One cannot speak of the Lotus Elan without looking into the colorful life of its inventor, Colin Chapman. Such was the man’s legend that when word first filtered out about his fatal heart attack, more than a few quickly guessed that he had engineered his own death to get out of a tight legal and financial spot in which he had found himself.
Knowing the maker
Some will tell you Chapman is still alive today, some 20 years after, relaxing on an idyllic island shore, paying for the beachcomber’s lifestyle with money wrenched from the DeLorean DMC-12 shambles. As with Elvis, Chapman’s light shone so brightly throughout his life that when he passed away, people figured it was somehow not possible. An indefatigable person like Chapman simply couldn’t be dead. In 1928, Anthony Colin Bruce Chapman was born just outside London, the son of the manager of the Railway Hotel. Just slightly too young to work for his country in World War II, he studied how to fly while at a university and served a short stint in the Royal Air Force soon after hostilities completed. He earned a degree in civil engineering in 1948, but by then the automotive bug had bitten him. With an affinity for things mechanical, he decided to innovate one of the ubiquitous Austin Seven saloons, a fabric-bodied model, in an attempt to increase its operation. To accomplish this feat, he took over his girlfriend’s garage, and the results of his twisting were so successful that several of his mates proposed that he enter the car in a local race.
He did just that, despite the reality that he had never attended a motor race before. Surprisingly, he won that race and then several others in quick succession, and before long several of his competitors started asking him to modify their cars. From this, Chapman began a small, informal side business while continuing to take up a civil engineering career. By 1951, his third racecar had become a prevailing force in the 750cc class, relying mainly on light weight to outdo the competition, and the philosophy of lightness would remain a Chapman hallmark throughout his engineering career.
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In truth, Chapman also developed a severe case of the “red mist,” falling in love with racecar driving, but his real skill was at engineering exceptional cars that could win races, not driving in the purest sense. In 1952, his long-suffering girlfriend, Hazel Williams, invested 25 pounds sterling in her beau’s racing operation, which was what it took to discover Lotus Engineering Co., Ltd. But Chapman still kept his day job, and one of those day jobs was with British Aluminium [they spell it wrong over there], which aided him further develop his skills on lightening chassis.
Winning advantage of technicalities
Near the beginning, Lotus Engineering was a hand-to-mouth operation. Chapman’s marketing efforts consisted almost entirely of building a running prototype, competing with it on the race track and then, after demonstrating its supremacy, waiting for orders for similar cars to come in. One of his first plum assignments was suspension model for a BRM Formula One car for which he received a Ford Zephyr as his payment.
While most triumphant racing engineers keep a weather eye out for ambiguities in racing rules that might give them an advantage, Chapman developed this endeavor into an art form. Because the typical Austin 7 was so underpowered, Chapman immediately learned the advantages of taking every last scrap of extra weight off his racing machines, and he followed that principle throughout his career, even extending it to the road machines he would later build.
By 1954, he was finally able to resign from his full-time job to dedicate all his efforts to Lotus Engineering and Team Lotus, the competition arm of his company. In addition to Michael Allen with whom he had started Lotus, Chapman also added other talent: men like Keith Duckworth, Graham Hill, and Mike Costin. Lotus moved, from saloons, into sports car racing with lightweight oddballs like the Lotus 7 and Lotus 11. From there, it was but another jump to Formula Two, and ultimately, Lotus dipped its toe in the deep water of Formula One racing in 1958.
F1, of course, the epitome of road racing, was an awfully tough nut to crack, especially for an under-funded and perpetually scattered company like Lotus, whose personality directly reflected the peripatetic nature of its founder. Chapman had decided to produce road-going cars to capitalize on his marque’s racing popularity, and perhaps add some more shillings to the coffers in the mid-Fifties. Lotus debuted the Elite at the London Motor Show in October 1957 with the intent of selling them to the public, but, to make obvious just where Chapman’s priorities were, the initial cars didn’t go to paying customers but instead, directly to the race track. They became instant victors using the famed Coventry Climax engine that was based on a World War II fire-pump powerplant and a suspension derived from the Formula Two racecar, but the first customer cars didn’t roll out the door until December 1958, more than a year after “introduction.” The Elite was filled with unexpected revelations, most of all the fact that not only was its smooth body made of fiberglass but so was its chassis. With an unspoiled body shape drawn up by a personal friend of Chapman, the unbelievable little car weighed but 1,300 pounds, so the 75-105 horsepower put out by various models of its engine made for superior performance. In fact, the Elite captured class wins at LeMans six years in a row beginning in 1959. But as a production car intended for road use, the Elite built the most idiosyncratic of followings. The tiny coupe cost more than twice the price of a contemporary MGA, and its delicate nature made other British sports cars look like the model of reliability in comparison. In the end, over a seven-year production run, only 988 were assembled, and Chapman knew that his next production car had better be a bit more mainstream.
So in the middle of helping to modernize Formula One with the full monocoque Lotus 25 in which Jim Clark won the 1963 F1 Driving Championship and in the middle of helping to revolutionize the Indianapolis 500 with an adaptation of that racer that narrowly missed wins in 1963 and 1964, Chapman decided to switch the Elite with another production car, this one named the “Elan”. The new droptop sportster was launched in 1962, but similar to its predecessor, it was a bit slow out of the factory. In fact, many weren’t finished by Lotus at all. A bit of weirdness in the British tax laws made it cheaper to purchase the car as a kit and have it built by artisans of one’s choice. Of course, this process had a deleterious effect on what was already indifferent product quality.
Filled up to the edge
However, there is no doubt, that the Elan was filled to its tiny rim with performance quality. Eschewing the fiberglass monocoque of the Elite, Chapman and his design team drew up a stiff and strong steel backbone chassis for the Elan. On that light but rugged unit, they positioned very willing models of a 1500cc Ford-built four-cylinder engine topped with a Lotus-designed dual overhead cam head. Along the way, output and displacement increased so that at the end of the Elan’s 11-year production run, the engine produced 126 peak horsepower at a somewhat dizzying 6500 rpm. Definitely, that didn’t put fear into the hearts of any Shelby Cobra or Chevrolet Corvette drivers of the day, but the power came in a package that weighed a scant 1,500 pounds soaking wet, as many Elan drivers were on rainy days. Unluckily, the engine’s twin Weber carburetors were hard to keep in tune, and rare was the Elan driver who didn’t travel with a tool kit to re-tighten loosening nuts and to fiddle with adjustment screws. Still, when the car was running appropriately, it was capable of sprints from 0-60 miles an hour in about 6.7 seconds with an ultimate top speed of about 120 mph.
The Elan’s strong suit was, of course, not straight-line acceleration but its legendary handling prowess. Relying heavily on Chapman’s racing experience, the Elan used an economical, light, and extremely effective all-independent suspension featuring wishbones and coil springs in front and Chapman struts in the rear. Unlike many cars that depend on wide tires and a rock-hard suspension to provide grip, the Elan used narrow tires and was so softly coiled that many road testers remarked about its supple ride quality. But at the same time, the road testers praised its amazing grip and easy handling. One tester said the car felt “like an extension of your own body,” with a flick of the quick steering taking you exactly where you wanted to go.
The polished handling was matched by the car’s braking abilities. Launched in an era when Corvettes were still sporting drum brakes, the Elan had discs all around, and the car’s stopping power was magnificent.
Glitches ironed out
However, all was not strawberries and cream. Quality control was a misnomer in the Lotus factory, and some of Chapman’s driveline patterns were doubtful. The most prominent of these were Rotorflex flexible driveshaft couplings, a remnant of racetrack engineering. Many road testers discovered the feel produced by the wind-up of the shafts disconcerting, causing a hippity-hop effect or the occasional stall. Thankfully, by the time the Elan Sprint model came along in 1970, these were a thing of the past.
The Elan’s styling was not drop-dead dazzling in the nature of a Lamborghini Miura, but it was sure as hell cute. Less than 46 inches high with its top up, auto writers often commented about looking up into cars like the Chevrolet Corvair. The clean front end featured a tasteful Lotus badge and ingenious pop-up headlights, while the car’s rear end was more pedestrian but still pleasing.
Inside, the Elan offered a three-spoke steering wheel emblazoned with a sedate wood veneer dashboard, Colin Chapman’s signature, and no-nonsense Smiths gauges. A short shift lever made it easy to snick the car from gear-to-gear, and the buckets seats, while not very wide, were praised for their luxury. However, one major thing was clear: big drivers need not apply. The interior was small and those taller than Chapman’s five-foot-eight stature found the cockpit unpleasant.
But Chapman would say, luxury be damned. The Elan was a motorcar, not a club chair, meant for exhilarating excursions across the countryside, not sedate sessions with newspaper and cigar. Yes, it was an acquired taste. Yes, it was not for everybody. But before Elan production closed down in 1973, Lotus had produced more than 12,000 of the little cars, an amazing number. Maybe the Elan wasn’t everything it might have been, just as maybe Colin Chapman wasn’t everything he should have been, but there is no quest ion that in both, the good far outweighed the bad, and that is their legacy.
Filed under: Top Classic Cars