It wasn't to be so. Originally, it was supposed to be a drive in a Lamborghini Gallardo LP560-4 from Chandini Chowk to the gates of the upcoming F1 track at Greater Noida. A visual heavy story, celebrating India's big leap into the world of spent fuel and carbon fibre, of scrambelled air waves and huge Scania team bigrigs. But then, one thing led to another and the LP560-4 turned into a last generation Blu Caleum Gallardo 520, menacing nevertheless but it couldn't be taken out of Delhi's 'under'belly. That immediately meant shifting into a Plan C, which in <I>BSM<I> terms means trying to find something to 'go along with it', and of course completely unplanned. Raj Kapoor, ex-Rallyist, a Storm junkie and a dear friend suddenly found himself on the wrong side of the bed one Saturday morning, trying to convince his client to come along with his car for a memorable shoot. Everything was being worked out in a state of semi-consciousness and I couldn't gauge the severity of the event, until Anant, Raj and said car, the 1982 Lotus Esprit Turbo turned up to pose for shots next to the Gallardo.
From all angles and aspects, this was supposed to be another unintentional story with a supposed angle constructed around the event. But it seemed that day, fate had something else in store for me. I couldn't have asked for a more perfect mating of supercars than these, even though they were the only two available to me that morning in the whole of New Delhi. How else do you explain the presence of two 1. mid-engined supercars built by 2. two firms that have had more owners than Tiger Woods has had mistresses and in one case 3. being penned by two renowned designers, Marcello Gandini and Giorgetto Giugiaro who at one point even 'allegedly' worked on the same car - the Lamborghini Miura.
Twenty five years separated the two as the fog started to lift and the sun's rays tore through the dense air, and yet one of them looked like the veil of time hadn't troubled its achingly stunning lines - the other only looking to head down the same path. The Gallardo may not be anything like yesteryear, pre-VAG Lambos with their horrible electricals and reliability issues that were more 'explosive' than the Gaza strip. It doesn't even have some wild body kit, a post-box sized rear window and the winner of the best cloth hanger of the year - the Countach's rear spoiler. Heck, if anything, it can't hide its newfound Aryan engineering ethos and yet it's as Italian as it can be. It's like a newer avatar of the folded paper design concept, first brought to the fore by the Countach and then Giorgetto's Esprit. It's what most kids would scribble in the back pages of their math books today as their supercar and because this is the pre LP560-4 it's also the purest of the form with none of the LED gimmickery and you still have those large square tail lamps that characterise the rump and make the car look squat. But the Esprit looks like it applied an anti-ageing cream in 1975 and it... stopped ageing ever since! Okay, those five mph bumpers are a dead giveaway, but hey ask anyone from our generation and from the ones before and you would find our school books littered with Countaches and Esprits. We liked our supercars with pop-up headlamps, we also liked them with aero-bits jutting out, with lots of cooling vents and louvres and with stickering that said 'Turbo' on the flanks. It didn't matter for Giugiaro because his original concept study was a clean car with none of that, er... detailing. That virgin design alas had to make way for what the market (read Ferrari and Lamborghini) did, so the add ons came in with the S2. For Lotus, it was their first attempt at getting out of the kit car fold and with a tag that said 'supercar manufacturer'. It may have been built using fibre glass, but it didn't gain as much cred as it did until 1980, James Bond and an underwater submersing Turbo Esprit cataputled the Hethel based outfit to heights never before imagined.
To gauge what the Turbo could actually do, we made a dash for the corridors of power in India and the two cars were just espousers of that fact. On an early Saturday morning, South Delhi's roads open up to what we could say are the best supercar roads in a city in this country. The wide open expanses of well paved tarmac on either side make it a virtual playground. Leading the way was the Lamborghini, being driven the way it should be, while I gave it chase in the Lotus. From where I was sitting, the Lambo sounded like God clearing his throat to give a sermon. The forty valves in the 5.0-litre V10 seemed to be opening up in rapid succession and soon there was that sweet spot called 3500 rpm. I never knew what hit me but before I could cover myself in drool, the Lambo started to distance itself into the wooded roads where India's high and mighty reside. It took me a couple of seconds before I moved up a gear and started to give it chase, not just because I was too stunned by what just happened, but because I had a rather sticky gearbox for company. While Lotus took five years to go from normally aspirated to Turbocharged, in its thirty years they never resorted to solving their achilles heel - the gearbox. Derived from a Renault 25, it uses a rather weird sort of gear linkage to transmit the power to its rear-driven wheels; a combination of rods and cables which Raj tells me has been one of the reasons why it has spent more time in the last four years in his workshop than in Anant's courtyard. You ram clack your way into first, and then move the sticky and sometimes notchy gearlever through the gate but as it gets warmed up it starts to get better and better, though the clutch has this tendency of sticking in.
Which was bearable because the Lambo soon had this yellow number squaring it right up. It doesn't have more than 2174 cubes to size the Sant Agata'n up and with just 210 bhp it probably sounds a bit underpowered. But don't be fooled, for the Esprit with its FRP body weighed just 1200 kilos unladen. Because the turbo was so non-intrusive in its job of spooling it accelerated to 96 kph in just 5.6 seconds, and back in the eighties not many could keep up with an Esprit going flat out, not even its nemesis the Ferrari 308 GTB. It also revved like a maniac to 7000 rpm which even by today's standards is awesome for a turbocharged petrol engine. So, with that in my mind the Esprit seemed to gain ground on the fast but never disappearing Lambo. Of course Anant had warned me about the brakes, given that these were solid discs all around and not ventilated ones which meant as I approached one of many of Delhi's gol chakkars, I had to sometimes just use both feet to stand on the brakes. Though once we got cleared it, it was back to chasing that blue streak and boy did the Lotus not disappoint. It moves forward with such vigour and while its turbo warble was being lost in the high pitched baritone of the V-10 going ballistic up front, it didn't sound half as bad too. What was exceptionally good was the way it steered around those traffic circles. After all, if Lotus have been projected as automotive engineering knights it's because of their ability to make anything, even a horse cart steer and handle like it were on rails. This one feels just like it and while our example was nearly three-decades old, it never felt as tired as I would have expected it to be. The non-assisted steering setup transmitted just the right amount of feel with compliance and a heaviness that one won't necessarily term tiring. But it's the way the car attacked corners that lit my eyes up. Using steel box sections and a tubular welded frame for the rear, the chassis is as taut as most roadsters from the 1990s, and is rather different from a naturally aspirated S2's setup. The double wishbone setup and anti-roll bars front and rear gives the car very quick directional change. Add the short wheelbase and the smaller turning circle and it makes it such a joy to throw around with gay abandon that if this were a new car, I probably would have been taking a lot of those curves sideways! Oh and the ride is so settled that you wonder why everyone just doesn't adopt those gorgeous but oh-so-painful-to-clean BBS wheels and high-profile tyres these days.
The longitudinal placement of the engine also meant there was enough space in the trunk for some golf bags and then some more in the front and even though <I>Motor<I> magazine from 1981 called it 'inadequate', am sure they wouldn't have called it so if they'd seen one of the more modern supercars. Of course they would have termed the interiors of the Lotus rubbish if they sat behind the wheel of our current day Sistine chapels. It really is that, with the biggest problem being the way it has been put together. Since this was largely hand built, its trim tends to fall and crack apart and everything on the inside from the steering to the plastics have a very cheap feel to it. Even though Raj has done a salvage job of sorts, it isn't really easy to like Lotus' effort and the seating position is so uncomfortable that you don't even have a seat recline adjustment!
Soon enough we landed right outside the gates of Rashtrapati Bhavan, and is it turned out we took our customary photographs without being in the crosshairs of a couple of Insas rifles. Who says cars like these don't melt peoples hearts, and that too a British and an Italian one at that! And even though a lot of people loved the Lotus as they rushed towards it for snaps, it was the Gallardo that practically everyone swooned over.
Sit behind the wheel of the Gallardo and the change is immediate. You aren't suddenly assembling bits, or trying to look over the instrument binnacle as if you were a midget. Agreed that the Lambo is much younger, but it doesn't look like it will give you as much trouble 25 years from now as the Lotus does today. There may be more bits on the inside from the Audi A6 here than the Esprit has Opel Ascona suspension components and Rover 3500 tail lamps, but it all works. You find yourself a comfortable driving position, even adjust the lumbar support and steering height and reach. Firing up the engine is after a two-second delay as the sequence of lighting up each cylinder completes but when it does it sparks to life with a frum that is immediate. Getting on the move involves engaging the car via the D or drive button on the central tunnel before using the six-speed e-gear flappy paddles to move into second. At first the travel of the gearbox feels spring loaded, and the electro-hydraulically actuated paddles hard. But rev it up and get to the mid-range and it all evens itself out and the torque starts to call all the shots from there onwards. The 513 bhp and nearly 52 kgm of torque turn it from being a slightly recalcitrant supercar into one that smacks you right in the face with a bludgeon. Originally a 4.2-litre Audi V8, the engine has found space for two more cylinders courtesy Cosworth. It pins your head to the headrest like few others and does it like a supercar should - not make things very easy. The Lambo's bark that seems to appear around 4000 rpm takes you screaming into the next road-crossing all the way to 8000 rpm and some more. When Ferrucio Lamborghini decided to build supercars they were deemed hard to drive as his tractors. They did eventually get better and easier, but never easy enough to make them a doodle. The Gallardo maybe easy, but it's as easy to lose it around the next corner if you are not wide awake.
Challenge hard into the corners and there is steering fluidity and grip that calls for very quick reflexes, nearly twice as quick as what the Lotus demanded. It's controlable and judicious use of the throttle and using the right gear can yield rather exciting results, but find that threshold and it will lose its tail without warning. Because this car had the e-gear setup, the ESP is less ferocious and gives more leeway to the driver to explore. The suspension is slightly stiff for Indian roads and the ground clearance not really practical, though Lambo offers the suspension lift system that raise the car up by 20-30 mm to clear speedbrakers and ramps. In that aspect it's practical, as it is to drive, but like the Lotus there is still drama, there is still a distortion of vision, of motion and of sensibility.
It may be over forty years since LJK Setright first coined the term after driving the Miura, but it isn't a dying species as many thought it would become. Far from it, it's only gotten more powerful, easier to drive and more visceral. It's also gotten heavier to account for all those safety legislations and yet it doesn't feel any less scary if than its predecessors if you cooked it. The Lotus of its day and the Lambo today are designed to be more practical, smaller supercars where one can explore most of the performance more regularly. Since this Esprit rolled out of the gates at Hethel, many other supercars have come and gone that have re-written the game. The Lamborghini Diablo made it madder, Ferrari F40 a bare-to-the-bones widowmaker, the Honda NSX and Nissan GT-R extreme supercars at affordable prices, Jaguar's XJ220 a compromise, the McLaren F1 an a sign of engineering excellence and the Bugatti Veyron an excellence in engineering excess. There are some more like the Bugatti EB110 for sheer eccentricity and the F355 for finally making Ferraris useable yet gorgeous and yet there doesn't seem to me that the supercar will bow out so easily.
Twenty five years from now, the supercar maybe a hybrid, maybe electric and some may still use the internal combustion engine. It may be easier to drive and maybe unlock all its power when the wheels detect that it has entered a race track. The next supercar maybe smarter, eco-friendly and have a conscience too. But when driven at the limit it will be just as crazy, just as involving and invigorating and incendiary. That, I certainly don't doubt!
We'd like to thank Anant and Raj for the Lotus Esprit and Exclusive Motors Delhi for the Lamborghini Gallardo