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If all the world were a movie, you could probably freeze-frame the exact point at which the great British sports car died to some time in 1980, when the MGB finally went out of production after the best part of 20 years, just after the Midget and alongside its great rival the Triumph Spitfire.
The news heralded the beginning of a decade largely devoid of affordable wind-in-your-hair fun, as major manufacturers chose to stand by while the segment withered on the vine.
Choice amounted to little more than such niche offerings as the Reliant Scimitar SS1600 or the less nimble TR7 and TVR ‘wedge’, none of which fully lived up to the high bar set by Lotus back in the 1960s; it wasn’t until 1989 that the spirit of the Elan was reborn in the compact Mazda MX-5.
It’s a familiar story, but one that could so easily have had a different twist.
Because before the Japanese so successfully evoked the essence of the British roadster, a small firm in south Lincolnshire had beaten them to it.
Vegantune’s version, the evocatively named (but largely meaningless) Evante, was more true to type, rejecting modern developments such as anti-lock brakes and fuel injection in favour of rorty Dell’Ortos and a sackful of horsepower.
Spalding is as unlikely a location as you could expect to find for a cutting-edge tuning shop, a small, sleepy market town nestled among an expanse of flat fields.
And never was that more true than in the ’60s. But despite its isolation, it and its neighbours proved to be a hotbed for race engineering throughout the golden years of Formula One, headed by Bourne outfit BRM.
Not far away, on the outskirts of Spalding, a place called Cradge Bank was the perfect location for former BRM engineers George Walter Robinson and John Sismey to set up shop in 1965.
Robinson had honed his engineering skills building Graham Hill’s Grand Prix cars in the early 1960s, but his new venture, Vegantune, was dedicated to Lotus models from the off, with a particular focus on the diminutive Elan and the fire-breathing 26R that was launched the same year his company was founded.
His specialism was the Harry Mundy-designed Twin Cam, and extracting greater power from the celebrated 1558cc ‘four’ became his stock in trade.
From the little Fenland workshop emerged a steady stream of tweaked engines that found their way into everything from Alan Mann’s competition Escorts to Formula Three racers; everyone from James Hunt to Jacky Ickx would at one time race with Vegantune power.
The units were held in such regard in racing circles that many even made it Stateside for use in the SCCA’s Formula B and Formula C series.
By 1973 Lotus had decided to finally pull the plug on the Seven, a car that had survived and evolved since 1957 but which no longer chimed with the company’s upmarket ambitions.
The model was given a reprieve thanks to long-time Lotus dealer Caterham Cars, which struck a deal to purchase the rights from Chapman.
The following year, the Surrey outfit turned out 21 examples, each powered by the Lotus Twin Cam – with the notable exception of chassis 7 that, destined for racing, was fitted with an Alfa Romeo unit.
But as production of the Lotus Seven drew to a close, so too did the ageing Twin Cam engine.
Hethel still had an obligation to support Caterham, however, so turned to the firm that had been so successful in tuning and rebuilding the engines in the past: Vegantune.
Appointed as official reconditioner in 1975, Vegantune began producing remanufactured Lotus Twin Cams for use in Caterham Sevens that were destined for the Japanese market.
Around 300 export cars were so powered by 1978, after which Lotus decided that the time was right to finally put the Twin Cam out to pasture.
But with a burgeoning order book from Caterham and a loyal following of Lotus owners making the journey to Cradge Bank, Robinson decided to persevere with the Ford-based ‘four’, developing it to the point of being an almost entirely new engine: the Vegantune Type A.
Sticking with Ford componentry, Robinson based his new engine on the firm’s 225E ‘tall block’ Kent bottom end, which allowed for a capacity of 1598cc.
Vegantune then designed its own all-new cylinder head, a casting that took inspiration from some of the great twin-cams of the day, such as the Cosworth BDA, and ironed out many of the existing problems with the Lotus unit.
Externally, the biggest alteration was to the front of the engine, where the once-hidden chain drive was replaced by an exposed belt drive, while internally a number of improvements were made to the ports, valves, cooling and oil circulation.
Fed by twin Dell’Orto 40DHLA carbs, the new engine was good for 140bhp in standard tune, with an extra 20bhp available for units equipped with bigger ports, high-lift camshafts and an increase in compression ratio from 8.5:1 to 10.5:1.
Later versions were stretched to 1699cc, offering similar power but with a useful boost in torque.
Despite its early promise and impressive performance, the VTA was let down by its reliability.
The quality control programme couldn’t rival that of Lotus, and all too many engines left Cradge Bank with problems.
By 1983 the equally powerful but significantly more reliable Cosworth BDR had arrived on the scene, and when the 1700 Supersprint version was made available, demand for the Vegantune engine – at least in terms of bulk orders – began to dwindle.
In the end only 40 or so Caterhams were powered by the VTA, but where others might have seen a problem Robinson saw only opportunity: just as he had improved on the Twin Cam with the VTA, why not improve on the Elan and build his engine’s perfect home?
In truth, the idea of building his own car had been brewing since the early days of VTA development, and there were few people better placed to reimagine the Elan than Robinson.
From a styling standpoint the source is clear to see, with the Elan’s trademark shape only slightly altered for the new era: a pronounced lip spoiler on the rear deck and a more aggressive, sharper nose are the only giveaways at a glance.
The instantly recognisable doors are the same shape, while the ’screen was carried over wholesale.
Even the pop-up headlamps remained, now operated electrically rather than by vacuum, though Elan owners need not despair – these ones don’t work particularly well either. The rear clusters could be made to measure, but were actually lifted from the Triumph TR7.
Beneath the fitting British Racing Green paint of this 1989 car lie much greater changes. From the ground up, this was a new car and not merely a development of the original.
Gone was the backbone chassis, replaced by an all-new tubular-steel spaceframe.
Much of the running gear was carried over from the Ford Sierra, including the five-speed gearbox, differential and constant-velocity driveshafts – banishing once and for all the issues with the Elan’s troublesome Metalastik doughnuts.
The suspension was also much altered, the rear ‘Chapman struts’ so synonymous with the Elite and Elan dropped in favour of double wishbones all round.
Even the bodywork itself was different, being constructed from glassfibre cloth rather than mat, double-skinned where extra strength was required around the bulkheads, doors and windscreen surround, and filled with foam to offer greater impact absorption in the event of a crash.
The cabin is reminiscent of the Lotus, but with plenty of well considered modifications that aimed to boost practicality, safety and comfort.
The timber dashboard came in a variety of flavours, depending on customer preference, while reclining seats help a lot when it comes to finding a comfortable driving position.
They are wrapped in expensive Connolly hide, which continues on to the centre console and door cards – it all feels very civilised.
If there’s one area that lets the Evante down, it’s the use of familiar Ford switchgear, most of which came straight off the Escort.
The gearlever is the worst offender, looking as if it belongs in a tricked-up Transit van, but even that can’t shake the sensation that you’re climbing aboard a classic British sports car as you ease into the cabin and arrange your feet in the tight, narrow pedalbox.
For all the Evante’s controversial styling and clever engineering, its party piece is undoubtedly the VTA engine sitting beneath the bonnet, which fires with a bark from the exhaust and a roar of induction noise.
Any illusions of this being a sanitised evocation in the mould of the MX-5 are quickly shattered; the lumpy idle is coarse and unrefined, with a menacing burble from the stainless-steel tailpipe.
Eager to find out if it goes as well as it sounds, give it a dose of revs before dropping the heavy clutch and the rear wheels spin freely in response.
Period figures give a 0-60mph time of just 6.4 secs, and, while it doesn’t feel quite that quick, it certainly shifts – aided by remarkably light weight, though it probably tips the scales at more than the official 720kg.
Split-seconds later you can reach licence-teasing speeds, and getting there is a blast: it works through the gears beautifully, with the torquey ‘four’ perfectly matched to the drivetrain.
The big carbs don’t like early changes and low revs, but let it run out out to 6000rpm and it really flies. The angry noise is glorious at anything above 4000rpm, and the higher it climbs the better it gets.
Doing away with the Elan’s backbone chassis doesn’t hurt the Evante a bit, and it feels every inch a match for the Lotus on twisting rural back-roads.
It feels more planted than its ageing inspiration, too, partly due to firmer suspension but also more modern rubber (and more of it). Despite the bigger contact patch, there’s plenty of feel through the little Mountney wheel, with steering that’s weighty and communicative.
Driving quickly in the Evante soon becomes addictive and today, 30 years after the fact, it’s difficult to see why little more than 100 cars ever left the workshops at Cradge Bank.
When Lotus eventually revived the Elan name in 1989, the car it built – the M100 – could not have been much further removed from its namesake.
It had a backbone chassis, but was bigger, heavier and front-wheel-drive: reflecting the firm’s ambition more than its ethos. The Evante, on the other hand, remained true to the original formula, overcoming most of the Elan’s problems while adding few of its own.
There were plenty of reasons why the Evante failed to sell in large numbers – contentious looks, question marks over the reliability of the VTA and the arrival of the MX-5 – but the car that most hurt its prospects was probably the original Elan.
At just under £15k in ’88, a 140TC was considerably more than a secondhand Sprint – even at the height of the classic car boom.
But with a typical Sprint now costing £40k-plus, and Evantes still changing hands for little more than their list price new, perhaps the punchy little roadster’s time has finally come.
Images: Olgun Kordal
Thanks to UK Sports Cars
Vegantune Evante 140TC
- Sold/number built 1987-’93/106
- Construction steel tubular chassis with glassfibre body
- Engine iron-block, alloy-head, dohc 1699cc ‘four’,with two Dell’Orto 40DHLA carburettors
- Max power 140bhp @ 6500rpm
- Max torque 129lb ft @ 3000rpm
- Transmission five-speed manual, RWD
- Suspension independent, by double wishbones, coil springs, telescopic dampers
- Steering rack and pinion
- Brakes 10in (254mm) discs, with servo
- Length 12ft 2in (3720mm)
- Width 4ft 10½in (1490mm)
- Height 3ft 8½in (1130mm)
- Wheelbase 7ft ½in (2140mm)
- Weight 1607lb (720kg)
- 0-60mph 6.4 secs
- Top speed 132mph
- Mpg n/a
- Price new £14,887.70
- Price now £17,000*
*Price correct at date of original publication
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