Blurring The Lines Between Go-Karts And Sports Cars With The Limited Edition Lotus 340R
Photography by Marco Annunziata
Lotus isn’t known for making cars bogged down by luxuries and gimmicks, but the featherweight open-wheel 340R makes the company’s driver’s cars seem like overly plush comfort cruisers by comparison.
The Lotus 340R is an extreme and unusual machine, and two decades after its debut it’s still about as close to a kart as cars get. Based on the Lotus Elise, itself a spartan design dedicated to driving purity, the 340R ratcheted that ethos to another level, and is very much in line with Colin Chapman’s philosophies that moulded the manufacturer’s identity. Lacking fenders and a roof, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this car was intended purely for circuits, and while a weekend trackway is probably the best place to spot a 340R, they are road legal in Europe and the UK.
The example featured here ratchets up the car’s stats further still, achieving a claimed 192hp compared to the standard 177hp produced by the naturally aspirated 1.8-liter inline-four. The additional power is courtesy of the optional Sport Pack, which adds a Janspeed exhaust among other minor tweaks. This car is also one of only 43 lefthand-drive examples built from the scant total production run of 340 units (the car’s name was originally conceived as a reference to the targeted power to weight ratio—340hp per ton—but when that figure wasn’t attained in the production version, Lotus decided to keep the name and build the corresponding number of units instead).
Enthusiasts at the time weren’t concerned when it was announced that the power-to-weight fell short of the target, evidenced by the fact that all 340 units were spoken for prior to the model’s release in the year 2000. The car was clearly intended for drivers in search of performance by way of lightness rather than power, but the 340R wasn’t a straight line slouch either, able to deliver the 0-60 sprint in less than 4.5 seconds, which was faster than some of the era’s purported supercars. And in the corners, hardly anything with a license plate bracket could touch this Lotus in its day, or ours for that matter.
Its gallop was delivered by a 1.8-liter Rover K-series engine. Built by the Birmingham, England firm aptly called Powertrain, it was based out of the city’s famous Longbridge suburb, which had begun automotive manufacture in 1905. The variant used in the 340R is referred to as the VHPD (Very High Performance Derivative), which incorporates the 1796cc in-line four-cylinder configuration with dual overhead camshafts and 10.5:1 compression. Lotus also equipped the power plant with its own electronic fuel injection system. Maximum power is produced at a rather shouty 7,800rpm, while its peak torque of 146lb-ft is reached at 5,000rpm. In other words, there’s not much fun to be had without letting the tach do a nearly full sweep before shifting up—top speed was nothing to write home about at around 130mph. But again, this is a Lotus very much in keeping with the company’s lightweight mandate, and with a curb weight of just about 1450lbs (~ 658kg), the car was built to carve up race tracks and mountain roads, not drag strips.
With a mid-engine, rear-wheel drive configuration and specially spec’d Yokohama semi-slicks developed for the 340R, the lithe little Lotus provided extreme levels of traction, enabling it to carry its speed through the corners to a degree that would have even its slightly heavier Hethel brethren drifting off of the racing line. Test drive reports at the time of the 340R’s release praised its all but complete absence of understeer, and thanks to its lightness and appropriately matched power output, one didn’t need to be traveling at multiples of the speed limit to enjoy its mechanical talents.
The semi-slick Yokohama A038 LTS tires are wrapped around 10-spoke magnesium alloy wheels covering 282mm AP Racing discs, suspended by dual wishbones front and rear working with adjustable Koni shock absorbers. The bonded aluminum chassis is a longtime Lotus staple—ain’t broke, don’t fix—borrowed from the Elise, while the exterior is specific to the 340R save for a few carryover components like the insectoid headlights. An interesting bit of parts-bin trivia is the fact that mirrors are from an Aprilia RSV 1000 motorcycle.
Inside the cabin, as you can see from above or through the clear non-doors from the side, it is a very spartan affair, with driver and sole passenger retained by a bucket seat and four-point harness from the factory. There is little to be distracted by inside this car, which is to be expected. From the perspective of the occupants, it was also commonly said that when driven flat out for prolonged periods of time, the radiator mounted in the front of the car could transfer a great deal of heat into the cabin, which might be a welcome source of warmth if you find yourself winding around in high-altitude in the roofless 340R.
The car was initially launched as a concept at Birmingham’s Motor Show in 1998 but demand meant that a production version was announced a little over a year later. At launch as a 2000 model year vehicle, the 304R sold for £35,000 (~$46,500) and the 340R in our photoshoot was bought by its current owner—the car’s second—at Lotus Cerini in Castelletto Sopra Ticino, in Italy’s Piedemonte region, about 60 miles north east of Turin.
Though they are rare sites anywhere in the world, the majority of the 340R’s production run went to Europe and Japan, with reportedly less than 10 initially making their way to the US, where the car was not deemed street legal. As a result, finding a 340R for resale in the US will be very hard work, while in the UK and Europe today, you can expect to find a 340R going at auction for anywhere between $55,000 up to around $95,000 given the relative illiquidity of the car’s market. But even at the six-figure mark, it’s still a good value—besides the fact that this is a limited edition car that epitomizes the ethos of one of the world’s foremost creators of racing and sports car history, it’s a sublime driving experience that blurs the lines between go-karts and sports cars. And it looks a hell of a lot better than the typical exoskeleton cars that have taken the mantle since.