By on August 13, 2014

You may find the idea that relatively obscure British sports car, with fewer than 16,000 made, could be the most inspirational or influential sports car ever a bit far-fetched, but I think a compelling argument can be made in the favor of the Lotus Elan. Yes, there were two seaters going back to the MG TC and even before that there were cars like the the Jaguar SS100. In many people’s minds the MGB defined 1960s era two seat roadsters, but was the B that much different from the Austin Healeys, the MGA, and the Jaguar XKs? An argument could be made that the Elan was the first modern sports car (putting aside the E Type Jaguar for the sake of argument) and it was introduced almost simultaneously with the MGB. Its contemporaries from MG and Triumph were primitive cars compared to the Elan.

To begin with, the Elan’s welded up sheet metal backbone frame alone, even without the composite body, has more torsional stiffness than other contemporary sports cars. It was much lighter, coming in at less than 1600 lbs with a full tank of gas. It had modern components: an aluminum head with double overhead cams, a front suspension designed by people making F1 race cars with anti-dive and anti-squat geometry, true independent rear suspension with wide A arms and one of Colin Chapman’s many innovations, the Chapman strut. The Elan has disk brakes at all four wheels and if I’m not mistaken, at the time it was introduced in 1962, the Jaguar E-Type was the only other car that came standard with four wheel disk brakes. In 1962, drums were standard on the Corvette. The Elan was also kitted and trimmed out more fully than the MGs and Triumphs of its day, noticeably more finished and luxurious. I believe that radios were always standard equipment and from 1967 on, Elans had electric windows.

Then there is the Elan’s performance. Though not particularly quick by today’s standards, when Toyota Camry’s can have almost 300 HP, the Elan was fast in its day, with respectable 0-60 times. Of course straight line performance was not what the Elan was built for. It’s simply known as one of the best handling cars ever made. Today it is still the standard by which other cars’ tossability is measured. To drive the Elan on a twisting and turning road is to commune with your higher automotive power. The inputs are all almost perfectly weighted, the steering, the gearbox, the brakes and accelerator. It’s all fingers and toes and putting the car within millimeters of your line.

Watch this videos from Jay Leno’s garage and you can see how much Leno, a truly knowledgeable car guy, respects this car. Leno owns a McLaren F1 and he knows designer Gordon Murray. He says that Murray told him that the F1 was inspired by the Elan. He also said that Murray’s praise for the Elan convinced him to buy one, a nice example of a 1969 Elan, and then another, a factory lightweight 26R intended for racing (the Elan was #26 in Lotus’ model numbering system) that was the object of a no-costs-barred restomod, with a custom aluminum engine block and a sequential transmission.

Note, this is the finale of a series of over 20 videos that Leno produced on the Elan 26R project. They are highly recommended.

Well, if the Elan had only inspired the McLaren F1, it would deserve a spot on the list, but the Elan has directly inspired two other historically important sports cars, and at least a couple of others as well. One of those influences you may know about, the other is less obvious.

Toyota is not exactly known for its sports cars. Other than the MR2 and the Lexus LF-A supercar, the company is known for making transportation appliances. However, in the 1960s, Toyota wanted to show that it was a player on the world automotive scene and they introduced the 2000GT. The 2000GT is generally regarded as Toyota’s take on the Jaguar E-Type coupe because of the cars’ styling similarities and the inline DOHC 6 cyl engines. Under the 2000GTs skin, though, the car is a near copy of the Elan’s chassis.


Lotus Elan Chassis

There is no question that the Elan’s backbone frame, Chapman strut rear suspension, and general layout was copied by the 2000GT. Other than the two extra engine cylinders, the two cars’ chassis look almost identical. Chapman’s design, of course, had cutouts in the chassis’ sheetmetal to add some lightness.

Toyota 2000GT chassis (scale model)

Toyota 2000GT chassis (scale model)

In terms of styling while I think that the similarity with the Jaguar is obvious, I also see some lines borrowed from the Elan, the front fender line and the rear end particularly. It’s particularly noticeable in the one-off 2000GT roadster made for one of the James Bond films, You Only Live Twice.

If Toyota’s copying of the Elan’s mechanical design is not widely known, the fact that Tom Matano and the other Mazda designers involved with the first Miata used the Elan as a design brief is common knowledge. A few years ago, when it was announced that Mazda had built and sold over 750,000 units of the Miata/MX-5/Eunos, I had the opportunity to ask Matano how it felt to be “the most successful sports car designer ever”. Chevy may have sold more Corvettes since 1953, but that car has gone through more radical styling changes than the Miata. Though there have been a number of Miata generations, the car’s basic styling language has remained the same. Matano told me that because the Miata was based on the Elan, he was actually prouder of the last RX-7, which was a clean sheet design.

The Elan directly influenced three of the most historically significant sports cars of the past half century, including the best selling sports car design ever, the Toyota 2000GT, the McLaren F1 and the Mazda Miata. Just on the Miata’s sales figures alone, the Elan inspired more actual cars, more units, than any other sports car. If you look at some of the other two seat roadsters and coupes that were available after the Elan came out, like the Fiat 124, and maybe even some contemporary Alfa Romeos, I think an argument can be made that the Elan influenced them as well, with their 4 cyl DOHC engines and other features (though I believe Alfa was selling DOHC roadsters before the Elan was introduced).

Maybe that’s overstating the case but Murray and Leno aren’t the only knowledgeable gearhead fans of the Elan to give it extraordinary praise. EVO magazine founder Harry Metcalfe says that it had revolutionary handling 50 years ago and when they tested it heads up in 2003 against a Mazda Miata and Toyota MR2 it had the best acceleration time and the best lap time as well. “It’s just so superb… there are so many fundamentals that are right in this car.” Watch Metcalfe describe and then drive his ’72 Elan Sprint and count how many superlatives he uses.

Leno says that the Elan is remarkable for it’s own merits, “almost the perfect sports car”, Murray says it’s his favorite car, and Metcalfe says that it’s superb. At the start I said that the Elan is relatively obscure, but with people like the above trio praising the car like that, others have started to take notice. There was a time when Elans were not regarded as well as the subsequent Lotus road car, the midengine Europe because, well, midengine, but according to the Hagerty Price Guide, today most Elans are worth more than most Europas. Hagerty says that an Elan roadster in #4 driver condition will cost you between $10,000 and $13,000 while a desirable late model Sprint SE in #1 shape is worth about $39K. Hagerty may be a bit behind the market in this case since Bring A Trailer has listed Elans whose asking prices were a bit higher than that. If you consider how influential the Elan is and how few were made, it’s easy to see them appreciating over $50,000 for very nice ones.

Elan production, from 1962 to 1974 (the two seat Elan went out of production in 1972 but the Elan +2 model survived till ’74) breaks down as follows :

  • Series 1-3 Elans:  7,895
  • Series 4 Elans: 2.976
  • Elan Sprints: 1,353
  • Elan +2 cars: 3,300
    Total: 15,524

There were over 31,000 Series 1 Jaguar E Types made and over the life of the E, over 70,000 were made. Nice E Types go for six figures and according to Hagerty, you can put yourself in a #2 or even a #1 Elan for what it costs to buy a #4 driver E Type. Admittedly, the Jaguar is more of a marquee car, certainly sexier, it will get you more attention from average folks. However, in terms of upside appreciation potential, the Elan may be a better long term bet. I don’t think that Leno’s going to lose money on that rebuilt but unaltered ’69, not that he’s selling it, and if you watch the video about his 26R restomod, that one’s not going anywhere either.

Should you buy one that’s not perfect, they’re relatively easy to restore, what components that Lotus didn’t source from other car companies are still available,  if not from Lotus, than from aftermarket vendors. You can find brand new replacement frames and probably even whole bodies if you look hard enough. Speaking of those bodies, while rusting frames are not unknown (one reason why the factory sold replacement frames, another is that they tend to be written off in colisions), Elan bodies are made of fiberglass reinforced plastic so it’s more like restoring an old Corvette than an old Mustang. Also, depending on how much work it needs, you might not end up too upside down on the restoration costs.

In any case, if you see one for sale nearby, see if you can arrange a test drive. Driving an Elan is something every car enthusiast should do at one time or another, they very may well be the best handling cars ever made. It’s not uncommon to hear owners say, “While test driving, I entered a turn a bit too fast and with those tiny pedals I couldn’t find the brake so I just cranked harder on the wheel and it simply went where I steered it. That’s when I decided to buy it.” It’s simply a great and very influential car.

Both of the Elan’s pictured here are right hand drive models, and were both coincidentally spotted in parking lots at car shows. The British Racing Green car is a Series 1 Elan, while the car in Gold Leaf tobacco (a Lotus F1 sponsor in the day) colors is a Series 3 car owned by a Japanese Toyota engineer assigned to their R&D center in Ann Arbor. Since the Series 1 and 2 cars are similar, and the Series 3 & 4 cars are alike, these two cars represent both body styles made during the Elan’s production run. The later cars have a trunk lid that extends to the back of the car, while the early cars have a panel between the trunk lid and the rear fascia. Starting with the Series 3 cars, there was also an upgraded, folding top that replaced the brackets and bows that held up the roof of the early cars, and fully framed, electrically powered windows replaced the counterweighted pull up windows of the Series 1 & 2 cars.

Note: This is a revised version of a post that was previously published at Cars In Depth. Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS

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30 Comments on “The Most Influential Sports Car Ever Made?: The Lotus Elan...”

  • avatar

    Great post, Ronnie!

  • avatar

    I remember riding in a white Elan coupe owned by one of my trainees back in the early ’70s. It was a late-60’s model. Neat car, quick and really low to the ground. It handled a lot better than my 912. The owner later found out that it wasn’t quite as low as he thought – couldn’t do the limbo under a semi-trailer. Big pile of white fiberglas. The chassis and running gear survived well enough to be sold for rebuilding.

  • avatar

    Great feature and I agree wholeheartedly with the title. Of course, having the most successful (and innovative) all-around competition car designer and his team design the vehicle, some magic was bound to happen.

  • avatar

    My first sport car was a Bugeye Sprite I bought in 1972. Since then I’ve had a dozen more, but the ultimate for me is the Elan. My first was a project car I could never finish. Now I have my second a nice red 1965 S2. It is scary driving it on the Texas highways, but I’m retiring to the Sierras of California and the mountain passes are perfect for this little car. Not to mention Dave Bean will be just an hour away.

  • avatar
    juicy sushi

    This was a great article, and I want to offer some kind of intelligent comment, but it would be entirely superfluous. Sort of like other sports car designs are in comparison. You can do “more,” but not “more correct.”

  • avatar

    Colin Chapman said that electric windows were chosen for the Elan because they weighed less than the hand-cranked version.

  • avatar
    Da Coyote

    Love these types of articles. Keep ’em up.

    I’ve had a TR4a-IRS, MGB, Triumph Stag (yup, sure did), and all three generations of Miata.

    It was sad to see the Brit brands go – they were all fun.

    I was not sad to have the rock solid Japanese reliability, though.

    Eagerly awaiting the 4th gen Miata. Hope it’s not been ‘Bangled”.

    • 0 avatar

      The Brit brands have reemerged in the form of track-day cars. Think Ariel, Radical, BAC, Caterham, etc. We just don’t get a great selection in the States.

      Excellent article Ronnie, I found your analysis very insightful and well cited. I have a new appreciation for the Elan.

  • avatar
    S2k Chris

    I love the Elan, but I’m going to argue with you here. If we define “influential” as “moving the market” I’d say the Miata is far more influential. The Elan might have shaped development of sports cars, pioneered features, etc, but could you really say that MGs, Alfas, Austin-Healeys, Triumphs, etc, wouldn’t exist without the Elan? No, not really, since many pre-dated it.

    But the Miata launched a whole sports car renaissance. Without the Miata, no Z3, SLK, S2000, Solstice/Sky, Del Sol, Boxster, MR2-S, etc etc etc. Those cars all came BECAUSE of the Miata and its success. And I think that metric defines “influential”.

    And BTW, I’m not a fan of the Miata, it’s not my cup of tea. But you can’t deny the influence it had in creating a second sports car market.

  • avatar

    One doesn’t “add lightness”, one “reduces weight”.

    • 0 avatar

      Fincar1 writes: ‘One doesn’t “add lightness”, one “reduces weight”.’

      Unless one is Colin Chapman.

      • 0 avatar

        And unlike Porsche , he didn’t charge an arm and a leg for ‘adding’ it either ;)

        • 0 avatar

          Actually, he did. These cars were expensive. Iirc, about the same price as an E-type. And if you think ordinary old British cars have electrical issues, try one that can’t use the body as one side of the circuits.

          Still a great car, and certainly very influential. I’d call it one among many though, not the most. If you go back one generation, the Lotus Elite was actually more advanced in design. But it could not be sold profitably. Prettier, too.

          • 0 avatar

            Very true, I knew someone was going to comment on my comment when I read it after posting. What I meant to say was he didn’t charge ‘extra’ for ‘adding’ it , since the lightness came with the car in the first place (unlike some Porsche GT/RS models)

    • 0 avatar

      That wording is an hommage to Colin Chapman who is credited with the phrase.

    • 0 avatar

      The phrase is simplify and add lightness

  • avatar

    I love your arricles, Ronnie, but I think you forget one ir two things in your enthusiasm. The Elan’s front suspension was bought in Triumph Herald/ Spitfire parts. Also, those sheet metal extensions used to bolt the tops of the rear coilovers structurally ruin the torsional rigidity.

    Of course, we can just believe Chapman, an exceedingly clever fellow as an engineer, businessman and especially self-promoter not known for paying bills on time and believe that the Elan chassis was a true work of genius. It sure always looks good in paper illustrations.

    • 0 avatar

      The whole frame is not dissimilar to a Triumph Herald/Spitfire frame. Though of course, much lighter – and MUCH weaker.

    • 0 avatar

      I alluded to the use of components sourced from other companies and the front end is a great example, though it’s an exaggeration to say that the Elan used the Spitfire’s front suspension. The Elan used the Spitfire’s front upright and spindle (the expensive parts to cast and machine) along with the upper ball joint (see reference below). The control arms are pure Lotus (Spyder sells some very cool tubular forged aluminum ones) as is the suspension geometry, along with Chapman’s touch on the spring rates and shock absorbers. The steering rack is also Triumph based but it’s got some modifications.

  • avatar

    @Ronnie Schreiber: The plural of ‘Camry’ is ‘Camrys.’

    There are no words that form their plural in English using an apostrophe followed by the letter S.

    • 0 avatar

      It’s called a typographical error. I’m aware of the rules for plurals and possessives (and missing letter too). Because it’s an atypical plural spelling I guess my brain decided that it looked like a possessive and the fingers typed Camry’s. I type think for thing a lot too. One superfluous apostrophe in a 2,000 word post isn’t terrible but I apologize because I know how annoying little errors like that can be.

      Thanks for the correction and thanks to all for the superlative comments.

  • avatar

    “The Elan has disk brakes at all four wheels and if I’m not mistaken, at the time it was introduced in 1962, the Jaguar E-Type was the only other car that came standard with four wheel disk brakes.”
    The 1961 Lancia Flavia also came standard with four disk brakes.

    • 0 avatar

      And various Mercedes, I believe. Jaguar pioneered that technology in cars.

      • 0 avatar

        Chrysler offered a form of disc brakes on the Imperials in the early ’50s. The credit for inventing the concept goes to Frederick W. Lanchester, one of the giants of the early automobile age. I really should do a piece on Lanchester. He is regarded as the equal to Royce and Ricardo in the UK and he experimented with fuel injection and turbocharging more than a century ago. A polymath, he also worked on aeronautics and is credited with more or less inventing the notion of logistics.

        • 0 avatar
          Robert Gordon

          “I really should do a piece on Lanchester. He is regarded as the equal to Royce and Ricardo in the UK”

          No he’s not. He’s on a different plane entirely.

  • avatar
    Oliver Snurdlap

    Wonderful looking car but look at the space between the front & rear suspension, where your legs would be. In the day I seem to remember the Lotus 7 had the space frame & their owners were somewhat dismissive of the Elan even though young ladies were much more appreciative of the creature comforts of the Elan!

  • avatar

    The kit car quality of the Elan made it even less reliable than MG and Triumph, an already low bar to clear.
    I watched a friend attempt to campaign one in local autocross, and it wasn’t pretty. My own efforts in a Datsun 510 were fruitless, but at least I could drive it home.
    But you make a decent, if slightly leaky argument. Very informative!

  • avatar

    One of the best TTAC articles in a while, keep it up!

  • avatar
    Robert Gordon

    “There is no question that the Elan’s backbone frame, Chapman strut rear suspension, and general layout was copied by the 2000GT.”

    Two points:

    1) Chapman struts are utter crap and ridiculously fragile.

    2) The Elan doesn’t have a Chapman strut nor does the 2000GT (or anything else of note after the Lotus Elite for that matter) due to point 1)

  • avatar

    There’s just one car that hasn’t been mentioned in the article or the comments that I think should get some love – Honda S600. Came out a couple of years after the first Elan but shows many of the same features and attention to detail.

    Very good article, though. Enjoyed the read.

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