LOTUS ELAN 1962-75
Forget the clichés about the first generation Elan’s unreliable. Bag a good one and enjoy a thoroughbred example of what’s now considered a class-leader of its time
Atop-notch Lotus Elan reminds you of that old beer commercial. It looks good, sounds good and by golly, it does you good! And the handling’s not half bad either. With the 1958- 63 Elite, which looked great but was expensive to build and not entirely bug-free, Colin Chapman learned some useful lessons about making a more commercially viable sports car. The result in October 1962 was the Elan, with a new backbone chassis frame supporting a beautifully balanced, timeless shape that was smoothed off with a pair of retractable headlamps. Price at launch was £1095 in tax- saving kit form, or £1499 for a factory built car.
Initially a 1498cc Ford Classic engine with double-overhead camshafts was used; however by early 1963 this had been replaced by an over-square 1558cc DOHC inline-four based on a Dagenham produced ‘Kent’ unit capped off with a Cosworth alloy head developing 105bhp at 5500rpm. This power unit was one that would go on to be used in a number of Lotus badged road going cars and competition models over the years. Underlining their commitment to the 1.6 litre unit, Lotus recalled all the earlier 1500 equipped versions and installed the later engine instead.
As the cost of a Lotus Elan increased through the ‘Sixties (this was never a cheap car, as it cost several hundred pounds more in ready-made form than a big Healey or TR4), so did the creature comforts and driver aids. The Elan S2 of September 1964 introduced a convertible version, improved seating and a veneered facia, while the Series 3 cars from late 1965 onwards offered a fixed-head coupé format, an alternative final drive, better instrumentation and electric windows – and the generosity also extended to a standard-fit screen washer and cabin heater!
Though the Elan soon impressed the string-back glove and flat- cap brigade, not all these hopeful owners were footloose and fancy-free. Elan fans with a young family had their prayers answered in late 1967 with the launch of fixed-head +2 featuring an extra foot added to the wheelbase to provide space for a rear seat. Servo braking provided the anchorage and there was now through-flow ventilation and a radio fitted as standard. Although helped by an across-the-range power increase to 118bhp and a higher 9.5:1 compression ratio, the +2’s bigger proportions slightly blunted the handling and performance qualities. But you can’t
have it all and it was still a very desirable model. A luxury-spec +2S appeared a year later with fog lamps and alternator electrics. This was also the first Elan not be offered in build-it-at-home kit form.
Meanwhile, the smaller Elan had evolved into the S4, sprouting wider wheelarches for low-profile tyres and an updated dash with rocker switches, new interior trim, and taillights borrowed from the +2. 1968 was also the year for shuffling carburettors, with a pair of Strombergs replacing the Webers. However Webers were reinstated after August the following year.
The ‘hot’ Elan Sprint appeared in February 1971 featuring two-tone colours and the 126bhp ‘big-valve’ engine with a strengthened driveline. The same modifications went into the +2S, which was renamed as the +2S/130. Some later Elans graduated to five-speed gearboxes before production ended in 1975, although for those buyers who didn’t fancy the Maxiderived gearbox internals, a four-speed ‘box remained available at £180 less. WHAT GOES WRONG? BODYWORK/STRUCTURE
Where the Elan’s chassis is concerned; originality doesn’t necessarily rate a particularly high score. Although the ‘backbone’ chassis connecting the front and rear subframes was an inspired Chapman-influenced design, the original structure is unfortunately prone to corrosion and marque specialists will always recommend choosing a car that’s had the chassis replaced. This is because new frames are either galvanised or powdercoated and are therefore considered better than the originals.
The Elan’s fibreglass bodywork obviously relieves any worries from the usual rust problems. However, when cleaning the car look out for any surface crazing and chipping, particularly at the front end, as well as stress cracks around door handles, locks, hinges and headlamp apertures. While these defects aren’t terminal, they will require refinishing and any remedial work will be expensive.
The Elan’s pop-up headlamps sometimes have a will of their own, not always staying down when the lamps are switched off. The front cross-member is supposed to act as an airtight vacuum tank to power the flaps and in a worst-case scenario this could have been holed by rust. But even the climate can affect the performance. A few owners often complain how the pods on their car would start to pop back up a few hours after the engine was switched off but would then stay down all day during the summer.
Fortunately, later cars had a modification that ensured the lamp pods would remain in the ‘up’ position if any vacuum was lost and a lot of owners have substituted an electric motor as the only definitive solution to this annoying problem.
Lotus engines, like the one fitted to the Elan, are built to finer tolerances than their Ford origins suggest. This makes them more appreciative of regular maintenance and a major rebuild should really be left to a recognised specialist. The timing chain
should be adjusted regularly too. Slight oil leaks are common, as is the tendency for the unit to use a bit of oil.
While under the bonnet, check out the state of the water pump, which may have been overloaded by an over-tightened fan belt. When grasping the assembly, it should move back and forth slightly and it’s worth knowing that the cylinder head will have to come off to replace the pump – a complex and expensive job. If the pump is working and the belt is tight, any overheating may be due to corroded waterways or a silted-up radiator.
Four-speed gearboxes are Ford units, which means they’re durable and not expensive to repair. They’re delightful to use, but never came with overdrive. Later fivespeeders, however, are sourced from the Austin Maxi, using BL’s gears in a Lotus alloy casting.
So while the extra ratio comes in handy for motorway cruising, you will have to expect a less precise stirrer, although some enlightened owners will have improved on this with an aftermarket Ford MT75 gearbox, courtesy of a scrapped Granada or Sierra.
Differentials also come from the Blue Oval, so few problems here; but listen out for any rumbling from this area. It could either be the bearing where the driveshaft emerges from the differential – expensive to repair – or a worn wheel bearing; a relatively cheap fix.
Incorrectly set-up cars can feel nervous and twitchy but it’s worth checking that the chassis hasn’t been damaged: check for welded repairs that may have distorted the geometry, plus ripples and other evidence of the car being jacked up in the wrong place. Bent lower wishbones can also result from careless jacking.
On a well-used car though, or one still with its original chassis, check the state of the front and rear suspension components. Even kerbing a wheel can upset the suspension geometry. Front suspension turrets can accumulate corrosive dirt, threatening the attachment points to the front cross member. At the back end, look out for bent lower rear suspension wishbones, which again can be damaged by negligent jacking. Any ripples in the chassis at the front or rear will indicate previous accident damage.
Although the Elan’s interior is basic, it’s neatly trimmed and the smattering of wood in later cars makes it feel more special than an MG. Watch out for water damage from leaking hoods or defective window seals and investigate the cause of any damp patches as soon as possible to prevent unpleasant mouldy smells.
Not many Elans left the factory with leather seats due to the inordinately high cost of this desirable option, the majority of cars being trimmed with Lotus’s familiar ‘oatmeal’ leather cloth. However, quite a few cars will have since been re-trimmed in hide, which should be given a regular wipe over with a proprietary cleaner to stop the facings drying out and cracking.
LIVING WITH A LOTUS ELAN
So you’ve made up your mind to buy a ‘Sixties or ‘Seventies Lotus Elan. So what will it be like to live with?
“How do you do? I’m Emma Peel”. Remember those silken tones? Well, what was good enough for cat- suited Diana Rigg in ‘ The Avengers’, before vaulting into the driver’s seat of SJH 499D and taking off for the crime scene before Steed had even cranked up the Vintage Bentley, has got to be one of the coolest slice of ‘ Sixties motoring. Just remember though, that Elan ownership will to some extent a labour of love.
GOOD CLUB SUPPORT
Because it’s no Spridget or Spitfire – cheap and cheerful alternatives by comparison – a new owner will need to get familiar with the model and read up on as much information as possible. Club Lotus – the oldest owners’ club founded 54 years ago by the factory – is a definitive route into finding important information and caters for all Lotus models with free archive material, technical bulletins and meetings in 24 regional centres. Then there’s the Lotus Drivers’ Club, as well as some very useful online sites such as LotusElan.net and LotusElan.info, all offering forum discussions, advice and step-by-step ‘I did it myself’ DIY guides on general maintenance, repairs and restorations.
Frequent oil and filter changes are advisable – say every 3000 miles, using a quality 20/ 50 or 15/40 grade lubricant. Filters are standard Ford off-the- shelf items. Equally important are regular coolant- mix changes, ideally every two years to avoid corroded alloy cylinder heads.
Every 6000 miles or sooner, lubricate the steering trunnions and a point on the steering rack with 80W/ 90 oil in an oil gun and check the rear axle and gearbox levels, topping up with EP80 and EP 90 grade respectively. Grease all the universal joints. Brake and clutch master cylinders should also be looked at, adding fluid if necessary. The clutch will take some adjustment on the threaded rod that connects with the clutch fork. While talking threads, if you’re replacing the plugs at around 10-12,000 miles, it’s a good idea to apply some copper- grease anti-seize compound to the screw-in part of the sparkers before installing them in the aluminium block to help ease removal.
LEAVE IT TO THE EXPERTS
Valve clearances, if properly set up, should run for a fair mileage before needing attention. But they’re adjusted using shims – not as easy as on an OHV engine – so you may prefer to entrust this job to a marque specialist. Timing chains – acceptable ‘slack’ is 13mm (½-inch) – annual inspection pays dividends and adjustment is via a screw and locking nut.
When jacking up the car from the rear, don’t use the rear wishbones, nor let the suspension go to ‘full droop’, as this may strain the driveshafts’ rubber doughnuts if these items are still fitted.
A much more viable alternative to the Rotoflex doughnuts – prone to splitting and softening by oil leaks – are CV driveshafts. “These were developed by my husband after we got fed up with the poor quality of the rubber and there were Health and Safety issues as well”, explained Susan Miller of Mick Miller Classic Lotus, who supply all manner of mechanical and trim parts exclusively for ‘Sixties and ‘Seventies Elans. “Obviously they will last longer and impart a really modern feel to the way the car drives”.
CHECKING FOR LEAKS
It’s also important to keep an eye on the condition of the windscreen and door seals, as water entering these areas will damage the trim. Again, these items are well catered for by specialist suppliers. New wood-veneer facias are also available in a choice of finishes that are both better than the photo- etched originals, and most home-restoration attempts. Cars with either a replacement galvanised or powder- coated chassis are reported to be lasting well, but on a belt-and-braces principle it’s still wise to keep the frame’s nooks and crannies clear of corrosive road dirt and apply a wax-based preservative.
Look after an Elan with regular care and attention and there’s no reason why you can’t use a well maintained example as a daily driver. This will turn the most mundane journey into a rewarding experience of sharp handling with performance at GTI-beating levels.
A near 50-year- old design the Lotus Elan may be, but its concept set a benchmark that others are still following. For instance, would the MX-5 have been such a good car without following in the footsteps of the Elan, a model that was so exhaustively evaluated and tested by Mazda beforehand? Enough said!
Look after a Lotus Elan and there’s no reason one can’t be used as a daily driver