It’s all but impossible to fully grasp the impact the Lotus Carlton (or Omega in Opelspeak) had upon an unsuspecting motoring public a little under 30 years ago. After all, we now live in a world where the likes of Mercedes and Audi will sell you an all-wheel drive hot hatch with as-near-as-makes-no-difference 400bhp, accompanied with a battery of trick traction control devices and the sure-footed assurance of four-wheel drive.
This was far from the case when the Lotus Carlton was announced at the end of the ‘80s. This was a point in time when a V6 Capri was considered a fairly potent road car, when a hot hatch struggled to make 140bhp, and when only a select band of eye-wateringly expensive supercars could take you through the fabled 200mph barrier. And here was Vauxhall, a company which had hitherto scraped a living selling mass-market rep-fodder and which had begun the ’80s with a less than stellar reputation, pairing with Norfolk’s finest to produce a saloon capable of 180mph.
The idea behind the Lotus Carlton was simple enough; the boys from Luton wanted a way of polishing their sporting credentials and sprinkling some magic on the otherwise fairly ordinary Carlton (though the original plan was to produce a compound-charged Senator), while Lotus was at something of a loose end and, as ever, in need to extra money. The latter had also been purchased by GM midway through the ’80s, so you could say it was a case of the planetary gears aligning.
Lotus Carltons were based upon the range topping model, the GSI, with the shells being shipped from Europe to Hethel for extensive bodywork modification. This was mainly centred upon cutting away a good portion of the inner arches in order to accommodate the outrageously big (by the standards of the day) 17in wheels.
Lotus also worked its suspension wizardry on the car and ultimately decided that while the GM designed rear multi-link setup was adequate for the task at hand, it could do with some assistance. They therefore cribbed and added the electro-pneumatic levelling setup from the Carlton Diamond estate, a means of better cantering excessive camber changes under heavy load and ‘exuberant’ driving.
Then there was its engine, the C36GET. It was based upon the GSI’s inline six but with the addition of a pair of T25 turbos, not to mention a litany of block strengthening modifications designed to make it a reliable proposition. The results were spectacular, the reworked engine capable of putting out a thumping 377bhp..and with nary a driver aid to be seen. That’s a hefty enough figure in 2019, in 1990 it must have seemed out of this world, all the more so when you consider the car in question’s somewhat humble origins.
Vauxhall and Lotus rummaged through the GM parts bin to source other elements of its drive train, namely the six-speed gearbox from a Corvette ZR-1 and, moving ‘down under,’ the rear end and Limited Slip Diff’ from a Holden Commodore. The results were workmanlike and tough rather than finessed or graceful (as anyone who’s had the pleasure of operating its clutch pedal will attest), but there was no denying the parts did the job.
So far, so normal. Well, as normal as it’s ever possible for a 180mph saloon car to be! No, what really helped mark the ‘LC’ out as something altogether more special had nothing to do with the driving experience it offered but the media firestorm its launch generated. The Daily Mail ran a screaming headline suggesting that the new car be banned, while one of the UK’s top police officers branded it ‘an outrageous invitation to speed.’ It was even raised, then briefly debated in the House of Commons, not something any modern ‘uber saloon’ can claim!
Road testers were rather more positive about the car, praising its immense power, addictive character and cosseting luxury, but the motoring journos weren’t alone. This was the early ‘90s, remember, the heyday of the ‘ram raider’ and the sky-high insurance premium, and it wasn’t long before the more unscrupulous, sticky fingered members of society began hunting out the Lotus Carlton as their getaway vehicle of choice. After all, you could get a lot of VHS players in the boot of one of these, and there was no way in hell a Mk3 Astra police car was going to be able to keep up with you.
One West Midlands gang proved especially adept at evading the long arm off the law with the help of the Lotus Carlton, eventually making off with £20,000 worth of booze and cigarettes (almost certainly Hooch and Lambert & Butler, it being the ’90s and all) and causing something of a media firestorm and prompting PC David Oliver to claim:
‘We simply haven’t been able to get near the thing and it looks unlikely that we ever will. Our urban panda cars can only go at 90mph, but we also have a policy of not getting involved in chases. If we did that, the thieves could kill themselves or someone else.’
‘They’re obviously getting very cocky to carry out a raid right in front of a police station but they know they can get away once back inside the car,’ PC Oliver said. ‘Officers heard the gang smash through the newsagent’s door at about 3am and ran out to investigate immediately. But all they saw was a cloud of dust.
‘All the raids have happened between midnight and 5am. Our only chance of catching the gang is if someone can tell us where they are hiding the car during the day.’
It’s also worth surveying the super saloon landscape of the period to see just how much of a quantum leap in performance the Lotus represented. This was an era when the likes of Mercedes and Audi stuck to a gentleman’s agreement to peg their cars to ‘just’ 155mph, when the Nissan Skyline was a little-known eastern oddity on these shores, and when the likes of the Ferrari F40 made under 500bhp. And here was Vauxhall, pitching up with a saloon capable of humbling almost anything on sale at the time. Not bad for a warmed up Carlton.
Sadly for Vauxhall, it opted to launch the Carlton at the worst possible time, bang, smack in the middle of the biggest recession for decades. The already modest pool of potential customers willing to sink the best part of £50,000 into a Vauxhall super saloon dried up almost overnight. The firm originally planned to build and sell 1100 of them in Vauxhall and Opel guise, but the failing economy meant they pulled the plug after car number 950. The final cars were supposedly sold in 1994, a full 4 years on from its launch.
But then the Lotus Carlton’s status as an automotive legend was never about anything as hum drum or dry as sales stats or even performance figures, and neither have much of a bearing now, nearly 30 years on. No, what matters is that for a short, glorious period of time, one of the UK’s most pedestrian car makers could sell you a bonkers super-saloon able to kick the stuffing out of most anything offered by Italy’s more salubrious car makers. Luton (and Hethel) trumped Modena, effectively.
There is one Lotus Carlton stat that’s worth parlaying however, if only as it gives a good idea of how astoundingly pokey the car was in relation to its contemporaries, namely the E34 M5 (just over 300bhp, if you didn’t know). The Lotus held the title of the world’s fastest production saloon for the best part of two decades, only being usurped with the launch of the V10 E60 M5 in the early part of the noughties. It’s a Retropower Hero, make no mistake.