The Lotus Elan has had several re-incarnations. The original Elan of the 1960s was a replacement for the Lotus Elite and is thought to have been the inspiration for the 1980s classic Mazda MX5 sports car.
Various styles of the Lotus Elan were introduced over the years; the initial roadster of 1963 was given a hardtop a year later and then a couple of years after that, the coupe was introduced. The Elan was the first Lotus to feature the ‘steel backbone’ chassis and the body was built from the same material as the Reliant Robin – fibreglass. This lightness was to set the scene for future supercars – the Elan was to achieve ‘performance through lightness’ according to the designer, Colin Chapman, later implicated in the DeLorian scandal in which millions were embezzled from the British Government by the ill fated and completely rubbish DeLorian DMC12 gull winged car. Chapman died from a herat attack before he could be tried and convicted for his part in the scam.
Despite that, Chapman was a fine designer. The Elan was technologically advanced for its time, compared with the rough and ready MGs, Austin Healeys and the like, it was streets ahead. It was equipped with 4 wheel disc brakes, independent suspension and a twin cam 1558cc engine producing around 100bhp, considerably more than many of its contemporaries. The top speed was well over 100mph – compare that with the 80mph of the Frogeye Sprite or 90mph for the Midget. The engine was based on the 1500cc Ford unit used for the consul, Capri and Cortina. A twin cam sytem was designed by Harry Mundy and the final version had a slightly larger bore than the original Ford engine whish increased its capacity to 1558cc. The same performance engine was used in various cars after the Elan and production ceased in the mid 1970s. Surviving engines are still used today in amateur motorsport events, QED Motorsport provie hard to find engine components for this classic.The Elan also incorporated flip-up headlights to improve streamlining, it could make 5 mph difference to the top speed.
OK, back to the Elan itself. In 1967, the family version was introduced – i.e. with 2 rear seats, known as the Elan +2. It was kind of the family man’s sports car! Still, it performed well. It had a longer wheelbase and, in my opinion, that mad it look a little odd when compared with the ‘normal’Elan. About 1200 Elan +2s are still in existence today and that rarity means that if you can find one for sale, it will cost! The Elan was aimed at the top end of the market and came in two forms, the cheaper kit form and the fully built, which cost twice as much as the popular end of the market sports cars.
In Feb 1971, the Elan Sprint hit the market. This was developed in response to the industry feeling that the Elan was becoming outdated. It was also the Heyday of Team Lotus successes in Formula one. There were many changes to the Elan for the Sprint, not least the naff two tone paint job to make it resemble a packet of Players Gold leaf cigarettes. The poor quality of the paint join was covered by a gold coloured strip with the words Elan Sprint written on them. Happily, monotone versions were available. There were plenty of other changes, the interior, a 20% more powerful engine with first Weber and then Dellorto carburettors replacing the original strombergs, strengthened drivetrain to hold the shafts in place when the couplings broke … However, the Elan Sprint was a truly fantastic car to drive, it could outclass virtually any equivalent car on the road. 0 – 60 in 6-7 sec, 0 – 100 in 20 sec but the top speed was still only 120mph and it returned about 20 – 30 mpg. Despite this, less than 2 years after its launch, there was a decreasing demand.
So the Elan ceased production in 1973, with the Elan +2s lasting a couple of years longer. All in all, it is though that about 17,000 of this classic car were built, it is not possible to verify numbers as a lot of records were destroyed in a flood at the Lotus factory in the late 1970s.
Lotus Elan, Europa, Elite, Eclat, Excel – the story of these classic Lotus cars.
The now defunct US Sports Car International produced lists (OK, opinions of the editorial team rather than anything objective) and they placed it as their number 6 sports car of the 60s.
Lotus Elan common faults
- The water pump – bearing failure can occur within as little as 20,000 miles
- TCs nearly always leak oil – two that are a pain are the front timing cover and the rear rope seal (early motors with 4 bolt cranks)
- rotoflex couplings (check often, replace @25K mile interevals)
- inboard and outboard stub axles, if you race the car
- plastic clutch line melting against Sprint headers => fire risk
- frame cracks around engine mounts, rear suspension attachments and diff
- poor starting when hot because of the position of the ignition coil
- disc brake calipers sieze up if not driven for long periods
What to look for when buying an Elan (specifically for the Elan in addition to the ususal ones when buying a second hand classic car)
- check around the front turrets and any welded joints for cracks. If the chassis has been galvanised then it has been replaced
- is the engine original or rebuilt
- check that the brakes have not siezed
- check if the water pump is loose or if there is any white residue on the underside of the bonnet
You can find the Telegraph guide to buying a classic Lotus Elan at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/motoring/classiccars/6670554/Classic-Lotus-Elan-buying-guide.html