Speed in style
Lotus always seem in the news these days whether it be in the City columns, the introduction of a revolutionary new racing car or the comings and goings of various members of the staff. Colin Chapman and his devotees seem to have come a very long way in a short space of time from their humble workshops in Hornsey to the new open-plan offices and works at Hethel, Norfolk. Every Lotus owner—past, present or future—seems to have strong views on his car. It is either the finest handling, best engineered, most beautifully styled sports car in the world or a dreadful device which was totally unreliable and decidedly overpriced.
Recently we put almost 1,000-miles on the clock of the car that heads the range—the Lotus Elan +2S—and the only things that actually fell off were the rear view mirror which, after a shaky start, finally deposited itself in our lap, and a light-flashing knob. As it happened we were on our way to Brands Hatch, where we found a Lotus mechanic who promptly screwed the mirror back on again. Apart from that the car was totally reliable and showed itself to be a most desirable, if expensive, form of transport which seems to have benefited tremendously from continued development and improvement.
But first, what of the history of the first four-seater (just) from Colin Chapman’s brilliant team? It was as far back as 1963 when Lotus decided that some time in the future it would be worthwhile to have a 2 + 2 in their range. Project studies were commenced and it was decided that the car should basically be an Elan derivative utilising a lengthened, widened and strengthened Elan chassis with the incorporation of as many common parts as possible. By mid-1964 the rapid development of the Elan coupé was in full swing so there wasn’t too much time spent on the 2 + 2 project, although a basic overall plan had been agreed. It was one misty morning in early 1965 that the directors and other senior management met in a rather clandestine manner at a North London park to view the first running prototype. Naturally the car was something of a lash-up and the glass-fibre body had been taken direct from the original aluminium styling mock-up. This secret device was called the Metier II.
At the meeting known and anticipated 2 + 2 models from other manufacturers were considered against the new Lotus and it was decided to increase the interior dimensions considerably to meet the car’s maxim that it “must be capable of transporting two adults and two children 1,000 miles in comfort with their luggage”.
In addition slight styling changes were incorporated in the revised version after considerable wind tunnel testing carried out in conjunction with the Rover Car Co. A drag coefficient of 0.3 was finally achieved but certainly not with the use of some of the rather ugly and tremendously bulbous shapes often attributed to low drag factors. In fact, the Elan +2 was, to nearly everyone, a strikingly beautiful shape, being something of a cross between the original Lotus GT car— the Elite—and the Elan coupé with touches of the Rover-BRM Le Mans car thrown in.
Another prototype was added and later came two new cars with a fully-engineered new backbone rather than the cut-and-weld-modified Elan backbones which had previously been used on the earlier prototypes. With the move to Norwich coming up and Elan coupé sales at a high level it was decided to delay introduction of the car from 1966 until August, 1967, by which time Lotus were in their new factory.
Over 2,000 Plus Twos were built when Lotus decided to revise the model, call it the Plus Two S and announce it in July, 1969. There were improvements which made the car far more luxurious and well appointed, but the engineering concept remained basically unchanged apart from better rear universal rubber couplings for the drive shafts and one or two other features, including plenty of sound-deadening material. For the 1970 Motor Show further improvements included an alternator, a revised cooling system, a Philips radio and a revised and far better silencer. What with ever-rising costs plus the many improvements this has put the price up from an original £2,200, tax paid, to £2,616. Here, perhaps, is the main drawback of the Lotus, for at this price it is in direct competition with a Jaguar Xj6 4.2 or a 2 + 2 E-type which is only a hundred pounds dearer.
The actual test car delivered to Standard House was an ultra smart white model which was nicely run-in. Once in the driving seat one feels immediately comfortable with steering wheel and gear-lever coming easily to hand. The facia is a mass of dials and switches all neatly labelled, although their locations take a bit of learning in the dark. The speedometer and rev.-counter are directly in front of the driver, while the other smaller instruments are ranged to the left. These cater for every need, the race-bred Lotus firm obviously having rather different ideas on what the driver should know than some other manufacturers. In fact, thoughtful Lotus even provide an ambient temperature gauge so that you will know whether to put your overcoat on when you get out of the car.
Also on the wooden facia is the radio, which is fitted as standard, and the various rocker switches, including those for the electric windows. Incidentally, considering this is a glass-fibre car, the radio works very well with little interference. There is a decent-sized glove compartment, but getting the hang of the “magic” push rather than pull-to-open idea is a little difficult at first. Underneath this is, for the passenger’s convenience, a map-reading light. This is not the sort of accessory that we would fit but once you have it you realise just how useful it can be. In fact, the Lotus is very strong on extra lights for, as well as illuminated boot and engine compartment, there are three ashtrays which all have little glowing lights as a safety factor. There seemed to be a few more trick lights, as well, for happily glowing away on the edge of the doors even when they were shut were red safety lights. The facia is completed by the air vents from the Lotus through flow-air system which works very effectively. If one wishes to strap oneself in, the safety belts are of the inertia reel type which are built in so that the reel itself is hidden behind the trim.
The trim and carpets are to the standard you would expect from a £2,600 motor car being conservatively black. It is interesting to note that Lotus attempt, as much as possible, to manufacture a large proportion of the car themselves and this includes the production of trim and seats. The door handles are the same as those used on several of the British Leyland range, particularly the 1100/1300s, and are undoubtedly the best for the job. These easy lift-up flaps are so much better than the usual finger-nail-braking devices so many sports cars seem to utilise. The windows are operated electrically, which is great as long as they keep working.
Before driving off we considered just how comfortable those extra two seats would be for adults. The answer is that they might be practicable for popping round to the pub but certainly not for any long-distance runs. As long as the front-seat passenger puts his seat fully forward then the person in the back will be only mildly cramped, but whoever fits in behind the driver is not going to be so happy, particularly if the driver happens to be more than about five foot six. Of course, if the driver happens to be D.S.J. then the problem would not be too bad but, even so, there is no way the Elan +2S can be considered a full four-seater. In fact, even the editorial Scimitar GTE, which is considerably more commodious, has its limitations, particularly for the passenger behind the driver.
The motive power comes from the famous race-bred Lotus Ford twin-cam in special equipment 1,600 c.c., 118 b.h.p. form. Although utilising several Ford parts, including the block, this is very much a Lotus engine these days for it can no longer be found in any of the Ford range and is built up at Hethel. It is undoubtedly a fine engine, although some owners become a little frustrated at constantly replacing cam cover gaskets and there was a stage when the engines seemed to eat exhaust valves at an alarming rate. This now seems over and, in their old age, the engines have settled down into reliable units, although for the Elan +2S the power is adequate more than sensational.
We therefore commend Lotus’ announcement just a month ago that they are introducing a new big-valve version of the unit developed from the lessons learned in racing by former BRM chief engineer Tony Rudd, who is now increasingly making his presence felt at Lotus. By enlarging the size of the inlet valves and increasing the lift and duration of the camshaft Lotus have upped the power to 126 b.h.p. with no loss of flexibility. Also with the new development of the engine comes a stiffer cam cover which will be less prone to oil leaks.
The new car is called the Lotus +2S 130 and in addition to the new engine has a distinctive paint job with a silver cabin area, a strengthened differential plus new outlet drive shafts and revised drive couplings all for the addition of only £60.
Once one starts to drive the +2S the enjoyment really sets in. To drive the car fast and accurately takes a little practice as one adjusts to the precise movement of the steering and the ability to hug the road. First of all the steering is incredibly light and precise and to those used to getting a bit of muscle behind the wheel it will come as quite a surprise. However, once one settles down to the finger-tip control and sheer accuracy then there is no problem. Unlike the GT6 we tried last month, which was light but rather insensitive, one can feel everything that is going on.
Another aspect of driving the +2S is getting used to those rubber doughnut drive couplings. They have been improved tremendously since the early days but there is still a trace of surge under fierce acceleration and also under braking. I fully realise that rubber couplings of this type do have advantages over more conventional Hardy-Spicer-type universal joints and tend to act as a buffer to the transmission, but I still do not like them at all. They also have the problem of being physically large.
Lotus have always been known for their excellent brakes and this model is no exception. A servo unit is fitted to assist the all-round discs, but there is still plenty of feel and the cars pull up nice and square making a mockery of those figures on the back of the Highway Code.
The all-round independent suspension with its racing-like wishbone and link lay-out gives the car superb handling, of that there is no doubt. The glory of it is that you can whip along country lanes with their twists and turns without drama, in complete safety and not working hard while drivers in lesser vehicles struggle to keep up. However, I would suggest that the ultimate road-holding is not up to the standard of the Elan, particularly in the wet. In fact, on one occasion, on what appeared to be a dry road, the tail came round alarmingly and had it not been for the quick steering I might well have spun. As I was unable to repeat the phenomenon I can only assume that I hit a patch of oil, which is a pretty old excuse, but I just was not going very quickly at the time.
High-speed cruising on the Motorways of Britain threw up very few deficiencies, for the Elan will pull close on maximum revs. in top gear and one feels that perhaps an overdrive would be a welcome addition. The top speed is somewhere close on 120 m.p.h., achieved without too much fuss or bother, although naturally one can’t afford to be half-asleep at those kind of speeds. Even at a 100 m.p.h. one is completely relaxed but for a Motorway trip at high speed I would prefer the Scimitar, although, of course, the Tamworth device would be left behind on twisty roads.
A side aspect of high-speed touring with the Lotus is the inability to flash the headlights quickly. They are buried away in two pneumatically-operated pods and these have to swing lugubriously into position before they can issue the warning of impending approach. By then you might as well have used the loud air horns instead for the operation takes about five seconds and the knob of the pull switch came away in the Editor’s hand before I even sat in the car. Included in the specification are also two fog and spot lamps mounted below the chrome bumper and these could be flashed instead.
Performance in the traffic lights grand prix is not to be sneered at for 0-60 m.p.h. time of just over eight seconds makes the car on a par with something like a Triumph TR6 and not much slower than a Jaguar E. Still accelerating the + 2S will be up to 100 m.p.h. in around 25 sec.
My personal acquaintance with the car was unfortunately all too brief for, while the Editor was able to clock up some 800 miles, my trips in the machine were unfortunately limited to various runs within London and a drive down to Brands Hatch to see the new Formula Atlantic. Meanwhile, the chief photographer drove the car out to Epping Forest with myself tagging along behind in the Triumph GT6. We did discover that the Lotus had far superior brakes when the photographer spotted a suitable spot for pictures and almost collected the GT6 up his glass-fibre boot. The said gentleman, who is an avid MG-B GT owner of some years standing, was not at all impressed and, above all, claimed that the car smelt of glass-fibre and he would not have one as a gift. As we said, Lotus models usually promote strong feelings. Having disturbed some budding lunch-time romances in a rather remote part of the forest, the Lotus returned to London by way of some most dreadful traffic jams but showed no signs of becoming overheated.
Running an Elan +2S should not, in theory anyway, be an expensive operation for the fuel consumption worked out around the 23-24 m.p.h. mark, while this engine was not very heavy on oil, although twin-cams do usually develop a thirst to the tune of a pint per 500 miles after a year or so. Lotus dealerships are usually run by enthusiasts possibly with a competition background so service should be efficient and knowledgeable if you pick the right place. Lotus have recently instituted a new scheme where, for a small charge, urgent parts are despatched via a security service van rather than by the rather hit-and-miss British Rail system, particularly as all lines hardly lead to Norwich.
Despite its high price the Elan +2S is attracting something like 40 buyers a week and many of the more affluent young amongst the population see the car as a definite alternative to a Jaguar XJ6. One lesson we learned from the road-test is that Lotus have undoubtedly more than got the hang of making luxury cars which are a far cry from those first Lotus 6s and 7s Colin Chapman built not so many years ago.
As mentioned earlier, Lotus have just announced a new version of the Plus 2S called the “130” and as we closed for Press we were able to borrow one of the first of the new cars for a quick Sunday afternoon’s drive to assess briefly the improvements. Our refresher drive served not only to remind us what a good car the Elan Plus 2S is, but also to show that those extra 10 b.h.p., plus the other improvements, are excellent value at an additional £60. In fact, we anticipate sales of the normal Plus 2S falling considerably as the pepped-up version catches on.
Just as the publicity material said, the larger inlet valves and slight camshaft alteration has in no way adversely affected the engine with regard to tractability and, if anything, made the car easier to drive. Also noticeable was the great improvement in the rotoflex couplings in the rear-drive train and the dreaded surge is now almost completely eliminated. We gather that the new couplings, developed for the 130, will be used on the ordinary Plus 2S types as well in the near future. Incidentally, our only complaint about the 130 was the fact that the driving rear view mirror was just about to fall off!
A quick blast up the Motorway showed that performance was considerably improved and the car ran right round to 7,000 r.p.m. in top, which can only be described as impressive. This was achieved with such a lack of fuss and wind noise, one imagined that we were only a fraction over the legal limit. With this new version it appears Lotus have got very close to the ultimate that can be expected from the Plus 2S. With Tony Rudd working energetically to ensure new standards of quality and reliability for the Norwich concern their future seems bright.—A. R. M.