Lotus Elan



Any car from the fertile brain of Colin Chapman is bound to be exciting and, almost certainly, controversial. The Elan is undoubtedly both, for it represents in many ways the ultimate in current automobile design, whilst at the same time being behind its competitors in other respects.

The specification of the S2 Elan, which we used for a fortnight or so over the Christmas period, is enough to excite any enthusiast, for it is as near as any road car is likely to get to a Grand Prix car; at least until the next Lotus is introduced. The backbone chassis is similar to that of the Lotus 30, having two “prongs” front and rear to carry suspensions, engine, gearbox, final drive, etc. Front suspension is by double wishbones and coil spring/damper units while the rear suspension features wide based lower wishbones and coil spring/damper units working on the Chapman strut principle. The engine is the Lotus twin overhead camshaft conversion of the Ford 1166E engine which is mated to a Ford gearbox with close ratio gears. This drives to the chassis mounted differential which in turn transmits the drive to the wheels via drive shafts, each of which has two rubber Metalastik couplings to cushion the shock, instead of more normal splined shafts. Disc brakes are fitted all round, rack and pinion steering is provided and the whole thing is clothed in a tiny glass-fibre body.

As with all other Lotuses performance and handling are of paramount importance and we certainly exploited these aspects during our test of the Elan. Whilst it might be a dangerous statement to make, we cannot think of any other production car which handles as well as the Elan, although the Mini cannot be far behind; certainly no other road going sports car can approach its cat-like adhesion and “swervability.” It can be flung into corners on dry roads at almost suicidal speeds and always comes out pointing in the right direction, the only evidence of the speed being slight body lean and pronounced squeal from the Dunlop SP41 tyres, which is rather annoying as it can be provoked quite easily. Steering characteristics are virtually neutral and when the car reaches the limit it just starts to slide quite gently, and recovery is accomplished by backing off the throttle and steering into the slide. The SP41s are not too keen to provide a lot of adhesion in the wet, although Dunlop state that the SP41 is better in the wet than the older SP; we still have to be convinced. Breakaway is easily induced on damp roads and the car has to be watched very carefully under these conditions, although on a series of slow bends it is quite enjoyable to twitch the car from lock to lock, catching the slides as they build up; but of course it cannot be recommended for normal road work. Much of the credit for the high cornering speeds which are obtainable must go to the soft suspension, which allows an excellent ride and also irons out those bumps which tend to throw a car off course when cornering. The Elan tackles rough roads quite impressively and gives a ride comfort comparable with that of the Mk. X Jaguar. It is only the short wheelbase of the Elan which allows some pitching over bad surfaces; the suspension occasionally hits the bump stops at the rear on sudden bumps.

Matching the handling of the Elan is the steering, which is as light and direct as we have come to expect from this layout; with 2-1/2 turns lock to lock there is no drama when cornering and full lock can be obtained in both directions without removing the hands from the normal driving position. There is very little kick back and the steering is as viceless and as pleasant as steering can be. All in all the handling will seem a revelation, even to those who are used to sports cars, for the Elan demands no special skill to extract quite phenomenal cornering speeds, which is accomplished in comfort and security.

The twin-cam engine develops 105 b.h.p. at 5,500 r.p.m. which endows the 11-1/2 cwt. car with performance which is well above the norm for 1-1/2-litre sports cars and enables it to keep up with most of the 2- and 3-litre sports cars. The engine is surprisingly well mannered in its standard form and shows no signs of temperament. It is extremely quiet right the way through the rev range, only showing signs of stress near the 6,500 r.p.m. rev limit. Production Elans have a governor to limit revs to six-five but our test car was not so fitted and would rev very easily to 7,000 r.p.m. in first and second. However, as customers are limited to six-five we took our performance figures at this limit, which still gives figures of 0-50 in 7 seconds, 0-80 in 14-1/2 seconds and a standing start 1/4-mile in 16-1/2 seconds. This of course allows the Lotus to humble practically everything on the road, for not only can it accelerate well, but it can stop well and dodge into traffic gaps with the minimum of fuss, while other, faster sports car drivers have to think twice about such manoeuvres. Although it is fitted with the 3.9 : 1 final drive ratio, which is the highest available from Ford, the Elan feels under-geared, for at 100 m.p.h. the engine is turning over at 6,000 r.p.m. which is very near its limit. By taking it to 7,000 r.p.m., 118 m.p.h. would be possible but its true maximum speed is nearer 110 m.p.h. at around 6,500 r.p.m. At this speed, even with the hard-top fitted, the noise level is tremendous and would be quite unendurable to many people. The engine is quite noisy at top speed but most of the noise comes from wind buffeting, which is rather surprising in a car which appears to be aerodynamically smooth. In actual fact the car can only be called quiet at speeds below 60 m.p.h.; above this the noise is so great that the radio is virtually inaudible. It seems to make no difference whether the hard-top or the hood is fitted or if there is no hood at all. The side windows are of the sliding type which need to be lifted up and down by a metal lip and the passenger’s window tended to drop an inch or so during a run, adding even more to the wind noise.

The gearbox will be well known to Ford Cortina drivers for it has the same quick, mechanical, notchy gear lever action and the syncromesh is virtually faultless. The close ratio gears give speeds in the lower three ratios of 45, 71 and 91 m.p.h. at 6,500 r.p.m. Unfortunately the transmission is spoiled by the rubber “doughnuts” which are intended to have the effect of cushioning the drive; this they do to a certain extent but they are a little too elastic and in traffic the Elan kicks and bucks in an alarming fashion. Featherlight use of the clutch can reduce this tendency but it is never eliminated and quite spoils the Elan at low speeds: There is also some wind-up in the transmission when making fast starts; the car pauses momentarily while the doughnuts wind-up and then catapults itself away rather jerkily. If Jim Clark’s Lotus 25 is like this his Grand Prix wins are even more creditable!

The Elan is relatively economical on fuel and we had to indulge in some hard driving to make it return less than 25 m.p.g. As the tank holds 10 gallons the range of the Elan approaches 250 miles. Our overall figure was 26 m.p.g. of 100 octane brew.

The Elan is a very compact car and one realises this when it is necessary to step down into it from a high kerb, the ensuing wriggling and puffing not helping to endear the car to tall or stout people. Room in the cockpit is strictly limited but it is not a car which one wants to romp about in and everything the driver needs is relatively easy to find. The bucket seats are, as one would expect in a Lotus, ideally positioned, with plenty of fore and aft movement. Levers and pedals fall properly to hand or foot, and heel and toe gear changes are easily accomplished. The brakes, incidentally, with 9-1/2 in. Girling discs at the from and 10 in. at the rear, are absolutely first-class and make child’s play of stopping the tiny Lotus; there is servo but only moderate pedal pressures are required. The handbrake regrettably, is a terrible umbrella type hidden away under the facia. The S2 Elan has a warning light to tell the driver that he has left it on, as it is completely out of sight.

The facia is a handsome-looking thing in veneered walnut which some people might disapprove of, but which does not look too much out of place. It is stocked with all the proper instruments which are well placed in front of the driver. A quiz game which can amuse passengers is to decide which other cars the instruments, switches, knobs, etc., have been taken from (mostly Ford, Triumph and Rover we’d say) but they all serve their purpose. There is no handbook provided with the Elan so it is a matter of guessing which switch does what. Most puzzling is the headlight knob, which, when pulled, brings up the retractable headlamps flashing like mad. On our first night trip we had to put the lamps away again as everyone else on the road thought we were a police car and promptly drove into the ditch. It was some time before we discovered that another switch beside the knob has to be depressed to eliminate the flashing. As the lamps take about a second to rise up from the body, they cannot be used for flashing at other traffic unless they are permanently raised. The Elan needs all the warning devices it can get for other traffic seems completely oblivious to the tiny projectile, as other drivers carry on with their overtaking manoeuvres even when the Elan is alongside and the passenger is knocking on their bodywork! The Elan is not the car to have an accident in for there are no chassis side members and the occupants are surrounded only by glass fibre, which would not help much in sideways accidents.

As a road car the Elan is rather restricted by a modest amount of luggage accommodation in the boot although there is a reasonable amount of room behind the seats. Stowage for small items is provided by a glove locker and a tray on the transmission tunnel.

The combination of performance, handling, braking and steering of the Lotus must be hard to match anywhere and it is only its rather rubbery transmission and fussy and noisy high speed cruising which detract from its worth as a road car. A staff member, who had just finished driving both the 4.2 E-type Jaguar and the Elan remarked what a wonderful car would result if the handling and “dodgeability” of the Elan, and the silent 130 m.p.h. cruising of the E-type could be built into one car. And so say all of us.— M. L. T.