The Lotus Elan is the definitive sports car and remains the benchmark for modern contenders looking to improve upon Colin Chapman’s magnum opus. It reimagined what a small British performance car could be, maximising Lotus’s weight saving ethos to offer one of motoring’s great driving experiences.
Born as the no-frills replacement for the fragile Elite, the Elan was launched in 1962. It featured a number of innovative technical feats that exemplified Colin Chapman’s mastery and Lotus’s engineering brilliance in the Sixties. For example the incredible handling is thanks to the all-independent long-travel suspension that was mounted on a backbone chassis. The chassis’ folded steel construction also ensured excellent torsional rigidity without piling heavy torsion bars onto the car. The engine was no less impressive. Conceived at the height of the Lotus/Ford relationship, Chapman and Ford man Walter Hayes fitted a dual-overhead camshaft to Ford’s new four cylinder engine. The twin cams were the brainchild of Coventry Climax designer Harry Mundy. The body was penned by Ron Hickman - a work of subtle brilliance - while the fixed head coupe was designed by John Frayling, arriving in 1965. Interestingly, Elan’s were available as kits for home assembly until the end of the decade.
The Elan is no stranger to rot. However, due to the car’s value and status, most surviving cars should be in good condition with any serious rust issues dealt with. Nevertheless, check thoroughly for signs of damage and decay. Pay particular attention to the front crossmember, front and rear suspension turrets and evidence of cracks and rust ripples on the bodywork and chassis. Also look for cracks on the final drive torque rods and casing, suspension tubes and inspect the door hinges for evidence of wear. Run your hand along the bodywork and ensure there aren’t any cracks. The body is glass fibre so small patches can be dealt with, but a serious crack is often a deal breaker. Bear in mind that the bodywork shut lines were pretty shoddy even in period, but look out for signs of crash damage and ill-fitting items.
The engine is a Ford unit and generally reliable if well-maintained. The main weak spot is the water pump, which can leak. Replacing it isn’t the job of a moment either (you need to remove the head), so check for any leaks. Do a basic inspection and ascertain whether it has been looked after. Rebuilds are expensive and while most parts are now readily available, the aluminium heads are becoming rare.
The transmission is from the Corsair 2000E and is a strong, dependable unit. Do the usual checks for bearing wear and synchro issues.
The brilliant suspension design has aged as well as it handles, but watch out for the rubber doughnuts that formed part of the construction. While they were a great idea, they have a short shelf life and replacement part quality can be dodgy.
Make sure the headlights are working and that they pop up without any problems (they are vacuum-operated). If the car struggles to turn over it could be a faulty battery. Also check that the electric fan is working well, but it shouldn’t be on constantly.
As you can imagine on such a lightweight machine, Elan cabins are pretty sparse. Inspect the trim for any missing parts and ensure the seat upholstery is in decent condition. The frames tend to rot if damp gets in - especially on the drop head.
This is where the Elan really belongs. Get the little Lotus on a b-road and the experience will speak for itself. The car should be a direct and tactile driving experience. The steering should fizz with feel and the engine should pull throughout the rev range. Listen out for any knocks or rumbles from the suspension and make sure the car isn’t blowing smoke out the back under acceleration. While the chassis are often weakened with age, many have been replaced - with the best coming from Lotus itself, stamped with a LR badge. Failing this, the Spydercars replacement is a good bet, offering extra stiffness and the ability to drop the propshaft and sump. Overall, if the car is sound then it’s one of the most well-balanced and engaging sports cars ever made.
Unsurprisingly, Elan values are high but they have escaped the preposterous inflation of many contemporary rivals. A DHC restoration project can be had for around £12,000, with working examples averaging £22,000 and concours level machines and topping £40,000. Rebuilds often command similar prices. The Sprint has a mark up of around £3,000 - £5,000 over the DHC, with show cars going for up to £45,000. The +2 can be had for less than the more illustrious DHC and Sprint, with project cars starting at £7,000 and good examples hovering around £14,000. Bear in mind that earlier cars are generally more valuable, and originality will mark up a vehicle.
The Elan is fast becoming a museum piece and originality is highly valued. Engine conversions, chop-top +2s and tatty, Frankenstein projects are quickly becoming obsolete on the market. Ascertain the originality of all body panels, trim details and the engine. If the car has received replacement parts over the years make sure they are themselves original parts. Restoring an Elan is an increasingly expensive endeavour. The cost of parts and labour is not to be underestimated. Think carefully before buying a low-value project car.
Despite many Elan's finding their way onto the race track over the years, this was never Colin Chapman's intention. In fact, the Elan was the first Lotus to be specifically designed for the road, with no racing adaptation intended. While the company eventually relented and produced a racing version, it was not what the car was originally designed for. Despite this, throw a stone into any historic racing paddock and you're bound to find a clutch of race-prepared Elan's ready to hit the circuit.
The argument for owning an Elan is obvious. It is one of the best sports cars of all time and perhaps the greatest road car Colin Chapman ever devised. It’s fun, engaging and relatively low-cost to run. As long as you find a highly original car that won’t cost you another Elan’s worth to put right, you’re on to a winner.
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