A HANDL ING DEL IGHT
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.
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.
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.
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.
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