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Honda S2000 vs. Mazda MX5 vs. Lotus Elan vs. Alfa Spider vs. Jensen Healey

Big, lazy sports cars are in a class of their own but nothing beats the agile and alert feel of a fabulous four pot. Here’s five Published: 13th Sep 2019 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

What The Experts Say...

1st MX-5 | 1st ELAN | 3rd Honda | 4th Alfa | 5th J-H

Choosing a final order is more of a personal preference but adding some cold logic to it all sees the Mazda come out on top. If Lotus ever wanted to make an evocation of its Elan, the MX-5 would fit the blueprint admirably. It’s a serious sports car yet one which is easier to maintain than a Spitfire or Midget and can be used daily. If there is a fly in MX-5s ointment, it’s their lack of exclusivity and the fact that non enthusiasts also own them. Does that bother you? Elans are for special days and drives and they need continual nursing but that’s all part of the bonding process. Honda’s S2000 could be the car MX-5 drivers progress to – rather like TR4 owners move up to a TR6 – and they won’t be disappointed, so long as they know they have to work at driving one to best effect. The Alfa Spider and Jensen-Healey are close in concept; the former having the right character, the latter having value on it side. What sullied the new Healey from the outset was the disappointment it caused as, ever since the E-type was introduced, enthusiasts had been desperately waiting for a totally British new sports car.

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Before classic cars came along, the hoary old question frequently being asked was “What is a sports car” and the debate still rages. To our mind, it can be defined as a frame of mind. It doesn’t matter about the cost, the badge or the speed – just as long as it looks, sounds and feels right. This is why a Frogeye is as much fun as the Ferrari we feature in this issue! In many ways, the simplest sports cars are the best – Caterhams, MGAs and TRs spring to mind here – but increasingly today’s enthusiast prefers better civility and convenience than a rustic roadster provides. Arguably Lotus showed the way here with its exquisite Elan the thick end of 50 years ago followed by Alfa’s Duetto Spider, both sporting the basic template and spec which we now take for granted (twin cam engines, five-speed ’boxes etc), in even plain city cars. Only when Geoffrey and Donald Healey decided to replace their legendary Big hairy Healey with a more sophisticated replacement, in the early 1970s, along the lines of the Alfa, did we see a change of direction in this country, albeit short-lived

Affordable sports cars seemed almost an endangered species before the living legend Mazda MX-5 came along for the 1990s to rejuvenate the market. A shameless modern take of the Lotus Elan, it appeared to provide the best of both worlds. It’s these four classics we’re looking at in this issue (Elan, Alfa, Jensen-Healey and Lotus Elan) but there’s also one other that’s well worth considering; Honda’s S2000 which can be looked at as an upmarket MX-5. Read why…

Which one to buy

1st MX-5 | 2nd elan | 3rd Alfa | 4th Honda | 5th J-H

It’s unfair to directly compare this bunch of five as the only thing they really have in common is their concept – ages, appeal and values are all over the shop. Nevertheless, the MX-5 enjoys top ranking because it’s still going strong after an incredible 30 years (where did all the time go-ed). The style and mechanicals may have changed but the character hasn’t and that’s to Mazda’s enormous credit for not messing with the mix, which is that of a serious conventionally styled and designed sports car in the Elan mould that’s as easy to drive and own as a common or garden Golf.

The Mk1 holds the most classic appeal because this Elan clone is in its purist form, although the replacement is the better all rounder with the 1.8 Sport being the one to have although with so many special editions you’re almost spoilt for choice.

The Mk3, initially anyway, rather lost its way by pandering increasingly to non enthusiasts more interested in owning a nice, pretty, easy driving palatial type of sports car. And very nice it is with an optional metal roof for 24/7 but the current model has, thankfully, returned to its back-to-basic roots. The best selling sports car ever and so long as petrol power rules, we can see it enjoying another 20 years at the top.

The car which inspired Mazda changed the face of sports cars, showing that they don’t have to be rough and ready roadsters and the Elan will always be an all-time great as well as a model Lotus never truly replaced. While the MX-5 made it modern and mainstream, the Elan’s purity of design, size, style and ‘rightness’ hasn’t been matched since its demise in 1974. Apart from the unloved S4 (chiefly because the engine switched to suspect Stromberg carbs for a year but that’s largely a myth now say experts) all are crackers and never more so than in ‘Big Valve’ Sprint form plus there’s the delectable more upmarket Plus2 if you need a 2+2. Some of these have also been converted to convertible form, but there’s fully enclosed hardtop two-seater coupés and even a handful of Scimitar GTE-like estates, made by dealer Hexagon and called ‘Elanbulances’ – Chapman hated them!

Alfa’s Spider, launched in 1966, survived an incredible 30 years thanks to its popularity in the United States (accounting for 75 per cent of sales) and was passably updated along the way. The boat-tailed originals are the most wanted, preferably with the sweeter running 1750 engine, and it’s expected the price gap between these and later straight cut Kamm-tailed cars to further widen significantly, which in turn paradoxically will boost S2 values.

The S3 from 1983 seems universally the least liked due to the crass body kit tacked on; the Pininfarina-reworked S4s are all round far better bets, especially with their reliable fuel injected variable valve-timed engines easier-to-livewith power steering and most importantly clean classical styling – ideal for those who also want some modern conveniences.

You could say that the Honda S2000 is an MX-5 for grown-ups and it boasts that same usability and dependability of the Mazda but with serious intentions. It was launched in 1999 with a chassis upgrade and 17inch for 2004 plus a further chassis rework for 2008, a year before its sadly, premature demise. Post-2002 examples are best, with their glass rear window in place of plastic and more resolved handling which we’ll touch upon later. Most desired are special run out (100) all in Grand Prix white and you get the impression that Team Lotus head Colin Chapman would have loved this car.

Chapman’s involvement in the Jensen-Healey should have marked it out as a great – instead that under-developed Lotus twin cam 16-valve engine was one of the main causes for the car’s (and Jensen’s) demise. The J-H was right in tune with the times and should have taken over Elan where the Elan left off but this cocktail of contemporary parts (the suspension was pure Vauxhall Viva, for example) never blended together and the styling was unadventurous, looking like a Spitfire on steroids.

The Mk2 of late ’73 was much improved and the best one sported a five-speed transmission. A sportshatch (simply called the Jensen GT as Healey opted out by now) was introduced for 1975 but less than 500 were made of this ‘upmarket MGB GT’. With some 20 million sold worldwide, we’re waist high in MX-5s and so are the cheapest thrills by far, starting from £1000 (although you’re better to spend £2000+, followed by the Jensen-Healey and the Honda S2000 which are pretty much on price parity; £6000 for average-to-good and over ten grand for the better ones although the run out specs edition S2000s can command in excess of £15,000.

There’s an Alfa Spider to cater for all pockets. When new, the Alfa was only a couple of hundred shy of an E-type. Today, they are not far behind with super S1 hitting 50K and above with average ones half this – that’s top S2 values. The later S3/S4s are the best bargains; £7000 or less, particularly for the S3s. Series 4 cars can sell for around £1000 extra as these are starting to be liked for their better interiors, and added equipment levels such as power windows and power steering. Right-hand drive cars ceased along with the 1300 in 1977 although made a return with the Series 4. Some Series 2 cars were subsequently imported by Surrey based Bell and Colvill and converted to RHD during 1980-82 by the way. You may also stumble across some unconventional specifications in a RHD package from countries such as South Africa. Genuine RHD cars had twin servos on the nearside inner wing, incidentally.

Elans are becoming gold dust; Sprints can hit well over 50K and you won’t get much for less than half this unless you want a project – or the Plus2 but even these are starting to find a new fanbase and rightly so as these are vastly underrated coupés.

What's the best to drive

1st MX-5 | 2nd ELAN | 3Rd Honda | 4th Alfa | 5th J-H

Before we become engrossed it’s as well to define the difference between handling and roadholding because it has a profound influence on driving appeal. The former relates to the ease and pleasure attained when cornering while the latter refers to the actual speed when doing so; for road driving, entertaining handling is preferable for enthusiasts. It’s fair to say that the MX-5 and the Elan are even-stevens here but for different reasons. With only Cortina-sized tyres, the Lotus will shock many with its, by today’s standards, meagre grip. Rather the enjoyment is derived from a beautiful steering, virtual telepathic responses and a comfortable ride. Devoid of driver aids, you really feel part of the little lithe Lotus.

The Mazda has the better grip, of course, and the sensations are commendably Elan-like although not so special, which is understandable given it has to cater for a wider variety of driver skillsets. All MX-5s are great to drive, fast or slow, whereas Elans will vary car-to-car plus demand a special technique in town to avoid ‘kangarooing’ due to their antiquated driveshafts ‘winding up’. Performance-wise Elan’s are still electric and that Twin Cam (if in top tune) is a jewel although a 1.8 or 2.0-litre MX-5 won’t be far behind and is far quieter on motorways.

It’s only the sudden snap oversteer S2000’s are known for which keeps it off the top spot because this Honda is a real scream – quite literally! That 237bhp 2-litre is something else and at one point was the most powerful non turbo 2-litre in the world, just getting into its 9000rpm stride where others have hit their rev-limiters thanks to its famed VTEC technology. The downside is that it can feel disappointingly flaccid below the 6000rpm VTEC zone as just 153 lb/ ft is offered at an incredible 7500rpm, meaning it’s hard but rewarding work to drive fast.

The handling is great on dry roads, but in the wet, early cars can suffer oversteer – so much so that the classifieds are awash with ‘Category D’ pranged S2000s and badly repaired ones, too! But overall it’s pretty much like a MX-5 to punt around in.

This Alfa was – and is – streets ahead of say an MGB or TR and still feels relatively modern even though the chassis wasn’t quite as sophisticated as the spec initially suggested; its real rival was the Jensen- Healey. It has to be said that, today, an enthusiastic Fiesta driver would show a Spider (and J-H the way home, but speed isn’t everything and the controllability of the RWD Alfa, with that twin cam bellowing out such happy tunes is compensation enough. The suspension is set up on the comfortable side of sporting being softly sprung but well damped. Five-speeds always came as standard although the gearing is more titled at get up and go rather than a cruising gait.

As we remarked earlier, the ‘1750’ is liked for its jewel of an engine even though the 132bhp 2-litre packs more power if that’s what you want. To be fair all, in their own ways, are satisfying, even the 1300 Junior with its paltry if perky 89bhp. That’s if you can find one because, as engines are identical, apart from their sizes, many have upgraded – the same goes for the 1600. This is fine, but bear in mind the differences in gearings plus the 1300 used an inferior brake set up to handle less power.

The tragedy is that Jensen-Healey promised so much but was spoilt by lack of development. The Lotus engine (good for over 140bhp) should have provided real fireworks but was flaccid and rough when extended while handling was predictable but not exactly sporty – even lacking the Vauxhall anti roll bars, for example – pandering more to the US market which wanted saloon comfort at the same time. On the plus side, the cabin is excellent and with five-speeds make splendid tourers.

Improvement potential

1st MX-5 | 2nd Honda | 3rd J-H 4th Alfa | 5th Elan

Hailed as the ‘new MGB’, the Mazda’s success with enthusiasts has resulted in a massive tuning and customising scene plus there’s also dedicated racing championships for road going and track cars – there’s something for everyone here. Over 450bhp is possible from the S2000’s engine – 20bhp from new fuelling and a better exhaust alone – and the increase in torque is said to help reduce the ‘twichiness’ that the Honda can display plus the suspension is easily sorted. In fact, the only department which is universally found wanting are the brakes. That’s the moderns out of the way…

improving any classic has to be balanced by their value where originality increasingly counts which is why you have to tread carefully with the Alfa Spider and the Elan and perhaps limit improvements to club-accepted or easily reversed mods.

For the Alfa a mild tune consists of a session on a rolling road to optimise the carbs and ignition (fit an electronic set up) followed by a sports 4-2-1 manifold. Next step is a change of cams, a nice cheap tweak on the 1.3 and 1.6 is to fit 2-litre types. If you have a 1300 or 1600, then using brakes from the Alfa 75 is a cheap upgrade. There’s no rack and pinion conversion, but late LHD Spiders came with PAS which will fit or go electric instead.

It’s best to seek an Elan specialist before tweaking to get it right because so many owners don’t. As with the Alfa, a rolling road session is the starting point along with a good geometry check before you crack on with a variety of engine and suspension tweaks and it’s the latter where owners overdo it, it’s claimed. If you want a ‘modern’ Elan then speak to long time Lotus experts, Spydercars of Peterborough, who makes its own superior chassis plus can integrate upgrades such as Mondeo engines and Sierra rear suspensions, making them suitable for daily driving if you wish.

Because the Jensen-Healey was sadly half-baked from the outset, and their values remain still comparatively low, there’s good scope for improvement in every area and the end result can make it the sports car the J-H always should have been.

Owning and running

1st MX-5 | =2nd Elan | =2nd Honda | =4th Alfa | =4th J-H

Without question the MX-5 sits at the top table on this point alone. If dealers can’t supply parts then the independents can, the latter particularly when it concerns grey import versions. Pre-Mk3 models are quite DIY friendly for such a modern design and – importantly – they are as trustworthy as a Golf although significant rust is starting to affect the first two generations.
Elan’s have never been easier to own, if you have the required budgets that is, and the quality of parts is said to be better than ever. It’s reckoned that the S2 Spiders are best served for spare parts; boat-tailed cars the least with some panels now almost extinct and the S3 doesn’t fare that much better. The oily bits are generally bulletproof, the main concern on the 2000 engine being the cylinder heads cracking. Perhaps the biggest bugbear will be the hydraulics, though. On RHD cars both the clutch and brake master cylinder are located in a vulnerable position under the floor. Rust protection was always inadequate, so you can guess the rest. Most will either have been restored by now to varying degrees. If given a choice, always buy a car with a good body – the oily bits can be far more easily sorted. Beware of US cars; on the one hand these may be free from rot, but the interiors don’t fare as well in the hot sun. Worse still, these models feature detuned engines and softer suspension settings although both can quite easily be altered.

Some 9000 Jensen-Healey’s were made, most going Stateside but despite this, parts supply is good and the spread of specialists is improving. Mechanically, it used a hotch-potch of components from a variety of sources and to paraphrase one magazine after running one: Body by Jensen, engine by Lotus, transmission by Sunbeam, suspension by Vauxhall – and development by owners!


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