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Lotus Elan

Published: 28th Apr 2011 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

Lotus Elan
Clever Chapman used upmarket wooden dash to also act as effective body brace Clever Chapman used upmarket wooden dash to also act as effective body brace
Ford based unit is now sorted and fairly DIY friendly. Big Valve head is desirable Ford based unit is now sorted and fairly DIY friendly. Big Valve head is desirable
Emma Peel (a play on Man Appeal) was almost as sexy as the Lotus Elan Emma Peel (a play on Man Appeal) was almost as sexy as the Lotus Elan
Brakes are mix of Triumph and Lotus; only handbrake is poor Brakes are mix of Triumph and Lotus; only handbrake is poor
Body condition is critical. Pop up headlamps frequently play up Body condition is critical. Pop up headlamps frequently play up
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What is a Lotus Elan?

It’s Colin Chapman’s finest! If you’re trying to find a classic that’s guaranteed to put a smile on your face every time you even open the garage door, then look no further. With its light weight, zesty engine and virtually unparalleled handling, the Elan was the blueprint for the modern sports car and it’s no wonder this Lotus has taken its place in the iconic cars hall of fame. But the best bit is that you can buy one of these four-wheeled wonders without having to break the bank - for just £8000 you could have your own (tidy) Elan and not be tied to that old Lotus acronym Lots Of Trouble, Usually Serious!

History

The Elan was the car that saved Lotus let alone put it on the production car map, the company having made a loss on every Elite it sold. Basis for the Lotus Elan was a simple but extremely rigid X-frame backbone chassis with all round independent wishbone suspension featuring those famous ‘Chapman struts’, topped by a cute fibreglass body (penned by Ron Hickman, who went on to design the Black & Decker Workmate). Power was courtesy of the now evergreen Lotus Ford twin cam unit, via a Corsair/Classic-based transmission and Anglia axle assemblies. When it was first shown at the 1962 Earls Court Motor Show it featured a 1499cc Ford-based engine, but it didn’t take long for the classic 1558cc block to take its place - a unit that was to power the Elan until its demise just over a decade later.

In October 1962 the Elan 1500 Roadster was priced at £1499 fully built or just £1095 in kit form - some 90 per cent were made in this latter guise to cunningly escape Purchase Tax, the forerunner to VAT, although most cars were said to have been assembled by moonlighting Lotus staff! The Ford based 1499cc DOHC engine offered 100bhp and 114mph, while there were all round disc brakes (Lotus rear/Triumph Herald front) with rack-and pinion steering, again taken from the Herald. These early cars - much sought after now - featured three separate light units per side at the rear. By May 1963 the engine size had been increased to a proper 1558cc (so it could better qualify for motorsport competition classes) while a hard top was now available as an option. Then, in November 1964, the Series 2 Elan was launched with larger front brake calipers, full-width wooden dashboard 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. Other tweaks included a longer boot lid (to cure leaks) and a boot-mounted battery. In January 1966 the Special Equipment model became available, with 115bhp, close-ratio gearbox and servo-assisted brakes. It also featured side repeater flashers on the front wings and rather nice centre lock wheels. The Series 3 convertible appeared in June 1966, with the same amendments as fixedhead coupé, then a year later the Elan Plus 2 went on sale, albeit as fixedhead only. Unloved by many but now finding - deserved - favour, this derivative is an Elan with a considerably longer, wider body plus a foot extra added wheelbase that offers (fair) 2+2 family accommodation.

A power hike to 118bhp restored the performance of this much heavier derivative (2086lb against 1290lbs), which incidentally was first suggested by Chapman as far back as 1963. From March 1968 the Elan Series 4 coupé and convertible were available, identified by their flared wheelarches and new rear light clusters (as per Elan Plus 2). The fascia was also revised (now with rocker switches) and there was a power bulge in the bonnet In fact, Lotus boasted the S4 was subject to 50 revisions, many to bring it in line with the Plus 2. In October of the same year the Plus 2S supplemented the standard car, boasting an even more upmarket interior and standard fog lights; this was the first Elan not to be offered in kit form, by the way to improve build quality. Mechanical changes later that year to the Elan - not Plus 2 - included a more emission-friendly engine care of sealed Stromberg carbs instead of the juicy, sexy Weber DCOEs (see buying advice section on this), but by November 1969 flatspot-free Webers again ruled the engine bay!

The Elan Plus 2 was killed off in August 1968, but the Plus 2S remained on sale, while from February 1971 the Elan Sprint was on offer, with a 126bhp big-valve engine, stronger transmission and two-tone paintwork. The same engine was transplanted into the Elan +2S 130, which also featured a silver roof. This car would be fitted with a five-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 before the wedgy Elite came on stream.

Driving

It doesn’t matter which version you drive, any Elan lives up to its name and has poise, agility and much more zest than you’d think possible for a 45 year old – especially from those skinny Cortinasized tyres! It was probably the first sports car that had to be driven with fingertips rather than by the scruff of the neck and they’re all great on twisty roads, even if grip levels are somewhat lowly these days. Early editions are a bit frenzied when cruising thanks to their equally lowly gearing; later cars gained higher ratios, although a variety of axles were always optional so it depends upon what’s been fitted (and retro fitted).

The Elan was a quick car in its day and even now rarely 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), while even a standard model is still GTi fast. But what makes the Elan so zippy is not just its power to weight ratio but like the Mini Cooper - its diminutive dimensions ensure there’s much more road room to play with. Whisper it, but some specialists reckon the larger, wider track Plus 2 handles even better than the Elan. The brakes on an S1 are noticeably average, but easy enough to upgrade if you need the extra confidence. If kept in good fettle, the Elan is durable enough and more than up to long touring jaunts where the fine ride and snug cabin mean it’s a civilised sportster and surprisingly practical in Plus 2 forms.

Prices

Although rising in value, Plus 2s are always worth less than a twoseater Elan, but otherwise there’s no variance in values across the models – apart from at the very top where S1s and S2s are worth around £3000 more. A Plus 2 restoration project is £1500 – Elan equivalents are around double this. A usable Elan is £8000-9000; similar Plus 2s are £7000. The best +2 is worth £18,000 while the best Elans cost £25,000. Sounds pricey, but Elans are dear to restore and in many cases it is better to buy the best you can run to than resurrect a basket case. Around 15,000 Elans were made (most soft tops) and there’s a good many around still so you can - and should - be choosy.

What To Look For

  • The Elan’s glassfibre bodyshell needs careful inspection because there are plenty of potential problem areas. Accident damage is the key worry, not least because proper repairs are something that can only be carried out by somebody who knows what they’re doing with GRP.
  • It’s likely the glassfibre will be looking tatty because the Elan’s 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 glassfibre 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 glassfibre was restored at the same time. Fresh paint over old guarantees the same old problems later on.
  • Because of imperfections in original moulds, filler was used (sparingly) on the production line to tidy things up. Some restored cars have dimples ahead of the doors, which originally contained filler to smooth things out. Also, don’t be alarmed if the door fit isn’t great, it rarely was. Sometimes the bottom rear corners can stick out by as much as half an inch, just like when the car came off the production line…
  • It may be that a new bodyshell is the most cost-effective 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 shell. Naturally this means a complete rebuild will be necessary but with new shells costing ‘just’ £4350 (including panels such as the bonnet, boot and doors), it usually makes sound financial 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 true. Elan chassis rot but thankfully any replacement produced after 1980 is galvanised as standard. This means if there’s zincplating on the one you’re looking at, then it’s not the original chassis.
  • Fitting a new one is a job that typically costs £4000 as brakes and ancillaries are normally overhauled at the same time. The chassis on its own is £1195, and if the car is still on its original it’ll need to be replaced at some stage because – as mentioned above - scant protection from new means rust inevitably takes a hold at some stage. You can also opt for the stiffer 26R racing chassis if you so wish for even better handling.
  • Or you can use a Spyder chassis. This is a popular mod but it’s of spaceframe construction, which scuppers originality. The trade-off is a superior suspension set up from scratch plus a chance to further upgrade.
  • 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 on a car that’s done 70,000 miles or more. The area around the engine mountings is usually the first to go, and once cracks appear it’s time for a replacement, as welding isn’t recommended here. Be wary of an owner who won’t let you inspect…
  • Is the car a proper convertible? Some hard top roadsters were crudely converted to convertible. If the chassis number starts with the number 36, then it was originally a coupe. Some +2s were also converted to cabrios - but it’s not a factory conversion and the shell loses its rigidity.
  • Famous Ford Kent based twin-cam four-pot is reliable if looked after - if things do go wrong it can become costly to fix. That’s why it’s worth looking to see if the engine has been rebuilt. Technology is now far better than when these cars were made, and a rebuilt engine will now soldier o for 140,000 miles or more.
  • The coolant needs to retain a decent concentration of anti-freeze (at least 25 per cent) to ensure the alloy cylinder head doesn’t corrode; this will 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. From the S3 onwards the cooling system was always marginal, and they’re even less efficient after 30 years’ use. If in doubt it’s worth fitting a new radiator for £200 or so (or better still an uprated unit form the likes of Radtec) - that way you’ll know the powerplant isn’t going to get cooked in your custody.
  • 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 then 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 - there should be half an inch of travel on the longest run.
  • The only other likely malady is a timing chain that needs replacing. If the chain is whining it’s because it’s too tight; its demise will be speeded up. If there’s a chattering noise from the front of the engine it’s because the chain is too loose. Check the adjustment bolt on the engine’s front plate; if all the travel is taken up there’s no adjustment left and a new chain and tensioner are needed at £35 for the pair.
  • Expect oil leaks around the cam cover, especially at the rear. Oil usage can be heavy but that’s not uncommon or a bad sign. Oil pressure should be 40lb/ft at operating temperature. Look for plumes of smoke on the overrun, suggesting worn bores and pistons.
  • Poor running is usually due to worn carbs. DCOEs require expert setting up - emission Strombergs can, contrary to popular belief, be adjusted and tuned to perform just as well as Webers plus give better economy into the bargain. Also, the distributor’s location under the inlet manifold makes replacing and servicing the points a real pig of a job. Small wonder that many owners fit electronic ignition to counter this.
  • The Lotus tubular exhaust manifolds are notorious for breaking and fitting poorly. Paul Matty Sportscars (01527 835656) sells a better built, bigger bore replacement that’s well worth opting for.
  • Don’t be surprised to see a mix and match of components: specs changed frequently even at the factory. Has a big valve head been substituted (the head should be stamped with a letter N by No1 spark plug plus features special cam covers)?
  • The Elan’s four-speed gearbox is sourced from the Ford Corsair 2000E, and it’s tough yet slick. The five-speed unit fitted to the Plus 2 S 130/5 has Austin Maxi internals, and was hardly a model of precision even when new. However, if it’s noisy or gear selection is really difficult, prepare yourself for the worst. Gears and bearings wear out all too readily, and rebuilding the unit costs anywhere between £1000 and £1500 depending on how bad things are.
  • Although the differentials look like Lotus parts, the bits inside are sourced from the Ford parts bin. They’re durable enough, but listen out for whining that suggests some TLC may be imminent. If a rebuild is needed you can expect to pay up to £1000.
  • On a test drive, turn the steering between locks as the car is moving, to transfer the weight from side to side. As you do so, listen for chattering from the rear wheels, indicating that the wheel bearings have worn out; new ones are less than a tenner though.
  • If the car still sports Rotoflex 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. The best way of checking for wear is to inspect them closely to see if they’re perished and cracked. If both sides need doing then a specialist will charge over £400 to do the whole job, although the parts on their own (couplings and bolts) are just £160 or so.
  • Conversions are becoming increasingly common to remove the rubber couplings from the system. There are three types available, each of a different design. They’re all more durable than the original set-up, with the cost of conversion around the same as a rebuild of the standard system.
  • A modified Triumph Herald steering rack is fitted; main difference between the two items is that the Elan’s has lock stops fitted and shorter outer tie rods to prevent the wheels rubbing against the anti-roll bar. Make sure there’s been no contact between wheels and suspension; if there has, then the stock Herald item needs to be swapped for a proper Elan one. Exchange racks are available at £170 each.
  • Ensure there’s no pulling to one side when accelerating or braking 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 when you drive the car. It’s worth getting a four-wheel suspension alignment check done because the geometry on this car needs to be exactly right. If the car has been re-chassied it’s especially worthwhile because everything needs to be set up from scratch - yet often isn’t.
  • As well as the chassis being out of true, the wishbones can be bent if the car has been kerbed badly. Obviously the car won’t drive right, but the easiest way to check for damage is to get underneath and see if there are any kinks in the metal. If the car tries to steer itself under acceleration, it’s only because their bushes have worn; a new set costs under £15.
  • A bounce test at each corner reveals how good the suspension is; you need to do this at least three times to get an accurate picture though. If the car carries on bouncing then it needs new shock absorbers at £100 apiece for Koni units. If the springs have sagged and softened you’ll need to fit new ones at a cost of £50 each.
  • Bolt-on pressed steel wheels were standard fare for most Elans, although the SE and Sprint featured knock ons as standard. These were optional for all other models, while the Plus2 S was available with alloys. Wheels should be painted silver, although the Sprint’s were finished in black. Look for cracks around the mounting holes, as the metal fatigues. New wheels aren’t available to original spec, although (much heavier) items aftermarket are available that look the same.
  • Right from the outset the Elan was equipped with discs all round, with Herald units at the front and Lotus ones at the rear. The system works well, helped by the car’s lightness. If there’s any pulling to one side it’s because a calliper is sticking; rebuild kits cost £25-£50 while exchange units are £60-£120 depending on the model.
  • 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, although the handbrake is notoriously poor on the Elan anyway, so don’t expect too much retardation.
  • You need to check each electrical item is working properly, because there’s no shortage of wiring in an Elan. That’s because the glassfibre bodyshell means each item needs to have two wires going to it - a live and an earth. Although the system is usually pretty reliable, there’s plenty of scope for loose or broken connections. Infrequently used cars also suffer from duff relays - they’re Lucas 6R units that can be purchased for £15 each. Everything is available to effect any repairs, but often all that’s needed is the simple cleaning of some electrical contacts.
  • The Plus 2 is a more luxurious car, with higher levels of standard equipment, including more instrumentation. Again, you need to check it’s all working, just like the electric windows that were fitted to all Elans from the S3 (1965) onwards. Headlamps can become lazy, leading to a ‘winking’ action on any Elan.
  • Finally remember that the Elan was a highly strung specialist sports car which even when new required frequent TLC. They still do – and run one like an MGB and it will more than likely prove to be unreliable.

Verdict

A good, well sorted Elan isn’t cheap, but you’re not going to find many cars that offer so much fun per pound - or as many smiles per mile. It’s not one of those classics that appeals to the person who knows the price of everything but the value of nothing; it’s not easy to put a price on the pleasure a good Elan offers on the right roads. That’s if you buy a good one of course; purchase badly and that Lotus acronym will rear its ugly head and could break your spirit and bank balance. You have been warned.



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