Surrogate Twins

GM Europe had a reputation for building solid, reliable but resolutely uncharismatic cars. In an attempt to shake off its fusty image, the company turned to Lotus.

2001 Opel Speedster (c)

The 2000 Opel Speedster and Vauxhall VX220 siblings owe their existence at least in part to one of the many financial crises that have regularly threatened to engulf Lotus Cars over the course of its lifetime. General Motors had owned Lotus outright from October 1986 to August 1993. It had inherited the front-engined Excel 2+2 and mid-engined Esprit, but recognised that both these ageing designs, while selling steadily in small numbers, had limited potential for growth. Instead, it decided to return Lotus to its roots with a small and affordable roadster, which it hoped would have mass-market appeal.

That car was the M100 Elan, a front-wheel-drive two-seater convertible, launched in 1989. This was a well-engineered and undeniably pretty roadster, and GM had big ambitions for it in the US market. Unfortunately, fate intervened in the shape of Mazda, which launched the all-conquering MX-5 in the same year. Not only did the MX-5 undercut the Elan significantly on price, it had a proper traditional RWD layout and promised typically Japanese levels of build quality and reliability.

Keen drivers dismissed the Elan’s FWD handling characteristics as safe but uninvolving, while others were deterred by Lotus’ patchy record for reliability. In the first three years of production, fewer than 4,000 Elans were sold, of which less than 600 made it to the US.

1996 Lotus Elan (c)

GM had had enough of its British sports car misadventure and sold out to an investment group in 1993. Just three years later, the company was sold again, this time to Proton Holdings, the Malaysian national automotive company. Despite this instability, Lotus had used the intervening period productively, designing the first Elise.

This was a small, lightweight mid-engined roadster, a car much more in the Lotus tradition than the M100 Elan. Powered by a Rover K-series engine producing just 118bhp, its light weight, just 725kg, allowed it to accelerate to 100km/h in just six seconds. The handling was simply brilliant. The Series 1 Elise and its more powerful derivatives undoubtedly saved the company and gave it a viable future.

1995 Lotus Elise Series 1 (c) classic and performance car

There was, however, a cloud on the horizon, in the shape of tougher European crash regulations, due to be introduced in 2000. The Elise would require significant re-engineering to meet the new regulations. Lotus was, as ever, struggling to meet the cost of this and Proton was contending with its own problems at home, so was reluctant to help.

General Motors again came to Lotus’s rescue. A plan was agreed whereby GM would contribute to the development of the Series 2 Elise if Lotus would also produce a differently bodied version, to be sold under the Opel and Vauxhall marques. That version would become the Opel Speedster and Vauxhall VX220.

2017 Lotus Elise Series 2 Sprint 220 (c)

The Speedster concept was first unveiled at the 1999 Geneva motor show and the production car was launched in July 2000. Although based on the same platform, the angular fibreglass bodywork, designed by Niels Loeb and Martin Smith, contrived to look rather more substantial than the lithe Elise.

This was an optical illusion as both cars shared almost identical exterior dimensions, although the Speedster had a 29mm longer wheelbase, at 2,329mm. Both the Speedster and Elise were built on the same production line at Lotus’s Hethel, Norfolk factory. This had been expanded to a capacity of 10,000 cars per year, 3,500 of which were forecast to be Speedster and VX220 models.

2005 Opel Speedster (c) DTW

Despite appearances, the Speedster weighed just 870 kg, only 10 kg more than the Elise, and used a GM 2.2 litre all-aluminium Ecotec engine/ manual transmission from the Astra, instead of the Elise’s Rover-derived powertrain. The engine produced 144bhp, allowing the Speedster comfortably to outperform the 120bhp Elise at launch, reaching 100km/h (62mph) in 5.6 seconds.

The Speedster’s excellent chassis could clearly handle more power and, in 2004, a 2.0 litre turbocharged version was introduced. Despite the reduction in capacity, this engine produced 197bhp. This more than offset a weight increase to 930kg, caused mainly by the iron block of the new engine. The Turbo could accelerate to 100km/h in 4.7 seconds and reach a top speed of 242km/h (150mph). This extra performance was at the cost of some driveability and the normally aspirated version, with its more linear power delivery, was generally considered the nicer drive.

The 2.2 litre normally aspirated engine was dropped in 2004 and a track-focused lighter and more powerful turbo was offered, called the VXR220. Only available in red, this produced 216bhp and shaved another 0.5 second off the 0 to 100km/h time.

2003 Vauxhall 220 Turbo (c)

Production of the Speedster and VX220 ended in July 2005, with no replacement offered. Total production over five years was just 7,207 units, which fell far short of GM’s 3,500 annual sales forecast for the model. Plans for a longer and wider VX320 V6 Turbo hard-top coupé, reported by Autocar magazine in March 2004, came to nothing.

Autocar rated the VX220 highly and included it in its Cars of the Decade list in January 2010. The magazine described it as the sort of car one could drive in comfort every day, but equally well exploit to the full on a track day.  Refinement was more than acceptable with the roof up, with low levels of wind and engine noise, and there was adequate space for soft luggage in the boot. It lacked electric windows and air-conditioning, but was none the worse for that. The fact that, new or second-hand, it was significantly cheaper than the Elise just added to its appeal.

Vauxhall’s UK launch of the VX220 was marred by a truly awful TV advertisement starring comedian Griff Rhys-Jones as a nutty professor type, running around in his Y-fronts and vest. It was intended to be partly self-deprecating on Vauxhall’s part, poking fun at the notion that the company could produce a sexy sports car. It backfired spectacularly, being voted worst commercial of the year in a poll by Campaign, the leading advertising industry magazine. Informed observers of course knew that Vauxhall did not build the VX220 in any event. For those with a taste for the absurd, the advertisement may be found here:

Rhys-Jones, who had starred in a number of previous advertisements for Vauxhall, (mercifully) never did so again.

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

17 thoughts on “Surrogate Twins”

  1. I’ve driven an Elise 111R back in the day and of all the 600+ cars I’ve driven this one ranks probably in the number 1 spot. The handling and steering feel is sublime and even though I got to drive it at top speed this car excels even if you drive below the speedlimit.

    Never got to drive the VX220, or Opel Speedster as it was known here, even though I knew someone who had one. Not sure if I agree the lack of airconditioning is a good thing, though. The Elise (with hardtop in place) would start to feel pretty hot inside on an 18 degree day with a little sun already, even with the airconditioning switched on.

    That said, I really don’t care about any of the mod cons in basically any car. My first car, an E30 had manual windows and that’s fine by me, even in todays car I wouldn’t mind if I had to wind up the windows myself, but airconditioning is something I really enjoy having in my wheels.

    The Opel Speedster is still quite affordable today. Wonder how prices will develop in the future. It has a lot going for it, the badge not so much and the commercial is simply awful. I hope not to many will remember that, but then again what’s been seen, can’t be unseen.

  2. Apart from its FWD layout rather like the styling of the Elan M100 (sans popups of course), obviously it was powered by an Isuzu engine and transmission which are not an issue as such yet the rest of the Elan M100’s mechanicals are quite an enigma and could have sworn it carried over more than a few mechanicals sourced within GM. Specifically though not only the GM R platform that also underpinned the 2nd generation FWD Gemini and Piazza, as a possible explanation as to why the Elan M100 was FWD (reputedly an acclaimed FWD sportscar) rather than RWD.

    Had Lotus been serious regarding a suitable replacement for the original Elan during the 1970s, they could have easily developed an Elite-based Elan replacement though to their detriment decided to retreat from this segment.

    1. Here’s a drawing of the M100’s backbone chassis:

      There’s not too much possiblity to recycle GM stuff in this chassis, particularly not in the double wishbone front suspension mounted on rafts for vertical and lateral rigidity and longitudinal compliance.
      The Isuzu engine’s inlet tract was specifically designed to fit under the Elan’s bonnet.

    2. Understand

      Just find it inexplicable as to why Lotus decided to make the Elan M100 FWD instead of RWD, that it is easy to unfairly paint the car as a bitza with GM imposing tight development budget rather then a decision possibly made by Lotus themselves (whatever the rationale was) despite previous Elan replacement projects being RWD.

    3. I recall the question as to why Lotus chose FWD for the 90s Elan being much discussed in the contemporary motoring press. The impression that remains with me is that it was genuinely an engineering-led decision and that, at the time, Lotus believed that a smaller, relatively lower powered sports car would simply be better-handling with front rather than rear wheel drive. The problem, if there was indeed a problem, was that ‘better’ equates to more competent; but not necessarily to more fun.

    4. Chris Elvin

      The Elan M100 would have probably been well-received had it not been badged as a Lotus but rather sold under another GM-linked badge, otherwise Mazda with the MX-5 certainly proved those involved with the development of the Elan M100 made the wrong decision.

      It seems ex-Team Lotus F1 Driver and engineer / chassis guru John Miles had a major role in the decision for the new Elan project to be FWD under the rationale that RWD was not usual in cars anymore and thus as there were many who had never driven anything other than FWD, an affordable sports car in his view should have familiar and safe handling which to him meant FWD by default.

      Apparently the Elan M100 was developed behind the back of Oliver Winterbottom with the fallout leading to his resignation, if the latter is to be believed the RWD M90/X100 would have not only been a cheaper and better alternative (undercutting the Elan M100 by £3450-5450 as well as the MX-5 by £550) but also could have hit the market at least three years earlier and been quicker than all but the Elan M100 Turbo.

      Though all things considered doubt the M90/X100 would have butterflied away the Elise based on Oliver Winterbottom’s account of the Elise’s beginnings as Project Clubsport, since it appears to have originally been conceived as a smaller car than the proposed Elan replacement envisaged as a 2-litre mid-engined sports car.

    5. Even the M100 followed typical Lotus production methods with a steel spine frame and very few, large GRP panels bonded together. The whole front of the car is made in one piece (it still is in the Elise and the surrogate twins) with the effect that even minor damage can only be repaired by replacing the whole (very expensive) front. This is something customers never would accept from a less specialist marque than Lotus – just like nobody but Lotus could design a car like the Elise Mk1 where the whole front had to come off to replace a bulb in the fog lamps.
      Such a car wouldn’t have fitted in the portfolio of anybody in the GM warehouse just as the surrogate twins showed a few years later.
      What happens when the wrong company is selling such a car was shown when Kia acquired the tooling and built the M100 with one of their own engines and only a couple of hundred were made.
      The M100 used the Isuzu powertrain because nothing else from GM would have fitted under the bonnet. As I mentioned, Isuzu designed the engine so it would fit the M100 and used it in that form in its own models.

  3. I love the VX220 / Speedster – one of those cars which just seems ‘right’. The advert, on the other hand, is so bad it looks like deliberate sabotage.

    Opel did a diesel-powered ‘Eco-Speedster’, which had a 1.25 litre Diesel engine. It could reach 256 kph / 160 mph and do 113 mpg / 2 L/100km. The car was produced as a technological showcase and its engine was used in production models. As the video says, it looks like a small version of a Mercedes racer.

    Rather dangerously, I had a quick look at what these cost, nowadays and they’re very reasonably priced. I think this one looks lovely in its dark green paint.

    1. Oh Charles, that is so tempting! In a great colour too, more subtle than the more common red and yellow they were often painted.

      As Mrs Doyle would say,

      “Ah, would you not have a nice VX220? Go on, go on, go on, go on, GO ON!!!”

    2. How about this for hypocrisy: I’d happily have one of these with an Opel badge on the nose, but Vauxhall – no thanks. Badge snob: Moi? I blame the adverts – all of them.

    3. Hi Eóin, not hypocrisy, just an overhang from your formative years, when Opel was regarded as a distinct class above Vauxhall (and Ford) in Ireland for some reason that escapes me.

      Was the Opel Speedster sold in Ireland? Thinking about it, the Irish market must be a bit of a pain for European auto makers, driving on the left but using Km/h rather than MPH. That only applies elsewhere in Europe to Malta and Cyprus, IIRC.

    4. I had a chat with a Peugeot dealer when the 508 came out. He said Ireland´s 508 sales amounted to a few days of production. They could not offer many variants or trim options as a result.

  4. It is a pity Vauxhall used that advertising approach. It was really bad, across the board. For the Speedster, it was doubly so. As a design, inside and out, it is quite excellent. I have seen one in recent times and it comes across as a great, light and agile car whose appearance tells the truth.

    1. Unfortunately, Vauxhall had previous form for this sort of nonsense. I hope that Nigel Hawthorne and Tom Conti were well paid for demeaning themselves as follows:

      And Penelope Keith as well here:

    2. The ad for the Opel Speedster is better, although it could imply that the driver is suffering from a touch of the DTs. I think the green one advertised for sale is beautiful; I don’t know why I do this to myself – I’m the same with pictures of property.

  5. If my memory is correct(no guarantee there), the US buff books reported at the time that the M100 was initially developed during Toyota’s involvement with Lotus. It was only after the GM takeover that the Isuzu engine(Isuzu being a GM affiliate) was fitted to the Elan, along with lots of pretty crap GM switchgear. Imagine an M100 Elan with a better quality interior and the 200hp Toyota 3S-GTE from the Celica All-Trac.

  6. The “investment group” that acquired Lotus in 1993 was actually Romano Artioli’s Bugatti. Elise was developed under Bugatti control. The name Elise was an hommage to Artioli’s newborn granddaughter, Elisa. You can find her on Instagram, often driving her first series Elise, gift from the grandfather, under the account Imlotuselise.

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