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Before you even pop open the small, short doors, you know exactly how a Lotus Elise is going to drive.
You know, for example, that the steering will be faultless. And you know it will feel more like a kart than a car.
You know, too, that it will corner in a way that will make you never want to see a straight piece of road again.
You know that it will feel so much faster from the driving seat than it has any right to from the numbers on paper.
You know this not just because the little sports car has had every superlative waxed upon it since the first road testers took the helm 25 years ago, but also because it projects it. More than that, it positively bristles with it.
That on-paper modesty is also partly the Elise’s greatest trick.
It isn’t overwhelming or daunting for the average driver who enjoys getting behind the wheel, and its output isn’t high enough to leave a boat-load of performance in its pocket.
Where faster, more powerful cars can leave you cold, knowing there is so much untapped potential, it pours from the Elise through every kink in the road, every flick of the wheel and every clip of the throttle.
Plan ahead, back off and create a gap – however small – and every bend is your safe little playground.
Safe, because most will only ever find the limits on a race track. Nothing can touch it, and so it has been for a quarter of a century.
In cricketing terms, scoring 25 is a start, a missed opportunity and a waste of good foundations.
In car terms it is a lifetime, literally so for the Elise because its production at the Hethel factory is winding down, having saved the company and changed the sports-car game.
When the Elise was unveiled at the Frankfurt Motor Show in 1995, Lotus was teetering after the front-drive Elan M100 failed to live up to expectations, both economically and with buyers despite early critical promise, and would be destined to end its existence carrying around a Kia badge.
Bugatti had taken over the Norfolk marque, briefly revived the Elan, and challenged the design team led by Julian Thomson to truly awaken the slumbering British sports-car speciality.
Bugatti also secretly slid the proposal to Italy’s finest draughtsmen, but the in-house team was such a success that it delivered enough ink into the order books to today account for half of all the Lotus cars ever made, along with the also-departing Evora.
A startling fact for a firm founded in the wake of the Second World War, however small those garagiste beginnings were.
It is easy to understand why buyers have been won over.
There is an honesty to its roadholding, where nothing is falsified and no electronic trickery masks the link between your fingertips, the wheel, your feet and the road.
The car is as good and as fast as you can make it.
It is also guaranteed to bring a smile to your face and leave you wanting more: more time in the car; more winding back-roads; more talent, even.
‘The Car that Saved Lotus’, as we called it five years ago, is a contradiction in that it is a back-to-basics sports car underpinned by innovation.
The chassis and mechanicals feel physically close, like the best 1960s roadsters, because they physically are close.
Engineer Richard Rackham pioneered an extruded and bonded aluminium chassis, the benefits of which outweighed the unconventionality of form because it was both lightweight and helped pass crash regulations.
Likewise the glassfibre body, whose mountings provided the crumple zone and performed surprisingly well.
The downside is that, to enter, you swing your legs up and over high and wide chassis rails.
Once inelegantly inside, your feet are guided towards the top-mounted and close pedals that form an extruded aluminium artwork. Heel-and-toe practice comes as standard.
The suspension uprights are also extrusions, likewise the steering-column bracket.
The cabin is necessarily spartan to play its own part in keeping the weight down.
In many ways it hints at why the Elise remained revered but for ever on the fringes of the mainstream market.
While the Mazda MX-5 isn’t the last word in luxury, it at least pretended to make an effort with door cards, handles and padding.
The Elise instead focused on marque founder Colin Chapman’s unforgettable and oft-quoted ‘add lightness’ mantra.
The steering wheel looks as if it has been borrowed from an original Elan and clumsily put through a quick modernising process, before being attached to the shallow and plain aluminium dashboard.
The bucket seats are barely padded but hugging, the switchgear familiar to anyone who has spent any time in a ’90s Peugeot or Vauxhall.
Like the exterior, the interior conveys its intentions and propels the Elise firmly into the domain of the enthusiast.
You can crunch the seat forward or back, but never recline, and the feeling is immersive, barely inches from the road. Those high sills add to the snug fit.
But any misgivings are forgotten as soon as you turn the key to wake a slightly odd clatter – it’s not racy and raucous per se, but nor is it underwhelming – clunk audibly into gear, lift the tiny clutch pedal and press the accelerator hanging mere inches to the right.
The view is unbroken, with the fairly plain dials sunk in.
The first-generation Elise, codenamed M111 but christened almost off the cuff after Bugatti boss Romano Artioli’s granddaughter Elisa, spawned numerous offshoots from its long first branch.
First came the 100-run Sport 135 born out of the Sprint concept; notably followed the 111S with 143bhp and variable valve timing; most bizarrely came the stripped-back 340R (which looks very similar to early drawings by Russell Carr before the Elise was productionised); and perhaps most famously arrived the rapid Exige coupé. And that is to name but four.
Each carried a derivation of the 1.8-litre Rover K-series, lifted from the MGF but coming to life in this ultra-light machine.
With it came niggling connotations, of head-gasket failures and more – often unfounded, here at least.
“It’s been incredibly reliable given all that you hear,” says John McStea, owner of the 61st Elise out of Hethel.
“If you put a K-series in a Freelander or something, then the owner just gets in and boots it, whereas someone with an Elise will have a certain amount of mechanical sympathy.
“They will check levels, wait until it’s all warmed through, and generally have a degree of care that someone in a supercar would have. It’s the same mentality.”
He bought the car 18 years ago, when finding such an early example was not the achievement it would be today. Few in the club, SELOC, can beat it.
“If it was registered the day before it would have been an N-reg. I’d have loved that,” he admits.
“I rented an Elise for a weekend and within a couple of hours I knew I had to get one, by hook or by crook. It’s the only car I’ve kept for more than three years, and as long as I can get in and out of it I’ll keep it.
“It’s a high-days-and-holidays car, but because my wife won’t get in it’s a solitary pleasure.”
“When I have time for myself I take it out – I don’t thrash it, but I don’t potter either. I usually seek out quiet rural roads where it can be driven safely in a ‘spirited fashion’, and that is when the car really comes to life.
“Low-speed fun is really easy, you can really boot it and have fun on the twisties, then look down and see you’re only doing 55mph. Some roads at only 20 or 30.
“Getting in is an event, but it’s like no car I’ve ever owned: the environment is special in its simplicity.
“As a tool for driving, anywhere on any road, it’s the best I’ve ever owned. I loved my Aston Martin but when one had to go, it was the Aston.”
‘POAH’ is a true representation of the breed, too: it still has the original Koni shock absorbers – “There’s probably only half a dozen left with them on in the country; that’s normally the first thing that gets changed for longer-life ones” – and has the groundbreaking MMC brakes.
Combining aluminium and ceramic materials, sand-cast by Lanxide Corporation, machined by Hydraulics Inc – both in America – and tested hard on the Stelvio Pass, the self-cleaning result was a 100,000-mile life, huge stopping power and no need for a servo.
But at a princely cost.
Typically for Lotus, it made the early cars regardless, before conventional iron took over, and the price remained the right side of £20k.
More than 10,000 buyers were understandably attracted before the turn of the millennium, when the original plan was 3000 over four years – just 400 of which were expected in the first year.
By the middle of 1996, as Bugatti ramped up its quest to begrudgingly sell the firm to keep itself alive, orders had tripled expectations.
Yet, in true Lotus fashion, not even one of the finest and most affordable drivers’ sports cars could keep money troubles out of the headlines and question marks from hanging.
Perhaps that affordability hadn’t helped; after all, it offers a pleasure far more expensive cars fail to even get close to.
A deal with General Motors to produce an Opel/Vauxhall sports car utilising Rackham’s chassis and the expertise working in the fields of Norfolk must have aided matters, though.
Officially there was less than 10% transfer of parts, but it modernised the factory, with 3000 GM twins to be built on the same line as the Elise as part of the deal.
Though the chassis was similar it had a different part number, and the VX220 appeared with lower sills and better boot space afforded by the longer wheelbase and wider track to fit the Astra’s 2.2-litre engine.
The Elise, too, needed modernising. It had been designed in the early ’90s with classic Lotus models in mind, predominantly the 23, plus the Ferrari Dino and others.
While still an appealing shape, its age was unquestionably shown up when the Series 2 was launched in Birmingham in 2000 – affording Autocar the very pleasing ‘New Elise of life’ headline.
Steve Crijns’ update looks none of its two decades, its influence still visible in the new Emira, and what is perceived by some as a Series 3 Elise from 2011 is deemed just a ‘2.5’ by Lotus.
The foundations were built upon to perfection, and have needed only freshening in the intervening decades.
The first Lotus designed digitally alongside a full-size clay model, the S2 integrated the trims to the chassis rails that GM requested to make the VX220 more saleable, and ingress is certainly improved without dampening the sense of theatre.
The dash looks more modern, the seats are more instantly comfortable and forgiving.
The headlights have encroached slightly into your field of vision via higher wheelarches, but they soon fade into the periphery.
Very familiar-looking air vents have sprouted, and a gaiter brings the aluminium-topped gearlever forward a few decades. There’s even a cupholder beneath the safer dash.
“It’s pointless having a radio, though,” admits Michael Gallagher, whose supercharged S2 replaced a normally aspirated version as a retirement gift to himself.
“I’ve been in the club since I had my first, and bought this on the internet, unseen, from Kent. I’ve had it since 2009, one year since new.
“There were 9000 miles on it, and there’s 19k now. I only use it locally. It’s a magnitude of difference in terms of performance. It doesn’t seem so rattly and it has a lot of torque – that appeals to me, being old!”
The long-serving Rover engine finally gave way in 2003, not least because the Esprit was long overdue a successor in the USA and the Americans supposedly wanted the Elise.
Marque legend Roger Becker championed the cause, and once Lotus had been taken over by Proton he persuaded a reluctant Toyota into a deal for the 1.8-litre engine and six-speed ’box from the Celica.
By ’04 it was de rigueur across the range, and launched in the US a year later. (A non-compliant airbag has meant the Elise has been unavailable in America for the past decade.)
Special editions sprawled from the line once again, including the return of the Europa name, a sort of precursor to the Evora but built on the Elise chassis, and the stripped-back 2-Eleven.
The more commercially minded SC perhaps had the biggest impact, shaving more than a second from the 0-60mph time to 4.3 secs yet remaining within a tonne in weight.
The Eaton supercharger kicks the car on to 150mph, too, some 26mph clear of the original S1.
It makes the Elise a different animal. Not entirely, but one that is more usable and user-friendly.
The increased torque means the ’box needs to be played less, able to pick up quicker through a responsive throttle without bogging down and leaving you to focus on hitting your line.
The blower’s constant whisper in your ear means there is interest on the straights, too. Touch a cat’s eye and the S2 better smothers the banging and clattering than the soundproof-free S1.
Nothing disrupts either’s poise and composure, though, and with care even through bends you can toy with the weight distribution by squeezing the power in and out.
The steering needs just a light touch and is utterly captivating.
It’s of little surprise that neither owner has taken their Elise on many long-distance trips; the boot is little more than a coolbox-sized gap behind the engine.
If it’s carrying the soft-top – and you rarely see one with the roof on – the load area is compromised yet further.
Luckily, you simply don’t need to go far to get the most out of an Elise – get an Evora if you want to go the distance, and cherish every corner in the Elise.
Though the lineage has become confusingly expansive, these two in many ways encapsulate the model.
If you want to chase apices and play, original is best. The S1’s lightness and sharpness are like little else on the road, and the fact that it looks a touch dated has added to its classic credentials.
But if you want the freedom to enjoy that sublime chassis with a bit of top speed in hand and without needing to work for it, then the SC is perfect.
The day in question and the task at hand would dictate my choice. What is for sure, however, is that few classic owners are as satisfied as those with an Elise.
As its retirement approaches, this Lotus saviour will be talked about for far longer even than its soon-to-end lifetime.
Images: Luc Lacey
Thanks to SELOC Lotus Enthusiasts
The inside line from the man on the track
Gavan Kershaw can very reasonably claim to know the Lotus Elise better than anyone else. Certainly nobody, except perhaps Matt Becker, has lapped Hethel more in one than the Lotus local.
He and Becker started at the factory on the same day, both aged 16, three decades ago.
“We were out from virtually the first prototype,” Kershaw reminisces, “and being young we’d embrace every test trip. We did a 24-hour race around Hethel in an Elise vs a Sunseeker around the UK.
“During the S1’s development was when the track changed, and during S2 it became more representative of how it is now.”
And that change was mirrored, conveniently, in the cars: “S1 to S2 was a huge jump because we added the brake booster, the Bilstein dampers, a new steel rear subframe and completely different suspension geometry at the rear.”
“We also wanted to change the S1’s negative camber in droop. They were lively on lift-off, and we had a huge carve-up of the rear suspension to put positive camber in: when you see an S2 corner, you can see much more tyre on the ground.
“Linked with that we worked with Bridgestone on a bespoke tyre – people said we were mad when we came out with the 175 fronts and 225 rears, but it meant we could get the balance, steering effort and feel we wanted. Initially we were using off-the-shelf tyres and often just looking for the best rear with the worst front, in effect.
“We didn’t want to change the rearward weight too much because to do so we would have had to add it – we couldn’t take any of it away.
“Customers said they wanted a bit of brake feel, because though they are good they don’t give you much confidence on initial check braking, plus ABS came into legislation.
“People talked about ingress and egress, so part of the S2 was to improve barriers to sale. Vauxhall helped, but we kept to what we wanted. Some of the suppliers we were able to use were because of the volumes of both cars.”
When the Toyota engine became standard, the key was then to retain the driving sensation.
“It gave us a natural increase of power,” says Kershaw, “but a different delivery. The K-series you had to work quite hard, whereas the Toyota was more modern and free-revving.
“We had to work on the gear ratios to work with the tyres, and not to lose that agility.
“The supercharger was a motorsport product. We put the intercooler above the engine, with the roof scoop, and then the Exige 240R was born.
“That showed us what superchargers could do while everyone else was working on small-capacity turbo engines or small-capacity with superchargers, rather than out-and-out cubic inches. The torque delivery was really good, maximum just off idle to a natural power delivery when the road loads come in.
“The general ride and handling was never criticised, so the job for Matt and me was to maintain it. We knew how we’d got there, working with John Miles and Tony Shute, and needed to tune the new systems to match it.”
Lotus Elise S1 1.8i
- Sold/number built 1996-2000/ 8613 (1.8i only)
- Construction riveted and bonded extruded aluminium chassis, glassfibre body
- Engine all-alloy, dohc 1796cc 16v ‘four’, multi-point fuel injection
- Max power 118bhp @ 5500rpm
- Max torque 122lb ft @ 3000rpm
- Transmission five-speed manual, RWD
- Suspension independent, by double wishbones, coil springs, Koni monotube dampers; front anti-roll bar
- Steering rack and pinion
- Brakes ventilated discs
- Length 12ft 1½in (3726mm)
- Width 5ft11½in (1820mm)
- Height 3ft 11¼in (1202mm)
- Wheelbase 7ft 6½in (2300mm)
- Weight 1594lb (723kg)
- 0-60mph 5.5 secs
- Top speed 124mph
- Mpg 28
- Price new £18,950
- Price now £10-25,000*
Lotus Elise S2 SC
- Sold/number built 2007-’11/1402
- Construction riveted and bonded extruded aluminium chassis, glassfibre body
- Engine MMC and aluminium dohc, VVTL-i 1796cc 16v ‘four’, Eaton M45 supercharger
- Max power 217bhp @ 8000rpm
- Max torque 156lb ft @ 5000rpm
- Transmission six-speed manual, RWD
- Suspension independent, by double wishbones, coil springs, Bilstein monotube dampers; front anti-roll bar
- Steering rack and pinion
- Brakes ventilated discs, with servo and anti-lock
- Length 12ft 5in (3785mm)
- Width 6ft (1850mm)
- Height 3ft 8in (1117mm)
- Wheelbase 7ft 6½in (2300mm)
- Weight 1918lb (870kg)
- 0-60mph 4.3 secs
- Top speed 150mph
- Mpg 33
- Price new £32,550
- Price now £30,000*
*Prices correct at date of original publication
How the Elise saved Lotus and became a legend