MOTORMAN

A HANDL ING DEL IGHT

New Zealand Classic Car - - Contents -

South African–born de­signer and in­ven­tor Ron Hick­man was noth­ing if not ver­sa­tile. Frus­trated with odd re­pair and build­ing jobs around the home, he came up with a com­bi­na­tion sawhorse and vice on a fold­able al­loy frame. That was in 1961, and his idea was turned down by seven British man­u­fac­tur­ers and three com­pa­nies in the US be­fore Black & Decker saw merit in the de­vice and mar­keted it as the Work­mate 11 years later.

Hick­man had many other in­spi­ra­tions, in­clud­ing a hand wringer that at­tached to any flat sur­face and a child’s toi­let pot im­per­vi­ous to tip­ping over. He was also re­spon­si­ble for the de­sign of the rather spe­cial first-gen­er­a­tion Lo­tus Elan that launched in 1962, and played an im­por­tant role in the cre­ation of the Europa that ran from 1966 un­til 1975. Hick­man reck­oned that he was paid lit­tle dur­ing his nine years as de­sign direc­tor at Lo­tus, and was some­times at odds with boss Colin Chap­man. How­ever, by the time he left Lo­tus in 1967, the Work­mate was go­ing gang­busters and the in­ven­tion made him a mil­lion­aire.

Hick­man went on to de­sign seat­ing for Cu­nard’s mas­sive QE2 ship be­fore re­tir­ing to Jer­sey, where he con­tin­ued to be cre­ative while tour­ing the quiet roads of the small is­land in a 1931 Cadil­lac V16 drop­head coupé and, of course, an Elan.

Pas­sion­ate about cars and a mem­ber of the Jer­sey Old Mo­tor Club, in an ear­lier life, Ron had worked as a clay mod­eller in Ford’s styling de­part­ment, where he was in­volved in shap­ing the 1959 re­verse-rear-win­dow Anglia. At Lo­tus, his de­sign in­put in­cluded the Elan +2 and, as men­tioned, the Europa.

Hick­man be­lieved that de­sign­ing open-road cars is far more dif­fi­cult than de­sign­ing closed cars, but he did not re­al­ize this when set­ting out to con­ceive the Elan, with its two-part moulds that would sim­plify pro­duc­tion and re­duce costs. Chap­man as­serted that de­sign­ing road cars is “10 times more dif­fi­cult and ex­pen­sive than de­sign­ing rac­ing cars”.

Ron Hick­man died at the age of 78 in 2011, but his cre­ative de­signs live on. Lo­tus sec­re­tary Mau­reen re­called, “He was an amaz­ing in­no­va­tor — an ex­cit­ing and dy­namic per­son to be around.”

In­spired by a re­mark­able mo­tor rac­ing her­itage, but more likely by out­stand­ing road man­ners, many of us have con­sid­ered own­ing a Lo­tus road car, but few have made this a re­al­ity. On my first visit to the Con­ti­nent in 1968, I stood at a road­side car deal­er­ship in Brus­sels, en­ticed by a Re­nault-en­gined Lo­tus Europa bear­ing a large wind­screen sticker price that seemed as­ton­ish­ingly cheap. In spite of its be­ing left-hand drive — as were most of the 9882 Europas made — I pon­dered do­ing a deal and driv­ing the car back to Eng­land and then ship­ping it to Auck­land. How­ever, although the Europa could not have been any more than two years old, its con­di­tion was that of a well-used and much-abused 10-yearold car. Dis­miss­ing the idea was prob­a­bly the right de­ci­sion.

Elan in New Zealand

Four years ear­lier, I road-tested the first of two early model, open, soft-top Type 26 Elans to ar­rive in New Zealand. While I was en­tranced by the pretty body and bril­liant han­dling and road­hold­ing, there were is­sues with the fin­ish of the fi­bre­glass body and some mi­nor de­tail points were dis­ap­point­ing. In Bri­tain, a new Elan re­tailed for £1388 — although a cus­tomer could save lo­cal sales taxes and around £300 by

opt­ing for the car in kit­set form. The first two ex­am­ples in New Zealand ar­rived as kits and were as­sem­bled in Hamil­ton by Ge­orge Palmer and his son, Jim, who won the New Zealand Gold Star cham­pi­onship no fewer than four times. These cars cost around £2K (NZ$4K) but few found their way to our shores.

Early Elans rarely come up for sale but long-time owner Tony Her­bert, who also has a Lo­tus Cli­max Elite, un­der­stands that there are around 50 Elans in New Zealand. David Cran­dall, pres­i­dent of Club Lo­tus New Zealand, says there are 11 Elan S1 to S4 mod­els and two Elan +2 ex­am­ples in the club. The old­est is a yel­low 1965 S2 and the new­est a red and white Elan Sprint. Jan Mcfedries, sec­re­tary of the Christchurch-based South­ern Lo­tus Reg­is­ter, also owns an Elan. KW His­torics, in East Ta­maki, Auck­land, is the New Zealand Lo­tus spe­cial­ist for parts and ser­vice.

Ap­par­ently, Lo­tus was some­what re­miss in record­ing build num­bers, and es­ti­mates of to­tal Elan pro­duc­tion vary be­tween 9569 and 12,224. Vet­eran mo­tor­ing writer John Bol­ster be­lieved that only 3300 Elans were made. Only about 50 ini­tial cars got the 100hp (75kw) 1498cc adap­tion of the newly in­tro­duced twin-cam Lo­tus-ford five-bear­ing, four-cylin­der 116E engine be­fore the big­ger bore 1558cc mo­tor was in­tro­duced with 105bhp (78kw), or 115bhp (86kw) in Spe­cial Equip­ment ver­sions.

On the track

The bril­liant Jim Clark de­buted the twin­cam power unit in the small, 3.5m long Lo­tus 23 mid-en­gined sports car at the Nür­bur­gring in May 1962. Clark as­tounded the crowd by out­per­form­ing more pow­er­ful Fer­raris, Porsches, and As­ton Martins be­fore be­ing over­come by fumes when the ex­haust man­i­fold was dam­aged. This highly suc­cess­ful Ford-based engine went on to power not only the Elan but also the Europa, Lo­tus Cortina, and Es­cort TC.

Swiss-born Gérard ‘Jabby’ Crom­bac was a no­table mo­tor­ing jour­nal­ist and a long­time friend of Clark and Colin Chap­man. Well known around race­tracks, with his horn-rimmed glasses, flat cap, and pipe, Jabby spoke flu­ent English, and was an ar­dent An­glophile and en­thu­si­as­tic Lo­tus owner — he even called his dog Lo­tus. Crom­bac had his first pit pass at the 1948 Swiss Grand Prix (GP) in Berne. The same year, he met Au­tosport ed­i­tor Gre­gor Grant at the British GP; that meet­ing led to him be­com­ing the mag­a­zine’s first Euro­pean cor­re­spon­dent. In 1962, Crom­bac founded the French mag­a­zine Sport-auto, and cel­e­brated his 500th For­mula 1 (F1) race at the 1966 French GP. He died in 2005, at the age of 76, af­ter a long fight with can­cer.

Years ago, Crom­bac re­called how he came to own Clark’s last Lo­tus road car — a yel­low S3 Elan drop­head coupé that was his com­pany car. When the Scots­man was in New Zealand for the 1967 Tas­man Series, he wrote to Jabby say­ing that he had de­cided to avoid crip­pling British taxes by as­sum­ing res­i­dence in Ber­muda, but he also needed a con­ve­nient base in Europe for the F1 cal­en­dar.

As a re­sult, Clark shared a flat in Paris with Crom­bac, who owned a well-used Elan. Early in 1968, Clark was to re­place his S3 Elan with a newly in­tro­duced Elan +2, and Crom­bac ex­pressed an in­ter­est in buy­ing Clark’s yel­low S3. Crom­bac was bound for the BOAC 500 sports car race at Brands Hatch, run the same day in April as the fate­ful Hock­en­heim For­mula 2 race in which Clark was killed. The pair went to Paris air­port in the yel­low Elan, with Clark head­ing for Ger­many.

“This is your car now,” said Clark, hand­ing over the keys — and Crom­bac had seen his friend for the last time.

Iron­i­cally, Clark had been sched­uled to drive a Ford F3L sports car pro­to­type at Brands, but en­trant Alan Mann for­got to con­firm the en­try, so Clark went to Ger­many in­stead.

Crom­bac said that he never re­ceived an in­voice for the car from Lo­tus, and as­sumed that Clark had ar­ranged this with Chap­man. He used the Elan for more than a decade, run­ning up more than 80,000 miles with few prob­lems, be­fore restor­ing it. This same spe­cial Elan ap­peared at the 2013 Good­wood Re­vival meet­ing.

Prom­i­nent own­ers

Clark’s Lo­tus team­mate, Gra­ham Hill, ran an Elan. Other prom­i­nent own­ers have in­cluded Paul New­man, Jay Leno, Michael Craw­ford, Pe­ter Sell­ers, Mike Spence, and Stir­ling Moss. Mclaren F1 cre­ator Gor­don Mur­ray is a huge Elan fan, own­ing a 1964 road­ster. Mur­ray was dis­ap­pointed that he could not give the Mclaren F1 road car the per­fect steer­ing of the Elan. Mike Fle­witt, chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer at Mclaren, owns three Elans — a 1964 road­ster, a 1963 Elan mod­i­fied for rac­ing, and a late-1973 fixed­head Sprint.

Fa­mous mo­tor­ing jour­nal­ist De­nis Jenk­in­son, who nav­i­gated Stir­ling Moss to vic­tory in the 1955 Mille Miglia, once drove an Elan from Lon­don to Si­cily and loved the car’s road be­hav­iour: “By the time I got to Sira­cusa, which was 1650 miles from my home, I had ex­tended the Elan un­der al­most all pos­si­ble types of go­ing and had found it to be ab­so­lutely vice free. It may well be that the han­dling is so per­fect that it ap­pears unimag­i­na­tive, and that it needs sober re­flec­tion to re­al­ize just how good it re­ally is.”

Jenks found it hard to imag­ine how the ride, han­dling, steer­ing, and cornering could be im­proved.

Phas­ing out of Elite

The ar­rival of the Elan saw a phas­ing out of the slightly larger four-year-old Elite, which was a moulded fi­bre­glass mono­coque with no sep­a­rate chas­sis and engine; sus­pen­sion and steer­ing were mounted di­rectly onto the body. The Elan, in con­trast, came with its fi­bre­glass body mounted on a strong, al­beit light, chas­sis frame. The box sec­tion that runs through the cen­tre of the cock­pit leads to chan­nel sec­tion mem­bers at both ends, form­ing cross mem­bers, with the steer­ing gear and sus­pen­sion at­tached to them. Com­pre­hen­sive restora­tions usual en­tail re­place­ment of the chas­sis, which are highly sus­cep­ti­ble to cor­ro­sion.

Mike Costin, who later formed Cos­worth En­gi­neer­ing with Keith Duck­worth, de­signed the chas­sis frame, which has a small num­ber of sep­a­ra­tions that im­prove strength, with metal re­in­force­ments at vi­tal spots. The whole floor area of the body, in­clud­ing door sills and lug­gage com­part­ment, is in one piece.

Foam-filled fi­bre­glass bumpers were moulded separately from the body and are re­sis­tant to mi­nor scrapes and im­pacts. Own­ers would soon ex­pe­ri­ence vac­u­umservo-op­er­ated re­tractable head­lights that did not al­ways pop up on de­mand. As unit con­struc­tion be­came the norm, back­bone frames such as the Elan’s were rare. The idea was orig­i­nally de­vel­oped by Ed­mund Lewis and used on the 1904 Rover, and later on the 1935 MG R-type.

In 1962, the Elan broke ground as the first British sports car with a dou­ble-over­head­cam engine and all-in­de­pen­dent sus­pen­sion. It had a chas­sis that was as light as a F1 Lo­tus sin­gle-seater while be­ing a re­mark­able six times stiffer.

70th an­niver­sary

This year marks the 70th an­niver­sary of Lo­tus, with Chap­man’s 1948 Mark 1 built in a small Lon­don lockup garage, although it was four years later that Lo­tus was formed. The Elan was im­bued with the Colin Chap­man the­ory of “sim­plify, then add light­ness” — although it is fair to say that that phi­los­o­phy some­times got him into trou­ble. Many own­ers would have a love–hate re­la­tion­ship with their Elans —

they loved the way the car drove, but hated the an­noy­ing prob­lems and often-patchy build qual­ity. As one owner said, “You need to have a sense of hu­mour to own one.”

The ve­hi­cle is so small that some found it nec­es­sary to drive the car bare­foot, while oth­ers said that the seat­ing could han­dle the long­est legs. Too small, or just right? De­pends, per­haps, on your way of think­ing or your per­sonal build. The ped­als are close to­gether, and the hand­brake is awk­wardly lo­cated to the right of the steer­ing col­umn. This hardly mat­tered on my 1964 test car, be­cause the hand­brake lever failed to work!

How­ever, there’s much to like about this lit­tle car that mea­sures a mere 3683mm, is just 1422mm wide, and sits on a 2134mm wheel­base. While later mod­els gained ex­tra equip­ment and weight, early Elans tipped the scales at an amaz­ingly trim 680kg. The busi­nesslike fa­cia is fin­ished in oiled teak ve­neer and has all the right in­stru­ments tra­di­tion­ally lo­cated. A short lift­ing gear lever sit­ting atop a high tun­nel has a tight and quick ac­tion for the close-ra­tio four-speed gear­box.

The car’s fi­nal drive uses four Rotoflex cou­plings, or rub­ber dough­nuts, to con­nect the dif­fer­en­tial out­put shafts to the rear rubs, sim­i­lar to the Triumph GT6 and Hill­man Imp. Sup­ple rear sus­pen­sion al­lows sig­nif­i­cant ver­ti­cal wheel travel but some wind-up and snatch of the cou­plings is some­what un­nerv­ing at first.

Early ex­am­ples are known for their scut­tle shake, rat­tles, iffy electrics, and other qual­ity is­sues, with own­ers be­com­ing in­creas­ingly weary of road­side rit­u­als and things to fix. Most own­ers rated fragility as the worst fea­ture of the Lo­tus, high­light­ing lack of re­li­a­bil­ity and poor paint and body­work qual­ity, while al­most all rated han­dling as the car’s best qual­ity. An Elan is not with­out its foibles and is clearly a car that can­not be bought and for­got­ten.

Pure de­light

In my 1964 road test on soak­ing-wet Waikato roads, it was sur­pris­ing to find in a rel­a­tively ex­pen­sive car that the door win­dows had to be raised by hand — and, in the rain, it was nec­es­sary to open the door to lower the glass! Later coupés would have elec­tric op­er­a­tion, which Lo­tus found to be no more costly than man­ual winders. Im­me­di­ately im­pres­sive in the tight cock­pit were the su­perbly shaped seats, the great driv­ing po­si­tion, and the ad­justable wood-rim steer­ing wheel.

De­spite ap­palling con­di­tions through­out my test — which left no op­por­tu­nity to lower the soft-top — I found the Lo­tus pure de­light, with re­fresh­ing ac­cel­er­a­tion matched by im­pec­ca­ble han­dling. My notes read: “The car gives a flat, but com­fort­able ride, and there is lit­tle one can say about the han­dling since it is so good. There is plenty of el­bow room, and, with the gear lever mounted so high, the hand sim­ply moves to the left to change cogs.”

The +2 en­ters pic­ture

The Elan +2 is, es­sen­tially, an ex­tended, wider-tracked Elan, with longer wish­bone arms and a front wind­screen from the orig­i­nal 1961 Ford Capri that worked per­fectly with the curved side win­dows. Iron­i­cally, how­ever, by the time that the +2 en­tered pro­duc­tion in 1967, Ford had scrapped the tool­ing for the screen and metal sur­rounds, so that was an ex­tra cost for Lo­tus.

No fewer than 11 engine op­tions were in­ves­ti­gated for this larger, more el­e­gant­look­ing Lo­tus, in­clud­ing the V8 Rover and Daim­ler power units, but, even­tu­ally, the Lo­tus twin-cam from the smaller Elan was adopted. Of course, the trump card for the +2 was in­creased in­te­rior ac­com­mo­da­tion, with oc­ca­sional rear seat­ing. The 195kph top speed was iden­ti­cal to that of the short­er­wheel­base Elan, as were the car’s out­stand­ing road man­ners.

Elan to­day

To­day, S1 Elans are the most valu­able and +2s the least ex­pen­sive. Prices are high­est in the UK, where a con­cours ex­am­ple can fetch the equiv­a­lent of $75K, while an av­er­age­con­di­tion ex­am­ple will be worth $40K. How­ever, it is es­ti­mated that barely 20 per cent of the Elans made still ex­ist.

The first-gen­er­a­tion Elan has been rated in the top six of the best sports cars of the ’60s. This im­pres­sive ac­co­lade is all the more com­mend­able given the fact that the Elan was rea­son­ably af­ford­able — although, at the time of my road test in 1964, I ap­par­ently deemed it ex­pen­sive. A pity, then, that so few of them are around to­day.

Above: Donn’s road-test Elan in the Waikato in 1964 — one of the first two to ar­rive in New Zealand

Right and fac­ingpage: The 1964 Elan on lo­cal roads (pho­tos: Jack In­wood)

A 1963 British Lo­tus fac­tory ad­ver­tise­ment for the Elan

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