- Best model: Sprint
- Worst model: Any ratty example
- Budget buy: Plus 2
- OK for unleaded?: Probably not
- Will it fit in the garage? (mm): L x W 14’ x 5’ 3.5” (2S)
- Spares situation: Excellent
- DIY ease?: OK but engine access is tight
- Club support: Excellent
- Appreciating asset?: Yes, much underrated
- Good buy or good-bye?: A good one will be a friend for life
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Has the Elan at last shed its image of being beautiful but a bitch to own – or is this Lotus still a split-personality classic?
Pros & Cons
There’s no sitting on the fence here, you either love or hate the Lotus Elan. Usually the former emotion relates to those who ache to own one, while far too much of the latter, negative emotion comes from unhappy, jilted owners who speak from bitter memories. Yes, we know all about the famous LOTUS acronym, indeed the Elan helped invent it, but today, after decades of experience and modern materials, the Elan can to be as reliable as it is desirable, which is why values have started to soar recently. If you want to adopt this Lotus position, then do it soon! Here’s how to make sure it’s not a painful one…
The Elite may have made history for Lotus, but it was the Elan that made money. After the complexity of the all-fi breglass former, the latter relied upon a simple but extremely rigid X-frame backbone chassis, with all-round independent wishbone suspension, featuring those famous ‘Chapman struts’, topped by a cute fi breglass body (penned by Ron Hickman, who went on to design the brilliant Black & Decker Workmate and make his fortune). After the cost and complexity of the Coventry Climax engine, Chapman looked to a simpler, cheaper alternative and found it by making a twincam cylinder head for the new Ford Kent engine. This got its power down via a Corsair/Classicbased transmission and Anglia axle assemblies, plus all-round disc brakes (Lotus rear/Triumph Vitesse front) with rack-and-pinion steering, taken from the Triumph. A parts-bin special the Elan may have been, but the make up was still sophisticated, plus it hit the showrooms at £1499 – a tidy sum back in 1962, but tellingly a fat 500 quid cheaper than the loss-making Elite. When fi rst shown at the 1962 Earls Court Motor Show, the Elan featured a 1499cc Fordbased engine, but it didn’t take long for the classic 1558cc block to take its place – a unit that was to power the car until its demise just over a decade later. Initial reception could hardly have been more enthusiastic, but a few refi nements were needed so, in November 1964, the Series 2 Elan was launched, with larger front brake callipers, fullwidth wooden dashboard (which gave additional rigidity to the shell as well as providing a touch of luxury) and single-piece rear light clusters. In September of the following year, the Series 3 coupé arrived, complete with standard electric windows. A closer-ratio gearbox was also made available, while other tweaks included a longer boot lid (to cure leaks, an Elan bugbear!) and a boot-mounted battery. In January 1966 the Special Equipment model became available, packing 115bhp and marshalled by the close-ratio gearbox and now servo-assisted brakes. The Series 3 convertible appeared in June 1966, with the same amendments as the fi xedhead coupé. Then, a year later, the Plus 2 went on sale, albeit as fi xedhead only. Unloved for years, but now finding favour and deservedly so, this derivative is an Elan with a considerably longer, wider body plus a foot extra added wheelbase for tolerable 2+2 family accommodation. Some reckon it featured even better dynamics. The SE tune engine restored the performance of this much heavier derivative (2086lb against 1290lbs), which it’s said was fi rst suggested by Chapman as far back as 1963. This swankier 2+2 could even have been powered by the sweet Daimler 2.5 V8 if a proposal had gone ahead!
During the early days of the Plus 2’s design, there was a mooted merger of Lotus with Jaguar, as William Lyons saw Colin Chapman as the heir apparent. The Lotus boss had already been wooed by the lightweight Daimler V8 engine that Jaguar now owned but nothing came of the ‘alliance’. The Plus 2’s superb shape was dictated by the use of the old Ford Classic Capri windscreen and an Anglia front bumper. While it all worked out okay in the end, Chapman was always lukewarm about the Plus 2 and yet reception to the Plus 2 couldn’t have been more different to that of the pregnant-looking E-type of that era. Whereas the Jag received a tepid press, the scribes raved about the Lotus. Motor, in particular, hailed it a benchmark of a car back in ’67, which, “Dictated a reappraisal of some of the standards by which we must judge and access all future cars” it remarked. Praise indeed! The flared-arched S4 of March 1968 had supposedly 50 revisions over the S3, to bring it in line with the Plus 2, although one mod Lotus should have not bothered with was the fi tting of emission-friendly, sealed Stromberg carbs, which blighted many cars (but not Plus 2s). So much so, that, by November 1969, fl atspotfree Webers again ruled the engine bay, much to the relief of owners and dealers alike. The Plus 2 was killed off in August 1968, but the Plus 2S remained on sale. February 1971ushered in the Elan Sprint, with a 126bhp bigvalve headed engine, stronger transmission and two-tone paintwork. The same engine was transplanted into the Elan +2S to make the 130 model, identifi ed by a silver roof. This car would be fi tted with a fi ve-speed gearbox taken from the Austin Maxi, no less, from October 1972, badged Plus 2S 130/5. In August 1973 the Elan S4 was killed off, but the Plus 2S 130 survived until 1974, when the Elite was introduced.
Unless you’re Sir Jackie Stewart who hated his racer, the Elan lives up to its name and has poise, agility and much more zest than you’d think possible for a nigh on 50 year old. It was probably the fi rst sports car that had to be driven with fi ngertips rather than by the scruff of the neck: “The Elan does not so much under steer or over-steer as just steer – you turn the wheel and around the corner she goes” said one road test at the time. Sir Jackie described the Elan as one of the worst car’s he had ever driven, back in the1960s, although that was an early racer before the improved 26R shell was developed. Motor judged the Plus 2 as one of those rare cars which sets a new benchmark future cars have to match. Even today, although it’s the two-seater Elans which get all the glory, whisper it, but some specialists reckon the larger, wider track Plus 2 handles even better, and is the greater car. Early Elans are a bit frenzied when cruising, thanks to their lowly gearing; later cars gainedhigher ratios, although a variety of axles were always made optional, so it depends upon what’s been fi tted (and retro fi tted). The Elan was blindingly quick in its day and, even now, hardly disappoints. Autocar clocked a Plus 2S 130/5 at 121mph dead, after it sprinted to 60 in 7.7 seconds (the smaller lighter Elan Sprint is even quicker). Even a standard model is still GTi fast (Motor recorded a 0-60mph dash in 8.1 seconds for the SE Coupe back in 1968). But what makes the Elan so zippy is not just its power-to-weight ratio but, like the Mini Cooper, its diminutive dimensions ensure that there’s much more ‘road room’ to play with. Where Elan doesn’t score highly is its refi nement. Agreed, the handling is sublime, but those infamous Rotafl ex driveshaft couplings are prone to wind up and cause an embarrassing kangarooing if the driver is less than smooth with the clutch and throttle (later more modern driveshafts, that are easily fi tted, cure this to be fair). The Lotus was never a smooth car for its price when new and can be noisy, especially with the hood up. The engines are always vocal, if frugal; some owners speak of 30mpg if the Twin Cam engine is properly set up. A well sorted standard Elan is a joy, but there’s a wealth of modern upgrades around to make one even better. You can even make a ’new’ Elan using reliable, affordable Ford Mondeo power, a proper fi ve-speed gearbox and an even superior suspension set up. Awesome, if not original. And the original was considered very good in its day: “Superlatives are best avoided in road tests: they are too arbitrary and subjective and have a nasty habit of being made to look foolish by the passage of time. Nevertheless we are tempted to describe the Lotus Elan as the best all round sports car – bar none available today.” That was Motor speaking back in 1968 and the words still ring true
Be quick, since top Elans are selling for serious money and even half-respectable examples thatare hardly showroom fresh will command £8000 minimum. Really nice cars will top £15,000 and 20K is becoming commonplace for top Sprints. It’s the earliest S1 and S2 which are worth the most, mainly for their popularity in historic racing classes. In general, open cars command a premium of a couple of grand against the FHC (although the latter are liked for motorsport). The Plus2 still lags behind the Elan although the gap is closing. A good car is worth around £7000 and the top ones easily double this. Restos still sell for around for £2000 but any Elan is not a cheap car to properly rebuild.
What To Look For
- The Elan’s glass-fi bre bodyshell needs careful inspection because there are plenty of potential problem areas. It’s likely the glass-fi bre will be looking tatty because the bodyshell flexes, leading to star cracks in the panels.
- These can appear anywhere, but they’re most likely around the door handles, boot hinges and badge mountings. Panel edges can also succumb and make sure the headlamp pods are okay; these can also be pitted with stone chips, much like the rest of the nose.
- If a paint job looks great after two years, chances are it’ll keep looking good. It’s common for a respray to look superb for a few months, then the cracks in the glass-fi bre reappear and it’s back to square one.
- In many ways, you’re better off buying a car that looks tatty – at least you know what you’re getting. Also establish whether just a blow-over was carried out or if the shell was restored at the same time. Fresh paint over old guarantees later problems.
- It may be that a new bodyshell is the most costeffective way of restoring an Elan – by the time this Lotus has been stripped and several panels have been attended to, it’s usually cheaper and easier to just buy a new bodyshell.
- Naturally, this means a complete rebuild will be necessary but, with new shells costing the thick end of £5000, (including panels such as the bonnet, boot and doors), it usually makes better fi nancial sense.
- If the car has been in a prang, that stout yet suspect chassis should have been replaced. Even if the car has been kerbed heavily, the frame can be distorted, potentially leading to stress cracks in the bodywork plus the car will never run quite true.
- Any chassis produced after 1980 is galvanised, so if there’s zinc-plating on the one you’re looking at, it’s not the original chassis and to be fair very few Elans are still relying on their original backbone.
- Fitting a new chassis is a job that typically costs £4000, as brakes and ancillaries are normally overhauled at the same time. The chassis on its own leaves little change from £1500.
- You can use a Spyder chassis. This is a popular mod although it’s of space-frame construction, which scuppers originality. The trade-off is a superior suspension set up.
- It’s the age-old problem of rotting from the inside out that claims most Elan chassis. Key areas to check are the front suspension pick-up points, where the drain holes get blocked.
- Even if the frame isn’t rusty, stress cracks and fractures are inevitable. The area around the engine mountings is usually the fi rst to go, and once cracks appear it’s time for a replacement, as welding isn’t recommended here.
- Famous Ford Kent based twin-cam is reliable if looked after but costly to fi x. That’s why it’s worth looking to see if the engine has been rebuilt. Technology is now far better than when the cars were made, and a rebuilt engine will now soldier on for 140,000 miles or more.
- The coolant needs to retain a decent concentration of anti-freeze (at least 25 percent) to ensure that the alloy cylinder head doesn’t corrode; this will also lead to the radiator getting clogged up, which in turn leads to the engine overheating! Expect to see 90-95 degrees on the temperature gauge once the car is up to speed after gently warming it up.
- Overheating woes are made worse if the water pump is past its best and it’s a known TC foible, so feel for play in the pump’s pulley and look for water leaks. If it needs replacing the cylinder head has to come off, with the job typically taking at least 10 hours. That’ll mean a bill of £700 (the pump is £90 on its own and you’ll carry out a decoke at the same time, won’t you?). If the fan belt is over-tightened, the pump’s life will be sharply reduced. Burton Power has a modifi ed pump kit that, once fi tted, means you don’t have so much dismantling again.
- The only other likely malady is a timing chain that needs replacing. Check the adjustment bolt on the engine’s front plate; if all the travel is takenup there’s no adjustment left now and a new chain and tensioner are needed.
- Expect oil leaks around the cam cover, especially at the rear. Oil usage can be heavy. Oil pressure should be 40lb.ft at operating temperature. Look for plumes of smoke on the overrun, suggesting worn bores and pistons.
- Don’t be surprised to see a mix-and-match of components. Has a big valve head been substituted (the head should be stamped with a letter N by No1 plug plus special cam covers)?
- Proper Lotus blocks are scarce and expensive and a normal 1500 can be used, although the capacity will be wrong. That said, an over bore to 1650cc, 1760cc or even a tight 1835cc is possible and gives a torquier motor.
- The Elan’s four-speed gearbox is sourced from the Ford Corsair 2000E, and it’s tough yet slick. The fi ve-speed unit fi tted to the Plus 2 S 130/5 has Austin Maxi internals, and suspect. Rebuilding costs anywhere between £1000 and £1500.
- If the car still sports Rotofl ex suspension (which incorporates rubber doughnut joints and can cause jerky take up unless you’ve a smooth clutch foot) there’s a chance that the couplings will have started to break up. If both sides need doing, a specialist will charge over £400 to do the whole job, parts on their own are £170.
- A Triumph Herald-derived steering rack is used; main difference is that the Elan’s has lock stops fi tted and shorter outer tie rods to prevent the wheels touching the anti-roll bar. Make sure there’s been no contact between wheels and suspension; if there has, the Herald item needs to be swapped for a proper Elan one.
- Ensure there’s no puling to one side and also get underneath and check that nothing is bent (if possible try a few cars to set a datum). If the car has been kerbed, or if the chassis is damaged from any sort of impact, everything will be out of line – and it’ll soon be apparent. It’s worth a four-wheel alignment check done because the geometry needs to be exactly right.
- As well as the chassis being out of true, the wishbones can be bent. If the car tries to steer itself, the bushes have worn; under £15.
- Elan was equipped with discs all round, with Vitesse not Herald units at the front on Plus 2s and Lotus ones at the rear. If there’s any pulling to one side it’s because a calliper is sticking.
- If the handbrake fails to hold the car, it’s probably because any play has been taken up at the lever end of the system.The most effective adjustment is done at the wheels.
- You need to check each electrical item is working properly, because there’s no shortage of wiring. That’s because the glass-fi bre body means each item has to have two wires going to it – a live and an earth so there’s plenty of scope for loose or broken connections.
Three Of A Kind
Mazda MX-5It’s well known the Mazda MX-5 was little more than a clone of the Elan in style and substance, but with modern day durability and user friendliness. What’s wrong in that? A good MX-5 is a delight; not exactly quick even in 1.8-litre form but handles well and are so dependable. Accessible for under £2000 but, older, well used ones can let the side down, so buy with care.
Lancia FulviaThis is the sort of car Chapman would have approved of and in fact he was considering using the sharp and swift V4 engine in the Plus 2. Launched a year before the Lotus, the Fulvia ran for ten years, and it’s a beautifully engineered coupe that was streets ahead of its rivals. Today they are good value, but mosthave rusted away and restos are dear. HF cars are pure gems!
Lotus Elan M100Don’t tell everybody, but this long-awaited successor to the original is at least as good as the original, but more refi ned – and not to say reliable! If you can look past the fairly ugly styling of the dumpy M100 you’ll discover brilliant (front-wheel drive) handling, rapid turbo power and a build quality not seen before from Lotus. And they are spectacular value still. Just try one!
It’s rare that a classic’s standing remains largely undiminished over the passages of time but the Lotus Elan is one of those cars. It’s as endearing and exciting as it ever was. The advent of the Mazda MX-5 ‘clone’ only highlights how right the original blueprint remains almost half a century on. As long as you buy a good one that is, or the famous Lotus acronym will also be as relevant as ever…
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