The 1960s were the brilliant Indian summer of British sports-car manufacturing, when its factories offered a fascinating choice of high-performance open two-seaters and coupes, all different in character from each other, each destined to become a valuable classic.

Outstanding among them was Colin Chapman's Lotus Elan, a sophisticated little jewel introduced in 1962. At the heart of the car was a welded steel backbone chassis supporting supple, fully independent suspension incorporating the ingenious Chapman strut layout at the rear. Cradled between two front arms of the chassis, its powerplant was basically a Ford block with Lotus's own aluminum twin-overhead camshaft cylinder head. It may well be the only four-cylinder engine fitted with three camshafts, the original lateral one that was part of the Ford design being retained for the distributor.

Swept volume was initially 1498cc, and later 1558cc. At the curbside the Elan weighed a mere 1,526 lb.-very low for a fully trimmed and equipped road-going two seater. Molded fiberglass bodywork was a Lotus in-house effort of perfect proportions and utter simplicity. The Elan was quite a performer: the 118 mph maximum of early variants might have been expected of such a slippery, wind-cheating shape, but acceleration was dashing indeed for a comfortable road car with less than 1600cc on tap. Aided by well-chosen close gearbox ratios, the century mark could be reached in 26.8 seconds.

In all respects the Elan rewarded the capable driver. Steering was light and direct, handling was poised on the long-travel, correctly damped suspension, braking was powerful and progressive. Instantly outdating most of its competition, it became Lotus's best seller yet by a wide margin.

SCM Analysis


Vehicle:1965 Lotus Elan S2
Years Produced:1964-1966
Number Produced:over 12,000 (Type 26)
Original List Price:$4,900
SCM Valuation:$14,500-$20,000
Tune Up Cost:$250
Distributor Caps:$25
Chassis Number Location:Stamped on left front Y-rail and on plate on left side of engine compartment
Engine Number Location:Stamped on right side of block and on chassis number plate
Club Info:Lotus Ltd., College Park, MD, 301/982-4054; Mike Ostrov, 510/232-7764

The example pictured here was presented in good overall condition, suffering from minor chips to the external paintwork. The interior is finished in the original black material in good condition. This car sold at Christie’s in London on November 1, 1999 for $15,180.

Like the little girl with the curl, Lotus Elans in good condition are very, very good. However, when they’re bad, horrid only begins to describe their problems. Like each of Colin Chapman’s various models, the Elan took an innovative approach to every aspect of body and suspension design. The lightweight combination of fiberglass body and steel backbone chassis, with patented Chapman independent rear suspension and rubber “doughnuts” instead of universal joints between the wheels and the differential, explained why the Elan was a top performer in its day. By the same token, these innovations don’t always age well. This is why a car that sold new at a price comparable to a Jaguar E-type now slots into the market somewhere between an MGB and a Triumph TR3.

Nevertheless, there is a reason why Sports Car Market named the Elan the “dark horse among British sports cars” as one of its top twenty picks for 2000. Actually there are several reasons: acceleration, braking, handling, confidence at speed, and razor-sharp handling that belies the softly sprung ride. Well-sorted examples are an absolute joy to drive. They are forgiving for the first-timer, while making experienced drivers feel like Dan Gurney. Unlike the “British brutes” that can match the Elan for performance, this car feels almost feminine in its grace, and the nicely appointed cockpit provides both positive support on hard cornering and relaxing comfort on long trips. Standing still, it looks great from all angles. There’s no question why it was the poster car for the design of the Mazda Miata. All this praise is earned only by the good examples, however. If you’re attracted by the opportunity to get a great roadster at nearly a bargain-basement price, have a Lotus expert (they’re not hard to find) check it out carefully. Unlike other cars built under the Union Jack where caution can be summed up in three words-“check for rust”-the problems that can be hidden in the frame, suspension, and body panels of the Elan are not readily obvious, or within the experience of most amateur enthusiasts, or easy to remedy. Cracks in a hard-driven chassis, crazing and breaks in the ‘glass bodywork, and a poorly maintained drive train and rear suspension are not readily obvious. The good news is that under those lovely Lotus twin-cam valve covers rests a simple four-cylinder Ford engine that could have pushed a Pinto, and the mechanical side of this car is pretty simple to trouble-shoot and maintain.

If the car that sold at Christie’s matches its all-too-brief description (beware a description that is nine-tenths general history and only one-tenth about the car on the block), then this car would be well-bought on either side of the pond at $15,000.-Gary Anderson, Editor and Publisher, British Car Magazine

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