Colin Chapman was very clear to potential customers in early sales literature for the Lotus Elan, proclaiming simply: “We wanted to build you a fun car.” There can be no doubting that the founder of the British marque and the team he had gathered around him hit that target.
Lotus delivered what has come to be regarded as one of the best-handling sports cars ever when its Type 26 went on sale late in 1962. Light and small as per Chapman’s design philosophy, a two-seater drop-top measuring just 12ft in length was powered by a jewel of an engine, a new twin-cam unit based on Ford’s over-square four-cylinder Kent block. And, of course, it came with disc brakes all round, as well as rack and pinion steering. The design of the original Elan was led by Ron Hickman, who would go on to find fortune and a bit more fame with the Workmate tool bench that he licensed to Black & Decker. He styled the initial Drop Head Coupé (DHC) roadster version of the car and came up with the folded backbone chassis onto which the fibreglass body was bolted.
This steel backbone, which replaced the troublesome fibreglass monocoque of the Elite, would become the building block of so many Lotus models that followed. Legend has it that the idea was conceived purely as test bed for the car’s long-travel suspension, but Chapman loved its simplicity and pushed it into production.
Launched in October 1962, the Elan story began with a short run of 1500cc cars before a 1.6-litre engine was introduced when full production started the following year. Like previous Lotus cars, the Elan was available built-up and ready to go, or in kit form.
Revised versions followed quickly: the Elan Series 2 came on stream in ’64 and the Fixed Head Coupé closed-top car was launched in October ’65.
There was a racing version of the Elan, though competition wasn’t on Chapman’s mind during the conception of the car, a first for Lotus
The Elan continued to evolve — and become ever more powerful — through to the end of production in 1974. That included development of the wider and longer fixed head-only Plus 2 with a pair of small rear seats for 1967. The 1966 Series 3 was replaced two years later by the biggest evolution of the design in the Series 4, which came with flared arches to accommodate wider tyres.
There was a racing version of the Elan, though competition wasn’t on Chapman’s mind during the conception of the car, a first for Lotus. Early privately developed race cars were the inspiration for the lightweight Type 26R Elan built for 1964. With revised suspension, which included strengthened mounting points, the racer went on to enjoy success on the domestic sports car scene and raced at the Le Mans 24 Hours.
The definitive Elan for many is the Series 4 Sprint of 1970. The car came with a big-valve engine that pushed power output up to 126bhp — a significant increase on the 1962 original’s 105bhp — and the two-tone bodywork that is so evocative of the Elan. A five-speed gearbox was offered in the final months of Sprint production in 1973.
The Sprint DHC is the most desirable Elan today, and commands the highest values, save for the rare 26R racer. Asking prices of £55,000 for mint cars are not unknown. The bigger Plus 2s don’t have the same cachet or value.
The folded-steel backbone was prone to rust, so few remain on their period chassis. Replacement items remained available through Lotus until their manufacture was taken over by Gartrac Motorsport. Lotus purists want Elans with this chassis today rather than cars with aftermarket units built by specialists such as Spyder Cars.
Just over 12,000 Elans were built and the majority, perhaps more than 10,000, survive. That’s a testament to Chapman’s promise to build a fun sports car, and to Hickman’s classic styling.
• Price new £1686 in kit form
• Price now £20,000-£55,000
• Engine 1.6-litre DOHC straight four
• Power 126bhp
• 0-60mph 6.2sec
• Top speed 121mph
• Rivals Triumph TR5 & TR6, Morgan +8, Alfa Romeo Spider
• Verdict A great-handling sports car with eternal good looks
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