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Buying: Buying Guide

Lotus Elan (1962-1973)

It’s a giant of British sports car history, but what can this little Lotus do for you?

Lotus Elan

If you’re trying to find a classic that’s guaranteed to put a smile on your face every time you open the garage door, then look no further. Forget drugs – this is the ultimate anti-depressant and it should be available on prescription. With its light weight, zesty engine and virtually unparalleled handling, there’s no wonder this Lotus has taken its place in the iconic cars hall of fame. But the best bit is that you can buy one of these four-wheeled wonders without having to break the bank – for just £8000 you could have your own usable Elan.

This was the car that saved Lotus, the company having made a loss on every Elite it sold. When the Elan was first shown at the 1962 Earls Court Motor Show it featured a 1499cc Ford-based engine, but it wasn’t long before the classic 1558cc unit took its place – a motor that was to power the Elan until its demise just over a decade later.

Although there was relatively little development of the Elan throughout its decade of production, there are a surprising number of variants on offer. You can choose between convertibles and coupés as well as the rather ugly +2 derivatives that aren’t as sought after but are more practical. Not that the Elan is about practicality in the
load-lugging sense…

The same engine powered all Elans, but it was available in varying states of tune. The standard Elan’s 105bhp is ample because the car is so light, but if you want more there’s always the Special Equipment (SE) which offered 115bhp. If this still isn’t enough you’ll be looking at a Sprint, complete with 126bhp and two-tone paintwork. However, it matters not which version you opt for – you are guaranteed to find every journey a blast. Elan +2s are worth less than a two-seater example, but otherwise there’s no variance in values across the models – apart from at the very top, where S1s and S2s are typically worth around £3000 more. A +2 restoration project is £2000 – two-seater Elan equivalents are double this. A usable example of the latter is £8000-9000; similar +2s are £7000. The best +2 is worth £18,000 while the nicest Elans cost £25,000 – but to command this latter sum it has to be very special indeed.

Engine
Don’t listen to those around you who are keen to relate tales of doom about the Elan’s twin-cam four-pot. If problems occur it’s because the car hasn’t been properly looked after – and when things do go wrong they can be extremely pricey to fix. That’s why it’s worth looking to see if the engine has been rebuilt. Technology is now far better than when the cars were made, and a reworked unit should soldier on for 140,000 miles or more.

The engine’s coolant needs to retain a decent concentration of anti-freeze (at least 25%) to ensure the alloy cylinder head doesn’t corrode. This will lead to the radiator getting clogged up, which in turn causes to the engine to overheat – expect to see 90-95 degrees on the temperature gauge once the car has had a run. From the S3 onwards the cooling system was marginal, and it is even less efficient after 30 years’ use. If in doubt it’s worth fitting a new radiator for £200 or so – that way, you’ll know the powerplant isn’t going to get cooked. If you want to take the belt-and-braces approach it’s possible to install an alloy radiator for £500, but it’s only really necessary if the car is likely to get stuck in traffic frequently.

Overheating problems will be made worse if the water pump is past its best, so feel for play in the unit and look for leaks. If a pump needs replacing it means removing the cylinder head, with the job typically taking at least 10 hours. That’ll mean a bill of £700 (the pump is £90 on its own), so make sure it’s not on its way out. If the fan belt is overtightened the pump’s life will be sharply reduced – there should be half an inch of travel on the longest run.

The only other likely malady is a timing chain that needs replacing. If the chain is whining it’s because it is too tight; its demise will be speeded up as a result. If there’s a chattering noise from the front of the engine it’s because the chain is too loose. Check the adjustment bolt on the motor’s front plate; if all the travel is taken up there’s no adjustment left and a new chain and tensioner are needed at £35 for the pair.

Various carbs were fitted, with twin Webers on most cars. Yet some Sprints and late S4s featured Dell’Ortos, while Strombergs were fitted to some early S4s. They are generally reliable, but the Strombergs can ice up in cold weather.

Transmission
The Elan’s four-speed gearbox is taken from the Ford 2000E, and it doesn’t give many problems because it’s tough. The five-speed unit fitted to the Plus 2 S 130/5 has its internals sourced from the Maxi, and it’s a model of imprecision even when in perfect condition. There’s no way of sharpening things up, so just console yourself that it’s ‘character’. However, if it is noisy or gear selection is really difficult, prepare yourself for the worst. Gears and bearings wear out all too readily, and rebuilding the unit costs anywhere between £1000 and £1500 depending on how bad things are.

Although the differentials look like Lotus parts, the oily bits inside are sourced from the Ford Cortina. They’re durable enough, but listen out for whining that suggests some TLC may be imminent. If a rebuild is needed you can expect to pay up to £1000.

On the test drive, turn the steering between locks as the car is moving, to transfer the weight from side to side. As you do so, listen for chattering from the rear wheels, indicating that the bearings have worn out; new ones are less than a tenner.

If the car still sports Rotoflex suspension (which incorporates rubber doughnut joints) there’s a chance that the couplings will have started to break up. The best way of checking for wear is to inspect them closely to see if they’re perished and cracked. If both sides need doing a specialist will charge over £400 to do the whole job, although the parts on their own (couplings and bolts) are just £160 or so.

Conversions are becoming increasingly common to remove the rubber couplings from the system. There are three types available; each of a different design. They’re all more durable than the original set-up, with the cost of conversion around the same as a rebuild of the standard system.

Suspension, steering and brakes
The Elan’s steering rack is based on a Triumph Herald unit; the main difference between the two is that the Elan’s has lock stops fitted and shorter outer tie rods to prevent the wheels rubbing against the anti-roll bar. Make sure there’s been no contact between wheels and suspension; if there has, the Herald item needs to be swapped for an Elan one. Exchange racks are available at £170 each.

One of the keys to the Elan’s sublime driving experience is its suspension, and as long as it’s maintained in good order it’s more than capable of delivering the goods. Make sure the car doesn’t pull to one side when accelerating or braking, and also get underneath and check that nothing is bent. If the Lotus has been kerbed, or if the chassis is damaged from any sort of impact, everything will be out of line – and it’ll soon be apparent when you drive the car. It’s worth getting a four-wheel suspension alignment check done because the geometry needs to be exactly right. If the Elan has had a new chassis doing this is especially worthwhile because everything needs to be set up from scratch – and often isn’t.

As well as the chassis being out of true, the wishbones can be bent if the car has been kerbed badly. If this has happened the Elan obviously won’t drive as well as it should, but the easiest way to check for damage is to get underneath and see if there are any kinks in the metal. If the car tries to steer itself under acceleration, it’s because the wishbone bushes have worn; a new set costs under £15.

Give the Elan a bounce test at each corner by pushing down and seeing how quickly it settles; you need to do this at least three times to get an accurate picture, though. If the car carries on bouncing it needs new shock absorbers at £100 apiece for Koni units. If the springs have sagged, new ones are £50 each.

Bolt-on pressed steel wheels were standard fare for all Elans, although the SE and Sprint featured knock-ons from the factory. These were optional for all other models, while the +2 S was available with alloys. Wheels should be painted silver, although the Sprint’s were finished in black. Look for cracks around the mounting holes, as the metal fatigues. New wheels aren’t available to original spec, although much heavier items are on the market that look the same.

Right from the start the Elan was equipped with disc brakes all round, with Herald units being used at the front – the rears were made specially for Lotus. The system works well, helped by the car’s lightness. If there’s any pulling to one side it’s because a caliper piston is sticking; rebuild kits cost £25-£50, while exchange calipers are £60-£120 depending on model. If the handbrake fails to hold the car on a hill it’s probably because any play has been taken up at the lever end of the system. The most effective adjustment is done at the wheels, although the handbrake is notoriously poor on the Elan anyway, so don’t expect much.

Bodywork, electrics and trim
The good news with the Elan’s glassfibre bodyshell is that it doesn’t rust. Despite this, it still needs very careful inspection from stem to stern because there are plenty of potential problem areas. Accident damage is the key thing to look out for, not least of all because proper repairs are something that can be carried out only by somebody who really knows what they’re doing. And often they don’t!

Even if the car has never been shunted it’s likely that the glassfibre will be looking the worse for wear. That’s because the Elan’s bodyshell flexes, leading to star cracks in the panels which are time-consuming to put right. These flaws can appear anywhere, but the most likely locations are around the door handles, boot hinges and badge mountings. Panel edges can also succumb, and you should make sure the headlamp pods are okay; these can also be pitted with stone chips, much like the rest of the nose.

A pristine car has probably been restored at some point. If this is the case you must find out who did the work – and also ask for evidence of the job having been carried out properly. It’s not difficult to tart up a tatty Elan, but keeping it looking mint is much harder. No corners can be cut, and the renovation work needs to have been done by an expert.
 
Pinpointing who did any work is especially important if the car has been restored (or even simply repainted) within the last two years or less. If a paint job still appears great after this time the chances are it’ll keep looking good. What’s common is for a respray to look superb for a few months, but then the cracks in the glassfibre start to reappear and it’s back to square one. As a result, in many ways you’re better off buying a car that looks rather tatty – at least that way you know exactly what you’re getting. Also establish whether just a respray was carried out or if the glassfibre was restored at the same time. Fresh paint over old guarantees problems later – all the old paint has to be stripped away (which takes at least 80 hours), the glassfibre revived, then new colour applied. If no restoration photos are available, look for signs of overspray such as around the door handles and on the rubber seals. The engine bay should be black – see if there’s body-colour paint around its top edges.

Because of imperfections in the original moulds, filler was used (sparingly) on the production line to tidy things up. Some restored cars have dimples ahead of the doors, which originally contained filler to smooth things out. Also, don’t be alarmed if the door fit isn’t great. Sometimes the bottom rear corners can stick out by as much as half an inch; just like when the car came off the production line!

It may be that a new bodyshell is the most cost-effective way of restoring an Elan – by the time a car has been stripped and several panels have been attended to, it’s usually cheaper to just buy a new shell. Naturally this means a complete rebuild will be necessary rather than just patching up here and there. However, with shells costing ‘just’ £4350 (including panels such as the bonnet, boot and doors) it frequently makes financial sense.

Any chassis produced after 1980 is galvanised, so if there’s zinc-plating on the one you’re looking at it’s not the original. Fitting a new one typically costs £4000, as brakes and ancillaries are normally done at the same time. The chassis alone is £1195, or you can opt for a tubular chassis from Spyder that can also be bought with fittings for improved suspension and a modern Zetec engine.

The age-old problem of rotting from the inside out claims most Elan chassis. Key areas to check are the front suspension pick-up points, where the drain holes get blocked. Even if the frame isn’t rusty, stress cracks and fractures are inevitable on a car that’s done 70,000 miles or more. The area around the engine mountings is usually the first to go, and once cracks appear it’s time for a replacement, as welding isn’t recommended.

You need to check that each electrical component is working properly, because there’s no shortage of wiring in an Elan. That’s because the glassfibre bodyshell means each item has to have two wires going to it – a live and an earth. Although the system is usually pretty reliable, there’s plenty of scope for loose or broken connections. Infrequently-used cars also suffer from duff relays – they’re Lucas 6R units that can bought for £15 each. Everything is available to effect any repairs, and often all that’s needed is the cleaning of some contacts.

The Plus 2 is a more luxurious car, with higher levels of standard equipment, including more instrumentation. Again, you need to check it’s all working, just like the electric windows that were fitted from all Elans from the S3 (1965) onwards.

It’s possible (but not necessarily desirable) to replace everything in the Elan’s cockpit. If you’re purchasing a complete basket-case you’ll have no choice, but it’s often better to restore than to buy new. Originality counts for a lot in Elan circles, and sometimes replacement parts don’t look the same as the originals. Dash tops, for example, are now vacuum formed then foam filled, although they do look very similar to the originals. However, there are noticeable differences, which is why it’s best to retain the Lotus part if possible.

Carpets weren’t fitted until the Series 3 of 1965 – although most cars now have a set. You also won’t find much chrome trim on an Elan, so there’s not much to check. Door handles are pricey for the S1 and S2, at £130 each, but other cars’ handles are just £20 apiece.

Conclusion
A sorted Elan isn’t cheap, but you’re not going to find many cars that offers as many smiles per mile. It’s not one of those models that appeals to the person who knows the price of everything but the value of nothing; it’s not easy to put a price on the pleasure an Elan can offer. That’s if you buy a good one; purchase badly and it’ll be a money pit that could break you!

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Extra info
MODEL HISTORY

1962: Elan 1500 Roadster launched at Earls Court Motor Show, priced at £1499 fully built or £1095 in kit form.  Ford-based 1499cc DOHC engine gives 100bhp and 114mph. Disc brakes all round and all-independent suspension with rack-and-pinion steering. Three separate light units per side at the rear.
1963: Engine size increased to 1558cc. Hard-top now available as an option.
1964: Series 2 is launched with larger front brake calipers, full-width wooden dash and single-piece rear light clusters.
1965: Series 3 fixed-head coup arrives. Electric windows now standard across range and close-ratio gearbox can be ordered. Tweaks include longer bootlid (to cure leaks) and boot-mounted battery.
1966: Special Equipment model available with 115bhp engine, close-ratio box, servo-assisted brakes. Also gets side repeaters on front wings
and centre-lock wheels. Series 3 convertible appears with the same amendments as the fixed-head coup.
1967: Elan +2 goes on sale. Available as fixed-head only, it’s an Elan with a longer, wider body to offer 2+2 seating. Also features a power hike to 118bhp.
1968: Series 4 coup and convertible arrive, with flared wheelarches and new rear light clusters (as per the Elan +2). Fascia revised (now with rocker switches), power bulge in bonnet. Also, the Plus 2S supplements the standard car, with better-built interior and standard foglights. It’s the first Elan not to be offered in kit form.
1969: Elan +2 ‘dies’, but Plus 2S remains.
1971: Elan Sprint now here, with 126bhp big-valve engine, stronger transmission and two-tone paintwork. Elan Plus 2S 130 gets the same engine and a silver roof.
1972: Five-speed gearbox now available on the Plus 2S 130. Cars with this option fitted are badged Plus 2S 130/5.
1973: Elan S4 is discontinued, but Elan Plus 2S 130 stays until 1974.


SPECIFICATIONS


Lotus Elan Sprint

Engine
1558cc in-line four, twin overhead camshafts, eight valves. Alloy head, cast-iron block. Twin Weber 40DCOE carburettors
Power 126bhp @ 6500rpm
Torque 113lb ft @ 5500rpm
Transmission Four-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Suspension Front: Independent with coil springs, double wishbones, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar  Rear: Independent with coil springs, double wishbones, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar
Brakes Front: 241mm discs  Rear: 254mm discs Servo-assisted
Weight 718kg (1580lb)
Performance 0-60mph: 7.0sec Top speed: 118mph



SPECIALISTS

Christopher Neil, Cheshire.
+44 (0)1606 41481,
www.christopherneil.co.uk

Fibreglass Services, West Sussex.
+44 (0)1243 554422,
www.fibreglassservices.co.uk

Kelvedon Lotus, Lincolnshire.
+44 (0)1775 725457,
www.kelsport.net

Paul Matty, Worcestershire.
+44 (0)1527 835656,
www.paulmattysportscars.co.uk

Spyder Engineering, Cambridgeshire.
+44 (0)1733 203986,
www.spydercars.co.uk

Sue Miller, Suffolk.
+44 (0)1728 603307,
www.mickmillerlotus.com


CLUBS

Club Lotus,
www.club-lotus.co.uk

Lotus Drivers’ Club,
www.lotusdriversclub.org

 

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