When they were new - Lotus Elan

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An original road test taken from the Motor Sport archives, May 1965
By Denis Jenkinson

Factfile
Production: 1962-74
Engine: 1558cc Lotus-Ford twin-cam
Power: 105bhp; SE: 118bhp; Sprint: 126bhp

At the end of last year Motor Sport had a Lotus Elan for road test at the splendid traffic-free time of Christmas Day, and while most people were getting over Christmas dinner the editor and I thrashed the little Elan across Salisbury Plain, doing more 100mph-plus motoring than seemed reasonable in such a tiny car. We reached 6900rpm in top, which was over 115mph, and it seemed to do 6000 on any short straight.

In the Elan brochure Colin Chapman says “we wanted to build you a fun car…” and when we got back we were in full agreement, but we wondered about its use for serious journeys.

At Brands Hatch I was approached by Graham Arnold who looks after Lotus press affairs, suggesting that as I was one of the few motoring correspondents who still motored long distances to race meetings, perhaps I would like to take an Elan to Sicily for the Siracusa Grand Prix. My friends were not encouraging about my prospects of getting to Sicily, especially those that knew the last 300 miles through Calabria.

The car was Graham Arnold’s own, an early one brought up to S2 specification and fitted with a hard top. The rev limit on the twin-cam Lotus-Ford engine is 6500, but I decided to keep to 5500rpm for cruising. It did not take many miles across France to find that 5500 (90mph) was a very happy cruising speed. The brilliant ride characteristics of the Elan smoothed out the undulations on French roads impressively and the miles went by very quickly indeed.

In Switzerland, along that splendid road to Sion, I thought I ought to see how fast this Elan went, and wound it to 7000 in top (116mph) and from 4000 on it was running like a sewing machine.

An overnight stop was being made at Modena, so the last leg was on the splendid Autostrada del Sole. With 500 miles of non-stop Autostrada motoring available, the expression “it will cruise all day at 5500” is now really true, and the Elan continued down through Florence, Siena, Rome, Naples, to Salerno.

After Salerno you get into the Calabrian mountains, where you spend most of your time in second and third gears, and here the Elan really came into its own, for the handling and cornering are superb. The way the Elan would squirt out of corners and straight-line ‘ess’ bends was most impressive, uneven and bumpy roads not worrying it at all.

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 1650 miles from my home, I had extended the Elan under almost all possible types of going and found it to be absolutely vice-free. I found it hard to think of any improvements as regards ride, handling, steering and cornering, which is how 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”. In fact there was nothing at all to do except put in a pint of oil.

The Lotus lads had had a long series of mishaps on the way down, so you can imagine how pleased they were when Jim Clark won the race for Team Lotus. Now they had the problem of getting home, while I motored on to the next big town, for I had an evening of Grand Prix report writing to get on with.

I was due in Modena the next night and, modern Italy being the impressive way it is, I was there comfortably in time for supper, cruising at a constant 5500rpm all the way to the Modena South turn-off. There was a brief interlude when a Giulia TI Alfa Romeo got in behind me and stayed there at 6500 on the rev counter, until at 6800 the Alfa gave up. The Lotus engine showed no sign of stress or roughness at these revs and felt as if it would go on forever at these speeds, but I was still 1200 miles from home.

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 I was on the last leg of the journey, I held it at 6000rpm for 50 minutes on the Autostrada from Milan to Turin and really felt that the Lotus-Ford twin-cam 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, nor did it leak in heavy rain.

On the final run to Le Mans I caught up with a Citroen D519 that was cruising at 85mph on a bumpy cambered road, so I sat behind for many miles comparing the ride of the Lotus with “the most advanced car in the world”. I thought 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.

After Le Mans it was back to Cheshunt to return the Elan to Graham Arnold, having covered 3807 miles in two weeks. The only breakage was that the water temperature gauge had stopped working 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.

I cannot praise the handling, roadholding, 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, but its character lies in the way it goes. It is an incredibly safe car, forgiving and vice-free, and as Colin Chapman says, it is a fun car.

It is not cheap, but to anyone contemplating buying a cheaper two-seater sports car, I would sell the television set, the washing machine, give up smoking, even give up drinking, but scrimp and save and buy an Elan and you won’t be disappointed. DSJ

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