Review and road test of the Lotus Elan (1990 - 1995)
BY ANDY ENRIGHT
It's probably fair to say that the Lotus Elan is a something of a forgotten gem. Amid all the acclaim lavished upon its successor, the Elise, the front-wheel drive Elan has slipped down the back of the automotive sofa somewhat, waiting to be rediscovered by a new generation of sports car drivers
Prematurely killed off by Lotus in 1995, the Elan is still probably the finest handling front-wheel drive car available, although Honda's Integra Type-R and Ford's Racing Puma could well be in with a shout. Perhaps the cutesy styling undersold this excellent drivers car, but the astute used buyer could pick up a bargain before the rest of the market remembers what a great car the Elan was and indeed still is.
(2dr roadster 1.6 petrol [base, SE Turbo, S2 Turbo])
When working on the final stages of Project M100 in 1989, few staff at Lotus' Hethel factory realised that the name 'Elan' was about to be revived. Although carrying a significant weight of Norfolk heritage on its broad shoulders, the new Peter Stevens designed Elan looked to be well able to carry it off. Designed and built at a time when Lotus was cash-rich through its General Motors parent company, the Elan was a car that was engineered in a far more thorough manner than any new Lotus product before it.
Two models were available at launch, both using a variant of an Isuzu engine, the 130bhp Elan 1.6, which retailed at £17,850 and the punchy 165bhp Elan SE Turbo, on sale for £19,850. Although GM's development finances flowed freely, a downturn in the European and US economies coincided with the Elan's launch and two-seater roadster sales were hit hard. GM's projections of 100 sales per month in the US soon began to look optimistic, and figures bear this out, heavily discounted Elans clocking up 40 sales per month was nearer the mark. When the figures were totted up it was realised that development costs had spiralled out of control, compounded by the fact that the Elan was both difficult and expensive to manufacture.
The turbulent history of Lotus merits a book in itself, but when the American giant finally divested itself of the Norfolk company the Elan was virtually dead, the last of the Series 1 cars being built in July 1992. Of the 3855 Elans built to this point 96% were turbocharged SE models, indicating the normally aspirated car's relatively high pricing. New owner Bugatti had no plans for the Elan until a warehouse full of spare Isuzu engines was discovered in early 1994, large enough to warrant a limited run of Elans. Titled the Series 2, Bugatti sensibly did away with the normally aspirated option and fitted larger 16-inch wheels to give a more contemporary look, along with some minor suspension changes to accommodate the bigger rubberwear. The steering was retuned for a meatier feel and a catalytic converter was fitted to the Bosal exhaust system, reducing the engine's peak power by 10bhp to 155bhp. With increased build quality, improved interiors and a raft of small engineering fixes, the Series 2 models may not have been as quick as their predecessors, but represent a sounder ownership proposition for all but the spanner wielding, skinned-knuckle Sunday masochist.
The S2 was more of a success than the early cars, and although it was finally axed in 1995, the license was sold to Kia who built around 1000 Kia Elans, although it was never officially imported to the UK. Widely viewed as a good product in a bad market, the Elan's poor financial showing was salvaged to a certain extent in the benefit it gave Lotus' consultancy work. As an advertisement for 'Handling By Lotus', the Elan may just have saved the Norfolk company from the chop.
What You Get
The Elan is a pretty straightforward proposition. Ignoring the limited interest normally aspirated version, what do you get? A keen, buzzy Isuzu motor accompanied by the usual whoosh, whistle and chatter from the IHI turbocharger and intimate accommodation for two close friends. The interior is the usual late eighties/early nineties plastic dungeon, and although there are worse culprits than the Elan about, it is inside that the car shows its age. Whereas the exterior styling has aged really rather well, the interior doesn't look so clever.
The first thing you'll notice is the combination of a very low seating position and a high scuttle and window line. Along with the disappearing snout and tail, bulky wiper blade and rear blind spot this makes visibility something less than perfect, hindering initial confidence. You also tend to slide down the seats, especially if the owner opted for leather trim. Despite the seemingly haphazard switchgear arrangement, it's easy to get used to, and the steering wheel and gearlever are perfectly placed with a pedal box that encourages natty heel-and-toe footwork. Luggage space is predictably dismal, and you'll need to bear in mind that ABS was only offered on the Series 2 cars, with no Elans being fitted with airbags.
What to Look For
Despite the massive development budget, there are certain areas of the Elan that feel somewhat Heath Robinson. Adopt the 'hand-built low volume British sports car' mentality when dealing with the hood. Alternatively put a towel on your right leg if it looks like anything other than a light shower, as the Elan's roof has more leaks than Labour central office.
The engine is a tough unit, although the Cam Angle Sensor is a noted weak point. This sensor fails frequently due to internal corrosion, resulting in rough running, with the fuel injectors firing off at seemingly random intervals. The turbocharger is a largely reliable device, but it's best to leave it to cool down for a minute or so after prolonged high speed running. Many Elan owners fit an aftermarket 'turbo timer' to perform this function for them. Always run an Elan on fully synthetic oil to better dissipate heat.
Gear linkage failures are a fairly common problem on early cars, as is the engine torque damper and exhaust system. Other gremlins include pop-up headlamp motors, electric windows, torn or damaged soft tops, faded paints (especially red), and loose front hub carrier ball joints. Check the door windows for signs of scoring on the internal door guides, and don't worry too much about rattles from the fascia, doors or hood. All Lotus Elans rattle.
Inspect the glassfibre bodywork for signs of accident damage or abuse. Took a good look at all the panels in natural light for crazing, starring and paint fade. Don't automatically assume that poor panel fit is evidence of a shunt, as most Elans have some decidedly wonky panel fit, partly due to the difficulties in making GRP fit together nicely. Why do you think the TVR Tuscan had big scallops on the leading edge of the doors and trailing edge of the bonnet? Take a test drive with the hood down, as poorly fitting tops can lift at the rear at high speed, adding excess wind noise to the symphony of buzzes, whistles and rattles. A warped hood frame can be costly to repair.
What's left? The underside. If possible, get the car up on ramps and have a look at its dirty side. With only 5.5 inches ground clearance, it's not too difficult to 'bottom out' an enthusiastically driven Elan on an undulating road, and real heroic stuff can see damage to the oil cooler and intercooler, slung low behind the chin spoiler. Don't worry too much about minor scuffs to the undertray, but be wary of rust on suspension components and chassis, which is a galvanised item, so any rust will betray evidence of damage.
(approx prices based on Series 2 Elan) Those of you worried about the cost of running an Elan can rest easy here. Parts prices are surprisingly reasonable. Whilst a cynic would point out that it's just as well, the Elan owner can smile smugly knowing that a replacement exhaust system will cost £170 minus catalyst, whilst a clutch assembly is a none too terrifying £130. A set of front brake pads is £50 and a pair for the rear are around £60 An alternator is around £350, and a starter motor only a few pounds less. A dip beam unit for the front headlamp is £60, with a main beam retailing at around £30.
On the Road
This is where all those hours spent fiddling with the hood, trying to top up the gearbox oil and attempting to retrieve generic rattling things from inside the door trims become mere detail. It seems as if age has barely touched the Elan. Compared to many of today's roadsters, the Elan will still show them a receding view of its chubby rump. Once the turbocharger has given a hefty blast at 4000rpm, the engine feels like its trying to burst its cam covers, and in the lower gear ratios it sizzles up toward its 7000rpm red line with manic verve. The aural accompaniment isn't the most tuneful, but the Elan is undeniably effective.
You never get a convincing perception of quality in the Elan as it clonks, bangs and clatters along, and at first you experience a vague sense of disappointment with the rubberiness in its suspension, the slop in the gearchange and lack of lateral support in the seats, but when you pitch it into a corner, you get to see The Big Picture. There's hardly any body roll and trying to get the Elan to understeer requires some custodial sentence standard idiocy. It's incredible given that this is an open top car, the like of which usually heave, groan and pitch all over the place when thrown into a corner. When the Elan was launched 90% of the press releases contained the assertion that 90% of drivers could drive it at 90% of its capability at 90% of the time. These drivers are now in a secure unit near you.
The original SE Turbo was undeniably effective, making 60mph in 6.7 seconds on the way to 137mph, and although the paper figures for the S2 Turbo are little different, the car feels slightly slower, if no less fun, on all of the major increments. It'll be a classic when people remind themselves what it can do.
Be aware that buying a used Lotus Elan is going to be an endless series of fixes, repairs, frustrations and inconveniences. It's worth it though to experience the finest front-wheel drive chassis bar none. Yes, there are quicker cars and more sophisticated, more modern rivals, but the magic of the Lotus badge, the sheer verve of the handling and the depth of character of the Elan make it a charismatic used buy. Not for the timid.
Lotus Elan (1990 - 1995) review by ANDY ENRIGHT