Twenty years ago, police in the UK had a problem. Bands of thieves were carrying out brazen "ram raids" throughout the country. A media circus would soon envelop a story that had it all: violence, fear and derring-do. And one incredible car: The Lotus Carlton.
In the early 1990s, Britain was gripped by a scourge of violent robberies, in which thieves would ram stolen cars into the windows of retail stores and make off with jewelry or other highly resellable items. While not a new phenomenon, "ram raids" spiked in Britain during the global economic meltdown of that period, and subsequently dominated the 24-hour news cycle.
Built between 1989 and 1992, the Lotus Carlton wasn't a typical econobox endowed with a "Tuned by Lotus" badge. It was a supercar in plebian clothing. The massively upgraded Vauxhall Carlton (that is, Opel Omega, known to we Yanks in its next generation as the Cadillac Catera) was quicker than a Ferrari Testarossa from 0-60, and approached 180 mph at the top end. It was also extremely rare — fewer than 1,000 units saw daylight — and cost the astronomical sum of GBP48,000 new, or at the time, between 80 and 90 grand American.
Still, the Lotus Carlton was the fastest production sedan in the world, and a thumb in the eye of every German executive limo on the ooh-and-aah circuit, notably the BMW M5 and Mercedes-Benz 500E. It was an instant hero car and, not long after its launch, would become a whipping boy for the law-and-order crowd, who thought a saloon car with such towering performance specs had no business on the road.
Of course, the Lotus Carlton didn't really begin life as an economy car, but as the already kind of potent Opel Omega 3000GSi 24V. Beneath the bonnet was a worked 3.6-liter inline six with forged crank and pistons, two Garrett T25 turbochargers and an intercooler, altogether producing 377 hp and 419 lb-ft of torque. A six-speed ZF manual, with which Chevrolet Corvette ZR-1 owners were acquainted, handled the turbo six's prodigious power, as did the LSD from a V8 Holden Commodore. Struts in front, multilink at the rear, massive brakes, fat rubber and aero for days assured the Lotus Carlton could handle a corner as well as it could cover ground.
And so, when a particular group of smash-and-grab thieves were looking for the ultimate getaway car, the Lotus Carlton was at the top of their list. Or maybe they just saw the Imperial Green sedan sitting there, knew what it was, and grabbed it up on a whim.
Either way, they made their move on the night of November 26, 1993. According to The Independent, reporting at the time, a gang of ram raiders snatched a Lotus Carlton from a home in Pershore, Worcestershire. In the months that followed, they used it to rip off an estimated GBP20,000 in liquor and cigarettes throughout the West Midlands, including Bromsgrove, Redditch, Wythall, Belbroughton, Earlswood and Rubery, which are real places. According to the report, the thieves hid the car during the day, and struck after midnight. No one snitched.
Pissed-off cops were beside themselves about what to do. The thieves and their hot-rod Vauxhall were making a mockery of whatever hamstrung interceptors Johnny Law was sporting at the time. "We simply haven't been able to get near the thing and it looks unlikely that we ever will," an intelligence officer told The Independent about the Lotus. "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."
Talk radio hosts and tabloid newspapers jumped on the story of "the car that was too fast for public safety" and called for the car to be banned, or at least its top speed to be restricted. None of that ever happened.
Eventually, the number of incidents waned, and while the media hung on to the ram-raid story for dear life, the police never did catch that particular gang. For that, they can likely thank the unprecedented performance of their stolen Lotus Carlton, a car whose story resounds in British automotive lore. In one often-told urban legend, after one such ram raid, the gang outran the West Midlands Police Helicopter up the M6. That may or may not be true, but knowing the Lotus Carlton's 0-100 time of 11 seconds flat, it certainly sounds plausible.