What was the Lotus Elan?
The Lotus Elan was the car that placed Lotus firmly amongst the foremost car manufacturers in Britain.
Colin Chapman, the founder of Lotus cars, was a real character. When he was 20 years old, after having learned how to fly and a brief stay in the RAF, he started racing a modified Austin Seven very successfully. He moved further up the ladder of racing car design and eventually produced kit cars; these were very popular at the time, since there was a considerable saving on purchase tax as opposed to buying a completed car. He believed that cars should be lightweight and aerodynamic, with excellent steering and handling; and that this was far more important than sheer brute power; a design concept that ultimately made the Elan so successful.
Was it powerful?
The twin cam, 1600 cc four-cylinder Ford engine pushed out 105 brake horsepower in it's standard version. Whilst this is not a huge power output, the car was not designed to be a musclebound motorway vehicle. A combination of it's lightness, excellent agility and braking power made it the ideal car for winding country roads. Whilst a big car with a large engine would probably go a lot faster along a good straight road, a nippy Elan could at least hold its own on the back roads.
Was it fast?
The standard version was good for 115 mph. Plenty fast enough for the type of driving that it was designed for. Acceleration was excellent, too.
Was it reliable?
It was basically a fairly simple car with little to go wrong. It had a good, solid steel chassis, a steering rack provided by Triumph, and an engine and gearbox provided by Ford. All these were well tried and tested components with good reliability.
Did it handle well?
With a standard layout of front engine and rear wheel drive, coupled with a rigid frame and body with Chapman's own struts at the rear, it held the road like glue.
Were their variants?
The Lotus engineering director, Tony Rudd, brought out a 'big valve' version of the engine in 1971. This gave an immediate power increase up to 126 brake horsepower, and the already impressive acceleration became truly explosive, rivalling even that of so-called supercars of the era up to around 80 mph.
Was it successful?
The Lotus Elan was a small car – in fact, a very small car – that was reliable, economical, and was enjoyable to drive. It was very popular amongst younger drivers as well as those who remembered that they were young once, too! Total sales are rumoured to have been in excess of 12,000 machines.
The success of the Elan wasn't just confined to the numbers that were sold however. It was the car that really put Lotus firmly on the map as a manufacturer of top quality, reliable cars.