The Lotus Carlton: The Greatest Car You’ve Never Heard Of
On January 7, 1994, a news story titled “Police left trailing by high-speed ram-raiders” appeared in British newspaper The Independent. It opens with a type of admission that you probably wouldn’t see in an American newspaper:
A gang of ram-raiders is making fools out of the police thanks to a 176mph supercar that panda cars simply cannot catch. Detectives were reduced to appealing for help from the public yesterday after the gang carried out a hit-and-run attack on a newsagent’s just 30 yards from a police station.
The ram-raiders have officers stumped because they make their getaway in a pounds 47,000 Lotus Carlton, a 377- horsepower machine with a top speed of 176mph. Built as a collaboration between General Motors and Lotus, the car looks like a Vauxhall Carlton GSi but benefits from major engineering changes based on Lotus engine technology.
And with that, the Lotus Carlton became legend. It was no longer a banker’s hot rod, and its respectable middle-class cachet was now gone. Concerned citizens were calling on the government to ban it, and the police claimed it was just too fast. “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 said. According to legend, it outran a police helicopter on the M6 motorway, too.
And all it took were a couple of hooligans stealing one, taking Midlands police on a months-long wild goose chase, stealing about £20,000 in booze and cigarettes along the way, and getting away with all of it to transform the Carlton from an upmarket performance sedan into a true outlaw car. Pretty impressive. Kind of makes you want one, doesn’t it?
Despite its ’90s bad-boy status, the Lotus Carlton’s roots were much more on the up and up. In the 1980s, General Motors’s Opel and Vauxhall European brands were going through a bit of an identity crisis, and when “domestic competition” meant Mercedes, BMW, and Audi, it made matters that much worse. But GM had an ace ace up its sleeve: In 1986, it bought Lotus and went to work to work building a competitor to restore some prestige to its floundering brands, and compete with the likes of the BMW M5 and AMG-tuned Mercedes sedans.
Even before Lotus got involved, it helped that GM had a good starting point. The Opel Omega (Europe)/Vauxhall Carlton (England) was new for 1986, and like the Ford Taurus in America, was the result of a billion-dollar project to create a modern, ultra-aerodynamic sedan. In top trim, the Omega 3000/Carlton GSi 3000 was powered by a 177 horsepower 3.0 liter straight-six, good for a respectable 8.8 second zero to 60 sprint and a 137 mile per hour top speed.
But even the 3000s couldn’t stem the reputation Opel and Vauxhall had for building boring cars. They weren’t anything to aspire to; they were either econoboxes for the masses or inoffensive company cars for people stuck in middle-management hell. So a hotter 24-valve double-overhead cam 3000 bowed for 1989 with 204 horsepower, a 7.6 second zero to 60 sprint, and a 149 mile per hour top speed. But that went largely unnoticed too, because by then Lotus had gotten its hands on the car, and it was ready for 1990.
In Lotus’s hands, the car became known internally as Type 104. The Opel 24-valve 3.0 liter engine was a good starting point, but Lotus boosted capacity to a full 3.6 liters. It then added two Garrett turbochargers and a Behr intercooler, boosting power to 377 horsepower and 477 pound-feet of torque. No longer a struggling independent automaker, Lotus availed itself of GM’s global parts bin to improve the rest of the car. Its modern multi-link suspension was tuned, and augmented with the self-leveling system from the full-size German Opel Senator.
All that power was routed through the same five-speed manual gearbox found in GM’s domestic Chevy Corvette ZR-1, and power was distributed to the rear wheels via a limited-slip differential cribbed from the Australian Holden Commodore. GM wanted to beat the premium brands at their own game, and it was determined that Lotus get it right.
In England, Lotus’s handiwork became the Vauxhall Lotus Carlton; in Europe it was the Opel Lotus Omega. In a nod to the brand’s racing past, all cars were painted Imperial Green, a near-black shade of British Racing Green. But other than that, its clear giveaways were its body kit, five-spoke wheels, wider flared wheel arches, and 180 mile per hour speedometer. At £48,000 (about $70K then, or $130K today) there was no chance the average Opel or Vauxhall customer would mistakenly buy one. In fact, the Carlton caused a sensation because it was the exact opposite of what people expected from the brands.
With an honest top speed of 176 miles per hour, the Carlton became the undisputed fastest sedan in the world. Zero to 60 came in an impressive 5.1 seconds, and it needed special Goodyear Eagle tires to safely do it. It not only blitzed past the Germans and their 155 mile per hour electronically-limited offerings, it was also faster to 60 than a Ferrari Testarossa. And while the super sedan created a stir in the European automotive world, not everyone was pleased with it. Autocar editor Bob Murray penned an op-ed calling the car’s speed excessive and pushed to have it banned in England. Thankfully, when GM brass took an internal vote on the measure, it was universally rejected.
Despite the Carlton’s earth-shattering performance, it didn’t exactly lead to automotive anarchy on European roads. In 1992, production ended with just 950 built; GM had hoped to sell over 1,100 of them. And in 1993, GM’s sale of Lotus ensured that a Carlton successor wasn’t going to happen anytime soon. A combination of an astronomically high price tag and insurance premiums kept the super sedan from popping up everywhere, and at the end of the day, well-heeled performance junkies still preferred something with a BMW or Mercedes badge.
Then came the ram-raid spree of ’93-’94 and the car was once again thrust into the spotlight in Britain. In the decades since, the Carlton has had an air of notoriety to it, and as time goes by, it’s become one of the most coveted sport sedans of all-time. Now that ’90-’91 models are legal to import to the U.S., prices for well-preserved cars now trade hands on both sides of the Atlantic for around $40k. It may seem like a lot for a 25 year old GM sedan, but considering that you could nab a Carlton for the price of a loaded new Chevy Impala, which would you rather have? Jaguar’s recent “It’s Good to be Bad” ad campaign may have worked well thanks to its Spectre tie-in, but we kind of wish GM had thought of it back in 1990. We can’t think of another sedan with as much attitude as the Lotus Carlton; you can be sure we’d have one in our dream garage.