The Lotus Elan is timeless in every respect…
One of the most prolific English roadsters ever to scorch the pavement is the insuperable first generation Lotus Elan. The British have always had a certain je ne sais quoi with their bold and unconventional approach to extremely quick two-seat sports cars. The Lotus Elan exhibits daring innovation for its day with its chic fibreglass monocoque bodyshell. Besides…there’s more than enough power beneath its bonnet to huff & puff & blow the doors off the competitors should they not get out of its way quickly. The Lotus Elan is most definitely a wolf clothed in sheep’s attire. Naturally…when the name “Lotus” is spoken – it conjures up racing legends.
The Elan goes way past “serious.” In fact, it was such a hot and unconventional sports car for the 1960s, it forced cars in its class into an existential identity crisis – immediately. The first generation Lotus Elan had a very successful production run from 1962 – 1973. It was no surprise when the Lotus Elan was chosen to be driven by the quintessential British ministry sleuth…the indomitable Emma Peel, John Steed’s counterpart in the 1960s cult classic detective TV series “The Avengers.” The producers wanted an automobile of irreverent maverick…one to suit an unconventional femme fatale – Mrs. Emma Peel was far ahead of her time – so is the first generation Lotus Elan…
1957 Lotus Elite
The Elan replaced the Lotus Elite. Indeed, it was time for something new. The Elite was breaking the bank draining financial resources without a significant gain in profit. In 1957, The Lotus Company owned by Chapman was on the verge of bankruptcy. Colin Chapman had a really expensive racing habit. The Lotus Elite was very expensive to build. The custom crafted all-aluminium engine built by Coventry Climax was one of the largest expenses. The all-fibreglass construction was also expensive to build.
The Elite boasts unique fibreglass reinforced plastic monocoque construction which replaced the previous separate body/chassis components. It used this unique composite material for the entire load-bearing structure. The front end used a steel sub frame to support the engine and front suspension. There is also a metal fitting at the windscreen for mounting door hinges and a provision for jacking the car off the ground.
Take into consideration, this was before composite body structures were perfected. There were also the issues of the suspension attachment components pulling out of the composite structures. The first 250 bodies caused major grief and production was switched to a different manufacturer. Despite the Elite’s idiosyncratic attributes the body design is very aesthetically appealing. In my opinion, it is one of the world’s most beautiful classic sports cars. One could say, lessons learned from the Elite helped to perfect the Elan series.
The world’s finest wine…in a plastic bottle –
The Lotus Elan sports architecture which rivals that of 21st century sports cars. The Elan proves “beauty is not only skin deep.” It has a mere drag co-efficient of 0.45 making it a sleek aerodynamic envelope of technology. The Elan is the first production automobile to feature minor impact-resistant, foam-filled fibreglass bumpers. The curvaceous bodyshell is “Fibreglass Reinforced Plastic” or FRP…sound familiar? Lambo, Ferrari, and Aston Martin are just a few of the contemporary sports cars which use an updated version of FRP technology.
Lotus is one of the pioneers to use this method; it was not an industry-wide utility at the time. This is a composite material consisting of a polymer matrix reinforced with glass, carbon, aramid, or basalt. The Elan is the first road-going Lotus to be built using a fibreglass bodyshell with a steel backbone chassis. Colin Chapman called this a “Fold on the dotted line” steel chassis. This type of construction strengthens the load-bearing structure of the car to support the engine and suspension components. The lightweight bodyshell fitted to the rugged steel backbone chassis enhances overall performance while it optimizes the car’s handling attributes.
1962 Lotus Elan…a bold & beautiful brute
The iconic symbol of success…
To quote an advertisement from 1970: “Who made it before the others? Who got here quicker than most? Who arrived ahead of the crowd? Who has asserted himself all the way making the others content to follow? Answer – The man in the Elan…” Impressive? Very. The Lotus Elan is an adrenalin inducing sports car that is the perfect synthesis of a racing-inspired heritage combined with sheer elegance. It is for the enthusiast who wants to be in total control of his car with precise handling and blistering performance. Because of this car’s technical sophistication, the Elan became Lotus Cars’ first commercial success.
Anthony Colin Bruce Chapman (1928-1982) aka Colin Chapman was a British mastermind in every respect. He was an astute design engineer associated with prodigious innovation in the automotive industry. He founded Lotus Cars in 1952. His knowledge of aeronautical engineering influenced his automotive technical advances. He had a fascinating view on horsepower vs lightweight construction: “Adding power makes you faster on the straights – subtracting weight makes you faster everywhere.”
The Elan conforms to Colin Chapman’s technical philosophy: lightweight design, aerodynamically enhanced architecture, with racing-inspired brakes, transmission, and suspension. Ron Hickman designed this car as the “Type 26 Elan” in the late 1950s. This legendary sports car was introduced at the Earls Court Motor Show in October 1962. Some of the first Elans were available as kits to be assembled by the owner.
Colin Chapman was active in all aspects of the Lotus Group. He worked throughout the factory as well as with the administrative demands. Chapman was seen looking over the design of a new car, running a board room meeting, as well as watching dials in the engine test house. His decisions were quick and decisive. No aspect of the Lotus Group from complicated designs to the colors for the next year’s motor show escaped his attention. He was known for his “natural smile” and was quick to praise – but poor workmanship transformed him immediately!
Automotive aficionados consider the Elan as the most prolific Lotus of all time. The Elan is the benchmark for modern sports car design. A “real” sports car doesn’t have to prove the point with massive engine displacement and numerous cylinders. A total of 12,224 were built from its inception in 1962 until the final Sprint exited the assembly hall in 1973. The Elan’s spirited performance and exquisite handling attributes maintains its popularity today. And the best part of all…Lotus Elan ownership requires no outrageous maintenance or restoration eccentricities. The Lotus Elan was far ahead of its time. It bristles with technology.
The robust 1558cc in-line 4-cylinder Lotus Twin Cam is inherently a very reliable engine if properly maintained. Its two valves per cylinder are positioned within hemispherical combustion chambers. The cast iron 116E Ford Cortina block has a light alloy cylinder head bolted on. The intake manifold is cast as an integral part of the cylinder head. The water pump is integral with the timing chain cover. Contrary to popular belief, the water pump is virtually trouble-free providing the “V-belt” that also runs the dynamo has proper tensioning.
This type of component consolidation was expedited to comply with Colin Chapman’s philosophy of using one mechanical part for as many purposes possible. A single roller chain positioned at the front of the engine drives the double overhead camshafts. A cast iron crankshaft runs in five main bearings. The four bolt crankshaft on S1 & S2 models incorporate a rope seal between the sump and the block. This seal requires service intervals at 15,000 miles. The later S3, S4, and Sprint models with the six bolt crankshaft utilizes an oil-tight rubber lip seal which seals against leakage.
It moves with tremendous verve and élan…
Lotus is synonymous with legendary performance. The Lotus Twin Cam is a naturally aspirated engine. The Elan used three different carburetion variations from the factory during its production. The S1, S2, and S3 models were factory equipped with Twin Weber 40DCOE carburetors. This fuel system produces 105 hp @ 5,500 rpm with 146 Nm of peak torque @ 4,000 rpm. Longitudinal acceleration is rated as 0-60 mph in 7.3 seconds, 0-100 mph in 22.6 seconds with an ungoverned top speed in the 113-115 mph range. It does the ¼ mile @ 88 mph in just 16.1 seconds. The engine Redlines @ 6,300 rpm. (S1 1962-1964), (S2 1964 -1966) & (S3 1966 -1968).
The launch of the Elan is one of the biggest projects ever for Lotus. The sales division wanted to upstage the Elan to broaden its appeal even further. They wanted to offer a fixed head coupé with creature comforts inside and highly styled lines outside to join the roadster. It was to be a cross between elegance and of course sport. Designer John Frayling was summoned for the project. The Elan Coupé version began in October 1963.
This new car was to include a fancy upscale elegantly styled interior, power window lifts, suspended headlining, and an excellent heating/ventilation system – in est – a luxury sport touring coupé. The Lotus Elan Coupé was unveiled at Earls Court in September of 1965. This is the first Lotus to benefit from careful market research. The Elan Coupé is a bona fide luxury sport car with poise as well as fierce Lotus performance.
The svelte Elan SE (Special Equipment) was introduced for some late S2 models and available for all S3 models forward. The Twin Weber 40DCOE carburetors produced 115 hp @ 6,000 rpm with 150 Nm of peak torque @ 4,500 rpm. The engine Redlines @ 6,750 rpm. The SE package included a higher lift “C” camshaft and a new cast iron exhaust manifold with a double down pipe. This version’s longitudinal acceleration is rated as 0-60 mph in 6.8 seconds, 0-100 mph in 21.8 seconds with an ungoverned top speed in the 120-123 mph range. It does the ¼ mile @ 89 mph in 15.5 seconds. This Special Edition also included servo-assisted brakes, special “Knock-Off” wheels, and SP tires.
The Elan S4 came factory equipped with Twin Zenith-Stromberg 175CD carburetion. This unit used a different cylinder head and is not interchangeable with Weber or Dell ‘Orto carburetors. It produces 105 hp @ 5,500 rpm with 146 Nm of peak torque @ 4,000 rpm. Its longitudinal acceleration is rated as 0-60 mph in 7.5 seconds, 0-100 mph in 23.8 seconds with an ungoverned top speed of 114 mph. It can do the ¼ mile @ 86 mph in 15.8 seconds. (S4 1968-1971)
The Zenith-Stromberg units were documented with a few eccentricities. These units are prone to icing when ambient temps plummet to the freezing point. Air leakage thru the spindles will be indicated by overheating, pinking, and engine run-on. They also cause the engine to run around five degrees hotter than the Weber units. The Zenith-Stromberg units require maintenance intervals every 12 months. I have heard my cousin grumbling about the idiosyncratic behavior of his S4 with this carb. The Engine used a different cylinder head which is not interchangeable with the Weber nor the Dell’ Orto DHLA40. Some have experienced plug electrode failure with this unit which burns pistons. Lotus reverted back to the Weber units in October of 1970.
The S4 with the SE package produces 118 hp @ 6,000 rpm with 152 Nm of peak torque @ 4,600 rpm. Longitudinal acceleration is rated as 0-60 mph in 6.8 seconds, 0-100 mph in 21.1 seconds with an ungoverned top speed in the 122-125 mph range. It can do the ¼ mile @ 90 mph in 15.4 seconds.
Lotus Elan S4
1964 Elan 26R (competition version 97 built)
The Lotus Elan was homogulated in 1964 as the formidable 26R. Racing champions such as Jim Clark, Jackie Stewart, and Sir John Whitmore had successful competition wins in 1964. John Miles won 15 races and the Autosport Championship in 1966. They continued in competition for around 10 years. The lightweight design simplicity combined with its slippery aerodynamics makes it a viable contender in classic motorsport competitions today.
Elan Sprint (1970-1973)
The most impressive of all Elan models is the performance behemoth, Elan Sprint. Tony Rudd joined Lotus from BRM. He had been involved with Twin Cam development for the racing Lotus Cortinas and the Mike Spence Elan BRM project. His “Big Valve” modification combined the “D” camshaft with two fabricated tubular exhaust manifolds in place of the cast iron units. The mighty “Big-Valve” version of the 1558cc in-line 4-cylinder is the most powerful of this first generation series.
There are two factory fuel systems: Twin Weber 40DCOE units or Twin Dell’ Orto DHLA40 carburetors. The compression ratio increased from 9.5:1 to 10.3:1. The inlet valves were enlarged to 1.6” as well. The Elan Sprint’s power output is 126 hp @ 6,500 rpm with 153 Nm of peak torque @ 5,500 rpm. Longitudinal acceleration is rated as 0-60 mph in 6 seconds, 0-100 mph in 18.1 seconds with an ungoverned top speed in the 124 mph range. (With 5-speed gear box 0-60 mph in 6.8 seconds with a top speed in the ungoverned range of 130 mph) It does the 1.4 mile @ 93 mph in just 14.8 seconds. The Elan Sprint embodies all that makes a Lotus…a Lotus!
The Elan Sprint has a hood with perfect fit
The Lotus Elan is beautiful coming or going
First generation Elan models includes technology that out-shined the competition at the time. The Lotus Twin Cam engine is equipped with a 4-speed manual gear box. A few later model year Elan Sprints were badged as “Sprint 5” and are equipped with a 5-speed manual gear box. A unique 4-wheel independent back bone suspension is simple and highly effective. The front suspension is based upon the Triumph Herald with double wishbones of unequal length, coil springs, telescopic dampers, and anti-roll stabilizer bars. Chapman struts, triangulated lower wishbones, coil springs, and telescopic dampers make up the rear network. The Elan Sprint has a strengthening bridge over the differential. The driveshaft incorporates Rotoflex rubber doughnut U-joints which protects the differential by absorbing road shock.
To maintain optimum control under all driving situations, it incorporates a network as a true sports car without compromising speed or safety. The Elan has superb Alford and Adler rack & pinion steering. This type of system was standard on racing cars and sports cars for the day making it the first choice for Lotus. A modified Herald rack incorporates a lock stop to guard against high-speed rollovers while negotiating turns. The steering column also comes from the Herald.
Standard 4-wheel disc brakes brings the Elan to a safe, fade-free halt which is vital for a car of such torque-thrust. Girling discs are fitted all the way around with 9.5” fitted to the front axle and 10” fitted to the rear. Very few cars for the day had disc brakes installed on the rear axle. The rear calipers has a hand brake mechanical mechanism with a special pair of pads with one fitted to each side of the disc. Servo assistance is part of the SE and Sprint packages.
From The Avengers episode “Mission…Highly Improbable”
This very fast roadster began life very popular. When Diana Rigg, as the famous Mrs. Emma Peel character drove her Lotus Elan in “The Avengers” it raised interest even more so. There were magazine articles about it. The Elan 26R was winning competitions. Sales began soaring setting new sales records. Those who saw it for the first time wanted to know more about it. Americans were a bit restrained at first but by the time the S3 drop head was released, sales went beyond expectation and actually created shortages in the U.K.
From The Avengers episode “Epic”
Here’s Emma Peel’s first Lotus Elan featured in “Man-Eater of Surrey Green.” This episode is from the early B&W segments introducing Diana Rigg as the indomitable Emma Peel who succeeded Mrs. Catherine Gale played by Honor Blackman. Notice the Elan’s lack of permanent window frames which makes it look a lot sleeker.
“Mrs. Peel, we’re needed…”
There are now tools available to properly remove and torque on your Elan wheels properly. If you have ever tried to remove an over-torqued spinner…you have learned exciting new ways to use expletives. A hammer, and a block of wood used to be the only way to remove an improperly torqued wheel. Check out this unique Knock-off spinner removal kit: http://knockoffspinnertool.com/lotus_elan_spinner_instructions if you value your Elan’s fibreglass bodywork and its beautiful wheels…
The #4 factory 300 yards from the main factory at Cheshunt Hertfordshire, 50 Lotus Elan bodies were produced and painted each week. After an essential period of curing in the open air, they are taken to the Elan shop where the backbone chassis is fitted with the gearbox and suspension.
The body/chassis unit moved down the production line passing numbered work stations where separate operations were expedited under the careful scrutiny of the quality inspection staff. At the end of the production line all adjustments were checked and the car is started for the first time. After the final safety inspection, the Elan leaves for a 30 mile sprint on a road test by one of two inspectors who had tested over 1,600 Elans. On its return, the car is carefully checked again and then prepped for delivery to dealers.
Behind the Elan Shop is the Lotus Cortina Division, Spares, and service department with a “secret area” by Lotus Developments Limited. In another building Lotus Components Limited made 10 different types of racing cars from the Indianapolis 4.2 litre to the latest racing Elan. In a section no bigger than four lock-up garages, Team Lotus prepared their cars for the many races of the year.
The Lotus Elan is an exquisite hand-built, low volume sports car. Its one-piece fibreglass body shell fits over the backbone chassis attaching at 16 points. This type of construction makes the Elan exceptionally rigid with a lower center of gravity which is imperative to a high-speed sporting vehicle such as this. The other advantages to its torsional rigidity of the chassis and body construction are lack of rattles, harshness, and vibration – with low-cost production.
Today, the Lotus Elan is one of the most coveted classic sports cars. Its avant-garde glamour is timeless…it has challenged the years gracefully. It is one of a few cars that if in tip-top condition can take on the contemporary muscle cars without skipping a beat. Unlike most sports cars from this genre, the architecture is pure and unpretentious escaping status-quo. From the vacuum operated hide away headlamps to the stylish Lotus 3-eared knock-on spinner steel wheels, the Elan takes its place in automotive history.
To drive the Elan is what true sports car performance is all about. This car was far ahead of its time. Its ferocious 1558cc Twin Cam in-line 4-cylinder engine with twin Weber or even twin Dell’ Orto carburetors, a close-ratio manual gearbox, and its sleek aerodynamic architecture enables it to achieve 105 to 130 mph without even working up a sweat. It will go down in automotive history as one of the world’s most significant sports car designs of all time. The Lotus Elan proves the point that a sports car doesn’t need humongous engine displacement or numerous cylinders to be a potent performer…
This is the 1960s genre and the Elan sported onto the automotive scene with a handcrafted fibreglass one-piece body shell with a rigid steel backbone chassis, independent 4-wheel suspension, 4-wheel disc brakes, and one of the world’s finest rack & pinion steering systems. To quote Graham Arnold former sales director for Lotus: “The Elan is a car for dreamers but when the owner wakes up…the pleasure remains – “ The first generation Lotus Elan saved the company from financial ruin getting the business out of the red and back to black which the contemporary Lotus models owe it a debt of eternal gratitude…the success of the Elan is a primary factor of Lotus’ commercial success to this day.
Special thanks to all of the Lotus Elan owners I talked to, Lotus historians, Graham Arnold’s book “Lotus Elan Super Profile” and Mark Hughes book “Classic and Sportscar – Lotus File” for the specifications and general information to make this tribute to the formidable first generation Lotus Elan possible.
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