Photo: Opel

In the early 2000s, Lotus (the world’s pluckiest car company) built a turbocharged mid-engine convertible for General Motors (the world’s least plucky car company) called the Speedster. The problem is now nobody can exactly agree why. So we talked to Lotus and got to the bottom of it.

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The story of the Opel Speedster, as it is written all over the internet, started in the late 1990s. Lotus had found itself in a bit of a bind, as its breakout success Elise wasn’t going to meet model-year 2000 European crash tests and the company needed financial help to design a new Elise Series II platform that could.

So Lotus’s former owner GM stepped in and provided the cash, but as payment, Lotus had to modify the new platform to build a sports car for The General in Europe. Thus, the Speedster was born.

Photo: Opel

This sounds like it makes sense, and it’s what you find if you look these cars up on Wikipedia. But that story conflicts with a number of other sources. In a contemporary report, The New York Times says the deal came about because GM actually needed something from Lotus:

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The Elise’s popularity was spotted by G.M., which was looking for an eye-catching model to spice up its stodgy image in Europe. G.M. commissioned Lotus to transform the Elise into the Opel Speedster, a new model that went into production...alongside the Elise.

And that’s something that I found supported online in quotes from a book on the Lotus Elise called “Elise, Rebirth of the true Lotus,” in which there exists a section called “Lotus by another name.”

In it, author and automotive journalist Alastair Clements says the point of the Speedster, called the Vauxhall VX220 in Britain and the Daewoo Speedster in Asia, was to “boost the brand appeal of GM’s staid Opel and Vauxhall marques.” Clements spoke to an engineer at Lotus who said:

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We’ve worked with [GM] before and in effect they wanted a piece of Lotus...They can’t understand why people buy Lotuses, but they realised it was exactly what their brand needed. They needed a sports car, for Germany especially, to [give] the brand some hype.

So the two polar-opposite companies struck a deal, and between 2000 and 2005, Lotus built GM’s little sports car alongside the Elise in the company’s new Hethel, Norfolk, England plant.

Photo: Opel

But that’s not the end of it. There’s more conflict on the history of the Speedster than just which company approached the other and why the cars came about. There’s also a lot of competing information on which car, the Speedster or the Elise Series II, was based on the other.

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Many online sources claim that GM built the Speedster on the Elise Series II platform, but Automotive Design Design & Production claims that the Elise Series II/Opel Speedster relationship is backwards, stating that after GM commissioned their new sports car—based on the Elise Series I—Lotus decided later to use it as the basis for the Elise Series II, saying:

Unlike the Elise S1, GM wanted what would become the Opel Speedster/Vauxhall VX220 to have easier ingress and egress, more safety equipment, and a GM powertrain. In response, the chassis side rails were lowered, front air bags and ABS were fitted, GM’s L850 Ecotec engine replaced the Rover unit, and a new assembly plant was erected.

It goes on:

Not one to pass on a good thing, Lotus adopted almost everything but the GM powertrain for the Elise Series 2

So is the Speedster based on the Series II Elise—which launched over a year after the first Speedster concept—or is the Series II based on the Speedster? To find out, I reached out to both GM and Lotus, receiving only a response from the latter, who described why the Speedster came about, saying:

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I have spoken to the person in the know and this is how it happened. Lotus had always planned on a Series 2 Elise and when GM approached Lotus to work with them to do a sports car, it was the natural thing to do the two programmes in parallel.

The statement went on describing how the two cars aren’t as similar as we think:

Neither car was based on the other and around 8% of the parts were shared but of course the technology and the build process under the skin was similar and some of the suppliers (Bridgestone for example at the time were shared and both cars had cut-down sills).

The VX220 / Speedster was built on a different line to the Elise and Exige, the Esprit was on a separate line as well at Hethel.

It goes on:

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At launch, the VX220 / Speedster had twin airbags, but the Lotus didn’t - it wasn’t a legislative requirement in Europe at the time. Airbags were introduced when the Elise and Exige entered the North American market in 2004MY

As I understand it, GM was keen to introduce a sports car which then (in the UK) helped launch the VXR performance subbrand...

So it looks like the real story, at least according to Lotus, is that the Speedster came about not because Opel needed financial help from GM to meet safety standards, but because GM approached Lotus for a sports car. And neither car was based on the other; Lotus already had the Series II in the cards, so it decided to develop the two programs in parallel, with each car being markedly different from the other, even though they were built using similar methods.

Despite the differences, both cars were masterpieces.

Photo: Opel

According to Speedster.com, a site devoted to GM’s little roadster, the Speedster’s chassis is comprised of a lightweight aluminum tub reinforced by fiberglass, bringing the curb weight to an almost gravity-defying 1,918 pounds.

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That weight figure applies to the version powered by GM’s 148 horsepower 2.2-liter Ecotec inline-four, the same engine you might find in a Saturn Vue, Saturn Ion or Chevy Cobalt of the era. But it gets better.

Three years later for the 2003 model year, GM released a 2.0-liter turbocharged model putting out 200 horsepower, and still weighing less than any Miata at only 2,050 pounds.

That car, the site says, could spring to 60 mph in 4.9 seconds, and was praised across the press, even winning Top Gear’s “Most fun car of the year” award for 2003. The only problem, as Clements noted in his book, was that good as the Speedster/VX220 was compared to the actual Elise, “a Lotus badge is going to have a bit more pull.”

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And that turned out to be correct. Successful as the Elise was, the Speedster was a flop, missing its sales targets by a wide margin. If there was any debate as to why GM set up the production of their turbo-Elise in the first place, it’s certainly clear why it let the thing die.

Still, for those of us looking for a new fun vehicle, just know that running around Europe are about 8,000 manual-transmission, mid-engine, rear-wheel drive, targa-topped sports cars, some of which are turbo and all of which weigh less than an NA Miata. 2025 can’t come soon enough.