13 May 2009. http://www.motorauthority.com/lotus-carlton-voted-favorite-vauxhall-ever.html.

'Lotus History: Type 104 - Lotus Carlton/Omega (1990).' hazelnet.org Web.13 May 2009. http://www.hazelnet.org/lotus/.

By Evan Acuña

Lotus Models


Vehicle information, history, and specifications from concept to production.
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