Driven in its era by some of racing’s great names, this classic lightweight Lotus is a car that is seriously gaining in value
By Richard Heseltine
It may have a consecrated place in the hearts of all Lotus types, but one thing’s for sure – the Elite was a pup. Now, before you warm the bitumen and pluck the chickens, first mull over one simple fact: it lost its makers money. Oodles of the folding stuff. Talismanic company principal Colin Chapman was too busy pushing envelopes and breaking moulds to factor in the whole profit-making aspect. Few people would, or could, have conceived an all-glassfibre monocoque – in the 1950s – yet even fewer cars followed its lead in the coming decades. We can think of five, and three of them sold in single figures. Blazing trails is an easy way to get burned.
With grim predictability, the Elite was always on to a loser. For all its other-worldly beauty and lateral thinking, it was too costly to make and mortally hamstrung by complexity. Chapman clearly thought so, his Elan replacement being a lesson in simplicity by comparison; a copper-bottomed classic that still enraptures all right-thinking sports car spods. There was one slight problemette: it made for a rubbish competition tool in period. Jackie Stewart famously called the Elan “the worst car I ever raced” and many of his contemporaries echoed the sentiment. That’s where the Elan 26R came in.
Initially conceived as a low-cost replacement for the Seven, the kernel of the Elan as a more aspirant product took root once it became clear that the Elite would likely bankrupt Lotus.
Its design was influenced as much by bottom line-minded prudence as starry-eyed futurism, the use of a steel backbone chassis becoming a marque constant for generations to come. Easy to fabricate and weighing a mere 75lb, it measured just 11.5in by 6in at the centre. Suspension was by steel wishbones with coil springs/dampers up front, to the rear a wide-based lower wishbone and coil/spring damper unit arrangement. The lower end of the strut was fixed in a cast ally housing which contained the wheel bearing and hubs, in addition to lugs for mounting the disc brakes inboard of the hub.
Then there was the powerplant. A classic of its kind, the Elan’s twin-cam unit was conceived by Harry Mundy. The former BRM and Coventry Climax man (and The Autocar technical editor) rustled up an alloy head for the Ford 116E five-bearing block and, when the model was introduced at the 1962 Earls Court Motor Show, the resultant ‘four’ displaced 1499cc. It was essentially a detuned version of the same unit which made such an impact when powering Jim Clark’s Lotus 23 at that year’s Nürburgring 1000Kms. But after the first 22 cars had been made (and all subsequently recalled), capacity was upped to 1558cc with Keith Duckworth lending a fettling hand.
Clothing the goodies was an achingly pretty glassfibre body shaped by former Ford man Ron Hickman (who later gave the world the Black & Decker Workmate). Offered in kit form at £1095, or fully built for an extra £400, it was an instant hit even if build quality was at best inconsistent. Future iterations would rectify this, all things being relative, but a racing variation would have to wait a while.
Ultimately, it would be left to works-blessed privateers to develop the Elan for competition. Chapman reasoned that there was a market for such a car but he was simply too busy to make it happen. Responsibility for turning this tiddler into a circuit weapon fell to two rival team bosses, Ian Walker and Graham Warner.
Though widely praised for its dexterity on challenging back roads, the Elan was condemned trackside for its unpredictability. Testers voiced concerns over its tendency to flex and its snap oversteer. They also complained of excessive bump-steer, which Walker’s crew rectified by changing the height of the steering rack, the handling being improved by swapping the rubber bushes for spherical bearings. Steel wheels, which had a tendency to crack under load, were replaced with wider, centre-lock magnesium items, while shorter springs made for a lower ride height even if the height of the diff had to be raised to compensate for the acute half-shaft angles.
Outwardly, the Ian Walker Racing Elans gained small scoops ahead of the rear wheels, put in place to cool the brakes and differential (which also had an oil cooler). Vertical slats behind the rear arches dissipated hot air, while up front the road car’s pop-up headlights were replaced with fixed items sited behind Plexiglas shields. Each finished in distinctive metallic gold with a dark green stripe, the IWR ‘Gold Bugs’ featured lightly warmed-over engines. With Walker’s roll-call of drivers including Peter Arundell, Sir John Whitmore, Mike Spence and Phil Hawkins, the great Jim Clark steered one to victory in a support race at the 1964 British GP meeting (Whitmore made it a one-two finish).
Warner, meanwhile, went his own way, even if the two teams’ cars looked outwardly similar. The Chequered Flag principal’s racer was painted in his corporate black and white colour scheme, while retaining the LOV 1 registration number made famous on his earlier – and usually victorious – Elite. It was powered by a Cosworth-tuned 144bhp engine, with additional air fed to it via a NACA bonnet duct. The arches were cut away to house fatter rubber while the suspension bore chunkier anti-roll bars and plenty of rear toe-in. On his driver roster was the none-too-shabby pairing of Jackie Stewart and Mike Spence, with the boss stepping in if and when his stars weren’t available (see I Raced One).
Elements of both iterations of competition Elan were incorporated into the official factory model, the 26R, which was offered from 1964 at £1995 in DIY form. Production versions did away with the rear vents of the IWR car but did feature flared front and rear bodywork to house wide cast mag wheels, plus a lightweight single-skin glassfibre hardtop. Just to confuse future historians, not every example featured a bonnet duct, while cars sold for export had concealed headlights, just like the regular Elan.
Mechanically, the 26R differed by featuring racing lightweight competition-spec wishbones, sliding spline driveshafts in place of rubber joints, bigger anti-roll bars and a degree of reinforcement around the suspension pick-up points. Pedals were repositioned to aid heel-and-toeing, dual circuit brakes with twin master cylinders and light alloy calipers coming as standard. As did a 140bhp Cosworth-tuned ‘four’ although up to 160bhp was offered in time.
Proving more than useful at national level, and hugely popular with privateers, the 26R found an early adopter in Team Willment. With a full-house 158bhp BRM-tuned ‘Phase 2’ engine, its red and white example was arguably the fastest Elan of its era and helped elevate John Miles towards a works seat with Lotus. “Ray Parsons drove and developed the model,” recalls the future F1 pilot. “It became a good car. Although not torsionally stiff by today’s standards, the Elan was a stiffer and better-integrated design than the Diva I’d raced previously. It was potentially safer as chassis tubes didn’t surround you.
“I have fond memories of the Elan. Undoubtedly winning the 1966 Autosport Championship [having taken nine straight wins] was very special, and particularly beating Bernard Unett’s Sunbeam Tiger to the line in the Easter Sunday round at Brands Hatch as the bonnet had come off early on. That win put me in the frame for a drive in the works Lotus 47 on Boxing Day. Chapman jumped into the car after the race and said: ‘I want you to drive for me next year.’ That was a nice Christmas present! For me, that was a wonderful year. I also won races in Portugal at Cascais, Montes Claros and Villa Real [second in the Elan, and first in a Willment Cortina].”
But it was IWR that landed the gig as official works entrant. Of the 97 cars assembled up to 1966, the rarest variation wasn’t a factory model. Sometime F3 man Barry Wood commissioned coachbuilders Shapecraft Co of Leatherhead, Surrey to realise his own distinctive take on the theme. Launched at the 1964 Racing Car Show, the Shapecraft Elan was offered as a conversion for regular road cars in addition to 26Rs, both featuring aluminium fastback roofs riveted and bonded to the ’shell along with a new bootlid and Perspex rear screen. Around 20 Elans of all types were converted, customers including comedic great (and sometime F2 team owner) Peter Sellers and character actor Peter Brandon.
Predictably, as cars moved further down the food chain, their lives were prolonged through subsistence-led ‘developments’. Some found their way into ModSports, and a great number into historics by the 1980s, with Lotus stalwart Tony Thompson claiming four HSCC titles – three of them consecutively – that decade. Eligible for series such as the HSCC Guards Trophy and Masters Cloth Cap, in addition to many stand-alone events, 26Rs are in demand as prices head steadily north.
The reasons why are obvious, says veteran racer Pat Thomas. “I judge every car by the Elan,” he claims. “It’s just so light and agile and has no real weaknesses. It has a strong ’box, the diff never gives any trouble and when you look at what John Miles did in period, his giant-killing drives against Cobras… If I had to say anything against the car, it’s very small and made of glassfibre, so if you have an ‘off’ there’s not much left. But you can say that about many cars.
“I’ve raced my own [ex-Willment] car without any problems but I’d like to see FIA scrutineers start weighing them. They’re homologated at 620kg but some are running at 560kg or less. As for values, I know of one 26R that’s recently been built at a cost of £160,000 so I’d expect to pay that much for a sorted car; up to £175,000 for one with a prominent history. When you compare that to something like a Lightweight E-type, it doesn’t sound so ridiculous.”
Though it was only ever a supporting player in marque lore, and one that had a short shelf life in period (the Ginetta G12 and Chevron B6 saw to that), the 26R is still a classic Lotus racing car. Despite its fault-riven foundations, the Elan morphed into a prolific winner, one campaigned by a legion of aces and fielded by some of the best-remembered teams of the day. But then we were sold just on the Jimmy ’n’ Jackie association…