There’s noT much that can keep up with a well-driven Elan on a twisty B-road. Even today. Weighing in at just under a ton, this turbocharged 165bhp roadster was a rocketship, and its chassis was honed to near-perfection.
Lotus hadn’t offered a small car since the original Elan went out of production in 1973, and by the early 1980s the boys at Hethel were cooking up ideas for a resurrection. Many options were explored but, with little funding for a new model, it wasn’t until the 1986 GM takeover that the new Elan – codenamed M100 – was given the go-ahead. With that came plenty of engine options, and Lotus settled on a 1.6-litre Isuzu engine – available turbocharged or naturally aspirated. Without having to worry about producing a suitable power unit, Lotus engineers were free to focus on making the chassis the best it could possibly be.
The M100 was light and stiff, thanks to a composite structure and steel backbone – much like the original Elan – and the double-wishbone suspension offered unparalleled grip and composure. Peter Stevens designed the body, with a short wheelbase and very wide track that gave it unmistakable presence on the road.
There was much praise at launch, though the Elan was not without drawbacks. It was fast, of course, clocking a sub-7.0-second 0-60mph time, while grip and poise were astounding, and showed just how good a front-wheel-drive set-up could be. Yet it left some people completely cold. Lotus didn’t inject enough fun into the mix.
Unhappy with a sales total of only 3855 cars after two years, GM killed the Elan in 1992. It had banked on the new roadster making it big in the USA, but that hope didn’t materialise.
Few cars get a second chance at life, but that’s exactly what happened when Bugatti bought Lotus as a going concern at the end of 1993. Having inherited a warehouse full of Isuzu engines, it put the Elan back into production – along with many small but hugely beneficial updates.
Hitting the market in mid-1994, the S2 was fitted with 16-inch alloy wheels and lower-profile tyres, plus stiffer suspension bushes and revised spring and damper settings. These significantly sharpened the S2’s reflexes, while modified valving in the power steering pump and a smaller and lighter wheel improved weighting and feel.
It was no quicker. In fact, the addition of a catalytic converter knocked around 10bhp off, blunting the performance, yet the car became significantly more enjoyable. Production was limited to 800 cars, coming to an end when the remaining engines were all used up.
It lived on in Korea, after Kia decided to build a sports car for the local market. Not much changed visually – aside from slightly odd-looking tail-lights – but the biggest difference was Kia’s own 150bhp naturally aspirated engine sitting under the bonnet. Almost 30 years since it was launched, the Elan remains a hugely impressive machine that has unfairly disappeared beneath the radar in recent years. It might feel a little soft and safe, but what Lotus achieved at the time was nothing short of game-changing. It remains an interesting proposition, and – remarkably – one that is still genuinely affordable.
What to pay
As you might expect, the S2 is most the desirable version, from around £7000. Pay closer to £11,000 for a low-mileage car; upwards of £13,000 for the best. Series 1 cars are the most plentiful, and usable cars can be found from £5000, while £8000 will bag you a great example. Most are Turbos, although 129 naturally aspirated models were built and are slightly cheaper.
What to look out for
Engines are strong and can take much abuse so long as oil is changed regularly. The turbo version is very receptive to boost increases, freeing up a few more bhp. Just make sure it has been carried out by a professional, and not at home on the cheap.
The S1’s rather vague cable-operated gearchange was poor when new, and it can become considerably worse with age. S2-spec or improved aftermarket cables are a worthwhile improvement.
A galvanised backbone chassis and composite structure have helped to keep most Elans in good shape underneath, but suspension components can corrode. Many will have replacement galvanised wishbones – a big plus point.