Revisiting The British Super Saloon With A Drive In The Vauxhall Lotus Carlton
Photography by Steve Fry
The “super saloon” is an oddity here in the UK. Don’t get me wrong, we like a fast car as much as the next place, but when that car simply must have four doors and a trunk, we have to look at manufacturers from foreign soil. This in itself is no bad thing; the Germans have never failed to deliver, nor have the Italians as of late (looking at you, Maserati Quattroporte). And while admittedly rare over here, American offerings with both space and pace are readily available too.
It’s the UK’s hesitance toward offering a bonkers saloon, then, that makes the Vauxhall Lotus Carlton so enigmatic, so heroic. That and the fact it makes the attribute of being “bonkers” seem positively timid. The Vauxhall Lotus Carlton leaves “bonkers” in the weeds. It is vehicular insanity. And I was offered the chance to drive one. Despite my conscience suggesting it may well end in tears, it wasn’t an opportunity I was going to pass up.
The car I was offered the keys to is not privately owned either. It belongs to Vauxhall itself, and has since it was new. It is the right car to give an accurate impression of what it was when new, in other words. Vauxhall had hoped to build some 1,100 cars, but the recession that hit Europe in the early 1990s had other plans. As such, only 950 of the then-£48,000 car were built. Of them, only 320 were badged as Vauxhall (the rest were Opels) and of that 320, only 275 of them were built with the steering wheel on the right-hand side (the correct side!). With numbers so small, it makes sense that Vauxhall would keep hold of one.
I’m glad it did. The car you see here may be filthy thanks to the delightful winter roads here in the UK, but let me assure you, under the dirt it is nothing short of immaculate. In its 25 years of life it’s covered less than 40,000 miles, meaning it’s still pretty much out of the box fresh. Crucially though, it meant I got to drive it as it should be driven. Not tired and wayward, but fresh and sharp.
So what exactly is it? Well, the Vauxhall Carlton on which this car is based was a fairly unassuming executive saloon car. It appeared in the ‘80s, lasted through the ‘90s, and now, much like other cars that were once ubiquitous, we wonder where they’ve all gone. The Carlton was by no means a bad car. It just wasn’t a captivating car. It came and it went, and nobody noticed the latter. It’s what makes the Lotus version so special.
From an aesthetic standpoint, the Lotus Carlton looks very much like a normal Carlton. But, you know, a bit more beefed up? The arches are flared, the front bumper is big and deep with its ducting, the bonnet is vented and the boot… sorry, trunk, is fitted with a spoiler. The biggest modifications made to the stock Carlton’s appearance were the radiused rear arches. They needed the space to swallow the 9.5-inch-wide 17-inch-tall Ronal alloys. The fronts were 8.5 inches wide, in case you’re wondering.
Inside it’s typical saloon fare, albeit top end Carlton gear. As I said, it was an executive car, so filling it with leather, trip computers, and so on was no issue. The giveaway, however, is the Lotus emblem on the steering wheel, the six gears shown on the manual transmission, and the very achievable (almost) 180mph speedometer. Other than those things though, there’s nothing to raise suspicion.
Turning the key and firing up the Vauxhall Lotus Carlton was an odd moment. I expected fireworks and explosions. Instead I got a fairly standard idle, and nothing blew up. Maybe, I thought, it wasn’t all that? Maybe the passage of time has seen speed and lunacy move to another level of expectation? By today’s standards, maybe the Vauxhall Lotus Carlton is a bit, well, boring?
The clutch was heavy and mechanical, but it wasn’t putting my knee under duress. It was just a bit heavier than my Saab actually. Slotting it into gear, it all seemed worryingly normal. The Servotronic power steering, which lessens the assistance when cruising, worked a treat. It felt direct, but light and useable. But crucially, it didn’t feel remarkable. One the whole, I was worried I had accepted an invite to a legend’s house only to find out he’s really rather dull. It was a worry that didn’t last long though.
The Vauxhall Lotus Carlton is powered by a 377bhp, 419lb-ft straight-six. The pistons are forged. The crank is custom-made for it. There are 24 valves in the modified cylinder head. There are two Garrett T25 turbochargers pushing out 0.7 bar of boost. And all of that is at your disposal as soon as the tach reads over 1,500rpm. There is no lag after this. There is no warning. There is just speed. And lots of it.
This thing is rear-wheel drive and other than a limited-slip differential, there is nothing else to help control the power. You’ve got decent tires, impressive multi-link suspension re-worked by Lotus, and four-pot AP Racing brakes to stop the thing, but nothing to control it: that is very much down to you. Or as was the case, me.
At first there was a degree of trepidation. I always get that when driving any car I don’t own, let alone one so rare. But soon the normality of the pre-boost Carlton sucked me in. It lulled me into a false sense of security. When the roads cleared and I buried my foot into the firewall, it was very quick to remind me that normal it is not. The rear tires light up without much encouragement at all, and will do so well through to third gear if you want them to. Probably fourth if you had the cojones.
When they tires stop spinning, this thing goes. And it’s not silly power with no chassis to back it up. The Lotus badge on the back of this car means something, and through the bends, you’re reminded of exactly what that is. It handles so, so well. The roads were wet and unkind, but even so, I could push on without fear of understeer or ending up in a ditch. It felt safe, planted, but still with a welcome undertone of “you’re going in that ditch if you push me too hard.” Basically, for all its power, you still always know where you stand with it. Impressive in a modern car, but astounding in one built last century.
When it was launched, the Vauxhall Lotus Carlton stunned. There was nothing like it. The motoring press questioned why anyone needed a car that could go upwards of 175mph. The general press claimed outrage and demanded that Vauxhall limit the speed or stop production altogether. Vauxhall politely, and publicly, declined.
Soon after, the police in the UK admitted that they couldn’t catch it, which was unfortunate given that it was a popular car for thieves. It was a rebel by choice, and a lawbreaker by force. It was a car that took us by surprise in more ways than we ever thought possible, and it was a clear display that, if we wanted to, us Brits could knock out an insane car with four doors attached to it.
We never made a car like the Vauxhall Lotus Carlton before, and frankly, we haven’t since. I’m okay with that. If this is the one mad saloon that we ever make, it’s fine with me. Mainly because it still holds up so well today. This isn’t a tired fighter trading on old stories. This car can still make them.