For the latest classic car news, features, buyer’s guides and classifieds, sign up to the C&SC newsletter here
I’ve never counted them, but the number of separate and distinct car models I’ve driven, from the most common and the most cheap, to the most rare and expensive, must run to several thousand. I know I am a lucky chap.
This may seem like an undignified boast but it isn’t. I’ve been paid to test and write about cars for the past 48 years; if someone keeps paying you to do a job you love, why not do it?
One of my failures, however, has been never to develop a special, unconditional love for any one marque.
Maybe I’ve subconsciously avoided it because in the day job it’s not very helpful. If you’re supposed to make untainted judgements about new products you should avoid favouring a particular brand.
My other problem, if it is a problem, is that I’ve always liked and seen a role for nearly every car – yes, even FSO and Wartburg. But along the way I’ve admired people for whom Peugeot 504s or Morris Eights are the be-all-and-end-all, seeing how they settle for knowing everything there is to know and how they enjoy the company of like-minded people.
Over the years I’ve owned a couple of dozen classic cars, usually bought in a flush enthusiasm and sold a year or two later (more often than not at a loss), when they failed to change my life.
The only automotive commitments I’ve stuck to are an original Citroën Berlingo (we have a well-used 17-year-old in prime working order) and a Harley-Davidson Sportster motorbike (I’m on my second, 11 years old). Thinking about it, the reason these have endured is because I never required them to change my life: they fitted right in…
Anyway, I think I’ve just acquired a car to which I can make a serious, long-term commitment.
It’s a Lotus Elan M100, the unpopular late 1980s front-drive model of which just 4700 were made in two series (SE and S2) between 1989 and 1995.
It sits between the much more famous front-engine/rear-drive Chapman Elan launched in 1962, and the mid-engined Elise which became the marque’s staple roadster from 1996 and is still in production.
Given the Elise’s ubiquity and proven qualities, why opt for something as bizarre as an M100? It is, after all, one of the most extreme examples of an orphan there is: cheap to buy and ignored to the extent that only one worthwhile book has ever been written about it – Mark Hughes’ tome of 1989 that’s been so long out of print that a pristine copy sets you back £70 from a specialist book dealer.
This M100 is not my first Lotus but my ninth. I’ve had a Six, a Seven, a Lotus Cortina, an Excel, two Elans (Sprint, Plus 2S) and two Mk1 Elises.
All were enjoyable, but none hung around more than a couple of years. Somehow they weren’t quite me.
I’ve always loved the legends that surround Lotus, Colin Chapman’s and Jimmy Clark’s incomparable genius, the hard work and inspiration that produced such an amazing rush of engineering progress, the cars’ wonderful steering and handling, the brilliance required to make something great from ordinary components. And, of course, the famous just-add-lightness mentality.
But I also experienced the frequent frailty, unreliability, cheapo trim and ropey door fit. Oh, and smoke billowing from under the under-dash electrics enough times not to want it any more. Being an outsize sort of bloke, I also lost interest in continually squeezing into something engineered for Chapman’s 5’7” frame, only to find that my size 11s didn’t fit the pedalbox.
So why the M100?
One reason is my own unusually close connection with the car. I wrote a healthy number of CAR and Autocar stories about it, before its arrival, at launch and afterwards.
That entailed much talking not only with Mike Kimberley (always candid and genial), but also with designer Peter Stevens and Lotus’ F1 ace-turned-engineer, John Miles, who became the strongest advocate of front-drive for the roadgoing roadster Lotus needed for the early 1990s, and put many hours of his life into making the steering work.
In various extended test sessions Miles showed me how to get the best from this car: how to make it flow beautifully and rapidly along any road, while ignoring cornering histrionics. I like such cars.
The fact that Miles had also written a great deal for Autocar helped us understand one another. He showed me how to drive the car, and sometimes, usually in the middle of the night, he’s asked for my help to get over the odd journalistic hurdle.
There’s more. At launch, this was by far the most thoroughly engineered roadgoing Lotus ever. It was intended for a life in the US where durability and crash safety were vital, where dealers were widely spread and cars can’t expect lots of careful maintenance.
The M100 is petite in dimensions (way shorter than today’s Renault Clio or Ford Fiesta, and at least a foot lower) yet it has a roomy, comfortable cockpit with big doors and a near-perfect driving position, designed to put the needs of UK customers first. The standard seats are Recaros.
Oh yes, and it’s got pop-up headlights, a trivial detail to some, but not me.
It goes a bit, as well. True, the 1100kg kerbweight is nothing special, but the 165bhp output of its 1.6-litre GM-Isuzu turbo engine (and especially its 148lb ft of torque) mean that, as long as you use the 7200rpm redline, you’ll achieve a 0-60mph time of 6.5 seconds and a 135mph top speed, decent figures even today.
Using the poke (and possibly augmenting it) I’m planning to have a go at a few hillclimbs in 2021 and the Elan will allow me to ‘do the double’. But that I mean drive to the venue with race kit and numbers in a sensibly sized boot, yet (hopefully) go well enough not to be disgraced, then as long as I haven’t stuck it under the Armco, to trundle comfortably home.
Is that all? Not quite; four more things drive this new enthusiasm.
One is the experience of a car industry friend, Conor Twomey, who bought an M100 about a year ago and has accumulated so much knowledge and enthusiasm through lockdown that he has become a social media hero. I’ve driven his car (total investment £2000) and have been very impressed.
Another big plus is the proximity of Bromsgrove Lotus expert Paul Matty and his staff of experts who have M100 know-how and spares whenever they’re needed.
Another factor guiding my choice is perversity. I’ve always had a nagging but unfocused dislike of the assumption (in some quarters) that only ‘approved’ models from a particular marque are worth going for. To me, such closed-mindedness speaks more about impressing neighbours than liking cars.
The last thing is cost. I’ve paid top dollar (a relatively modest £10,000) for a perfect 61,000-miler and I am finding this car makes me happy in a new way.
Discovering joy in something you can afford without breaking the bank is an especially happy part of classic car ownership. It means that if you need new brakes or stickier tyres or a free-flow exhaust, you just grab ’em. No saving needed.
Now all I require – as do you – is for supplies of the COVID vaccine to flow and for 2021’s classic car gatherings to be confirmed. And then I’m going to enjoy every minute.
I’ll see you out there!
Images: Tony Baker/Steve Cropley
Daring to be different: Lotus Elan M100 vs BMW Z1
How the Elise saved Lotus and became a legend
Luxury coupés: Mercedes 230CE vs Lotus Elite vs Lancia Gamma