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Lotus Elan

Lotus Elan Published: 2nd Apr 2020 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

Lotus Elan
Lotus Elan
Lotus Elan
Lotus Elan
Lotus Elan
Lotus Elan
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Approaching 60 years young, Elan remains the blueprint for the modern sports car – just look at Mazda’s MX-5. But only the original makes you feel like a Grand Prix driver

Motorshow time at Earls Court in October 1962 saw two new British sports cars unveiled that couldn’t be the more opposite if they tried. The utterly orthodox MGB was the long awaited replacement for the MGA complete with an all new monocoque body and the biggest diversion of MG’s long line of successful sports cars. The Elan – costing double at £1500 – had to save Lotus after the shambles that was the exquisite but enormously expensive Elite.

That classic coupé, while being a typical Chapman benchmark in design, was too dear to produce and lost Lotus £100 or so on every Elite made (around £1600 in today’s money-ed) so a cheaper alternative was vital for the company’s coffers yet still had to move away from the spartan 7 and push upmarket. Elite taught Chapman all about fibreglass construction and the value of lightness but instead of going all monocoque again, Chapman compromised with a conventional chassis after stylist Ron Hickman (who went on to patent the Workmate mobile work bench and make his millions) was concerned over its rigidity in roadster guise because, initially anyway, Elan was the intended replacement for the spit and sawdust if (still) immensely entertaining and enduring sports car Chapman now had little time for in the swinging sixties.

Development of the Elan took under four years and cost less than £50,000. The switch to a stout conventional chassis (which also acted as the test rig for the car’s driveshafts) was the lucky breakthrough and godsend Chapman needed because not only did he unwittingly create one of the greatest frames in the history of the automobile but also discovered it only cost him a tenner! It’s further said that for 50p (10 old shillings) it could have been galvanised so prevent the ruinous rust they are prone for – Lotus didn’t get around to this until two decades later.

Armed with the classic ‘Chapman struts’, the codenamed Lotus 26 was to revolutionise sports cars where fingertip finesse replaced gung-ho bravado. Costing £1499 at launch (some £500 less than the Elite which remained in production until 1964) the Elan became the standard to which all other sports cars were judged for decades. Or longer because even to this day Brabham and McLaren GP designer, the legend called Gordon Murray, still regrets that he couldn’t match the Elan’s exquisite steering quality on his F1 supercar.

Powering the new Lotus was a clever development of the Ford Kent engine for road and racing purposes by fitting a Lotus designed twin cam top end that cost Chapman all of £200 in design fees. In regular tune it delivered 109bhp with the SE tune (standard on the heavier Plus2) 118bhp with the hallowed Big Valve evolution kicking out 126bhp. For their day all Elans were shatteringly fast although in hindsight perhaps the works road test cars were faster than most…

Pick ’n mix or something for nothing

The rest of the Elan’s make up was a pick ’n mix of proprietary parts from various car makers but mostly Ford. Chapman loved something for nothing which is why the wooden dashboard also acted as a body bracing but the real penny pinching piéce dé resistance was the front ‘floating’ number plate. As there was nowhere to place a conventional plinth and Chapman hated a stick on, Hickman came up with the index number ‘floating’ on the car’s mesh front grille, so saving the cost of the metal plate. Talking of cost cutting, the Elan could be purchased in self-build or complex form. The majority were the former as it saved on pricey purchase tax (the forerunner to VAT), a good £300 or more, although the build was usually done by known trusted garages on the quiet or moonlighting Lotus employees – cash in hand, of course.

Hickman’s styling of the Elan has become one of the seminal points in sports car designs even if Colin Chapman usually takes the credit for it. Pert, petite and always pretty, only the Elite matched it. It was the same story on the road but the Elan was blessed with a glovelike fit, better steering and a more compliant ride. Indeed, the Lotus rode better than many luxury saloons of that era and was light years ahead of the game when it came to handling, which is still eulogised over. But what makes the Lotus Elan entertaining is not just its veracity or even its great handling (if not ultimate roadholding on its skinny Cortina-sized tyres, especially in the wet), but rather its superlight weight and compact dimensions, both of which ensure there’s much more ‘road room’ and agility to play with, in safety, but there again Colin Chapman did promise in the sales brochure that “we wanted to build you a fun car”.

“The Elan does not so much understeer or oversteer as just steer – you turn the wheel and around the corner she goes” said one road test at the time. “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,” weekly Motor commented back in 1968. Even in its twilight years, the appeal of the Elan hadn’t diminished one bit. Testing the final evolution of the Elan, the Big Valve Sprint, Motor reckoned that the revitalised Lotus was still, “One of the quickest ways to get from A to B in Britain” and of its more powerful rivals, “None can match the Elan’s agility” while the famed ride “has yet to be bettered in a sports car”.

A definite plus but chapman wanted a porsche rival

The final evolution, the, larger if hardly family-sized 2+2 Plus2 130/5, saw the Elan transformed from a spry sports car to a luxury GT coupé, equipped with weighty sound deadening and carpets and a five-speed transmission with a very tall overdrive top gear, all finally making the Elan suitable for long distance touring. The transmission, also available in the Elan Sprint, was essentially an Austin Maxi gearbox in a Lotus casing and opinions remain divided on its worth as the gearchange was never as super slick as before – plus we wonder whether Elan owners wanted to be associated with mundane Maxi hardware?

Despite being more than a decade old with rivals catching up, the Elan was still a class act yet was unceremoniously killed off once VAT came into force in 1973 as, unlike Purchase Tax, it applied to both self build and ready made cars. The exception was the Plus2 which was never offered in component form so it soldiered on until 1974 until the new generation of Porsche-rivalling Lotuses were introduced. The Elan has never been replaced by Lotus, not least the 1990’s front-wheel drive namesake which sold only 4655 cars against the 12,000 + originals, which we’re sure Diana Rigg (aka Emma Peel of The Avengers) helped shift even if she sold hers (a leaving present from the series) as fast as the Elan could sprint to 60. When you compare the sales of the Elite of less than 1000 and only 3000 or so Sevens sold up to 1973 and it’s easy to understand how vital Chapman’s classic was to Lotus’ survival.

Fast approaching its 60th, the Elan is regarded as highly as ever, even with owners who had to ensure the (Lots Of Trouble Usually Serious) L.O.T.U.S acronym which usually rang true, their fragility unless cared for like a baby and the inevitable kiss-and-make-up relationship that was demanded…

Even when the Lotus was behaving itself, the characteristic ‘surging’, caused the special unreliable rubbery driveshafts which made driving in town such a kangarooing misery, along with other characteristics taxed even the most ardent Lotus lover. But it was all worth it for the sheer joy the Elan gave when it all clicked together.

There was one other quality Elan gave its owners – empathy. As the car was produced when Lotus was at its considerable peak in motor racing, works drivers, legends like Clark, Hill, Rindt, Peterson, Fittipaldi, Ickx et al also drove Elans on the road. That’s surely a bond that you’ll never experience again with today’s F1 prima donnas.

Remember when… 1962

It was when Auntie Rover showed off her swinging 60’s look with the Coupé. Here’s some more of that year’s highlights

The World held its breath that October, when the USA and USSR squared up to each other, after pictures from the new frontier of space revealed Soviet missiles based on Cuba pointing You Know Where. John F Kennedy wasn’t the first to blink, thankfully…

Small-time thief James Hanratty was hanged for his ‘involvement’ in the infamous A6 murder case, for which even now sceptics believe he was innocent, especially when a main suspect confessed later on! Hanratty has still yet to be cleared, however.

The biggest thing on the ‘box’ was That Was The Week That Was (TW3) which introduced satire to our nation, changing the way that the usual easy-going British public believed all what the authority told them. An angry young David Frost was the front man, latterly Sir David…

In the charts, the Rock and Roll 50s were being replaced by the likes of Ray Charles, Bobby Darin, Joe Brown (who’s now on tour and worth seeing), Rolling Stones and four mop tops from Liverpool who had their first chart success with ‘Love Me Do’.

Average pay is £800 with a typical house priced at £2670 – half the outlay of a new Rolls. The new Austin 1100 and Ford’s Cortina cost under £600 while a daily pinta was 6.5p – a pint of the harder stuff under 12p! David and Susan were the country’s most popular names.

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