Lotus Elan: History, Generations, Specifications

Lotus Elan: History, Generations, Specifications

Lotus Elan Essential History

Lotus and its founder Colin Chapman had developed quite a reputation for building potent, lightweight sports and racing cars by the early 1960s. A force to be reckoned with in both sports car racing and Formula 1, Lotus had branched out into production sports cars with the diminutive Lotus 7 and the fiberglass monocoque Lotus Elite. The Elite had proved both challenging to build and problematic for end users, with a lack of torsional rigidity and other teething problems. The all-new Elan, launched in 1962, would be the first Lotus to use a steel backbone chassis lending some stiffness to the fiberglass body. Front suspension was twin A-arm style with coil springs and shock absorbers, with a Chapman Strut layout in the rear. The four-speed manual gearbox and rear differential were modified Ford components, similar to the engine, while the four-corner disc brakes came from Girling. Weight was just 1,500 pounds for early convertibles, slightly more for later models and coupes.

Lotus Elan 1500, 1600, S1/2/3/4, Sprint, SE

Originating as a convertible, the Elan 1500 was originally offered with a 1.5-liter engine comprised of a Ford block and a special Coventry Climax dual-overhead-cam cylinder head. The earliest 1.5-liter cars are quite rare, as the decision was quickly made to enlarge capacity to 1.6-liters with a name change to Elan 1600. An updated Elan S2 arrived for 1964, and a year after that, the first Elan coupes arrived. The Elan S3 and S4 came in quick succession, entering production in 1966 and 1968, respectively. The Elan Sprint was the final development of the car, built from 1970 to 1973, when the Elan ended production altogether. Elan SE variants were available through most of Elan production, and offered additional power. Elans could be ordered as complete cars or as kits to be assembled, similar to the Lotus 7. Power ranged from about 90 hp to nearly 130 hp depending on specification.

Lotus Elan +2, +2S

The Lotus Elan +2 entered production in 1967 and was so thoroughly revised, it was almost a distinct car from the original Elan. The Elan +2, as its name suggests, was a 2+2 coupe with a lengthened wheelbase, reinforced sills, widened track, and larger dimensions all around. Making for a more practical and luxurious Elan, these changes added a few hundred pounds of weight, but the Elan +2 still tipped the scales at just 2,000 pounds. The +2S was announced for 1968 with an upgraded cabin, and in 1971, the +2S 130 was launched with the 126-hp 1.6-liter “Big Valve” engine from the Elan Sprint. A five-speed gearbox replaced the four-speed soon after. The +2S finally ended production in 1975.

Lotus Elan M100

The Elan’s general ethos and design—simple, light, elegant—was a major influence on the future Mazda Miata, and curiously, the Elan made a return to the marketplace in 1989, the same year the Miata was launched. This time, however, the M100 Elan was a front-wheel-drive convertible built under General Motors partnership, with a 1.6-liter inline-four powertrain sourced from Isuzu. The Elan SE was the volume-selling turbocharged version, though a non-turbo model was also sold in very low volume. The new Elan was designed by Peter Stevens (also of McLaren F1 fame), but an error in scaling between the styling model and production car resulted in the latter being a few inches too short for its wheelbase, resulting in the wheels not being centered properly in their wells. While being praised for its sharp handling, the reception to the M100 Elan was generally lukewarm mostly on virtue of its front-drive configuration. In the end, fewer than 4,000 M100 Elans were sold between 1989 and 1995, with just 559 arriving in the U.S. The Elan was later sold as a Kia model for the Korean market from 1996 to 1999.

Lotus Elan Highlights

The ultimate Lotus Elan had to be the Elan 26R, a purpose-built, homologated factory race car. Lotus had little interest in racing the car itself with Formula 1 dominating its efforts, but privateers flocked to the 26R. The 26R had a lighter-weight fiberglass body, track-optimized suspension and BRM-built engine producing as much as 180 hp. It’s thought that just 97 Elan 26R models were built. They are desirable today for vintage racing, with many “tribute” cars built from standard Elans.

Lotus Elan Buying Tips

Just because Lotus Elans have fiberglass bodies doesn’t mean rust isn’t an issue. The backbone chassis is still steel, and many have suffered major corrosion over the decades. Fortunately, Lotus Elan parts support is strong—even entire replacement frames are available to purchase. The fiberglass body commonly cracks after years of flexing, and a specialist with fiberglass experience will be needed to fix this. Replacement bodies are also available, most commonly in England. Elans are fairly delicate cars and quite small, so be sure you’re comfortable fitting and driving in one before you take the plunge. Also, be on the lookout for Elans with more modern replacement engines (the Ford Zetec four-cylinder motor is a popular choice). These can give up to 200 hp, but with the Elan becoming quite collectible, original-spec models tend to have higher values at auction.

Lotus Elan Articles on Automobile

The want is strong with this one.

A Lotus Elan M100 is among them.

Of course an original Lotus Elan made our list.

Lotus Elan Recent Auctions

Lotus Elan Quick Facts

  • First year of production: 1962
  • Last year of production: 1975
  • Total sold: approximately 12,000 (Elan), 5,000 (Elan +2), 3,855 (M100 Elan)
  • Original price (base): $1,700
  • Characteristic feature: The quintessential Lotus road-going sports car, fully incorporating Colin Chapman’s “simplify and add lightness” ethos, and the standard by which small front-engine, rear-drive sports cars have been judged since.

Lotus Elan FAQ

How much does a Lotus Elan cost?

Classic Lotus Elans usually start at about $20,000 for a needy driver and can bring upwards of $50,000 for a show-quality example. The more modern M100 Elan can typically be had for less than $20,000 in great shape with projects costing as little as a few thousand dollars.

Is the Lotus Elan a reliable car?

All classic cars will have more needs than a new car and a Lotus Elan can have more trouble areas than most, with its fiberglass body and dodgy English electronics. While the cars are relatively simple to work on, they will need regular care to be reliable.

Is the M100 Elan a worthy successor?

The M100 Elan has strong handling traits and a more modern powertrain, and while it doesn’t match the early rear-drive Elan’s driving experience, it should be less finicky to own.

1974 Lotus Elan Sprint Specifications
ENGINE:1.6L DOHC 16-valve I-4/126 hp @ 6,500 rpm, 113 lb-ft @ 5,500 rpm
TRANSMISSION:4-speed manual or automatic or single- or dual or multi-clutch automatic or continuously variable
LAYOUT:2-door, 2-passenger, front-engine, RWD convertible/coupe
L x W x H:145.0 x 56.0 x 45.5 in
WHEELBASE:84.0 in
WEIGHT:1,500 lb
0-60 MPH:8.0 sec
TOP SPEED120 mph