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Lotus Elan

Little Big One

For the “little man” it was a dream come true when Lotus introduced the Elan at the British Motor Show in October 1962. Weighing 680 kilos, first of all a 1.5-litre four-cylinder with 100 hp, it wasn’t as wicked as a Cobra, of course – but it was glorious. And much, much cheaper. So Emma Peel donned a black leather catsuit in “With Umbrella, Charm and Bowler Hat” (amazing original series title: The Avengers) and only had eyes for the little Lotus. (At the top, here and below: 1965 Lotus Elan S2.)

The Elan was the successor to the Elite. It had been introduced in 1957 and was the first car with a self-supporting body made of fibreglass-reinforced plastic – a wonderful vehicle, but expensive to produce, the Elite tore a deep hole in Colin Chapman’s cash box, which was rarely well-filled anyway. The Elan then has an X-shaped central frame made of steel (which nevertheless weighs only 34 kilos); the rear suspension struts are attached to the tall, thin outriggers of this frame. The bodywork was of course still made of GRP. Length: 3.69 metres, width: just 1.42 metres, height: also just 1.14 metres. The design came from Ron Hickman, who also designed the Europa in 1966 – and made big money when he patented the Black & Decker WorkMate.

Initially there was the 1.5-litre, but soon came the new Lotus engine with the Cortina block. The cylinder head was made of aluminium, had two overhead camshafts as a matter of course, plus the hemispherical combustion chambers, 1558 cc displacement. This power unit was to be the mainstay of all Lotus for many years, but Ford also used this engine. The fact that it was relatively powerful also had a disadvantage: the joints of the drive shafts were rubber-sprung, the Elan tended to rock if you accelerated too hard or, above all, irregularly. (Below: 1970 Lotus Elan S4)

The little thing, of course with independent suspension all round and four disc brakes, was pure pleasure to drive. It was even equipped with some luxury, there were electric windows, carpets, a heater, a wooden dashboard. And folding headlights. That was enough to impress the girls – if the thing ran. Especially in the first years, the quality was far from acceptable, especially the electrical system was a problem (no wonder, because the grounding is difficult on the GRP body). By the way, in the early years the Elan was also available as a kit, simply because this saved tax on ready-built cars. The Lotus was easy to build and could be completed within a weekend. (Below and further down: 1964 Lotus Elan 26R, a factory car, chassis number 26R/1/50.)

The Elan was a success, right from the start. The first ones, Type 26, were roadsters (from 63 onwards there was even a hardtop), but in 1965 the coupé was added (Type 36). In 1966, the roadster was replaced by a convertible (which was then called drop-head coupé in England; Type 45), and from 1967 onwards, you could also buy the +2 (Type 50). Malicious tongues claim that this version with an extended wheelbase (plus 31 centimetres) and two extra seats was only created because Colin Chapman had had a baby – and still wanted to drive a Lotus. But the +2 is also a fine machine, not quite as handy as the little one (but the latter is also almost unsurpassable in terms of agility), although it initially lacked a bit of power. So Lotus continuously built more powerful engines into the Elan, mostly first in the +2, and shortly afterwards also in the two-seater.

But now let’s take it one step at a time: the S2 had larger front disc brakes, wood interior and, on request, wheels with central locking. the S3 (65 – 68) was also available as a coupé and, on request, with a more powerful engine (115 hp). The S4 (68 – 71) can be recognised by the wider wings and the curved bonnet, inside there was a revised dashboard. In the Sprint (71 – 73) the so-called Big Valve engine (126 hp) worked. The +2S (69 – 71) was not quite as spartanly equipped as the basic variant; the +2S 130 (71 – 74) had the Big-Valve engine, and the +2S 130/5 was then also equipped with a five-speed gearbox. An unusual variant was produced by Hexagon, who developed a Shooting Brake of the Elan in 1971; apparently only two were produced. (Below: 1970 Lotus Elan Plus 2.)

The wildest stories circulate about the Elan’s performance. It is certain that the 5-wheeler could reach almost 200 km/h. More uncertain is whether the Elan in its Big Valve version really accelerated from 0 to 100 km/h in 6.6 seconds, as Lotus claimed at the time; Lotus has always liked to be rather optimistic about these figures. But it doesn’t really matter, it went well, very well in fact, and even today the little Lotus is a real joy to drive. It was built until 1972 (two-seater) and 1974 (+2), 17’392 units were built. Good Elans are very sought after today, but good Elans are unfortunately also very rare. (Of course the Elan were also pimped, this is the famous “Broadspeed”, originally a 1972 S4).

There was a second Elan, from 1989 onwards, with front-wheel drive, engine by Isuzu, developed and built at the time when General Motors had the power at Lotus. It can be described as a dark chapter in the Lotus history – and its end was accordingly, it was still produced as a Kia Elan between 1996 and 1999.

Photos: RM Sotheby’s. More beautiful cars: Our archives.

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