The Lotus Elan was the road car that successfully translated Colin Chapman’s race-bred philosophy that lighter is better. It used a steel backbone chassis and a fiberglass body with then-novel hidden headlamps.

Lotus Elan

Colin Chapman was a canny Brit whose credo was that simplicity, lightness, and streamlining wins the race. After a modest start in the late 1940s souping-up tiny Austin Sevens, he formed Lotus Cars in 1952 and won fame with aluminum-bodied sports-racers that proved giant-killers despite small engines and somewhat fragile natures. Lotus soon expanded into road cars with the stark, speedy Seven roadster, followed in 1959 by the elegant Elite coupe, the world’s first production car with fully unitized fiberglass construction. But the Elan would showcase Chapman's philosophy that lighter is better.

In 1962, Chapman changed the shape of racing with rear-engine Formula 1 and Indianapolis cars. They made Lotus the decade’s dominant power in international open-wheel competition. That same year brought an equally revolutionary roadgoing Lotus, the Elan. Like the Elite, it was a petite fiberglass-bodied two-seater with a front four-cylinder engine, all-disc brakes, rack-and-pinion steering, and all-coil independent suspension with rear MacPherson struts. Also per Lotus tradition, the Elan was sold in both assembled and kit form (the latter avoiding high taxes in Britain).

But the Elan was a far more practical -- and saleable -- Lotus than the Elite. A neatly styled roadster with hidden headlamps, it eschewed its predecessor’s nervous Coventry-Climax engine for a larger, more reliable British Ford-based unit with a new Lotus-designed twincam cylinder head that gave all kinds of revvy performance in concert with Chapman’s weight-conscious engineering. The Elan also pioneered a new Lotus hallmark: a sturdy sheet-steel “backbone” chassis with forked ends for carrying the drivetrain and final drive. Though the design dictated a high center tunnel, it made for flat cornering and super-responsive handling that were state-of-the-sports-car art.

The communicative Lotus Elan cornered like a go-cart and accelerated well for its modest power, but assembly quality was spotty. (The steering wheel on this example is not original.)

The Elan evolved steadily over a dozen years, gaining a bit more power, a companion coupe, and nicer appointments, even siring a stretched “+2” coupe series. The final version, the 1971-74 Sprint, was arguably the best, thanks to its 126-hp “Big Valve” engine. Yet every Elan was what Road & Track once called “a gutty little car, highly refined in some areas and crude in others. [It calls] for a lot of concentration and skill if the driver is to handle it smoothly -- [but] the rewards of great cornering powers and a marvelously intimate connection between driver and road are worth the trouble.” Colin Chapman wouldn’t have it any other way.

The Elan evolved steadily over a dozen years, gaining a bit more power, a companion coupe, and nicer appointments, even siring a stretched “+2” coupe series. The final version, the 1971-74 Sprint, was arguably the best, thanks to its 126-hp “Big Valve” engine. Yet every Elan was what Road & Track once called “a gutty little car, highly refined in some areas and crude in others. [It calls] for a lot of concentration and skill if the driver is to handle it smoothly -- [but] the rewards of great cornering powers and a marvelously intimate connection between driver and road are worth the trouble.” Colin Chapman wouldn’t have it any other way.

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