One of the daily office bull sessions, a few months ago, got off on the nature of enthusiasm and other similarly esoteric subjects, and we were wondering what the 1963 enthusiast drives. Fifteen years ago, he was in an MG-TC with no windscreen, or some kind of bellowing Allard. Nowadays, we decided, a true enthusiast, a real purist, ought to have a Lotus 23 to drive on the streets, since that fantastic car is about as extreme—and pure—an example of sporting automobile as there is around.
That was before we’d driven the Elan. Now, blanching at the prospect of trying to protect a 23 in modern traffic on one hand, and having sampled the joys of the Elan on the other, we’d like to make a substitution. The Elan very simply represents the sports car developed in tune with the state of the art. It comes closer than anything else on the market to providing a Formula car for ordinary street use. And it fits like a Sprite, goes like a Corvette, and handles like a Formula Junior.
Driving it is very simply another sort of automotive experience altogether. Most people tend to come back from their first ride a little bit glassy-eyed; the knowledgeable usually remark that the car reminds them of nothing so much as a Formula Junior. What you will get from a Lotus Elan that you aren’t apt to be able to experience in a Junior, is the absolute joy of charging —under all sorts of conditions and in all kinds of circumstances. A combination of the very tiny exterior dimensions of the car, the great acceleration and stopping power, and the complete, reliable safety of it, makes hurrying into a pretty good sport in itself.
That safety aspect is perhaps the strongest impression the car makes. Underway, it seems less a car than a system, with its elements complementing each other well enough to pretty well wipe out previous notions of how a car should go. Safety comes in other forms than massive padding—a well-balanced, positive, and predictable chassis, as in this case, will do.
Almost everything about the Elan seems to represent a complete reversal of Colin Chapman’s design philosophy, as exemplified by the unit-construction fiberglass-bodied Elite and the monocoque Lotus 25 Grand Prix car. The Elan is built up on a deep box-section steel backbone frame with something like six times greater torsional stiffness than the structure of the Formula One vehicle. Chapman also breaks with past Lotus practice in the Elan suspension, and relies on Ford for the complete engine and drive train.
Backbone frames have almost disappeared since unit-construction came into vogue, but they were quite popular in pre-war days. The original backbone frame was designed by Edmund W. Lewis and used on the 1904 Rover, but the design which the Elan chassis brings to mind is the R-Type MG of 1935, designed by H.N. Charles. The similarity of concept and execution between these two cars is so striking that one is tempted to conclude that Chapman took his inspiration for the Elan from the single-seater MG. The R-Type had a backbone steel frame of immense structural strength, and wishbone-type independent suspension front and rear, but used torsion bars rather than coil springs as on the Elan.
The Elan frame forks out at both ends to resemble a cruciform structure, with the front triangle providing room for the engine and gearbox and attachment points for the front suspension, while the rear triangle provides a base for the rear suspension and final drive. The frame is made of 18-gauge steel (0.048-in. thickness) with 16-gauge (0.064-in. thickness) reinforcements. The center section, which makes up the console between the two seats, has a width of six inches and a depth of 11% inches. The frame is drilled for lightness and weighs only 75 lbs.
The body is a fiberglass shell with metal reinforcements for the doors and windshield. It is itself a unit structure and does not rely on the backbone frame for stiffness. The same theory has been applied with steel bodywork on the Triumph Spitfire, which also has a very rigid frame. The Elan body rests on the frame midriff and has 14 additional mountings-10 on the lower edge of the frame and 4 on the suspension pillars. The fiberglass structure is manufactured by S. Bourne of Nottingham and shipped to Lotus at Cheshunt in Hertfordshire for assembly and finishing.
Front suspension on the Elan follows the main principles laid down in the Elite, with unequal-length wishbones and narrow-diameter coil spring-and-shock absorber struts. The normal setting for the front wheels of the Elan gives one degree of positive camber.
While the rear end of the Elite has a lower transverse link and uses the half-shafts as upper locating members, the Elan has lower wishbones only and positive top location via the Chapman suspension struts, relieving the half-shaft of all location duties. The shafts still have fixed length, but some flexibility is provided by the Metalastik universal joints. Like Lotus racing designs, spring rates on the Elan are as low as possible, keeping the wheels in constant contact with the road and giving a ride comfort far superior to any other sports cars—if not better than many luxury sedans!