The 1960s was a golden age for the great British sports car – from the E-Type and the Aston Martin DB5 at the luxury end to the Triumph Spitfire and MGB for those on a comparative budget.
But the Lotus Elan, which encapsulated the racing ideals of the legendary Colin Chapman, was arguably the closest you could get at the time to an affordable Grand Prix car for the road.
We take a look back at arguably the best sports car to come out of Norfolk.
In the original Elan sales brochure Colin Chapman said “we wanted to build you a fun car…” and, boy, did they?
Perfectly proportioned, lightweight and technologically advanced, the little car was launched as a two-seat roadster in 1962, the year before Jim Clark won the F1 title with a then-record seven race wins in the Lotus 25.
And it was this dedication to motorsport that made the Elan one of the best handling sports cars of all time.
Weighing in at just 680kg, the Elan was the first Lotus road car to feature the now-famous steel backbone chassis with a fibreglass body, which also means, of course, no body rust.
The car was powered by a DOHC 1557cc engine, and featured all-wheel disc brakes, rack and pinion steering and four-wheel independent suspension.
A hard top was offered in 1963, and a coupe two years later, with a less pretty but nonetheless impressive +2 coming along in 1967.
The Elan represented the Norfolk firm’s first true commercial success, and replaced the complicated, expensive to make and ultimately loss-making Elite.
In all, about 17,000 Elans were produced between 1962 and 1974, with the cars available in kit form throughout their life before kit sales declined because of changes in VAT.
The enduring beauty of the Elan lives on today in the form of the hugely successful Mazda MX-5, which used the Elan as a template to build the ideal affordable sports car for the modern age.
Original road testers got the car to a top speed of 116mph, adding: “I cannot praise the handling, roadholding, cornering and performance of the Elan highly enough.”
None other than McLaren F1 designer Gordon Murray describes the Elan as one of the best handling cars ever, and never has the “corners on rails” cliche been more appropriately applied.
A tiny car, drivers fit snugly into the cockpit and every twitch of the wheel or press on the throttle provokes an immediate response – this isn’t an armchair ride like some of its bigger, heavier competitors.
In 1970, partly in response to falling sales, the most desirable Elan was conceived, the Sprint, the final production car coming with a two-tone paint job and a silver, then gold, band and bumpers circling the car.
A 130mph big-valve engine was added in 1971 as part of a gradual move from Sprint-badged S4s to the car becoming a version in its own right.
Road testers were certainly sold on the new, faster Sprint, with Autocar saying: “Never was a sports car more of a sports car than this one” and praising it as “the best Lotus we have tested”.
The car could propel you from 0-60mph in just 6.2 seconds – quick even by modern standards – and Motor Sport magazine said the Lotus would “win just about any traffic light Grand Prix”.
It added: “Once mastered…the Elan is the nearest thing to a single-seater racing car one is likely to be able to drive comfortably on the road.”
The Sprint was a simply sensational sports car, developed alongside the phenomenally successful F1 cars of the era, providing it with an unrivalled sporting heritage.
The original Elan finally came to an end in 1973 – the +2 soldiering on for another two years – to be replaced by the wedge-shaped Elite II and Eclat, with the sexier Esprit coming along in 1976.
In 1989, the Elan name was revived as Lotus owner General Motors spent £35million trying to recapture Chapman’s lightweight, affordable sports car ideal. In many ways, they got it right, with Autocar describing the new Elan as “the quickest point to point car available”, with fine handling and a more futuristic body shape.
But the new car never sold well, partly thanks to the poor economic conditions at the time, but perhaps more significantly the launch in the same year of the MX-5 – a cheaper and unashamedly nostalgic alternative that came to be seen as the true, if less exciting, successor to Chapman’s Elan in the eyes of the motoring public.
The name has been rumoured to be making another comeback, but this time as a 4-litre supercar aimed squarely at the Porsche 911 market.
But back to the original Elan, and sound advice from one reviewer that holds true today if you’re thinking of buying one of these appreciating classics: “To anyone contemplating buying a cheaper two-seater sports car, I would sell the television set, the washing machine, give up smoking, even give up drinking, but scrimp and save and buy an Elan and you won’t be disappointed.”
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