Lateral thinking

If you have any business inside the Millbrook Proving Ground, you may see a Lotus prototype under test. If you have read all the "Scoop" columns in the motoring press you will recognise it, even disguised, as the new Elan. It represents a return to an earlier stage of Lotus marketing, before the Esprit Turbo supercar and before the luxury aspect of the Excel, a period when the cars were bought by car enthusiasts with their own money as their only transport. But the new car is under threat from a Japanese rival which is closer to the old Elan than the new one is — Mazda's MX-5. Before either of these treats arrives, we took the chance to reappraise one of the last versions of the Elan, the model which made Lotus into a high-street name.

In terms of road cars, Lotus has soared from one end of the scale to the other in only four model generations: Seven, Elite, Elan and Esprit. One is current, and two have passed to other makers, only the Elite has completely ceased to be, and there are murmurings in the kit-car replica business of attending to that.

The Elite was the shortest lived of these models, but its appearance at the 1957 Earls Court Motor Show was significant in giving Chapman and Lotus a public presence which none of the Sevens had done.

In fact it had its flaws, and one of them was related to the unique structure of the car. In the Elite, Chapman began to show his talent for the "redundancy principle", simply disposing of hitherto vital parts and making others double up to compensate. Most revolutionary was the absence of a chassis, the suspension instead feeding its loads into a monocoque body/chassis made entirely of glass-fibre composites, and like many Chapman solutions the result was just strong enough in closed form. Unfortunately one of the snags was excessive heat build-up, the same hard-top design with wind-up windows which made the car useable in Britain's variable climate worked against it in the United States, where exports were vital to fund the manufacturing of more cars.

It was also a low-volume car, though that was not the intention: from the start of production at thread of 1958 to the switch to the Elan in 1962, only 990 Elites were made, a number which was outdone in the first Year of Elan sales. This was perhaps a function of the undecided character of the Elite: in trying to do two jobs it did not fit into the comfortable GT bracket (it was too bare inside for that) and yet being a closed car it tell short of the contemporary idea of a sports-car, despite its excellent handling and the performance of in 1100cc Climax engine. The idea of an open Elite occupied Chapman and his staff intermittently, but it was not until Ron Hickman joined the company as design and development engineer in 1958 that such a project began to crystallise. Hickman had worked on the Elite while employed by Ford as a stylist, and after switching companies became central to what grew into the Elan.

At first the aim was for a 2 + 2 convertible, about the hardest structural demand which could be made of a frameless body. That goal shrank to a simple two-seater roadster as ideas tumbled forth, and that was the layout which eventually sold in such large, by Lotus standards, numbers. It took another five years after the Elan appeared before a 2 + 2 version joined it.

There are various tales over the source of the decision to abandon the monocoque principle and rely on a steel backbone, including the tale that the folded steel frame with its forked layout was merely a hurried expedient to allow Chapman to get on with suspension development before the overall design was firmed up. But given the rigidity problem, some sort of chassis was always going to be essential with the materials then available, even though Lotus was already on the way to being the industry expert on what could be done with glass-fibre. But though the GRP did not bear all the loads, the Elan body was still unique: an upper body and a lower shell comprising the Bane and wheel-arches were moulded into one boat-like unit which dropped over the complete running chassis. This had pre-assembly advantages, and made the body a more rigid affair than if assembled piece by piece onto a frame.

Interior space on the Elan was a little improved from the Elite, but the car is a tiny one. Chapman ruthlessly pruned away not only components, but as much unnecessary volume as possible, and with the strength of the chassis lying more in its depth than its width, the overall car width is little more than enough to clear the elbows of the two occupants.

Following this principle, Hickman was able to compress all the important units onto the 84in wheelbase without excessive overhang. The literal crux of the plan was the deep fork which branched off the front of the spine to cradle the engine. With no structural bulkhead to interfere, the occupants' feet could stretch all the way to the front wheel arch, overlapping the engine and gearbox which were that relatively central fore and aft. This in turn meant that the seats were not quite on the rear axle, allowing some freedom in placing the fuel tank around the compact suspension and rigidly mounted differential. Spring/damper struts fed their loads into folded steel turrets extending from the rear chassis forks, while the front members ended irk mountings for conventional Triumph double wishbones. Hickman also gave more thought to the peripheral elements than many designers do even now: a full-size spare tyre went into the boot, along with all the elements of the folding top fitted to the Series 1 and 2 cars, the GRP window surrounds, the hood and the bows, which lay neatly around the inside of the boot opening, leaving the same useable luggage space whether the top was up or down.

Perhaps because of the dominating position of Chapman himself, even though he was by this time delegating a great deal of design work, no one person gets the credit for the Elan shape. Hickman and Lotus director Peter Kirwan-Taylor collaborated on the Elite, often reckoned to be one of the most beautiful small cars ever, and unusual for a GRP car in eschewing external fussiness often built-in to strengthen the then relatively new material. Daimler's SP250, TVR, and Chevrolet with its Corvette all boasted scallops and ridges, but the Elite, and subsequently the Elan, derived its rigidity from the inside and presented a smooth and aerodynamic face to the onlooker.

To paraphrase the architect Mies can der Rohe, less is more difficult in automotive design, and the ultra-simple Elan is one of those near-perfect cars which have no flaws from any angle. The profile is "right", with no false wing lines or strakes to reduce the apparent waist height. There is nothing which is purely decorative except the badges, and the standard indicator units used at the front do not distort the styling as often happens with proprietary items. Low drag was another element in the Lotus equation, with its Le Mans Index of Efficiency achievements behind it, the influence of Frank Costin's Lotus Eleven body shows in a diluted way in both Elite and Elan: small, low air intake, smooth dropping nose, almost lipless wheel-arches and high cut-off tail.

Without fashion features to date it, the Elan shape lasted from 1962 to 1973, and while it certainly needed to be replaced in commercial term at the end of that period, it has aged far better than the more angular + 2, introduced five years after the first Elan. Being made of folded steel, the chassis was relatively simple to manufacture, and was contracted out to John Thompson's Motor Pressings in Wolverhampton. But the primer was inadequate for long-term protection, since that was not in Chapman's mind, and rust has been a serious problem. However, the design which aimed for cheap and light assembly has proved to be able,ing for today's owners, as the entire unit can be replaced by a new Lotus one, or a developed version from Spyder Engineering.

Chapman had a talent for borrowing detail components from other manufacturers and subtly incorporating them into Lotus designs; items such as door handles and tail-lights are extremely costly to design and produce on a small scale. However clever that might seem, though, it was forced on him then just as it is forced on specialists nowadays from kit-car makers up to TVR and Lotus itself. What was exceptionally inventive was to look again at a specific problem and design it out of existence; the Elan has several examples of such lateral thinking. Bonnet hinges, for instance: the conventional answer bolts a pair of cast metal units to body and bonnet, introducing local stressed, which require reinforcement, perhaps metal inserts to spread the load of the propped-up bonnet and avoid later cracking. Immediately the advantages of glass-fibre, its lightness and rigidity, are devalued, making sheet metal, more able to withstand local stress, back into a rival.

What Chapman and Hickman did was to abandon a hinge altogether and instead use integrally moulded side pieces of six-inch or so radius projecting down from the front of the bonnet which, as it is lifted, rotate within similar mouldings on the body. Bolt heads in the body part of the arc provide the bearing surfaces, and there is no actual fining, merely a spring to pull the bonnet against the body. When closed, slip on the front fits under the edge of the body opening to provide a firm hold, and the rear edge is held by a simple pair of catches. Not only is this rather light, but it saves another assembly job and allows the bonnet to be removed completely merely by undoing the spring.

In a similar may normal cantilever hinges for the doors, which put high stresses into both mounting pillar and door frame, again requiring reinforcement and often sagging in later life, were circumvented by pivoting the door on a hemisphere moulded into the sill, with a simple pin through the top of the door to complete the scheme. Hence the rather long door openings. Slide-up windows also did a perfectly good job without the weight of a wind-up mechanism, and the notorious vacuum headlamp raising system was bright in conception and light in weight, but inherently unreliable. The vacuum reservoir was within the front cross-member, and even if the rest of the pipes remained tight, the onset of rust caused holes in the chamber, retracting the lights. It was, in fact, typical of the problems which customers were to face over the years: their cam were certainly light, quick and agile, but they were rarely reliable. Finish and assembly were low amongst Chapman's priorities, and as many cars were sold in kit form to avoid tax, there was on pieLed check on how well they were erml" resuit. With improved parts and years of sorting, a good Elan now is a better car than it left the factory. We drove a late car in the most desirable specification, Sprint. the 126bhp big-valve „we In fact this one has had unusually interference of any sort; it has had only o °v.

'tiers, and shows only 41,000 miles. To climb inside makes a confusing com... my TVR 350i, because the seating position is terribly similar: legs stretched, wheel in the lap and elbows scraping door and centre spine. But the Elan's spine is less than half the width of that in the TVR; indeed everything about the Lotus seems half the size of other cars, including the movements needed to control it. Once the pull-out hand-brake is released, a few degrees of steering takes it from the kerb, a twitch of hand and elbow selects second gear, and it stops with no more effort on the brake than normally applied to the throttle.

What the Lotus twin-cam engine offered in the Sixties was a blend of torque and revs from a 1600cc four which has only been consistently overtaken, as far as normally-aspirated production engines go, with the advent of 16-valve designs — and many of them lack the full torque curve of this unit, particularly with the smaller valves. Offering 118 bhp in SE form, and an extra eight horsepower with the (marginally) larger valves and other changes, the Cortina-based block with its new head designed by Harry Mundy epitomised the Chapman approach — use what is good and modify what is not, no matter how mundane the original source. Only the result counted; pedigree and elegant engineering were irrelevant, though the simplicity of the solution often had its own elegance.

Although engine details changed regularly, the size remained 1600cc throughout the Elan's life, and frankly the little saris so responsive with the big-valve engine that more is not needed. That and the agility; ins compact shape slips through hedge-lined corners in country lanes as neatly as a motorcycle in places where a bigger car would be backing off, with every detail of the changing surface coming back to the driver's hands. It does not need a good pilot, seeming to pick its own line with little interference, but if you want more fun and less speed it will tail-slide briefly and with complete control before straightening up of its own accord. With its minimal inertia the front tyres, narrow by today's standards, bite as soon as the wheel is eased away from centre, and steady pressure on the thin wood rim generates as much grip as you can use off the track.

Who needs rear-wheel steering? What of the ride quality which so impressed everyone years ago? Still remarkably good; it is not easy to get a light car to ride well, but softish springs and firm damping succeed. This is a car which has not been "refined", but which takes very little out of you. There may be internal resonances, but you will only listen to the snuffling Dellortos. Thin padding clothes the small seats, but in holding the body firmly they remove any strain. Yes, you must concentrate to avoid any wind-up in the rubber driveshaft doughnuts in first, but the gear lever is barely a stretched finger away. So much of the potential of this simple, cheap and low-tech machine is useable without overstepping the bounds of safety that one cannot help wondering how much progress we have made since.

During the Seventies sports-car design was deflected by the misconception that the mid-engined principle was the only way to build such a car. That layout is indisputably best for true racing cars, and the ultimate performance cars from the Lamborghini Muira to the current Testarossa or Lotus Esprit Turbo. But it is also best left to those machines; the roadholding and traction advantages are simply not significant enough to most drivers to inflict poor practicality, restricted visibility and sudden breakaway characteristics on a car which may be used every day. And it makes building a convertible very difficult.

New suspension techniques now offer us virtually equivalent grip in front-engined cars; the ZR-1 Chevrolet Corvette, for example, has Testarossa roadholding and performance, and still has a boot, while both BMW's Z1 and Mazda's forthcoming MX5 have returned to the compact front-engined rear-wheel-drive format to produce what we still, 27 years later, like to call "a modern Elan". The exception is Lotus itself: the real new Elan will use front-wheel-drive. Will the Lotus customers of the Sixties now buy a Japanese Elan clone, overtly modelled and styled on the Elan, while the Lotus is chosen by those weaned on Oriental hatchbacks?

Disappointingly, Chapman's ideas about redundancy have been diluted out of current Lotus models, which (materials apart) have gradually reverted to conventional solutions — for example, the Esprit rear suspension, which originally used the half-shaft as the top link, but now has a second wishbone. Disappointing, unless you suffered one of the u/i failures which were common. In fact striving for extreme lightness by this means has in itself become redundant, as more power has become easily available to offset weight, and as material technology advances. But Chapman's approach was perfectly matched to the time and the circumstances, and it pushed Lotus way ahead of its peers. GC