The Lotus Elan will forever be remembered as the ride of latex catsuit-
wearing Diana Rigg as Emma Peel in the BBC spy show "The Avengers"

Colin Chapman's fanaticism about keeping weight off makes the average supermodel's interest in the same subject seem merely casual. The results he achieved without materials like carbon fiber and the extensive use of aluminum were simply amazing, even if they were gained at the expense of safety, strength, and practicality.

Witness the first real production Lotus, 1957's brilliant Elite. While perhaps one of the prettiest small sports cars of all time, the Elite's revolutionary fiberglass unit body was notoriously fragile (especially at the suspension mounting points), it was difficult to produce in volume, had a door design that prevented the use of roll-up windows, and an open version was not possible because the roof was a structural part of the car.

The new 1962 Elan was designed to address all of these issues. With it, Chapman gave up on the all-fiberglass unibody design and instead employed a fiberglass body on a more conventional steel backbone frame that looked like an I-beam with a letter "Y" at each end-one to cradle the engine and one for the suspension. It did keep things light, as the Elan weighed just 40 pounds more than the Elite (1,500 lb vs. 1,460 lb).

Unfortunately, the Elan was nowhere near as pretty as the Elite. While tidy and inoffensive, it simply wasn't the great beauty its older sibling was. One wishes that Lotus had simply mounted the Elite's body on the Elan's frame, added an open version, and called it a day.

Cosworth twin cam, instead of Coventry Climax

The Elan was also downgraded from the Elite in the engine and gearbox. Where the Elite sported a relatively expensive Coventry Climax FWE and an optional ZF gearbox, the S1 Elan had a 1,558-cc version of the Ford 116-E 4-cylinder with a Cosworth-designed DOHC cylinder head, cranking out 106 hp. The 4-speed gearbox was also from Ford of England.

The S2 Elan bowed in 1964 with better brakes and dashboard, while the S3 of 1965 had a higher final drive and was also available as a coupe. The SE model of 1968-71 boasted 115 hp and power brakes, and the S4 gained flared wheelarches. The one to have, though, is the 1971-73 Sprint with the 126-hp big-valve engine, two-tone paint, and optional 5-speed transmission.

Suspension was independent at both ends, with location by coil-over struts and A-arms at the rear, and brakes were all-disc with the rears located semi-inboard. The resulting car was an absolute blast-the normally reserved Road & Track said, "We've never driven a car that is more sheer fun to drive." Even today, drivers are utterly astonished by the limits of a car running on tiny 165-13 tires.

Drivers used to more conventional cars like the Triumph Spitfire will feel at home in an Elan. More Smiths gauges, better seats, a nicer steering wheel, and better quality polished walnut on the dash are the main differences. Put the car in gear and dump the clutch, however, and it becomes apparent that this is no common MG or TR. An Elan will do 0-60 mph in around eight seconds and top out at close to 120 mph. That's Series II E-type and base-motor Corvette performance. And it will leave both of those stumbling like drunks at the first sign of curves.

Unfortunately, the tiny Elan also cost about Corvette or E-type money when new, and for Americans who equated size with value, that math never quite worked. Still, the Elan was a huge seller and a money maker for Lotus, with 13,948 in all versions (including 4,798 2+2 versions, called the +2, which was nearly as beautiful as the Elite).

Elans forever linked with Emma Peel

Sales were no doubt helped by a handy bit of product placement: The Elan will forever be remembered as the ride of latex catsuit-wearing Diana Rigg as Emma Peel in the BBC spoofy spy show "The Avengers." Like all Lotuses before it, some Elans were even sold in kit form. In the U.K., the tax savings of building it yourself could be substantial.

No doubt to the embarrassment of Lotus, some of the home-built cars were probably better made than the factory-built examples. In fact, it was rare for an Elan to make it through any road test without the magazine complaining about some bits breaking or falling off.

Elan owners today may not face body rust, but they do have to worry about rusty frames. Fortunately, new frames are available and many Elans have had frame replacements during the course of restoration. Other minor parts are not particularly problematic, as various knobs and gauges were shared with other British sports cars of the time. Even body panels are available if needed. Mechanical parts are not particularly difficult to source, nor are they particularly expensive.

The Elan continues to be relevant to this day because of its well-known involvement in the development of the Mazda Miata (Mazda engineers bought several examples to study during the Miata's design-pop-up headlights seem like a clue), and because after years of trying unsuccessfully to compete with Ferrari with cars like the Esprit V8, Lotus returned to its Elan roots with the lightweight Elise and Exige.

Today, Elans are a connoisseur's sports car and trade in a somewhat thin market, although good ones bring enthusiastic bids when they appear at auction. With just over 9,000 built, there are numerous survivors. Many have lived hard lives, both on the street and as club racers. On that note, the 97 26R lightweights of 1965-66 are probably the pinnacle of the design and appropriately expensive at $95,000-$125,000.

Most decent Elans sell in the $20,000-$25,000 range, though a good Sprint S4 can command upwards of $40,000. It's unlikely Elans will approach six figures anytime soon, but as giant killers with handling that even today will humble much more sophisticated modern machinery, the Elan is a car that any real enthusiast should own at least once in his life.

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