Lotus Elan Buying Guide
Available in open or closed form, the original Lotus Elan is one of the all-time great drivers' cars
How much to pay
• Project £2000-4000 • Good £8000-26,000 • Concours £28,000+ •
Running costs ★★★
DIY Friendly ★★★★
When it comes to usable lightweight sports cars, it was the original Lotus Elan that created the template (less-practical Six and Seven notwithstanding). This was a car that showed how a sports car should be made, with its sub-800kg kerb weight, disc brakes all-round and double-wishbone suspension, topped off with rack-and-pinion steering and a zesty twin-cam engine.
After years of being under-valued, a good Elan now fetches strong money, and as a landmark car there’s little chance of this reversing. As a result you’ll have to spend plenty to buy a good one, but drive an Elan for only a short time and you’ll soon see why these fabulous sports cars are worth every penny.
Your AutoClassics Lotus Elan inspection checklist
The Elan’s twin-cam four-cylinder engine is durable if maintained, but when things go wrong there are rarely any cheap fixes – most are very expensive. A properly rebuilt engine will last even longer than an original unit, usually at least 140,000 miles.
Maintaining anti-freeze levels is key (at least 25% concentration) to avoid the alloy cylinder head corroding internally. The temperature gauge should settle at 90-95 degrees on a run. The Series 3 onwards is especially prone to overheating, so fitting a high-gain core or alloy radiator is worthwhile.
Running hot can also be caused by a tired water pump; check for play and look for leaks. Replacing a water pump takes at least 10 hours as the head has to come off. If the fan belt is overtightened the pump’s life will be cut short; on the longest run there should be half an inch of travel.
Timing chains can wear. Pronounced whining means it’s too tight, while chattering means it’s too loose. There’s an adjustment bolt on the front of the engine; if there’s no adjustment left a new chain and tensioner are needed.
The Ford 2000E provided the four-speed gearbox, which is durable. The Elan +2 S 130/5 has a Maxi-sourced five-speed transmission which is sloppy even when in perfect condition. If things are really bad or especially noisy it’s probably due for a rebuild – so brace yourself for a big bill.
The differential casing is a Lotus part but the bits inside are courtesy of the Ford Cortina. As such, everything is available if a rebuild is needed, but listen out for whining while cruising.
The driveshafts incorporate rotoflex rubber couplings that have a finite lifespan. A visual check will show if they’re in need of replacement, but most owners convert to a set-up that removes this weak link from the equation. Different conversions are available, all costing around the same as a rebuild of the original system.
Suspension and brakes
The Elan’s steering is via a Triumph Herald steering rack that was modified by fitting lock stops and shorter outer tie rods, so the wheels don’t make contact with the anti-roll bar. If there is contact, a Herald rack has probably been fitted.
Predictably, ensuring the Elan’s suspension is in perfect condition is essential to maintaining the driving experience. Get a four-wheel alignment check done, especially if the car has had a replacement chassis at any point. Similarly, if the chassis has received a whack, everything could be out of true.
If any of the wheels has been kerbed heavily, one of the wishbones could be bent. This should be obvious by looking underneath – and it’s the same for worn wishbone bushes, which lead to vague handling. Also, do a bounce test to see if the springs or dampers have seen better says. Everything is available, including an array of upgrades.
All Elans feature disc brakes front and rear. The fronts came from the Triumph Herald; the rears were made specially. The system is reliable but the calipers can stick, while the handbrake is often adjusted incorrectly. It’s not all that efficient anyway, but if the adjustment is taken up at the lever end rather than at the wheels, it will never hold the car on an incline.
The Elan’s glassfibre body shell doesn’t rust, but sub-standard repairs are common. The shell flexes, leading to cracks and crazing, especially around the badge mountings, boot hinges and door handles. Repairs are involved and should only be attempted by glassfibre experts.
If the car has been restored, pinpoint who did the work as it’s a very specialist job. It’s easy to tart up an Elan, but much harder to keep it looking pristine, as the paint often cracks along with the glassfibre a few months after any work is done. Any car that’s had new paint applied over old is guaranteed to look a mess later.
Some filler was used on the production line because of imperfections in the moulds, while the original door fit was poor, so don’t expect perfection here. If you’re buying a project it will probably be cheaper to buy a new bodyshell rather than patch up the old one.
If the car has been in an impact the chassis should have been replaced; just heavily kerbing the wheels can distort things, causing stress cracks in the bodyshell. The original chassis wasn’t galvanised but all frames produced since 1980 are zinc-coated, so they could last indefinitely if not bashed about.
If you’re checking an original chassis for corrosion, focus on the mounting points for the front suspension and look for stress cracks around the engine mountings. Welding things up isn’t recommended though; a new chassis is needed instead.
Everything is available to retrim an Elan cabin, but don’t be in too much of a hurry to ditch factory parts if they can be saved, as originality is desirable. A good example is the repro dash tops, which are now vacuum formed then filled with foam; they look much like the original dash top but there are differences. The Series 1 and 2 weren’t fitted with carpets but many of these early cars now have them.
The electrical system tends to work well despite its relative complexity, thanks to the glassfibre bodyshell. Connections can break or come loose, while cars that are used only sparingly tend to suffer from failed relays, although these are easily and cheaply replaced.
- 1962: The Elan 1500 Roadster is launched at the Earls Court motor show.
- 1963: A twin-cam 1558cc engine supersedes the 1500 after just 22 of the latter are made. A hard top is now available as an option.
- 1964: The Series 2 is launched with larger front brake calipers, a full-width wooden dashboard and single-piece rear light clusters.
- 1965: The Series 3 fixed-head coupé arrives. Electric windows are now standard across the range and a close-ratio gearbox is optional. Tweaks include a longer boot lid (to cure leaks) and a boot-mounted battery.
- 1966: A Special Equipment model is available with a 115bhp engine, close-ratio gearbox, servo-assisted brakes, side repeaters on the front wings and centre-lock wheels.
- 1966: The Series 3 convertible appears with the same amendments as the FHC.
- 1967: The Elan +2 FHC goes on sale. It’s longer and wider and has 118bhp.
- 1968: The Series 4 coupé and convertible arrive, with flared wheelarches and new rear light clusters (as per the Elan +2). A revised fascia has rocker switches and the bonnet features a power bulge.
- 1968: The +2 S supplements the standard car, with a higher-quality interior and standard fog lights. It’s the first Elan not to be offered in kit form.
- 1969: The Elan +2 dies, but the +2 S remains.
- 1971: The Elan Sprint debuts with a 126bhp big-valve engine, a stronger transmission and two-tone paintwork. The Elan +2 S 130 gets the same engine and a silver roof.
- 1972: A five-speed gearbox is now available on the Elan +2 S 130. Cars with this option are badged Elan +2 S 130/5.
- 1973: The Elan S4 is discontinued, but the Elan +2 S 130 stays until 1974.
Although there was relatively little development of the Elan throughout its decade of production, there’s a surprising number of variants to choose between. As well as the regular two-seater convertible and coupé there are also the 2+2 derivatives that aren’t as sought after, but they are significantly more practical as you can take the family along for the ride.
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) with 115bhp. If this still isn’t enough you’ll be wanting a Sprint, complete with 126bhp and two-tone paintwork. However, it matters not which version you opt for – you’re guaranteed to find every journey a blast.
|Elan series 1 & 2|
|Elan S3 coupé|
|Elan +2 SE|
|Elan +2S 130|
Lotus Elan cars for sale here.