It’s only when you’re stood next to the original Lotus Elan that you realize how small it actually is. In footage and pictures the Elan’s perfect proportions disguise its tiny size.
The Elan is pure Lotus in design. A distillation of Colin Chapman’s expertise and knowledge. Gordon Murray, Jay Leno and Harry Metcalfe are all paid up members of the Elan club. When I receive the rather simple looking key to take an Elan out for a drive, I feel a certain weight of expectation…
What if the little Lotus is rubbish to drive?
After the initial surprise at the size of the Elan, once inside, it looks old. Really old.
A thin rimmed steering wheel, delicate, thin A pillars and Jaeger dials all look great, but ancient. It feels like a museum piece rather than a cutting edge driving tool.
Once started up the engine sounds far more potent than its capacity suggests. A few taps on the throttle and the little engine revs instantaneously, with a crackle from the exhaust. Maybe this will be good after all?
The pedals and gearshift are small and delicate. Once on the move everything falls to hand easily – especially the gear lever, just a hand span from the wheel. A few more throttle blips and we’re off down a country lane, the Elan’s natural hunting ground. It’s size makes it simple to place and dodging pot holes soon becomes an instinctive game.
At speed the Elan is forgiving to an extent. The fabulous steering tells you exactly what’s going on, to the extent that you rely less and less on the brakes. You soon build trust with the car and its ability to carry momentum through a corner. The steering is hyper sensitive, so inputs need to be measured. Once you’ve re-calibrated, the Elan becomes a great companion on even the most challenging roads. Pitching the car into corners quicker and quicker becomes natural rather than something to be feared. It feels like a go-kart that has grown up (slightly).
The (Lack Of) Weight
The Elan’s alert and responsive nature is down to its hybrid construction. A steel backbone chassis with fibreglass bodywork keeps the Lotus at a featherweight 690 kg.
The 1971 Sprint version added a more powerful punch in the form of a tuned engine. Taking just 6.2 seconds to get to 60 miles an hour, this was faster than the contemporary Jaguar E-Type (7.4 seconds) and Lamborghini Muira (6.7 seconds).
Out on the road, the lack of weight is felt by the immediacy of the controls. The small 165/70 tires smoothing over bumps that would agitate stiffer sprung and heavier modern cars.
Lotus engine’s are often unfairly overlooked as they were generally borrowed from other manufacturers. The Elan is no different and uses a Ford “Kent” engine modified with help from Cosworth. A Lotus cylinder head and light flywheel transformed the engine into a free revving, miniature exotic.
The nature of this buzzy engine sits well with the rest of the car. It’s brilliant fun to wring out every gear and feel the car squirm under power. The little engine won’t get you an instant speeding ban and it’s no less fun for it.
The Elan is not without its foibles. The electric windows were a late replacement for the sliding windows intended by Chapman. They were considered dangerous in a crash, and an alternative was needed at short notice. The door design couldn’t fit a manual winder, so begrudgingly Chapman opted for the heavy electric option. A real rarity back in the 1960s.
Siezed brakes, water pump failure and hot starting issues (because of the location of the starter motor) are all common issues that demand commitment and patience from a prospective owner. But with Gordon Murray, Jay Leno and Co as fellow owners, it’s a small compromise.
The Elan is possibly the pinnacle of Chapman’s single minded approach to car design. While it was never designed as an outright speed machine, the Elan could more than hold its own with contemporaries. Even today, it would take a fast car to catch the Elan down a country lane.
Against its competition of the day? They wouldn’t see which way the Elan went.
A Frogeye Sprite or MG Midget would get to around 80-90mph at best. The Elan would go well past a hundred. The Elan’s agility would run rings around more powerful opponents like the MG V8 or Austin Healey. In later Sprint form it would out accelerate anything with a Jaguar or Lamborghini badge.
The combination of cutting edge Lotus design and the relatively crude and outdated design of competitors must have seemed incredible back in 1962. The Elan was a leap forward in car design and one of the finest sports cars to come from Britain.
The only real competition it had was from its Lotus siblings. The later Elan +2, Lotus Europa and older Lotus Elite are all heirs to the Lotus crown, but in my eyes the Elan, with it’s cute matchbox styling and wonderfully engaging drive marks it out as the holy grail of Lotus.
The Lotus Elite might have started the hybrid GRP and steel chassis design, but the Elan is where Lotus really showed what was possible. Since then, numerous cars have left the Lotus factory using the same materials and with the same character. In my view much of this stems from when that little Elan was launched.
Whether you’re an avid collector or appreciate great engineering feats when you see them, you can’t help but marvel at what this remarkable car achieved back in 1962.
If you struggle to appreciate the Lotus Elan, drive one it’s brilliant!
I'm fortunate enough to drive classic cars and speak with owners, designers and engineers. This has given me both inspiration and stories to share. I write stories that interest me, from the E-Type replacement that formed the basis of the Aston Martin DB7, to the missing Metro Cooper and the truth behind the Rover 220s nickname. In addition to attending car shows, track days and other informal automotive events for the last 20 years, I have planned & driven various road trips. I once drove to the Nurburgring and back in a day, went karting in Montenegro and also drove through the Florida keys in a Mustang GT. The blog is a passion project so any support is appreciated; whether that is by sharing on social media or buying me a coffee!