Journey to Sicily



Further Impressions of the Lotus Elan

At the end of last year Motor Sport had a Lotus Elan for road-rest and due to other commitments the Editor gave it to M.L.T., who used to be our Assistant Editor, and he did the test and write-up, this appearing in the February 1965 issue of Motor Sport. I viewed this move with great displeasure, as the Elan was one road-test car I badly wanted to have a go in, not being very interested in the usual run of bread-and-butter stuff that the Editor road-tests himself. However, the Editor said “Don’t fret, we will borrow it from the Assistant Editor for a time,” and this we did, the time being the splendid traffic-free one of Christmas Day, just before the ice and snow appeared, and while most people were getting over Christmas dinner and watching television we thrashed the little Elan across and around Salisbury Plain, doing more 100-m.p.h. motoring than seemed reasonable in such a tiny car. We actually reached an all-time high of 6,900 r.p.m. in top, which was over 115 m.p.h., and it seemed to do 6,000 r.p.m. on any short straight. When we got back we agreed that the Elan was a real 2-seater sports car but wondered about its use for serious journeys, and as the Editor said in his article on his Year’s Motoring, “… we did wonder how long this very enjoyable Elan would hold together this thought being provoked after sitting at 6,500 r.p.m. for quite a long while on the Andover road. In the Elan brochure are the words “Colin Chapman says … we wanted to build you a ‘fun car’,” and with that remark we were in full agreement, though I doubted whether I could stand the noise, fuss and pandemonium for more than a 200-mile cross-country stretch.

We returned the Elan to the Assistant Editor full of admiration for the performance, handling and road-holding of this true sports car, and put the brief encounter as one of our memorable experiences, and I mentally said to myself, “that was the Elan, that was,” and turned my attention to other cars and activities. However, this was not to be the end of my Elan motoring and it hadn’t been the first, for I had short “flips up the road” in various Elans previous to the road-test car. In early February a friend rang up to say “I’ve just bought an Elan, do you want to try it and come with me to lunch with Eric Oliver, he’s bringing his racing Elan along?” Needless to say, I went, both as a chance for another dice in an Elan and to meet my old sidecar driver, and over lunch it transpired that it was Eric in his Elan that had given the Editor trouble on the M1 when he was testing a 4.2-litre E-type Jaguar. As recorded in the January 1965 Motor Sport, the Editor wrote, “… we caught up with a Lotus Elan on trade plates which proved able to hold the Jaguar on acceleration up to 135 m.p.h. …” After that trip the Editor asked “How fast is a really good Lotus Elan?” and I estimated 135/140 m.p.h. in racing trim and asked why, and he explained how this Elan had given chase on the M1. As it was on trade plates he thought it was probably a works car, but it turned out to be Eric Oliver’s privately owned and privately tuned one, which shows what can be done without factory backing. He explained that he had spent many hours balancing everything, matching cylinder, piston and valve gear to each other, fitting 11-to-1 compression pistons, and being meticulous about assembly and adjustments and clearances, just as we used to be with Norton and Velocette engines in earlier days. If the standard Elan is a real sports car, then a highly-tuned one is a real racing car! I thought this was the finish to Elan motoring, but I was wrong again.

In the paddock at Brands Hatch I was approached by Rosemary Sears and Graham Arnold, who look after Lotus Press and Sales affairs, and they suggested that an afternoon with the road-test car wasn’t really sufficient to appreciate an Elan. They suggested that as I was one of the few motoring correspondents who still motored long distances to race meetings, in preference to flying, perhaps I would like to take an Elan to Sicily when I went to the Siracusa Grand Prix. I did not take this suggestion very seriously, so promised to phone them about it later, thinking they were only joking and were just in a race-going mood. When I did ring Lotus, Rosemary said “It’s all ready, when do you want to collect it?” so I was committed, and my friends were not exactly encouraging about my prospects of getting to Sicily, especially those that knew the last 300 miles through Calabria in Southern Italy. Team Lotus were competing at Siracusa, so I was told that if I had any trouble the mechanics would help me out, and just as a precaution there was a box of spares its the boot of the Elan.

The car in question was not a specially prepared road-test one, but Graham Arnold’s own car, and though an early one basically it was brought up to S2 specification and fitted with a hard-top, and appeared to have done nearly 10,000 miles. Apart from a new set of Goodyear G800 tyres and an oil change, it was as he had been using it, even to some of his personal “rubbish” in the boot and glove-box. The remarkable thing about the Elan’s cockpit is that in spite of the small overall size of the car it will accommodate the longest legs, and as my legs barely reached down to the ground I had to modify the seat mounting with some wood and a cushion before setting off. The rev. limit on the twin-cam Lotus Ford engine is at 6,500 r.p.m., though you can go into the red up to 7,000 r.p.m. for short bursts, so as I had a 3,000-mile trip ahead of me I decided to keep to a maximum of 6,000 r.p.m. for gear-changes and 5,500 r.p.m. its top for cruising, and it did not need many miles across France to find that 5,500 r.p.m. (90 m.p.h.) was a very happy cruising speed, although strong side winds called for concentration at this speed. The brilliant ride characteristics of the Elan smoothed out the undulations on French roads in a most impressive manner and the miles went by very quickly indeed. In the Vosges mountains approaching Switzerland a “clonk” began to intrude every time I opened up out of corners, and I began composing my telegram to Lotus and making plans for getting to Sicily by public transport. Eventually I stopped to investigate and jacked the back end up and pulled and kicked everything but could find nothing wrong, so put the jack away and motored on, and the “clonk” had disappeared! Yes, it was the jack that had been flopping about in the boot, down in the well beside the petrol tank. I once had a similar “trouble” in my Porsche, with a thump on right-hand bends; it was a tin of oil rolling about in the nose. which I had forgotten about.

In Switzerland, along that splendid road towards Sion, I thought I ought to see just how fast this Elan went, and it wound itself up to 7,000 r.p.m. in top (116 m.p.h.) and, unlike the road-test car, this one had a very smooth engine right through the range, from 4,000 r.p.m. onwards it was sounding and running like a sewing machine. There was quite a gusty wind blowing, so it was a pretty busy 116 m.p.h., but this is an inevitable price to pay for having a very light and accelerative car; back at its cruising 90 m.p.h. it was quite happy. An over-night stop was being made at Modena, so the last leg of the journey was being run on the splendid Autostrada del Sole, and a continual eye had to be kept on the rev. counter to keep it down to my pre-arranged limit of 5,500 r.p.m., even in the dark, until I began to notice that the headlamps were beginning to sag. The vacuum-operated “pop-up” headlamps on the Elan is one feature that I have never liked, for even though they have an automatic flasher unit incorporated for daylight use I find that by the time you have reached for the knob, and the lamps have come up and flashed, the incident you wanted to flash at is way behind you. Now another snag had appeared, for obviously the system had sprung a leak and with the throttles open there was not enough suction to hold the lamps up. As Modena was not far off I motored on in a series of bursts of acceleration into progressive inky darkness, and full headlamps beam on the over-run! I later found that a stone had split a T-pipe in the pipe-work for the vacuum system under the car, and some tape effected a temporary cure.

With 500 miles of non-stop autostrada motoring available the expression “it will cruise all day at 5,500 r.p.m.” is now really true, and at a continuous cruising speed of 5,500 the Elan covered the autostrada down through Florence, Siena, Rome, Naples, Salerno, to where it finishes at the moment at Battipaglia. On this sort of motoring, which is getting more and more commonplace in this modern age, another tiresome fault in the design of the Elan appeared, a fault common to many British cars for I am sure the designers do not do serious motoring trips. The fault in question is the fuel-tank capacity, 10 gallons on the Lotus, and at 24 m.p.g. this gives 240 miles providing you get onto the autostrada with a full tank and there is a petrol station at the point where you run dry, two suppositions that are purely imaginary. Consequently you have to rely on the petrol gauge and the mileometer, and at 200 miles you get uneasy, especially as you can be more than a gallons-worth from the next pump. With no reserve tap the “peace-of-mind” range is 200 miles, which just isn’t sufficient for modern motoring, for in spite of the noise and pandemonium in the Elan it is no hardship to put 500 miles into a day’s motoring.

After Salerno you get into the Calabrian mountains, where you spend most of your time in 2nd and 3rd gears, and here the Elan really came into its own, for the handling and cornering are superb, and I liked the characteristics of the Goodyear G800 tyres very much, except that the right-front one rubbed on the body on left-hand hairpins, but this was a fault in the bodywork where it had been repaired at some time in its hard life. The way the Elan would squirt out of corners and “straight-line” cambered ess-bends was most impressive, the uneven and bumpy roads not worrying it at all, and though you feel the suspension working overtime it never showed signs of “bottoming.” At first the Elan had seemed a fussy, tiresome little car, but it was definitely growing on me, and though its looks are too simple and plain to be endearing, its character as regards driving fun could not be questioned. By the time I got to Siracusa, which was 1,650 miles from my home, I had extended the Elan under almost all possible types of going and had found it to be absolutely vice-free. It may well be that the handling is so perfect that it appears unimaginative and that it needs sober reflection to realise just how good it really is. A lot of cars feel very nice, except for some little detail, so you think, “with slightly higher-geared steering this car would be terrific” or “with a little more adhesion on the rear wheels it would be ideal.” With the Elan I was finding it hard to think of any improvements as regards ride, handling, steering and cornering, which is as it should be, for if Colin Chapman and Lotus cannot produce a perfect handling car, then I don’t know who can.

When I met Team Lotus in the paddock they all cried “You’ve made it,” and for a joke I said, “Yes, but I badly need a good Elan mechanic,” to which they replied, “You should worry, we need a good Ford mechanic, our transporter broke down in the mountains.” In fact there was nothing to do to the Elan, except to put in a second pint of Esso oil, in deference to Team Lotus who use Esso products, to bring the level of the sump up to the full mark, for there are no suspension greasing points and it needed no water. When I left the factory in Cheshunt they had said I would be all right when I got to Sicily because there would be some Lotus mechanics there, but as it turned out it was I who helped them. The two lads from Team Lotus, Doug. Bridge and Bill Cowe, had been driving the “Chapman Special Transporter,” with one car on board with all the spares and towing a trailer carrying the second car. This high-speed transporter was a good idea that never really worked due to being over- stressed, for it was a lengthened Thames fitted with a Zephyr engine and its career has been one long series of mishaps. Doug. and Bill were as near as makes no odds halfway between Naples and Reggio Calabria, in the very centre of the Calabrian mountains, when the left-hand end of the rear axle broke clean off. They had found an Italian bandit who had spent 51 years in America and was now retired at Spettano Albenese and with his help on organising they had got the whole lorry and trailer dragged to the edge of town on a sort of huge roller-skate. Then they had hired two lorries and got the racing cars, spare engine, gearboxes and equipment down to Siracusa in a non-stop drive, in time for first practice.

You can imagine how pleased they were when Jim Clark won the race for Team Lotus, and justified all the efforts, but now came the job of getting home. The Team Walker lads took all the spares and equipment in their huge transporter, and while Doug. spent Monday morning organising two more lorries for the return trip to the centre of Calabria I took Bill in the Elan and we pressed on ahead. The idea was that he could start taking the broken axle off the Ford and get everything ready for bolting in a new one, for a phone call to Cheshunt had got Andrew Ferguson stirring everyone up and sending a complete axle out to Naples by air freight. At 6 p.m. I dropped Bill and his tools and luggage at the stricken transporter, still sitting by the roadside on blocks of wood, and I motored on to the next big town for the night, as I had an evening of Grand Prix report writing to get on with. While Bill was having a kip in the Ford’s cab, Doug. arrived in the small hours of the morning with two lorries, two Sicilian drivers, and two Lotus Grand Prix cars, and they offloaded them and made plans for the next move. I had offered them the Elan to go to Naples, but we could not visualise it carrying a Ford commercial rear axle in the boot. It had uncomplainingly brought Bill and me with two suitcases, a bulky briefcase, a box of spares, Bill’s great steel toolbox, overcoats and odds and ends, and there are people who complain about the lack of luggage-space in an Elan. I was fully prepared for it to ground and bottom the suspension with this load on board, but the only defect was that the tyre-rubbing on tight left-hand hairpins got worse. As we were pressing on through the mountains there were occasional smells of hot rubber and hot fibre-glass as we went a bit too quickly into some corners, but there were no ill-effects.

The original plan had been that Doug. and Bill would hire a small pick-up truck to drive the 200 miles to Naples airport to collect the axle, but they later changed their minds and decided to hitch-hike through Calabria and rent a Hertz hire car at the airport. By this time I was ahead of them, but they set out at dawn and got a lift in a Fiat 500, of the modern “clockwork” variety, and this slowly ground its way through the mountains. I set off pretty early next morning and as I came round a corner I saw the two mechanics by the roadside with the owner of the Fiat 500, having a rest and a smoke. Leaving Bill to follow on with the Italian, who spoke quite good English and was off to America at the end of the week, like so many Italians and Sicilians, I took Doug. in the Elan and we pressed on to Naples, with the idea of getting the freight and customs people stirred up, always assuming the axle had arrived. As always, there was no axle and no one knew anything about an axle, so after meeting two planes from London, neither carrying the Ford axle, I had to leave and press on to Modena, where I was due that night. Just as I was leaving, a happy and relieved-looking Bill found us, having successfully hitch-hiked his way along, so I left them hiring an estate-car and phoning Cheshunt to find out what had happened to the axle. This was well after lunchtime but, modern Italy being the impressive way it is, I was comfortably in Modena for supper that night. The autostrada is less than five minutes from the airport and it was then constant 5,500 r.p.m. cruising all the way to the Modena South turn-off and toll-gate. There was a brief interlude when a Giulia TI Alta Romeo got in behind me, and stayed there at 6,000 and on to 6,500 on the Lotus rev. counter. At 6,800 it began to drop back, and with the honour of Lotus at stake I felt forced to sit at 6,800 until the Alfa gave up, which it did after a few miles, and, rather relieved, I eased back to 6,000 and then reluctantly back to 5,500. This particular engine showed no signs of stress or roughness at these revs and felt as if it would go on for ever at that speed, but I was still 1,200 miles from home, with important consignments ahead.

After a day in Modena I set off for Le Mans, for the test weekend, and put a very easy 465 miles into the day, including traversing the Alps on the train, the passes still being closed. Feeling that I was on the last leg of the journey and the Elan having by now instilled an incredible amount of confidence in me I held it at 6,000 r.p.m. for 50 minutes on the autostrada from Milan to Turin, and really felt that the Lotus-Ford twin-cam engine was unburstable. After 700 miles of hard going in the mountains and on the undulating roads of Calabria and Sicily, I was convinced that bits were not going to fall off the Elan, as my friends prophesied, and brief spells of really heavy rain did not leave one saturated as other people suggested. On the final run to Le Mans I caught up with a DS19 Citroën that was cruising at 85 m.p.h. on a bumpy cambered road, so I sat behind for many miles comparing the ride of the Lotus with that of “the most advanced car in the world.” It was not as good, but it was not for behind, and I have yet to find the equal of the DS19 for level-ride and controlled suspension. I thought that the Elan was showing up well, especially for its light weight and small size, and felt forced to overtake the DS just to let the driver see that Britain knows something about road-holding and ride. At 100 m.p.h. I was busy, but not out of control, for this was not a Route Nationale, it was one of those B-C roads that cross France, and as the couple in the Citroën had shown great interest when I came up behind them at first, we then ran in company for about 100 miles, taking turns at leading the way, until the French people turned off my route.

Le Mans was visited and then it was back to England and to Cheshunt to return the Elan to Graham Arnold, having covered 3,807 miles in the two weeks I was away. A third pint of oil had brought the level up to “Full ” and the only breakage was that the Smiths water-temperature gauge had stopped working. The rather useless umbrella-type hand-brake still didn’t work and the car was devoid of all its Lotus badges, for after Clark’s win at Siracusa the local “enthusiasts” had got to work with penknives during the night. The two mechanics I had left at Naples were back at work, their friends considering the trip to Sicily a holiday, but their troubles had not been over when I left them on the Tuesday after the race. The axle did not arrive until Friday morning and they then had to drive the mountainous 200 miles back to Spettano Albenese, fit the axle, load the cars, and return the hire car to Naples and get hack to England. On the autostrada the transporter suddenly shed a wheel, fortunately without serious consequence, and by driving in shifts non-stop they made Cheshunt by Sunday night, which was a pretty good marathon. In many papers the only mention of the race in Sicily was “Jim Clark won the Siracusa Grand Prix in a Lotus-Climax at record speed.” Few people can imagine what it involved in effort, time, money and ingenuity to achieve that simple headline, but two Team Lotus mechanics won’t forget in a hurry. I’m told the transporter is going to be put in the Lotus museum!

As Rosemary Sears and Arnold had said in the Brands Hatch paddock, an afternoon with an Elan was not sufficient, but two weeks’ constant use gave me a much better idea, and I cannot praise the handling, road-holding, cornering and performance of the Elan highly enough, while my trip answered our original query about how long it would hold together. It is not perfect, for it is too fussy and noisy, and I still think it is a dull-looking car, lacking character in its shape, but all its character lies in the way it goes. It is an incredibly safe car, forgiving and vice-free, and so obviously comes from a parent-hood of racing knowledge; it is essentially a sports car, and as Colin Chapman says, it is a fun car. It is not cheap, but then nothing that is good is cheap, but to anyone contemplating buying a cheaper 2-seater sports car, and there are many of them, I would say “Sell the television set, the washing machine, the wife’s car, give up smoking, even give up drinking, but scrimp and save and buy an Elan, you won’t. be disappointed.”

It is a car that every young man should strive his utmost to acquire, and a lot of old men too. Why don’t I have one myself? If it looked like the Marcos1800 I think I would.—D. S. J.