Although the Lotus Elan +2 has been in production for quite a time now, the opportunity to drive one had somehow been missed for too long, so a proposed visit to Turin and Modena was made the excuse for borrowing NAH 120F from Lotus Sales Director Graham Arnold. The Elan +2 follows the general plan of the Elan, having a back-bone chassis, all-independent suspension, twin-cam Lotus-Ford engine and fibreglass body. When the chubby-looking Lotus Elan appeared Colin Chapman said that Lotus had designed it as a “fun-machine”, and he was absolutely right, as anyone who has driven an Elan will agree. The advent of the larger and more sophisticated Elan +2 was not heralded with any such statement for by this time Lotus were heading towards being respected motor manufacturers rather than “special” builders. Had Chapman made a statement to accompany the +2 it would have probably been to the effect that they had built a serious production car for serious motoring, rather than a “car for fun”. From the styling of the body to the interior of the cockpit the Elan +2 is much more of a production motor car than a “kit-form car” as the Elan is. It retains all the desirable features of the Elan, such as lively acceleration, superb suspension characteristics, the ability to change direction suddenly, an absolute thirst for corners and a feeling of control that a lot of other makes could well try and emulate. Although the +2 is longer, wider and heavier than an Elan the difference in performance provided by the 1,600-c.c. twin-cam Lotus-Ford engine is not noticeable, although it is inferior to the Elan on twisty roads when the driver is enjoying driving. In return the +2 is a much more civilised car and I could almost visualise living in one, whereas the cramped and Spartan cockpit of the ordinary Elan began to get irksome after a week at the wheel.
The car I borrowed had already covered 19,887 miles so it was well into the “used-car” category, but it gave very little feeling of this either in its manner of going or appearance, except for the Smiths fuel tank contents gauge and the radiator temperature gauge dying on me soon after arriving in France. Basically a standard Elan +2 it was being used as a pre-production test vehicle, having 5½J magnesium wheels, special seats with built-in head-rests, and experimental dust-shields on the rear suspension to keep road dirt off the rear brakes. Also, it was black in colour with a silver section to the rear of the doors as a styling experiment. Lotus thought the black and silver layout was a failure, but I received many favourable comments at it in Italy, while the magnesium wheels were admired everywhere. My instructions were fairly simple, “use 7,000 r.p.m. all you like to blow-off ‘foreign rubbish’, cruise at anything up to 6,700 r.p.m. in top, have fun and bring it back when you’ve finished with it.”
After being spoilt by 4.2-litres of engine with enormous torque and a surplus of b.h.p. no matter what gear you are in or what r.p.m. the engine is doing, the buzzing little Lotus engine seemed all wrong and I had to learn a small-car technique all over again. You do not let the clutch in at 600 r.p.m., or rather you can, but you stall the engine. If you are not to be left behind in town traffic-races you must always be in the right gear with 3,500 or more on the tachometer. This was brought home forcibly when I tried a rolling-start drag-race with a Triumph Spitfire and got left behind, hiccoughing along with no torque available in third gear. In the E-type Jaguar such a situation would have been dealt with simply and easily by giving full throttle at 1,500 r.p.m. in third gear. It did not take long to get back into “fizzer-habits”, stirring on the short stubby gear-lever all the time and keeping the twin-cam engine turning over rapidly. After the lolloping way the E-type makes sudden changes of direction, such as round a bus or taxi, the Elan +2 was a revelation, the steering being beautifully light, high-geared and responsive. Out on the open road the r.p.m. went up and up and 6,500 r.p.m. in top was child’s play; unfortunately at 5,100 r.p.m. a serious wind buffeting round the windscreen began and the door window frames flapped horribly, so much so that after the novelty of keeping the car cruising at 6,500 r.p.m. had worn off, the buffeting became irksome and unless in a particular hurry I kept cruising to 5,100 r.p.m., around the 80-m.p.h. mark. The twin-cam engine is so smooth at maximum r.p.m., or near maximum, that you could drive it virtually flat-out on the Autostrada and you did not feel you were straining anything, but the smallness and lightness of the car did not make 100 m.p.h. continuous cruising a relaxed business. Once you have learned to enjoy the seven-league-boot stride of a big effortless engine in a great “iron” motor car, the apparent pandemonium in a small fibre-glass machine is hard to live with.
On the journey across France, mostly on minor roads avoiding trunk routes and big towns, the Elan +2 really came into its own and Lotus ownership began to grow on me, just as the original Elan had done on similar going. I could now see the whole point of Lotus motoring, as it wafted along in the 75-85 m.p.h. speed range on indifferent surfaces and round corners in a most delightful manner. You could sense the suspension working away keeping the wheels on the ground in a superb fashion, and the light steering was effortless to flick the car from lock-to-lock on slow or fast bends alike, and with two people on board and full luggage in the boot and behind the seats we had no bother for grouting. My passenger, who joined me on the Autostrada sections of the journey, was a bit anti-Lotus, refusing to take the car very seriously, especially bearing in mind its high cost, but after an hour or two of French-road motoring he became very appreciative of the real Lotus character, which is road-holding, ride and handling. It does not encourage sloppy driving, or lazy driving, for bad clutch foot work, or wrong r.p.m. can cause “wind-up” on the rubber doughnuts in the drive-shafts, and you surge back and forth as you accelerate. It likes to be driven precisely and keenly, and then it repays with a charm and character that can only be Lotus and you realise why Lotus have been Grand Prix champions for three years.
If you design and build anything that is different or good you will always find plenty of sceptics, most of whom have never even driving the car in question. When I was a Porsche owner I was always being told how bad they were, especially by people who had never driven one, or at best drove a very early and well-worn model. When I borrowed an Elan for a trip to Sicily the “dismal jimmies” all said it would fall apart. When I started my 100,000 miles of European motoring with the E-type Jaguar, they said I’d spend all my time picking up the bits that would fall off. Even in Modena anti-Lotus people said I’d never get back to England in an Elan +2. Fortunately the “dismal jimmies” have always been proved wrong and they were wrong again on my 2,000-mile trip to Italy and back, and what’s more I enjoyed it.
After this trip I was able to evaluate the Elan +2 from my own personal viewpoint, which is principally that of long journeys about Europe, and living in a car. The latest seats with built-in headrests I found comfortable and they fitted me ideally, so that I could relax back and rest my head on the long straights, but my passenger found he was the wrong proportions and the headrest was in the wrong place for him. The idea of building a head- or neck-rest as part of the seat is admirable, but to be of any use it must be made adjustable in a vertical plane. For the first few hours I found the seat itself comfortable, but after ten hours’ non-stop driving I had seat pains, and in Europe driving from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. is quite normal practice. The heating and ventilation of the cockpit was excellent, you could have hot air on your feet and legs from the heater and fresh air on your face and hands from the adjustable air vents on the instrument panel, a first-class arrangement. The electrically-operated windows were amazingly quiet and efficient, but I found them tiresome when I inadvertently got out and left a window open. With a normal mechanical winder it only takes a moment to open the door and shut the window. In the Elan +2 you have to reach across to the centre of the instrument panel to operate the electric switch and then you cannot see when the window is fully shut! If you have a tidy and orderly mind the situation never arises, you shut the windows before getting out! It is called an Elan +2 because there are two small seats behind the main ones, but even if you do not know anyone small enough to get in them it makes a very useful luggage compartment to supplement the luggage boot in the tail of the car. I give Lotus full marks for using one key for all the locks and the ignition, for some manufacturers go so far as to have three different keys, ignition, doors and luggage boot, a ridiculous arrangement. However, the boot handle on the Lotus is diminutive and caused annoyance, to say nothing of pains in finger and thumb every time I operated it. The boot itself is adequate in size but under the neat carpeting it seemed ironical to find plywood floor boards on a fibre-glass car. The spare wheel and tools live under these wooden floor boards and there is a lot of extra space that can be used for squashable items of luggage.
A special feature on the Elan and continued on the Elan +2 is that of the vacuum-operated “pop-up” headlights. This is something that I have never liked and will never learn to live with, especially motoring in Europe where light-flashing is used intelligently and not as a demonstration of bad-temper as in England. In daylight the Lotus lamps are folded away, presenting a smooth contour to the air-flow, all very admirable, and at night they hinge upwards operated by suction. A pull-out knob on the instrument panel causes them to rise, and if the main lighting switch is in the “off” position or “sidelamps” position the headlamps rise up flashing, and continue to flash until recessed again or the lights’ switch is put to the “headlamp” position. In this position a normal dipping system is operate by a steering-column stalk. The lamps take just over one second to rise up, which is fine in the showroom, but quite useless at 100 m.p.h. when you see the lorry ahead of you start to wander out into the middle of the road, or the VW that is flat-out at 68 m.p.h. puts his winker on and hopefully starts to try and overtake the Fiat that is doing 65 m.p.h. In such moments you want instant full-beam headlamps, you cannot wait for one second or even half-a-second. The Lotus Elan and Elan +2 have a lot of endearing features which I like very much, but the “pop-up” headlamps is not one of them. If I became a Lotus owner I would either fix the lamps in the up position or fit a pair of spot-lights to use for flashing. A strident Maserati or Fiamm horn is all very well, but in the modern hermetically sealed saloon you don’t hear them until they are very close. Lotus must have a good reason for retaining their Vacuum Operated Headlamp System, but apart from anything else page 30 of the owner’s Handbook puts me off. It is headed Fault Diagnosis, and covers the following: Headlamps do not lift at all, lift slowly, lift halfway, lift unevenly, lift but drip immediately, only one lifts up, one stays up, both waver vertically, will not stop flashing, no flashing, no main beam, no dipped beam, no light at all. Definitely not my favourite part of the Lotus Elan +2.
The mechanical specification of the Elan +2 is exactly what you would expect with the racing associations of Lotus. The chassis is a backbone affair fabricated from steel pressings, with a very deep centre section which forks towards the front to embrace the engine and gear-box. Fork suspension is independent by double wishbones with interspersed coil-spring/damper units, rear suspension is by a wide-base lower wishbone and combined coil-spring and damper strut unit in one with the hub carrier. Disc brakes are fitted to all four wheels, the rear ones being inboard of the hub carriers, and a brake servo is fitted. The engine is a four-cylinder Ford-based unit, with Lotus aluminium cylinder head with two overhead camshafts driven by a roller-chain, and carburation is by two double-choke horizontal Weber carburettors fed by an air box and long flexible trunking from a filter in the nose of the car. The gearbox is a Ford four-speed and reverse with short central gear-lever, and rack-and-pinion steering gear is used. The body is of glass-fibre and is of a coupé form with external luggage compartment at the rear, the driver’s and passenger’s seats are adjustable fore and aft but have fixed backs, and there are two small children’s seats behind the main seats. Between the front seats is a flat box suitable only for paperwork and on the passenger’s side of the instrument panel is a lockable glove compartment. In spite of being a low car the long doors give a wide opening and make entry easy, and the driver is confronted by a large speedometer and r.p.m. indicator, gauges for fuel contents, oil pressure, water temperature and ammeter are spread about the centre of the panel, and under the dash is a rather ineffective “umbrella handle” type handbrake. Pressed steel “knock-on” type wheels are standard with 165 x 13-inch. tyres, but alloy wheels are shortly to be introduced as standard on the “S”-type Elan +2. In spite of giving the appearance of being a small car it has an overall length of 14 ft., due mostly to the long tapering nose.
Elan enthusiasts tend to look sideways at the Elan +2 and mutter about more weight, more roll, more frontal area and so on, but there is no question about the fact that the Elan +2 is a much more civilised car and has put Lotus into the manufacturer category and got them away from the “kit-car” image, and whereas the sight of an Elan would evoke the feeling “there is one of those funny little Lotus cars”, the Elan +2 evokes a feeling of “Oh look, a Lotus.”—D. S. J.