Lotus Elan: The Miata before Miatas

Back to the 1960’s.

The early 1960’s was a revolutionary decade for car culture. Many iconic cars we see on the streets today started life in the 60’s. The Ford Mustang, the Porsche 911, the Chevrolet Camaro, the Ford Falcon, and the list goes on…

America started producing what is known as the quintessential classic muscle car, Ferrari produced what is now the most expensive car ever sold at auction, Toyota created Japan’s first ever supercar, and Jaguar produced a car that would influence the manufacturer for decades ahead. The 1960’s was a decade of fierce motorsport rivalries and high horsepower legends; However, there were a few manufacturers that took a slightly different approach.

Iconic British firm Lotus, made a car that wasn’t like the rest, but would still make its way through time to become an icon of the 60’s. Launched in 1962, the Lotus Elan S1 had one objective. To be fun. Apply the same recipe 25 years later, and you have a Mazda MX-5 Miata. Dubbed “the perfect sports car of the 60’s”, this truly was the Miata before Miatas.

The Lotus Elan was extremely light. 688 kilograms to be precise. This was mostly due to the all-new fibreglass body and ‘backbone’ chassis which would prove to be very influential for the future of the brand, as Lotus used the same style of construction for the next 30 years. For the 60’s, this was was also loaded with rare luxury features including electric windows, an air conditioner & heater, and wooden trim!

With a front engine, rear-wheel drive setup, this car handled like a charm… It handled so well in fact that according to the designer of the McLaren F1, Gordon Murray, it handled even better than the F1.

So what made this little two seater convertible one of the best handling sports cars of all time? The low balanced engine performance and F1 developed soft anti-dive suspension all played a vital role. The new construction meant chassis stiffness was much higher than that of other convertible sports cars, and kept weight down. The Lotus Elan was also one of the first cars ever to be fitted disk brakes for all four wheels, meaning braking before corners required much less effort. All in all, the Lotus Elan had everything perfect down to the weight of the steering.

The Lotus Dual-Cam 1.6 litre inline-4 provided a good amount of power back in its time too. Although this car was never made to go fast in a straight line, it still performed very well for its time. The 0-100km/h figure for a 1967 Coupé has been measured at 7.9 seconds, reaching a top speed of 190km/h (which is already pretty quick for the 60’s), but in 1973, Lotus debuted the ‘Elan Sprint’, an enhanced version of the already quick and nimble car, and it measured a very quick 0-100km/h time of just 6.6 seconds!

The Elan ended production in 1973, and the Elan +2 in 1975, making a total production line of 17,000.

A new Lotus Elan was released around in 1989, called the M100, and around $55 million dollars was put into developing this car, making it the most costly car Lotus had ever developed. Whilst still being front engined, this time they chose a front-wheel drive layout. The top model was equipped with a 1.6 Litre turbocharged Isuzu engine with 121kW which meant a 0-100km/h acceleration figure of 6.5 seconds, and a tested top speed of 220km/h. Although being a great front-wheel drive handler, the M100 Elan wasn’t as much of a success as the original, and after six years and around 4,600 units sold, the car ended production. It wasn’t forgotten though, as development progress was sold to Kia, where it was reborn for Kia’s own domestic market as the Kia Elan for four years until 1999. We digress.

The 1960’s Lotus Elan was an incredible car in pretty much every category. It was fast, good looking, had a beautiful interior, and is arguably the best handling sports car ever made. A man who designed the driving dynamics of one of historys greatest hypercars stated that he could not replicate the handling characteristics of the Lotus Elan, and to that we state… Well what more needs to be said?

AutoNews Australia

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