The Lotus Elan was launched in October 1962 at the British International Motor Show at Earls Court, just as the sixties started swinging. Jaguar had launched the E-Type the previous year, while AC had the Cobra and Ferrari the GTO. These were big, powerful, and expensive machines. The Elan was very different, and typically Lotus – ultra modern, lightweight, nimble and tremendous fun.
In the same year that Lotus revolutionized racing car design with the monocoque 25, they also packed the Elan with technically innovative features like the first backbone tube chassis of any road car, as well as a fiberglass body, four-wheel independent suspension, weight of 1750 lbs (670kg) and the new Lotus Twin Cam engine, produced by significantly modifying a Ford 116E block. Right away the new Elan proved a welcome replacement to the fragile, expensive-to-build Elite and proved to be Lotus’s biggest commercial success to that point, reviving the company’s overstretched finances.
Initially a roadster, the Elan was offered with a hardtop in 1963 and a coupe came along in 1965. Around seventeen thousand Elans were built from the early 1500 cc cars until the last of the four-seater Elan +2s in 1975.
One of the most desirable of the road-going Elans is the Elan Sprint, the more powerful 1973 alternative that could hit 60 mph in 6.6 seconds. Even some modern performance cars aren’t that quick, and in the early 1970s it was almost unthinkable for a four-cylinder car. Of course, for some, the ultimate Elan would be the 26R. Driven by legends like Jim Clark and Jackie Stewart, the 26R was the significantly modified and distinctive version of the Elan road car. Even today, 26Rs can still be seen catching and beating larger Jaguars, Aston Martins, and Ferraris.
More relevant to modern motoring is the Elan’s hugely important inspiration and influence for the Mazda MX-5 Miata. Since the Elan perfectly represented 1960s British sports car design, it served as the ideal model for the roadster revival of the 1990s started by Mazda. Today, the real spirit of the Elan lies in the Elise, the modern take on the pint-sized, four-cylinder rocket ship idea. Like the Elan, it was the first to sport a revolutionary new chassis, the extruded and bonded aluminum subframe (the backbone chassis introduced on the Elan actually lasted until 1995). The Elise also mirrors the Elan by being the company’s best selling model to date. It is a worthy successor to the legacy of iconic Lotus road cars that started with the Elan.
The late motoring journalist LKJ Setright best summed up the Elan when, in the early 1960s, he wrote poetically, “The package that results may not appeal to those conditioned to judge a car by the shut of the door, the depth of the upholstery or the weight of the paint; but to those whose sensual and cerebral appreciations of motoring offer more relevant criteria, the Lotus is as much a machine for driving as a house by Le Corbusier is a machine for living.”
Those words are just as true today as they were fifty years ago.
Happy 50th Birthday to the Lotus Elan – Photo Gallery (click image for larger picture and description)