Lotus Elise S1 Buying Guide
If your priority is driving fun rather than practicality, no affordable classic comes close to the Lotus Elise
How much to pay
• Project £2000-4000 • Good £9000-16,000 • Concours £19,000-35,000 •
Running costs ★★★
DIY friendly ★★★
Lotus has produced some landmark cars. Yet by the mid-1990s, some people were questioning the company's future – and then the Elise arrived. At a stroke Lotus had trumped every other driver’s car on the market by offering a delicate blend of performance, affordability, economy and tactility.
Powered by a 1.8-litre Rover K-Series engine, the rev-happy Elise tipped the scales at a mere 723kg; even the regular 118bhp powerplant provided plenty of zip, but later, more muscular editions turned the Elise into a real flier.
While the revised Elise from 2001 provided the same sort of driving thrills as its predecessor, enthusiasts gravitate towards the earlier car as it’s more compact, lighter and sharper to drive. There’s no doubt that with only 8613 examples of the Series 1 built, this model will always be collectible – and prices have already started to climb as a result.
Your AutoClassics Lotus Elise Series I inspection checklist
The Rover K-Series has a reputation for being fragile, but thanks to the Elise’s low kerbweight it’s not at all stressed here. That doesn’t mean it can’t overheat, of course, as the coolant capacity is low, but if maintained the engine will just keep going.
Check the underside of the oil-filler cap for white emulsion, and also see if the coolant level is up to the mark. The radiator can leak, but because it’s buried away in the nose access to make checks is poor.
The K-Series engine came in standard or VVC forms, the latter with variable valve timing. The 340R, Exige and 190 VHPD (Very High Performance Derivative) have more highly tuned engines, and if driven hard these can be worn out within 50,000 miles. Blue exhaust smoke betrays a worn powerplant. Everything is available to rebuild a K-Series engine, though.
All Elises came with a five-speed manual gearbox, which very rarely gives problems as the car weighs so little. If there is any bearing wear (given away by chattering at idle) the parts are available to overhaul the transmission. The synchro rings will wear eventually, but if gearchanges are especially balky, even when you swap cogs very slowly, it’s because the linkages need to be adjusted.
Differentials also last well although, again, cars that have been driven really hard on a regular basis are likely to whine. Rebuilding the diff isn’t expensive and everything is available to do so.
While clutches aren’t weak they do wear out eventually, so check for any slippage. Don’t under-estimate the cost of replacing a clutch, either, as high-quality items aren’t cheap and fitting it takes around ten hours.
Suspension and brakes
The Elise wasn’t offered with power steering, so there’s no danger of any leaks. However, the racks rarely last more than 35,000 miles, and replacements aren’t cheap.
The front suspension ball joints also tend to last no more than 35,000 miles, while the shock absorbers rarely last much more than half this. Keeping the suspension in tip-top condition is key – if there’s any sign of sloppiness or vague handling, you must budget for some expenditure very soon. Some owners opt for the Bilstein dampers of the Elise S2, which are more costly but tend to be more durable.
Once any work has been carried out, it’s essential that a four-wheel alignment check is made – if no work needs to be undertaken, it’s still worth investing in one of these every year or two, even if there’s no sign of uneven tyre wear.
The Elise Series 1 came with MMC (Metal Matrix Composite) brake discs and no servo. The MMC brakes feature aluminium discs and special pads, which are now scarce and expensive. That’s why many Elises have been converted to steel discs, which are more readily available.
With a plastic bodyshell and an aluminium tub there’s no chance of rust, but there’s plenty of scope for corrosion and crash damage. The undertrays make close inspection difficult, and significant harm to the tub means it has to be replaced rather than repaired – but these haven’t been available for years.
Getting the car onto a ramp for pre-purchase inspections is absolutely essential; once up in the air, you’ll have to do the best you can to ascertain what damage there is. At the very least you can expect the aluminium to have corroded, especially if it’s been out in the rain. Any sign of buckling or ripples, or mismatched adhesives – or worse – is probably hidden from view.
A lack of ground clearance means an Elise’s underside gets bashed about all too readily, so home in on the front valance, nose cone and optional headlight fairings. The Exige’s front splitter is especially prone to damage.
Everything is available to repair an Elise’s damaged bodywork, but glassfibre repairs are a specialist task. Look for paint that’s either sunken or microblistered.
The fabric roof tears easily and is more complicated than it looks. You can’t expect it to be completely watertight, but if it’s in good condition it will do a pretty good job of keeping the elements at bay.
The Elise’s simple interior wears well, but it’s worth checking the outside edges of the seats for damage. Some cars have mats and some don’t. Sets can be bought cheaply, and these lift the cabin ambience nicely.
The electrical system is just as uncomplicated and gives few problems. If any glitches do crop up it will probably be the Stack instrument unit, as this can fail. Repairs aren’t possible, so you’ll have to find a decent used item – and that won’t be easy.
- 1996: The Elise goes on sale, with standard alloys, immobiliser and cloth trim; leather trim and metallic paint are optional.
- 1998: The track-biased 190 VHPD (Very High Performance Derivative) has race seats and harnesses, roll cage and adjustable suspension. The 340R also arrives; 340 examples are built.
- 1999: The Elise Sprint arrives, then morphs into the 111S, with a VVC K-Series engine. The 50-off Sport 135 also appears, with uprated brakes and suspension.
- 2000: The Sport 160 produces 160bhp from its non-VVC engine, and the Exige goes on sale; it’s effectively a fixed-roof Elise, with 177bhp.
There’s no shortage of superb Elises that have been cherished all of their lives. But unfortunately there are also a lot of cars that have been neglected, crashed, poorly modified or thrashed. Elises with significant impact or corrosion damage should be avoided at all costs, as some such cars are fit for parts only – which is why a pre-purchase inspection is recommended.
Very few Elises are completely standard, but that’s not necessarily such a bad thing, as sympathetic upgrades can lower running costs, improve reliability or make the car even better to drive.
Don’t get too hung up on the spec of any potential purchase. Whether it’s got variable valve timing or not, it will be a blast to drive if it’s in good condition. The key is to buy the best you can find and afford, look after it and enjoy using it as much as you can. It’s guaranteed to be a good investment, and will prove to be the perfect tonic whenever you take it for a spin.
|Elise Sport 135|
|Elise Sport 160|
Picture courtesy of Magic Car Pics