Road impressions: Lotus Elan Sprint

The Lotus twin-cam engine has been a great unit over the past 10 years but now with the introduction of four valves per cylinder, belt-drive and the rest of it the twin-cam seemed to be on its way out. But Lotus, who originally commissioned this overhead-cam layout based on the Ford Cortina motor, recently gave the engine a new lease of life when it was updated to the "130 Big Valve" specification. A few months ago we reported what a difference this had made to the Elan +2S which, though not short of urge, welcomed a few more brake horse-power. The two-seater Elan, which also became available with the 130-b.h.p. engine at the same time, was undoubtedly a startling performer in original trim and now with the "Big Valve" motor is little short of shattering.

We were able to try the Lotus Elan Sprint recently over a fairly extensive mileage and since then we gather, although not directly from Lotus who no longer have a p.r. department, that all other Elan models are discontinued, so you have to have the Sprint whether you like it or not. Actually there is no question of that, for not only is the engine a great advance but such improvements as a strengthened final drive, stiffer drive-shaft doughnuts and a very much better and quieter exhaust system, all help to make the Elan a better car for a very reasonable increase in cost.

When the Sprint Elan was introduced back in February the price was quoted at £1,686 and has since found its way up to £1,716. This is, of course, in component form which is the only way an Elan Sprint is offered and compares with the £1,700 for a Morgan +8 which, if anything, has fractionally more straight-line performance, while something like a Triumph TR6 retails at £1,582. Our road-test car was an open version but, strangely, if you prefer a coupé it runs £10 cheaper.

We collected our road-test Elan Sprint at the Pub Lotus near Regents Park and immediately set off in this Gold Leaf-Team Lotus-liveried machine northwards and fast. It would probably be best not to give any details of the average speeds of the journey mostly on the Motorway, but suffice it to say it is within the bounds of possibility that we could have reached Sheffield a couple of hours later!

The Elan is remarkably comfortable for, once snuggled into its cockpit, nearly everything comes to hand easily and naturally. All the controls are delightfully light and need to be treated rather more delicately than those of something like a Vauxhall Ventora. The back axle has a low 3.77-to-1 final drive for maximum acceleration and sprinting, but it is sufficiently high enough to allow the car to cruise at 115 m.p.h. at just on the 6,500 r.p.m. red line on the rev.-counter. The noise level in the open version, with the hood up, is remarkably low and obviously would be much less in a coupé. The car also makes much less noise outside the car and that rasping growl on the overrun has been eliminated.

Naturally the Elan Sprint will win just about any traffic lights grand prix and Lotus claim a 0-60 m.p.h. figure of 6.2 sec., which is faster than any other car currently available. A Lamborghini Miura's time is around 6.7 sec., while a good "E"-type will record 7.4 sec. In fact, the Lotus claim is probably optimistic on the normal run of the mill car but a high 6-sec. figure would be possible. Even so, this should set you up pretty well at Santa Pod. Our Elan Sprint topped the 100 m.p.h. mark in just over 21 sec., which is fast in anyone's language, but most impressive of all was the way it picked up speed from 25-30 m.p.h. and whipped past those queues of slow-moving vehicles behind which, in any normal car, you would be stranded for ages.

The gearbox is delightful as one snicks through the gears with the short purposeful lever. By red-lining the rev.-counter one would change at 40, 60, 88 m.p.h., but, unless you are going all out to burn off the Jensen Interceptor alongside, this is hardly necessary, thanks to the broad overlap of torque between each gear.

It should be pointed out that driving an Elan quickly and safely is not something one can do without practice or skill. The tremendously responsive steering and handling requires similar qualities from the driver and the speeds achieved round corners and on the straight are deceptively fast. This, therefore, calls for a lot of concentration on the driver's part. Once mastered, however, the Elan is the nearest thing to a single-seater racing car one is likely to be able to drive comfortably on the road. To master the car and explore its tremendous handling potential along that delightfully twisty piece of road one knows so well is close on perfection for the sporting motorist. One could write the most flowery prose to describe the sensation, but suffice it to say that the Lotus reputation in this field is unparalleled.

When I visited Lotus some months ago I spent quite a while discussing the relative merits of Rotoflex couplings and sliding spline and universal joints in the rear drive-shafts with Tony Rudd, the firm's Director of Engineering. Rudd had been dubious of the Rotoflex or doughnut coupling before he joined Lotus and agreed that the diabolical surge they caused had to be cured. To this end various experiments were tried when he joined the firm, one of which was the use of the more conventional u/js. However, for some reason, concerned with the elasticity of the doughnuts, the handling undoubtedly deteriorated considerably using the metal joints. So Rudd did quite a lot of research on Rotoflex couplings and after a couple of improvements has now come up with one that almost entirely eliminates the wind-up. These are naturally somewhat more rigid and perhaps, because of this, the ride seems to be a little harder than on the earlier and exceptionally smooth-riding Elans. Personally I hadn't really noticed this until it was pointed out by a colleague who owned a couple of Elans.

We continue to receive letters from readers who are disgruntled with their Lotus Elans, the most recent one and quite a few earlier ones, plagued mainly with engine troubles. With the Elan Sprint we feel sure that the great majority of problems experienced with the engines, like burned-out exhaust valves and incessantly leaking cam cover gaskets, are eliminated.

Some of the other faults readers have complained about possibly stem from the original build of cars from the component form by amateurs. However, the fact still exists that Lotus models, and Elans in particular, do not have a particularly good reputation for long-term reliability. Thus we were hoping that our fresh and smart-looking road-test car would show the improvements that Tony Rudd has been working hard to introduce.

Sad to say that, though everything important performed its tasks without problem, a couple of little things let the car down. The first may be an inherent design fault for the heater control had the most strange knack of turning itself on and roasting the occupants. For maximum heat a knob on the dashboard just above the radio had, in theory, to be pulled out. In practice this infernal device had the uncanny habit of pushing itself out of the dashboard and turning the heat full on every five minutes. Attempts to twist or turn it into a locked position failed completely and I was almost forced to drive the Lotus in my underwear!

The other problem concerned the pop-up headlamps which are vacuum-operated and after a session of flashing on the M1 they became decidedly droopy but later managed to restore themselves to their former glory.

Considering the performance, the petrol consumption was very light at around 26 m.p.g., but the engine liked Castrol GTX and consumed almost three pints in the course of 1,000 miles.

The Lotus Elan Sprint is a fine sports car that will provide invigorating, entertaining and dynamic transport for its owner. This latest Sprint version undoubtedly moves the Elan even further up the desirability scale.—A. R. M.