Lotus Elan – Colin Chapman’s Legendary Street Fighter

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Story and Photos by Andy Schank

– British Car Magazine Feb/Mar 1999

Legendary is a word that is used to describe many cars, but a distinction that has been earned by only a few.  The Lotus Elan is one of the select few sports cars from the 1960’s that can truly be described as legendary.  The car made its debut in 1962 as a slightly more civilized successor to the very basic Seven and elegant but expensive Elite, and boasted many improvements.  Using Chapman’s ideas, designer Ron Hickman came up with an X-shaped 18-gauge steel backbone with perforated sides that was six times as stiff as the tubular space frames of the Lotus Grand Prix cars. 

The frame weighed only 75 pounds. The body, which has only a minimal structural function, was constructed of a higher-grade fiberglass, and was attached to the frame at sixteen points.  The simple elegant lines are so well proportioned that they don’t give away how small the car actually is.  Proof of the timelessness of its styling is the fact that Mazda designers leaned heavily on the Elan’s look for the basis of the Miata nearly 30 years later.

The initial power plant was a 1499cc four-cylinder derived from the Ford 116E engine, but fitted with a specially-designed alloy twin-overhead-cam cylinder head.  The short-stroke engine put out 100 hp. Soon after production started, the engine was enlarged to 1558cc which put out 105 hp. The car pictured is a 1967 Series 3 S/E and came with twin Webers that pumped out 115 hp. This propelled the 1580 pound Elan to 60 mph in less than eight seconds and allowed it to reach 120 mph.  These performance figures were staggering for a small sports car in those days, and compare favorably to modern performance cars today.

Lotus cars are most famous for their handling, and the Elan excels in this area.  It also happens to be quite a comfortable car, with a surprisingly nice ride quality for a small car with only a seven-foot wheel base.  The front suspension consists of unequal-length wishbones and coil spring and shock struts. The rear uses lower wishbones and positive top location via the Chapman struts, relieving the half shafts of all location duties as in the Lotus Elite.  Metalastik couplers are used instead of U-joints to take up the necessary flex created by the driveline and suspension designs.  The car is softly sprung and has only a small 5/8 inch front sway bar. Chapman felt that the soft springs helped keep the tires in contact with the ground on real world bumpy roads. These cars really work their suspensions, and the recommendation is to rebuild the suspension about every 20,000 miles to keep the handling at its peak. The brakes are Girling discs all around and the feel and stopping power is excellent. The Elan posted the shortest stopping distances measured by the Road & Track testers. The rack and pinion steering is light and very precise.

The Elan was also famous for its mechanical problems. When Road & Track did its owner survey in 1971, the Elan was the worst they had ever encountered. Problems included radiator leaks and overheating problems, starter trouble, oil leaks, electrical problems, and poor body integrity. Maintenance was excessive, even for a sports car of that era, and access to important engine components was difficult. After all was said and done, however, 85 percent of the Elan owners still said they would buy another one, ranking customer loyalty right up with Mercedes!

Clearly the cars were so much of a blast to drive that owners were willing to put up with a lot of tinkering and parts swapping. I got to drive the yellow 1967 car featured in the photos, and I was really taken with it. The first thing you notice is that the car is very narrow as you slip into the comfortable and supportive seats. The driver’s footwell is very tight and the pedals are close together. Hiking boots would not be a good idea. A beautiful wooden dash stares back at you complete with all the proper gauges.

The car doesn’t leap right off the line, but pulls away smoothly until 4000 rpm where it feels as if a second engine comes on line. From that point, acceleration is furious, with the sound of the exhaust rising to a frenzy and the valve train noise becoming more apparent as it reaches its 6500 rpm redline. I find myself looking for stretches of road where I can stomp on it in a lower gear to feel the surge of power come on.

Even fitted with the wider sticky tires and a smaller-diameter steering wheel, the steering is still effortless and cornering ability seems limitless. Handling is fairly neutral, but Elans have been known to swap ends on their over-confident owners, so I am careful not to push the car anywhere near its limits. The Elan has tremendous brakes, which is a nice surprise in a car from this vintage, since mediocre brakes are all too common in classic sports cars. This particular example is maintained to a high standard, which is what you need to do in order to have a safe and reliable 31-year-old car. Overall, I’d have to rate it as one of the most fun cars I have ever driven.

The owner of the car, Chris Locke, started his appreciation for Lotus cars at the age of twelve after seeing a Lotus 29 on display at the World’s Fair in New York. Ten years later, in 1974, he purchased a used 1970 Lotus Europa which he enjoyed for several years until a more reliable means of transportation was needed.

Never getting the Lotus bug out of his system, he purchased this 1967 Elan in 1990 as a hobby car. Chris felt that this year and model offered the best of what made the Elan desirable, including the last year for the Weber carburetors, knock-offs, and dash toggles. The car was in boxes when he got it, so he put the car together the way he wanted it.

The bottom end was enlarged slightly up to 1594 cc and the head was gas-flowed with larger valves and hooked up to a free-flow exhaust. These mods brought the power up to 127 hp. To handle this extra power, slightly stiffer springs were used, along with Spax shocks and 175/60 x 13 sticky tires. Slight flares were needed to fit the fatter tires, done in a very subtle manner. The interior was upgraded to leather and a canvas top, tucked away behind the seats, replaced the original vinyl. Rosewood replaced the tired original teak on the dash, and it looks very rich indeed.  The yellow color with green racing stripes is a popular combination and represents the Team Lotus racing colors.

Chris enjoys driving the Elan as a weekend driver, and he isn’t afraid to tinker with it himself. He just recently purchased a Lotus 23 Sports Racer that will now take the place of his Elan on race days. For the time being, this little yellow slot car will be enjoyed only on the back roads of northern California.

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