One cannot speak of the Lotus Elan without delving into the colorful life of its creator, Colin Chapman. Such was the man's legend that when word first filtered out about his fatal heart attack, more than a few immediately surmised that he had engineered his own death to get out of a tight financial and legal spot in which he had found himself. Some will tell you Chapman is still alive today, some 20 years later, basking on an idyllic island shore, paying for the beachcomber's lifestyle with money wrenched from the DeLorean DMC-12 debacle. As with Elvis, Chapman's light shone so brightly throughout his life that when he died, people figured it was somehow impossible. An indefatigable man like Chapman just couldn't be dead.
Anthony Colin Bruce Chapman was born in 1928 just outside London, the son of the manager of the Railway Hotel. Just slightly too young to serve his country in World War II, he learned to fly while at university and served a short stint in the Royal Air Force soon after hostilities concluded. In 1948 he earned a degree in civil engineering, but by then the automotive bug had bitten him. With an affinity for things mechanical, he decided to modify one of the ubiquitous Austin Seven saloons, a fabric-bodied model, in an attempt to increase its performance. To accomplish this feat, he took over his girlfriend's garage, and the results of his tweaking were so successful that several of his mates suggested that he enter the car in a local race.
He did just that, despite the fact that he had never attended a motor race before. Amazingly, he won that race and then several others in quick succession, and before long several of his competitors began asking him to modify their cars. From this, Chapman started a small, informal side business while continuing to pursue a civil engineering career. By 1951, his third racecar had become a dominant force in the 750cc class, relying largely on light weight to outdo the competition, and the philosophy of lightness would remain a Chapman hallmark throughout his engineering career.
Truth be told, Chapman also developed a severe case of the "red mist," falling in love with racecar driving, but his real skill was at engineering superior 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 found 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 helped him further hone his skills on lightening chassis.
Early on, 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 superiority, waiting for orders for similar cars to come in. One of his first plum assignments was suspension design for a BRM Formula One car for which he received a Ford Zephyr as his payment.
While most successful racing engineers keep a weather eye out for ambiguities in racing rules that might give them an advantage, Chapman developed this effort into an art form. Because the typical Austin 7 was so underpowered, Chapman very quickly learned the advantages of taking every last scrap of extra weight off his racing machines, and he followed that tenet throughout his career, even extending it to the road machines he would later build.
By 1954 he was finally able to quit his full-time job to devote 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 Mike Costin, Keith Duckworth and Graham Hill. From saloons, Lotus moved 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 finally Lotus dipped its toe in the deep water of Formula One racing in 1958.
Of course, F1, the epitome of road racing, was an awfully tough nut to crack, especially for a perpetually scattered and under-funded company like Lotus, whose personality directly reflected the peripatetic nature of its founder. Chapman had decided to build road-going cars to capitalize on his marque's racing fame 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 demonstrate just where Chapman's priorities were, the first cars didn't go to paying customers but instead directly to the race track. They became instant winners 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 "launch."
The Elite was filled with unexpected surprises, most of all the fact that not only was its sleek body made of fiberglass but so was its chassis. With an unspoiled body shape drawn up by a personal friend of Chapman, the incredible little car weighed but 1,300 pounds, so the 75-105 horsepower put out by various versions of its engine made for superior performance. In fact, the Elite captured class wins at LeMans six years in a row starting in 1959. But as a production car designed 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 fragile 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 built, and Chapman knew that his next production car had better be a bit more mainstream.
So in the midst of helping to revolutionize Formula One with the full monocoque Lotus 25 in which Jim Clark won the 1963 F1 Driving Championship and in the midst of helping to revolutionize the Indianapolis 500 with an adaptation of that racer that narrowly missed wins in 1963 and 1964, Chapman decided to replace the Elite with another production car, this one dubbed the Elan. The new droptop sportster was introduced in 1962, but like its predecessor it was a bit slow out of the factory. In fact, many weren't completed by Lotus at all. A bit of weirdness in the British tax laws made it cheaper to buy the car as a kit and have it assembled by artisans of one's choice. Of course, this procedure had a deleterious effect on what was already indifferent product quality.
There is no doubt, however, that the Elan was filled to its tiny brim with performance quality. Eschewing the fiberglass monocoque of the Elite, Chapman and his design team drew up a strong and stiff steel backbone chassis for the Elan. On that light but rugged unit, they positioned very willing versions of a 1500cc Ford-built four-cylinder engine topped with a Lotus-designed dual overhead cam head. Along the way, displacement and output 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. Certainly that didn't put fear into the hearts of any Chevrolet Corvette or Shelby Cobra 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. Unfortunately, the engine's twin Weber carburetors were difficult to keep in tune, and rare was the Elan driver who didn't travel with a tool kit to fiddle with adjustment screws and re-tighten loosening nuts. Still when the car was running properly, it was capable of sprints from 0-60 miles per hour in about 6.7 seconds with an ultimate top speed of about 120 mph.
Of course, the Elan's strong suit was not straight-line acceleration but its fabled handling prowess. Relying heavily on Chapman's racing experience, the Elan used a light, economical and extremely effective all-independent suspension featuring wishbones and coil springs in front and Chapman struts in the rear. Unlike many cars that rely on wide tires and a rock-hard suspension to provide grip, the Elan used narrow tires and was so softly sprung that many road testers remarked about its supple ride quality. But at the same time the road testers praised its amazing grip and effortless handling. One tester said the car felt "like an extension of your own body," with a flick of the quick steering taking you precisely where you wanted to go.
The slick handling was matched by the car's braking abilities. Introduced in an era when Corvettes were still sporting drum brakes, the Elan had discs all around, and the car's stopping power was exemplary.
All was not strawberries and cream, however. Quality control was a misnomer in the Lotus factory, and some of Chapman's driveline specifications were questionable. The most notable of these were Rotorflex flexible driveshaft couplings, a remnant of racetrack engineering. Many road testers found the feel produced by the wind-up of the shafts disconcerting, causing the occasional stall or a hippity-hop effect. By the time the Elan Sprint version came along in 1970, these were, thankfully, a thing of the past.
The Elan's styling was not drop-dead gorgeous 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 remarked about looking up into cars like the Chevrolet Corvair. The clean front end featured ingenious pop-up headlights and a tasteful Lotus badge, while the car's rear end was more pedestrian but still pleasing.
Inside, the Elan offered a three-spoke steering wheel emblazoned with Colin Chapman's signature, a sedate wood veneer dashboard 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 comfort. One major thing was clear, however: big drivers need not apply. The interior was tiny and those taller than Chapman's five-foot-eight stature found the cockpit uncomfortable.
But Chapman would say, comfort be damned. The Elan was a motorcar, not a club chair, meant for exhilarating excursions across the countryside, not sedate sessions with cigar and newspaper. Yes, it was an acquired taste. Yes, it was not for everybody. But before Elan production shut down in 1973, Lotus had produced more than 12,000 of the little cars, an amazing number. Perhaps the Elan wasn't everything it might have been, just as perhaps Colin Chapman wasn't everything he should have been, but there is no doubt that in both the good far outweighed the bad, and that is their legacy.