Revival of the 1984 Concept Car

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[b] The 1984 Etna concept could have rocketed Lotus into the supercar stratosphere, but it didn’t make production. Thanks to a remarkable restoration, it now runs and drives – and Octane can tell its tale for the first time ever[/b]


The day is overcast and threatening rain, and we’re exhausted from our last-minute flight into Amsterdam. It could have been a dull morning, but our first sight of the Lotus Etna concept car outside owner Olav Glasius’s house transforms our mood. If the Etna name doesn’t immediately ring any bells, we’ll forgive you. After all, there was only one built, and it didn’t turn a wheel under its own power. Not for 25 years, anyway.

But anyone who was at the 1984 NEC Birmingham Motor Show could never forget the star of the Lotus stand: the Italdesign-styled, V8-powered Etna concept. It took the Esprit as a basis, added race-bred cutting-edge technology, and promised to be the UK’s first genuine mid-engined supercar.The Etna’s drag coefficient of 0.29 and Perspex upper body would have been enough in themselves to carry most other concepts to the front page back in 1984, but its sleek bodywork, penned by Giorgetto Giugiaro, was merely a glorious wrapper.

It was instantly a huge public relations success. Car magazine screamed from its cover page: ‘The magnificent Giugiaro-designed Lotus V8 sets out to show the world that Hethel can build a world-beater. Buy it in 1988!’

Only in the main feature was this enthusiasm tempered slightly: ‘Such promise as this must be allowed to be fulfilled. Lotus, who so long ago graduated to the top of the tree as builders of the best grand prix cars, must be allowed to become makers of the world’s finest road car. With Giugiaro involved there is no question that they can do it.’

Lotus claimed it wasn’t going to make bold claims about a car so far from production, yet dropped serious hints about what the Etna was packing within. Chassis-wise, Lotus claimed that the Etna was to have computer-controlled active ride, with anti-dive, anti-roll and anti-squat. An adjustable height setting and self-levelling promised to make the drive consistent in all conditions. Given that it was in the early stages of developing the system for Formula 1, and had recently shown the world its JPS-liveried grand prix car packing the same system – with Nigel Mansell at the wheel – it all seemed feasible.

As for the rest of the electronics package, how about traction control, anti-lock brakes (still a supercar rarity in 1984), engine management, even active noise cancelling? The latter was a pet project within Lotus, even if it sounds like a flight of fancy now.

But the Etna’s engine was very special, and far closer to production reality than the rest of the car. In 1978, Colin Chapman tasked Lotus engineer Tony Rudd with turning the V8 engine that the company had been talking about into reality – he was given a budget, modest development resources, and told to make it produce 320bhp and 300lb ft. It was to be built on existing production lines, have as many parts in common as possible with the 16-valve slant-four already used in the Esprit, Elite and Ήclat, and – most importantly – be a lean-burn design capable of exceeding US emissions regulations.

And that’s where fortune favoured Rudd. The slant-four Type 907 was an exceptional engine, once the bugs had been ironed out. It was light, powerful and economical, and taking a pair of them to form the basis of a new V8 seemed like the best way forward. Of course, a new block was designed, with careful consideration put into its cooling efficiency and stiffness and, although the double-overhead-camshaft heads were conceptually similar to the original four’s, they weren’t the same. Maximum power was quoted as 335bhp developed at a modest 6500rpm, although a maximum torque figure of 295lb ft at 5500rpm hinted at a peaky power delivery.

A great deal of work went into what became known as the Lotus DV8 engine – or Type 909 – but, like the Etna project itself, it was doomed. After the buzz at Birmingham, the Hethel offices went quiet, concentrating on the production of the Esprit and Excel, and trying to find a new partner to give it the financial security it so desperately needed to bring the Etna to life.

That was the backdrop to the Etna’s development: crisis. In the wake of Chapman’s death in 1982, Lotus was in turmoil. Sales remained low in the wake of the 1979 Iran-Iraq war and the subsequent hiking of fuel prices, which hit demand for all luxury cars. But the Etna had been pieced together on an extended Esprit backbone, built as a showpiece for the Type
909 engine and as a beacon of hope for the future.

As Lotus stumbled on, that beacon became a backburner. General Motors bought Lotus in 1986 and the Etna and Type 909 were officially no more, as the company changed tack completely, working towards an inexpensive sports car that would eventually emerge in 1989 as the front-wheel-drive Elan. The spirit of the Etna lived on in Peter Stevens’ Esprit remix of 1987, but the emergence of a new Lotus V8 engine would have to wait until 1996 – and that was completely unrelated to the Type 909.

The once-stunning motor show concept was placed in storage, its story to be lost in the mists of time. Fast-forward to 2001 and the Coys auction of a number of Lotus’s historic cars – and the surprise appearance of the Etna after being under cover for nearly 20 years. Lotus specialist Paul Matty bought it and looked after it for a short while before passing it on to Olav Glasius, the chairman of Club Lotus Holland and owner of perhaps the world’s most important collection of the marque’s historic cars, which he displayed last year at the Donington Club Lotus show.

The Etna prototype was in poor shape when it came into Olav’s possession. Wind had blown away much of the canopy while it was being trailered down the M1, so it seemed that knocking the wood-and-clay model back into shape was going to be a major undertaking. That’s when Olav called Ken and Neil Myers, the father-and-son Lotus restoration specialists based in Northampton, UK, for their thoughts on what to do with it.

‘We always say we can do a project,’ says Neil, himself an ex-Lotus engineer. ‘But this one looked like it was going to be very interesting indeed. I was at the factory when the Esprit was born, and I’d already built lots of cars for Olav, so at least we knew we had no restrictions, either in finance or enthusiasm.’

When the car arrived in Northampton, it was minus its Perspex glasshouse, the body was in poor condition, the wheeltrims were missing and the interior was tatty. Olav’s initial thoughts were to make the Etna a static show car, but then Neil started looking more closely: ‘I started hacking around to see what was underneath, and soon realised there was more to the car than the shell. I cut through the decking, only to find the engine – and the gearbox!’

Lotus had sent its lengthened Esprit chassis to Italdesign and included the Type 909 V8 to help Giugiaro package his sleek design – the fact that the engine had been installed in the styling model had been forgotten! Now the project changed from cosmetic makeover to something much more ambitious. Neil called Olav and explained the situation, which resulted in a plan to make the Etna a runner.

A tall order for Neil: trying to turn the crank with a spanner revealed that the engine was seized. Beyond that, it was missing a fuel system, ignition components, induction system… but the slide throttle was there. ‘Enough for the basis of a project!’ says Neil.

Alan Nobbs had originally worked on the engine at Hethel, and was initially contracted to rebuild it for Neil, but due to other commitments he was unable to complete the job. So the V8 was returned to Neil in pieces, giving the self-taught engineer a real challenge in reassembly. ‘It was in good condition internally with very few miles, looking like it had had one engine test run. The ancillaries were missing, so we decided to build up the bottom end, coming up with a plan for remanufacture.’

Remanufacturing parts and rebuilding a prototype engine is no simple matter. Everything was a one-off and, despite Chapman’s desire for parts-sharing, Type 909 had no common components with the existing slant-four. Another difficulty was that there was only one other Type 909 in existence (still owned by Lotus), so absolutely no margin for blowing up this one.

While the engine was in development originally, Lotus struggled to get it working reliably, finding that it was bending valves at high revs. So, in order to get the Etna running, Neil needed to cure a problem that Lotus never could. ‘We found weaknesses on the nearside inlet cam, where the belt wrapped around just five teeth. We needed more wrap-around on that shaft, and we also needed more tensioning to fix the belt-jumping problem. That required a new crankshaft pulley, which we had machined locally. The project was turning into a real labour of love.’

After that, it was a case of rebuilding the oil pump, manufacturing new head gaskets, and then sorting out the ignition and fuel systems. Lotus had wanted to fit an engine management system to the Type 909 and, with that in mind, Neil fitted an ECU from a fuel-injected Land Rover Discovery. The injectors were still in place, but Neil built a new fuel rail, and then installed distributor-derived electronic injection – this was very much the thinking of the time and completely on-message for Neil’s quest for originality.

Other problems in getting the engine running – including the troublesome slide throttle and throttle linkage – were surmounted systematically and, within ten weeks of arriving as a box of bits, it was ready to run. ‘I remember it so well, firing up the V8 for the first time,’ Neil says. ‘We ran it on a stand, with Olav listening on the phone. We were all so excited, but also knew that that there was still so much to do to turn this into a drivable car.’

The biggest remaining issue was installing the car’s vital systems. Fitting the exhaust, driveshafts and fuel-filler and tank was extremely time-consuming. With the majority of the car built from wood, clay and glassfibre, ensuring that things did not get hot was a major consideration. The other point of concern was where, and how, to mount things: the reservoirs for the brake and clutch cylinders are in the glovebox, while the radiator is mounted flat in the nose section. There is no opening bonnet.

There was no suspension either – originally, the wheels had been solidly mounted to bars that were crudely attached to the chassis – so a system needed to be created from scratch. In order to make the car drivable, Neil fitted a wishbone set-up closely based on the Esprit’s – front and rear – but with unique spring rates to compensate for the prototype’s huge weight. ‘With standard Esprit springs, the car was on its bump stops,’ Neil smiles.

Rebuilding the Perspex canopy was the final major undertaking. ‘We had to start from scratch,’ Neil recalls. ‘The problem was that you can’t get it in the correct colour any more, so after making a full set of moulds we approached WEP Ltd, which did an amazing job to recreate the original set-up and make it flush-fitting, while keeping it sturdy enough to allow it to be transported without the disaster that befell the Etna before.’

Rebuilding the Etna took Neil about 12 months, a remarkable achievement given its scope – and the fact that a running car has been made from a wood-and-clay styling model. It’s probably unique in Lotus’s history. Olav is so proud of his car that he’s shown it twice at the Goodwood Festival of Speed. No wonder.

When we first see it at his house near Amsterdam, it’s clear that the Etna’s journey from concept to reality has not dimmed the way it looks. It’s been repainted, the interior retrimmed and the wheeltrims recreated, yet it looks just as we remember it from Birmingham back in 1984. What strikes us first about the Etna is how compact – and tight – it seems as a potential production reality. Photographer Matthew Howell’s single-word reaction is the perfect encapsulation. ‘Stunning,’ he whispers.

We fire it up and finally hear Lotus’s lost soundtrack for the late 1980s: a brief whirr of the fuel pump is followed by a short churn of the starter motor that springs the V8 into life. The immediate impression is of just how much it sounds like the slant-four at low revs, but a couple of blips of the surprisingly light throttle show how sensitive it is, and how eager it is to rev.

Clearly the Type 909 was going to be a great supercar engine. A light flywheel means there is little inertia, and the way the revs rise and fall so quickly seems almost competition car-like. All that disappoints is the lack of an obvious V8
beat, something this engine shares with the Esprit’s subsequent (and unrelated) flat-crank production V8.

Inside, it’s the usual supercar story. You climb over a high, broad sill and fall into a semi-reclined leather-lined bucket, then stretch to reach a small, thick-rimmed steering wheel. If you like the Esprit, you’ll love the Etna; it feels very familiar, but a whole lot airier inside, thanks to that glass roof and pale grey trim. It’s a shame that the vacuum fluorescent instruments in the sweeping dashboard are merely stencilled on, as they look fantastic. Had they worked, they would have been years ahead of their time.

Where the Etna scores over rivals is in its overall impression of user-friendliness: at no point does the Etna intimidate the driver. So many contemporary supercars did just that – think of the Lamborghini Countach – and to experience something so unthreatening from Lotus shows that the British company was aiming to create a much more usable car than the Esprit.

Low-speed manouevres arm us with a glimpse into a future that didn’t happen but, as Olav says, ‘It’s not really representative of how the Etna would have been. It’s really powered so we can drive it on and off the trailer, and also
for demonstration purposes.’

We have to remember that, miraculous engine rebuild or not, this is still a hefty clay prototype but the looks, driving position, engine note and spec sheet promise a sensational driving experience. We know that the Etna we’re photographing is really a 3D representation of what Lotus had in store – an insight into a world that we were frustratingly denied. Yet we don’t mind at all really, because meeting the characters that have brought life to this once-dead car has been rewarding in itself. Their dedication, enthusiasm, and sheer hard work are the real story of today’s Etna, and prove that not all great days begin and end behind the wheel.

[url="http://www.classicandperformancecar.com/features/octane_features/265159/lotus_etna.html?CMP=NLC-Newsletters"]Octane March 2011 | Revival of the 1984 Concept Car[/url]

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I got this shot at last year's Goodwood Festival of Speed. The bald chap in the background was crawling all over it - photos of every tiny detail underneath and so on. He rather blighted my opportunity for clear shots but wonderful to see a famous car in the flesh.


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