Lotus Elan front three quarters exterior

Lotus Elan

BUYER’S GUIDE

Lotus Elan Review

As beautiful to drive as it is to look at, the Elan is the perfect road-going expression of Lotus’s engineering ethos and racing success…

What Is It?

Dinky, lightweight and packed with clever engineering, the Elan is arguably peak Chapman-era Lotus and one of the great British sportscars of the 1960s. A pragmatic twist on the bold but fragile Elite, the Elan put a steel backbone into the fibreglass body and combined it with cleverly repurposed mainstream parts to create a car that was beautiful, incredibly light, fabulous to drive and both affordable to buy and profitable for its maker – a trick Lotus repeated with the Elise some three decades later.

With its pop-up headlights, peppy twin-cam four-cylinder engine, all-independent suspension and cute looks the Elan also set a template for Mazda to reimagine for itself into the MX-5, which has since gone on to become the world’s biggest selling sportscar. Proof, if required, that Lotus nailed the formula decades before.  

Corrosive Areas

Backbone chassis

Suspension towers

Gearbox, engine and diff mounts

Checklist

  • Elan – or Lotus Type 26 – revealed in late 1962 with sales starting in 1963; small initial batch of 1.5-litre cars soon replaced and/or updated with 1.6-litre engine to become Elan 1600
  • Earlier Elans were also sold in kit form for owners to complete assembly at home
  • Series 2 launched in 1964; joined in 1965 by a new Fixed Head Coupe variant with the Lotus model number Type 36
  • Special Equipment upgrade also introduced with power upgrade to 86kW (117PS), servo-assisted brakes and close ratio gearbox
  • Series 3 launched in 1966, changes include electric windows necessitating obvious frames on open cars that remain in place when windows drop, more luxurious teak dash and much improved hood also introduced
  • Elan +2 launched as a more luxurious and spacious option, all things relative; distinctive long and low look is significantly different from the ‘regular’ Elan
  • Series 4 launched in 1968, look for bonnet bulge to clear US market Stromberg carburettors and wider, squared-off rear arches to clear wider tyres and rocker switches on dashboard; Drop Head Coupe now known as Type 45
  • Sprint arrives in 1970 with more powerful 94kW (128PS) ‘Big Valve’ engine and option of Golf Leaf inspired two-tone liveries
  • Sprint liveries iconic but if you’re paying the premium for the real thing make sure it’s not an earlier car in Golf Leaf colours – look for S4 body and correct ‘Big Valve’ stamping on cam cover for starters
  • Front suspension and steering system adapted from Triumph parts; check they have been lubricated and maintained as required
  • Rear suspension uses ‘Chapman Stut’ independent layout using clever combination of repurposed Ford parts and bespoke components
  • ‘Rotoflex’ rubber bushings used on driveshafts in place of conventional constant velocity joints and require relatively frequent replacement – check for any sense of transmission ‘wind’ on acceleration; some cars may have had these replaced with CV joints at some point
  • Ford-based engine is generally sound when looked after properly, though a rebuild if required won’t be cheap
  • Most UK cars used Weber carburettors though Strombergs used for US-spec models and head is not cross-compatible; Strombergs also used for a period on later S4s before Lotus reverted to Webers
  • Cooling system can be a weak point so check for signs of overheating – rock the water pump on its mountings for signs of play
  • Gearboxes generally tough but check for usual signs of wear and unpleasant noises; a tiny number of late cars came with five-speed gearboxes
  • Vacuum operated pop-up lights can cause bother so make sure they raise and lower smoothly and in unison – some owners replace the system with electric lifters
  • Relative ease of replacing steel backbone chassis and even entire GRP body runs risk of ‘Trigger’s Broom’ history but if you want a car to enjoy as intended is a pragmatic way to refresh an otherwise tired Elan
  • Galvanised replacement chassis backbones available from Lotus (look for LR stamping) while Spydercars offers a popular alternative with detail improvements to improve access to engine and running gear for servicing

How does it drive?

By all accounts as well as you would imagine by looking at the specifications. With a kerb weight of less than 700kg, power of around 115PS (depending on the model), sharp rack and pinion steering, all-independent suspension, disc brakes all round and a feisty twin-cam powering the rear wheels via a slick-shifting four-speed manual the Elan isn’t fast by the numbers. But it’s an absolute delight to drive, the quick steering alive through the skinny-rimmed wheel, the power to weight ratio giving gutsy performance at the speeds that matter and the lithe suspension built to make the best of tight and twisty British B-roads.

Enough to make contemporaries like the much-loved MG B feel rather agricultural in comparison, the Elan combines classic looks with modern driving manners that are still relevant today.

 What’s good?

All of the above is clearly a strong start, but the Elan fascinates even at a standstill. You don’t have to be an engineer to appreciate the cleverness that went into its construction, and how it reimagines for the road the mindset that took Lotus to so many race victories at the time it was on sale. And, indeed, was developed by the same people.

The fibreglass body meanwhile swerves the corrosion issues plaguing most other cars of this vintage, and while the steel frame underneath can obviously corrode it’s also relatively easily swapped for brand new replacements from both Lotus and respected specialists like Spydercars.

Repurposed components from mainstream cars of the era also make it cost-effective to run and relatively easy to find parts for and there’s a large and passionate community of owners and specialists supporting them.

What’s bad?

Well, you wouldn’t want to crash one for starters, the notorious fragility of Chapman’s racing cars is one of the less appealing carry-overs into the Elan’s minimalist construction. If not exactly hand built there was, shall we say, a slight lack of consistency in the way some were put together as well, and niggles with electrics and the like can cause frustration and be hard to rectify.

From home-built projects to modified cars hot-rodded with replacement engines or other tweaks it can be difficult to find examples that haven’t been messed about with at some point in their lives as well, and originality can be hard to prove. Clever and lightweight as it is that (literal) whiff of kit car from the glass fibre construction may put off some still snooty about Lotus’s ‘garagiste’ background.  

Which model to choose?

Setting aside the more spacious but perhaps less graceful +2 variant, the classic Elan evolved through four main generations and then into its final Sprint version which was especially popular in its classic Gold Leaf livery. Each have their merits, the earlier cars celebrated for their purity and, in drophead form, cleaner in their looks for their frameless windows.

The extra power of the SE spec cars and later Sprint has obvious appeal, but unless you’re a real speed freak probably isn’t the decisive factor it might be in contemporary rivals. Many consider the S3 to be the moment the Elan ironed out some of the wrinkles but was still true to its original purpose, and if you’re looking for an open one the much-improved soft-top on this generation is easier to live with.

Ultimately the best advice is to pick a couple of key attributes you really favour and then find the best example you can afford.

Specifications

Engine

1.6-litre four-cylinder petrol

Power

86kW (117PS) @ 6,000rpm (SE trim)

Torque

147Nm (108lb ft) @ 6,000rpm

Transmission

Four-speed manual, rear-wheel drive

Kerb weight

c. 690kg

0-62mph

7.0 seconds

Top speed

115mph

Production dates

1963-1974 (all series)

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