Why you’d want a Lotus Elan (1963-’74)
Colin Chapman wanted a road car that was easier to build and with less fragile and costly componentry than the troublesome Elite. It was hard to achieve torsional stiffness in an open car with a glassfibre monocoque, so, with designer Ron Hickman, he devised a clever folded-steel backbone chassis to stiffen the GRP shell while adding a minimum of extra weight.
For the engine, Chapman and his friend Walter Hayes at Ford conceived a dual-overhead camshaft conversion of its new oversquare small ‘four’. It was to be used in Chapman’s latest model and in a saloon that Hayes wanted to boost Ford’s image with race wins.
Former Coventry Climax designer Harry Mundy drew up the brilliant twin-cam head and JAP was contracted to build the engines; assembly moved in-house in ’67.
Hickman’s styling was simple yet elegant, with faired-in bumpers and pop-up headlights. A Coupé was added in ’65, styled by John Frayling, but Hickman again took charge of the Elan +2, a longer, wider and more sophisticated fixed-head for families.
While all of this was going on, Lotus was winning F1 World Championships and moving its factory wholesale from Cheshunt to Hethel. Up until the +2S of ’69, all Elans were also available in kit form for home assembly.
Chassis rot was inevitable and most survivors have had theirs replaced. Elans can be reliable if well maintained, and have even been known to clock up 750,000 miles, but not all have been so well cared for.
Beware neglected cars, and sought-after models built up from parts – check the history and specification carefully. Originality is now highly valued and converted cars such as chop-top +2s are becoming orphans.
If a car needs a chassis, consider the ancillary work, rebuilding suspension and perhaps running gear, plus all the labour involved.
Elan prices are rising, but, unless you do the work yourself, there needs to be a big margin between the purchase price and the value of a pristine car. A tired shell can be even more costly to refurbish, because GRP repair, while straightforward, is labour-intensive.
It may well be best to replace a rough body with a new one rather than spend £10k repairing and spraying it. And beware the recent paint-job – has it been done thickly over cracks and crazing, and was it prepped properly?
Lotus Elan (1963-’74): what to look for
See above for trouble spots
Twin Cams became steadily stronger and more powerful, but Stromberg carbs fitted to meet US emissions regs are less desirable (you can’t bolt Webers onto a Stromberg head). Check for 40psi at speed, 20psi at tickover and no excessive blue smoke, knocks and rattles. Does it look clean and well maintained? A rebuilt unit costs £5-6000.
Cooling is vital with an aluminium head, and the water pump can be weak. Ensure electric fan works, but isn’t on all the time, and check for oil in coolant and vice versa.
Clever strut rear end is Elan’s handling and ride secret; novel rubber doughnuts worked well, although parts quality today is suspect and their life can be short.
Vacuum operates pop-up headlamps: check they work, and look for crazing and poor panel fit throughout. Glassfibre repair is costly unless you do it yourself.
Hood should look good and fit snugly. On early cars it sits on a complex set of GRP mouldings and steel rods; S3-on is much simpler, and costs £419 in Everflex.
Almost all Elans have the superb Corsair 2000E gearbox; late models have a five-speed built by Lotus with Maxi gears. Check for synchro and bearing wear.
Seat frames rot and break as damp gets in. These are S3 seats, with different trim pattern from S2. Specialists have reintroduced most plastic trim sections.
Lotus Elan (1963-’74): on the road
An Elan should feel lively on the road, with a good spread of power through the rev range. The Twin Cam is reliable if well maintained, most critical being the cooling system and the danger of head corrosion with insufficient inhibitor.
Check for leaks around the water pump: rock it to see if the bearings are worn. A ring of bolt heads around it indicates conversion to a removable water pump, a definite plus. Otherwise you have to take off the head to access the pump.
Being on the original chassis isn’t a bonus, because, even if not rusted, it’s likely to be weakened by cracks. The ultimate replacements are those made by Lotus (optionally galvanised), stamped ‘LR’ for ‘Lotus Replacement’. Spydercars’ are also excellent, with extra stiffening and the facility to drop the sump and propshaft.
Upgrades are numerous, including an aluminium radiator, uprated fan, alloy fuel tank, electric lamp-lift conversion and stronger suspension. Spydercars offers a 2-litre 190bhp-plus Zetec for +2s, plus spaceframe chassis. Such extreme mods are less popular now that originality is prized.
The front suspension used Triumph Herald components; it wears, but the parts to rebuild it as-new are cheap to fit. The rear set-up, being unique to Lotus, is a more complex proposition and the poor quality of replacement rubber doughnuts has led many to convert to CV joints.
Given the age of the cars and the need for almost all electrical items to be double-wired – that is, earthed back to the chassis – electrics can give problems, so check it all works. Fixing may be simple although damp can wreak havoc.
Lotus Elan (1963-’74) price guide
- Show / rebuilt: £20,000
- Average: £13,000
- Restoration: £7000
- Show / rebuilt: £42,000
- Average: £22,000
- Restoration: £12,000
- Show / rebuilt: £45,000
- Average: £28,000
- Restoration: £14,000
Lotus Elan (1963-’74) history
1963 May Elan production starts
1964 Nov Series 2 launched: walnut veneer fascia replaces teak, larger front brakes, battery in boot not cockpit, trim upgrades, new rear lights
1965 Oct Coupé announced; electric windows
1966 Jan 115bhp SE DHC added: high-lift cams, re-jetted Webers, servo brakes, knock-off wheels
1966 Jun S3 DHC unveiled: much better hood, framed door windows, higher diff ratio
1966 Jul SE FHC added
1967 Jun 118bhp +2 launched: wider, longer, more luxurious, bigger front discs and larger tyres
1968 Oct S4: flared arches, new rear lights, wider tyres, twin-pipe exhaust, rocker switches, new trim Nov Stromberg carbs specified; dropped in ’70
1969 Mar +2S launched (standard +2 dropped Dec): alloy wheels, more instrumentation
1970 Nov two-tone Sprint launched, big-valve 126bhp unit, stiffer diff carrier; big-valve +2S 130 unveiled (production starts in Feb 1971)
1973 Five-speed gearbox option on Sprint and +2S 130/5
1973 Mid Sprint manufacture ends
1974 Dec Last +2S built
The owner’s view
“I bought this 1964 S2 in ’69 in Canada for $1100 (about £250),” recalls Peter Battrick. “I was 25 at the time. I’d had a TR4A before, which felt agricultural in comparison. The Elan is visceral: even driving down a straight road you feel as if you’re on the edge, it’s fire and brimstone. The front is hard but Colin Chapman put soft struts on the back, which makes it comfortable.
“When I returned to England in 1972, I converted it to right-hand drive. It was in terrible condition. I fitted a Spyder chassis and a new shell from Boss: the car had been crashed before I bought it – the new body was half the weight and twice as stiff.
“The doors, bonnet and bootlid are original, as is the running gear, but the seats and colour are S3; it was originally black. I have a 911 as well: they are totally different!”
ALFA ROMEO SPIDER
Sweet styling, a stiff monocoque and tasty twin-cam plus five speeds made the Alfa a fine sporting car. Performance was always well behind the Elan, but S2-4 are now better value.
Sold 1966-’94 • no built c120,000 • mpg 24-34 • 0-60mph c13-9.2 secs • top speed 106-116mph • price new £2199 (1750, 1970) • price now £10-45,000
The TR was keenly priced with a smooth ‘six’, versatile overdrive gearbox and injection, even if its traditional chassis construction was decades behind the Lotus. Fun, in a different way.
Sold 1967-’76 • no built 94,797 • mpg 19-28 • 0-60mph 8.1 secs • top speed 120mph • price new £1401 (1970) • price now £15-50,000
Lotus Elan (1963-’74): the Classic & Sports Car verdict
A good Elan, of any model, is an absolute joy to drive and a pleasure to own. Plus, it’s more spacious and practical than it looks. The ideal is a car with full history and a sheaf of bills from respected specialists.
Chassis and even body replacement doesn’t harm values, but non-original spec, apart from reversible sensible improvements, does. Choose carefully.
- Lotus innovation at its best
- Superb styling, rust-free body
- Fanatical following and great back-up
- One of the best-handling cars ever
- Non-original bitzas abound
- Chassis rot means costly replacement
- Scruffy bodywork can be even more expensive to make perfect
Lotus Elan (1963-’74) specifications
Sold/number built 1963-’74/c12,450
Construction steel backbone chassis, glassfibre body with steel stiffening around door apertures
Engine iron-block, alloy-head, dohc 1558cc ‘four’, twin carbs: Weber 40DCOE, Stromberg 175CD or Dell’Orto DHLA40 (early big-valves); 105bhp @ 5500rpm-126bhp @ 6500rpm; 108lb ft @ 4000rpm-113lb ft @ 5500rpm
Transmission four/five-speed manual, RWD
Suspension: front wishbones, coils, telescopics, anti-roll bar rear spring/damper struts, lower wishbones
Steering rack and pinion
Brakes Girling discs, 91/2in front, 10in rear, servo on SE, Sprint and +2, which has 10in front discs
Length 12ft 1in-14ft (3685-4265mm)
Width 4ft 8in-5ft 31/2in (1420-1615mm)
Height 3ft 91/2in-3ft 11in (1155-1195mm)
Wheelbase 7ft-8ft (2135-2440mm)
Weight 1410-1970lb (641-895kg)
0-60mph 8.7-6.7 secs
Top speed 114-125mph
Price new £1882-2476 (1970)
BUY A CLASSIC LOTUS ELAN