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What is a (M100) Lotus Elan?
It was the all- new Elan for the 1990s which only had two things in common with the original; the name and those pop-up headlamps. Colin Chapman would have approved however because the M100 embraced all that was so right about the original, but made it thoroughly modern at the same time. The result was a fine car although one which failed to woo Lotus lovers, meaning that it’s one of the most underrated sports classics on the market as well as being one of the best value Lotus rag tops ever.
The M100 was launched in 1989, 15 years after the original was killed off - although the Norfolkbased specialist had been tempting and teasing Lotus fans for the best part of the 1980s over a suitable replacement. As you’d expect from such a forward thinking specialist, the new Elan was no retro make-over but state-of-the art, meaning frontwheel drive and turbo power. The M100 was allegedly dubbed a ‘90 per center’ by Lotus development staff because it allowed 90 per cent of drivers to exploit 90 per cent of its potential, 90 per cent of the time in complete safety. The reason for this was essentially due to its clever chassis design employing a highly stiff box section with the suspension systems mounted on innovative alloy ‘rafts’,
so keeping changes to the suspension’s geometry minimal.
As we all know, Lotus is no stranger to using outside power plants and this time Norfolk turned Japanese with an Isuzu power plant under the bonnet
(Lotus like Isuzu were then owned by General Motors). It may have seemed an odd choice but as owners soon found out, it was one of the most sensible moves Lotus ever made as it ensured reliability. Talking about reliability, the Elan was developed like no other Lotus. Over a two year period, 61 development Elans were thrashed (including 250,000 miles on the famous punishing Millbrook proving ground) and crashed while every car made was subjected to a 35 mile dash around Hethel to make sure all was well. And yet for all this a fundamental mistake on the drawing board reportedly meant the new Elan was saddled with that extraordinary wide look…
Two models were launched; an entry level Elan boasting a normally aspirated 1.6-litre ‘four’, kicking out a reasonable 130bhp or a hotter Turbo SE (by far the most popular pick), which yielded a meatier 165bhp. All models were fed via afive-speed ‘box to the front wheels, which had power assisted steering. Despite eager anticipation by Lotus lovers and rave reviews from press and pundits alike, the Elan didn’t sell particularly well due to
its then lofty twenty grand price tag (it was that dear due to massive investment and development costs which reportedly totalled some $40m) and slow uptake caused it to be dropped as early as 1992, only a year after dismal US sales sealed its fate. Less than 4000 were made.
In 1994 and now under the control of Bugatti, Lotus tried again with the S2. This was a Turbo only model with a slightly detuned 155bhp catalysed engine, modified chassis, larger tyres and added appointments, all taking the new Elan up to a bank-busting £24,500! Only 800 were made and it was the final curtain call on the Elan after five short years.
Although the M100 Elan is a generation away from the original, the emphasis remains the same. Yes of course it’s front-wheel, drive but you’d scarcely appreciate it, so precise and balanced is the Elan’s handling. And thanks to the car’s huge track and gumball-like low profile tyres, roadholding is a world away from the skinny-tyred original: no wonder almost two decades on the M100 is still regarded as the best front-wheel drive car ever made. That said, comparisons with the original Elan were - and still are - inevitable and it can’t be denied that the M100 loses out to its illustrious predecessor in terms of agility and driver involvement. While it can out corner most things, the sheer size of this later Lotus means there’s less road room to play with. But don’t let this take anything away from the Lotus; for most enthusiasts it’s an extremely fast and safe car to drive with gusto. What about that Japanese engine, which was hardly the sexiest four-cylinder around? Make no mistake this Isuzu hot hatch engine isn’t short of shove although it does lack the sheer character and pedigree (and unreliability) of the Lotus-Ford lump. Even the normally aspirated Elan is good for a seven-and-a-bit second sprint to 60 and maxing close to 130mph.
The Turbo shaded it by a second and 10mph respectively, but crucially took on an entirely new character as the turbo made itself felt mid range. Economy – always an Elan strongpoint - is excellent on the M100 too; expect 30 mpg if in good tune on both variants. Like the original, the M100 rides fabulously well for a sports car, that wide track helping a lot. And it’s a lot more civilised and solid than Chapman’s earlier effort ever was. Sadly the Elan’s lack of sales success ruled out any derivatives such as a hard top roadster and a larger Elan+2 for growing families, but as a two seater it’s roomy, civilised and practical.
Along with the unloved Elite/Eclat and Excel GTs, the M100 is dirt cheap for what it offers - but not for long as Lotus specialists sniff
something in the air with this car. Prices range from a few thousand to around £12,000, which is literally pennies when you consider what good original Elans now go for. Mainstream price guides ‘book’ the Elan up to £6000 for an SE and almost £8000 for an S2, but top cars are selling for considerably more. As with all specialist cars, it’s best to pay a premium to get the best Elan around rather than do up a dog of a car, of which there are a fair few around. It’s reckoned that the S2 is the better car thanks to improved build and development, although the loss of 10bhp does take the edge off of performance.
What To Look For
- It’s a used Lotus - but don’t let that put you off! The M100 is one of the most reliable cars ever to wear that famous badge, according to leading Lotus specialists. High mileages of up to 150,000 are not unknown if serviced properly and it’s a performance car that you can use every day. Just like a Mazda MX-5 in fact.
- The bodywork is one of Lotus’ best efforts and only hard used and abused examples will show signs of fibreglass crazing (it looks like cobwebs) and splitting skins. Red cars can fade quickly if not looked after and turn a pukey pink. Specialists usually won’t touch these as it means a respray, while British Racing Green cars can highlight panel defects.
- Always check for poor accident damage. Look for dodgy panel fit, wonky, pop-up headlamp operation and blotchy paint. On a test drive, watch for wandering and anything less than sublime handling. An HPI or AA/RAC computer check is a good idea and try a few examples out to set a datum point. This car may be so far away from what you are used to, even a dud one will feel darn good!
- Replacement chassis parts are available, while the ‘clamshell’ body manufacture means quick and easy replacement of panels. For example, an entire new shell is the best part of £4000 with the front section a more affordable £800 touch. Very early cars are reported to be less rigid it’s rumoured; check the panel fits and rattles as a result.
- The Isuzu engine and drive train is almost unbreakable. Abused and thrashed examples may feel tired and watch out for turbo wear (poor, uneven performance and excessive smoking). See that the camshaft drive belt has been replaced on time (60,000 miles) or big damage and even bigger bills will result. Talking of cams, apart from checking for wear (lots of top end clatter), the assembly’s sensor can play up causing running on problems (the engine’s dash warning light should also illuminate unless it’s been cunningly disconnected!). It’s a £100 fix from the Lotus parts bin.
- As with any modern engine, overheating is a worry although it’s not a known fault like it is with MGFs! Take the car for a good hot run and check. There’s a lot of hoses to renew - see they are not weeping or past their prime. A bunged-up clapped out rad can be overhauled by the likes of N.A.R. or Radtec (see adverts) and even uprated if required. As a new Lotus unit retails at over £205, the prices are pretty similar.
- Hard use will knock out the clutch, so check for slipping and wear. Also, because it’s a front-wheel drive car, inspect the driveshaft gaiters for perishing and deterioration. If a new driveshaft is required, be prepared for a £350 invoice plus fitting. A clicking sound on full steering lock indicates shot CV joints. Occasionally the gear selector cable has been known to break; fit improved S2 parts when required.
- See the right tyres have been fitted and not some cheap alternatives (the sign of penny-pinching ownership). Elans use 205/50/ZR15s, with the S2 rolling on 16inch rims - the latter which are more damage prone, it seems.
- Chief checkpoints concern wear in the suspension and wheel bearings. Also pay special attention to the front and rear suspension arms. These are made of steel and rust - dangerously so - and should be inspected and treated annually. S2s are okay as they use galvanised parts. It’s no cheap fix: they cost over £400 while track control arms work out over £350 (track road ends £65) and ball joints are a £50 touch. New Lotus dampers retail at £240, so don’t dismiss lightly a car that feels a bit loose.
- The interior isn’t quite so robust. Look for sagging leather trim, deteriorating door and window seals (which can cost up to £700 to rectify), hood leaks (look for wet, damp trim and a musty smell - it’s very common), misted up instrument binnacles and general aging. Replacement hoods are around £500, so give it the once over. Air con was an optional extra but does it still work properly?
- Being a fibreglass car, dodgy electrics are common. Most of the switch gear is Vauxhall Cavalier by the way and cheap to source, but problems with electric window motors, pop-up headlamps etc will be dearer to right.
- Avoid non-turbo Elans unless much cheaper! The SE was by far the most popular pick and normally aspirated ones (only around 100 were made, incidentally), even in tip-top order, are much harder to sell on. Experts always stress that you should go for the SE every time.
- Servicing costs can be kept down by using a good Lotus specialist (see our adverts for more details). Expect to pay between £300-700 depending upon the work needed. Main dealers will charge considerably more, but overall it is not a dear car to maintain and fairly DIY-friendly.
- A standard Elan not good enough you? A sports exhaust system really pulls out the power on SE models. Other worthwhile mods include better brakes (either pads or bigger discs) and even larger tyres than standard, say the experts.
If you’re in the market for a real road-going racer but reckon the Elise is just too uncompromising, then try the M100 Elan. It’s almost as much fun and a lot more practical for everyday use. It drives superbly, has an excellent reliability record (for a Lotus, anyway) but has yet to capture the imagination of many classic buffs. So before this Elan gains the respect it deserves - and that will be very soon - get in there quick prior to prices shooting skywards. Who needs an MX-5?
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