The Most Influential Sports Car Ever Made?: The Lotus Elan
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)
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
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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"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)
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.