Lotus Elan

Lotus Elan 1600

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Lotus Elan 1600
Magazine Title: Road & Track
Published: December 1963
Road n track 63 12 1.jpg
Vacuum-operated pop-up headlights swing up to legal height.
Top, though not erected in one easy motion, is snug and ofers adequate head room
Office of standard U.S. model will have left-hand drive.
Cam covers, Webers, hint at lively performance
Bumpers are polyurethane-filled fiberglass shells
Un-installed top and hardware occupies most of trunk space.
Road n track 63 12 8.jpg

THOUGH THE Lotus Elan was introduced at the London Motor Show in 1962 and has made several competition appearances in England and on the Continent, it has remained a stranger to these shores until very recently. We therefore regarded ourselves as fortunate when invited to test the first model to have been brought in by a U.S. dealer, West Coast importer Bob Challman of Manhattan Beach, Calif.

Our test car, the importer tells us, is the standard "export" version that will be brought into the U.S., with the single important exception that ours was right hand drive rather than left. In all other respects, including engine tune, close ratio Hobbs gearbox, trim, finish and so on, it is the Elan that will be sold here.

As is expected in the creations of Colin Chapman and his merry men from Cheshunt, the Elan abounds in details of technical interest. It is unconventional in almost every way, sharing hardly any design or construction practices with the Elite or with the typical mass-produced sports car all the way from its vacuum-operated pop-up headlights to its centrally located chrome tailpipe at the rear.

The chassis is constructed in an unusual if not unique manner (the now-discontinued Mercedes 300-D sedan used a roughly similar design) that offers simplicity, lightness and strength. The backbone of the car is a rectangular mild-steel box 6 in. wide, 10.5 in. high and 25 in. long that occupies the space between the seats. This box divides at the front, running along each side of the gearbox and engine unit to a cross member on which the front suspension pieces are attached. At the rear a similar but shorter triangular frame encloses the final drive housing and provides attaching points for the rear suspension. This frame unit weighs just 75 lb and its stiffness is given by the builder as 4500 lb-ft per degree of twist, an impressive figure when it is recalled that the conventional X-member type passenger car frame weighs over 250 lb and has a torsional stiffness rating that seldom reaches the above stiffness factor even with closed body attached.

On, in and around this strong center spine is hung everything else. The molded fiberglass body drops down over the chassis box and is bolted onto the flange at 14 points along the bottom of the box. The body is molded as a stressed structure single unit with double thickness and reinforcing ribs where needed.

The suspension is independent at both ends, with double A-arms and coil-shocks at the front and coil-shock strut and lower A-arm at the rear. All suspension points are rubber mounted and these, combined with the compressed rubber joints throughout the drive train, result in a chassis that does not require lubrication. The brakes are discs, outboard at both front and rear. These are light in operation, smooth in effect and more than adequate for stopping the 1500-1b car.

Getting into the Elan requires a bit more agility than for most sports cars, mainly because of the 6.5-in. high door sills and immovable objects that the knees and feet must be guided over and around. Once seated, however, we found the driving position snug and firm, with what the importer calls a "light drive fit." The driving position inspires confidence, the forward vision is excellent, the wood-rimmed steering wheel is far enough away to be comfortable and all the controls are in their expected places. However, profit from our test drivers' experiences and don't plan any extended non-stop drives unless your backside fatigue tolerance is of a high order. Perhaps it was lack of wiggle-room, perhaps there was too little small-of-the-back support, but at the end of a 260-mi trip, even with three stops, both driver and passenger were afflicted with a case of the fidgets.

Driving the Elan, the all-synchro gearbox snicks crisply into first, the clutch bites gently but firmly, and too many revs at clutch-pop can result in a little dance to the right. Shifting into 2nd, a short snick-snick away (you can chirp the tires again if you try), you can rush off to 60 mph in a brisk 8.5 sec before resorting to 3rd. In 3rd gear you exceed 85 mph nicely and on our test car, with about 1200 mi on the engine, the commendably accurate speedometer would easily go past 100 on the 140-mph dial. It should be pointed out that our acceleration figures (see chart) were obtained with two people in the car, as are all our road test figures, and that their combined weight of almost 400 lb is a considerable deterrent to the acceleration of a 105-bhp, 1500-lb car. With only one person aboard, the acceleration figures would be much more impressive.

The instrument cluster is another happy combination of form and function, with 4-in. speedometer and tachometer, a fuel gauge reading in Imperial gallons and a combined oil pressure/water temperature gauge. These instruments are Smiths, all have purposeful, readable white on black and all are located where they should be for non-distracting, keep-in-touch glances by the driver.

The handling is excellent by any standards, great fun to push along at high speeds on winding roads, accurate and agile in all conditions and, as one of our drivers said, it's all too easy to acquire a feeling of overconfidence. There is good "feel," though, as the point of no return approaches and this built-in alarm should be sufficient to keep all but the most insensitive driver out of serious trouble.

Working away without complaint under the hood is the "1600" version of the Lotus double overhead cam conversion for the English Ford 116-E. The cams, chain-driven, are almost impossible to detect by sound, an efficient airbox silences the rush of air into the pair of double-throated 40DCOE Weber carburetors and with the almost non-existent exhaust note you will probably be cruising along well above the posted speed limit before you know it.

The 1558-cc engine, obtained from the "1500" version with which the Elan was introduced in England (by leaving the 2.86-in. stroke alone and increasing the bore from 3.19 to 3.25 in.), puts out a flexible and usable 105 bhp at a conservative 5500 rpm.

As would be expected, a competition version of the Elan will also be arriving for road race work and this model will have the 145-bhp dohc Lotus-Ford engine that is already being seen in the latest Lotus sports/racing car, the 23-B.

The finish of the car, like everything else about it, is functional, completely free of gimcrackery and "styling" details. A bug-strainer mesh will be set into the radiator opening, but even this may not satisfy those who think it is possible to go too far in this non-adornment direction. The interior trim has the blessing of being practical and easy to clean, but such details as floor matting of unborn Gila monster hide, door handles of bent aluminum sheet and glove hole moldings that are far from perfect seem hardly appropriate when compared with the better trim details on other cars in the same price range.

As to weather protection, when we picked up the car we were cautioned not to get ourselves caught in a rainstorm and then expect to whisk the top into place in one easy motion. Fortunately, it didn't rain until our drivers had returned to the office, at which time two calm, adult males, resigned to getting soaked, were pleasantly surprised that the entire operation took less than five minutes. Calm is the keynote, perhaps, as there are numerous round pegs to be fitted into round holes, bits to be fitted together, ends to be tucked in, and two fittings that require the use of a %o-in. wrench.

Once up, however, the top is snug and gave no indication of any leaks, though the car both sat and was driven in a brisk rain. The top also afforded ample headroom even for the tallest member of our staff, though the top's side rails did require a bit of peeking under for vision to the side. Strangely enough, with the top erected and the pull-up-pushdown windows closed, the interior of the Elan is noisier than with top and windows down. Obviously, somebody at Cheshunt knows a thing or two about aerodynamics.

As for the esthetic effect of the lines of the Elan, there was absolutely no agreement among members of our staff and comments ranged all the way from an ecstatic, "Next year's Corvair should look so good" to shoulder-shrugging indifference and a sour, "I've seen better-looking plastic toys." Thus we can only report that the Elan, like 12-to-1 martinis, must remain a matter of individual taste. Everyone agreed, however, that the Elite is not only better looking than the Elan, but is one of the best car designs ever.

The West Coast POE price of the Elan is at the $4000 mark, with another $215 for built-in heater, de-crating and preparation. This would put it in a tough market bracket in the sports car field if Lotus dealers were looking for volume sales. Fortunately, however, with something less than 300 cars planned for import during 1964, the Lotus sellers are looking for the individual, not the mass, and for those particular individuals, the Elan offers assured driving pleasure.