By Tom McCahill
Two years ago I brought you a test of the Lotus Elan 1600 roadster. This little wheel-twirler is the brainchild of a character named Colin Chapman from Isle of Blighty. Though little was known about Lotus products (except by the true-blue buffs) when we did our first test, the picture has since been altered considerably.
Jim Clark, a part-time Scots sheepherder, stunned the old guard by snatching the big Indianapolis purse in 1965 at record speed with less effort than talking a barfly into a free drink. Way back in ’63 Clark started heads spinning at Indy when he wound up in second place. It was conceded by many experts that if the ’63 Indy clambake hadn’t had close to an hour of caution-light running, which gave the old Offys time to cool off, Clark would have taken that pot pie, too.
In 1964 he was running well ahead of the pack when peeling tires damaged the rear axle assembly, knocking him out of the race. On the blue-blood Formula 1 circuit, of course, young James in his Lotus won the World Championship for drivers twice, the last time in 1965.
Now the buyer who sidles up to a Lotus dealer and leaves with a new Lotus coupe (full handle: Lotus Elan S2 coupe‒phew!) won’t have a potential Indianapolis winner by any stretch of the imagination but he will have a first cousin plus some of the important goodies that have made Lotus so outstanding. And-more to the point for our story-the owner, now almost $5,000 lighter, will know that he’s driving the same car that Jim Clark spins through the sheep pastures when he’s back home, which isn’t often. You can bet, though, that the Flying Scot doesn’t drop five grand for one of these bombs. More likely that Colin has to pay him a bob a mile to drive it since Lotus turns a neat trick by putting “The Car That Clark Drives” in all its ads.
Among the clan of real purists, who quite often resemble pickles with deer stalker’s hats, the Lotus coupe will prove to be pure gold and the equal to a reserved seat in heaven. This little bucket, not much larger than a size-12 shoe, has fantastic performance, considering its small engine. Its roadability will match the painted stripes on a road and it has the controlled braking and stopping properties of a cat.
Big, deep-breathing comfort, which the Lotus isn’t overloaded with, is not of paramount importance to the purist, who is far more impressed by the little bucket’s instant steering and absolute accuracy in tight bends. During my high-speed tests around the Daytona International Speedway I found the rig to be pretty squirrely on the high banks and coming out of the chutes where a 20-mi. cross-wind was blowing. The entire assembly, which weighs under 1,400 lbs., was not at its best when running flat out with the wind hitting it broadside. In one run I entered the 31° bank close to the bottom lane and, in less time than it takes to sniff, I went up like a kite and just missed touching the guardwall. Top speed was an indicated 119, which broke down to a real 114.4. which is fantastic for a street car powered by an engine not much larger than four vest pockets.
All Lotus cars actually are assembly jobs with components coming from different sources. Chapman is not a strict powerplant builder but a reworker and his main talent lies in chassis design. The base engine of the Elan coupe is a four-cylinder English Ford mill. Twin overhead camshafts are added and are driven by a single-stage roller chain. To feed the little beast, a pair of Weber carburetors is employed. Behind the engine and through the main drive train (including the transmission) everything is pure Ford. As you kids know, the Indianapolis-winning Lotus featured a big Ford V -8 engine.
The suspension, which is Chapman’s long suit, is held together by a backbone made of heavily welded pieces of steel that run down the center to hold the assembly together. Fully independent, load-compensating wishbone coil springs are used on all four wheels. When going over rutted roads you get the feeling that the entire rig is on rubber legs. The brakes are disc on all wheels, which is another competition feature. The steering is rack-and-pinion and the four-speed gearbox is synchronized all the way. The final drive ratio is 3.55 to 1.
The legroom for this two-seater is long and narrow but the hanging gas pedal (if you’re tall) might cramp your foot after a few hours at the wheel. One non-competition touch was the fact that this little pea pod sported electric windows. Electric windows are dandy as a luxury touch but not always the greatest things to have in a crash since wires can be broken.
Our test car was driven to us from way up north. Unfortunately, we had only two days with the car but this was long enough to form some definite impressions, especially when tooling it around the countryside. In addition to the Speedway checks, we ran some tests on a still-unopened throughway and over some back country roads and on the beach. For an outsize guy, the biggest problem is how to best get into it.
On many occasions I’ve been confronted by readers who ask, “How in the world did you ever get into such-and-such a car with your bulk?” Naturally they were referring to the midgets. At times I’ve considered giving myself a quick grease job but the thought of the cleaning bill stopped me. Actually, I’ve never had too much trouble getting in but occasionally getting out calls for a minor engineering conference.
The Elan coupe is small but not as small as a lot of cars I’ve been in so I had little trouble getting into the saddle. Paul Whiteman, who is also a blockbuster in size and a small-car buff, once explained it this way: “With some cars you go in headfirst, followed with your right leg and then twist, depending on the door design. In others, you start out feet first, tuck in your head and slide. It’s best to remove your hat first.”
On choppy roads, in spite of its less-than-1,400-lb. weight, the Elan, due to its four-wheel independent suspension, sops up bumps and ruts like a Tampa sponge. Under these conditions, when your store teeth would be popping in an American rig, the Lotus smooths the bumps even when the ruts are deep enough to hide a beagle.
Around the Daytona sports-car course the Lotus was pure joy. You can goof the bends and overcut the turns and still come through right side up.
The exhaust, which sounds like mortar fire in a cellar, will cause the heart of the true buff to rev like crazy, but it also might catch the jaundiced ear of the lawmen, which makes this little tub pure cop bait even at legal speeds.
In traffic-light racing this English miniature will become unpopular with the Lincoln, Cadillac and Imperial set when it whips away from them like a scalded cheetah and gets to 60 in less than eight seconds. It can reach 100 in less than 20. It also will nose-bend the boys in their GTOs and hot Barracudas when they try to stay behind it on twisty mountain roads or typical third-rate highways. This is a car to be appreciated and owned by the true buff and a rig that will be frowned on as a gadget by plump Madam Suburbia.
For the low-tide enthusiast and go-gone man this car, in spite of its true-blue talents, will not be too appealing. For example, the trunk space is at best two toothbrushes-and-one-bottle size, which might bother the traveling dude. Even the ash tray is butt-size and hardly the thing for Panatela Pete.
The instruments are magnificent and make the best from Detroit appear to be pure Mickey Mouse. The body is fiberglass and the headlights are retractable. The windows and windshield are good but the upholstery won’t cause the boys at Bentley any embarrassment. It’s a good three or four notches from great.
Zero to 30 averaged 3 seconds flat and 0 to 50 came out 6.1. Zero to 60 was 7.7 and O to 100 amounted to 19.8. The speedometer error at 60 was practically nonexistent but above 100 it sank quite a bit. Though the speedometer indicated 119, the clocks on several runs proved 114.4 to be actual. Regardless, this should be almost enough for getting Junior to kindergarten on time.
In summing up, Colin Chapman, the father of all Lotus cars and at this writing the most copied, must be rated as one of the greatest competition designers of our time. The Lotus Elan S.2 Coupe with a $4,950 price tag will not have universal appeal. As a family car it fits the bill like an Irish wolfhound in a one-room apartment. As stated at the outset, this is a car for the true connoisseur and purist–which means sales will be limited. The Chapman genius has been carried through many designs and for many purposes but its basic meaning in all is to win races. Many of Chapman’s ideas could be adapted to a more usable family car with some modifications but I have a feeling that if the car can’t qualify for competition Colin Chapman might say to hell with it.
If you’ve got the cap, the driving coat and the gloves, and the face of a pickle, plus 4,950 clams-go out and buy one. I’m sure you will both be happy about. it for a long time. If you’re just a halfway-up-the-mast connoisseur with an unappreciative nagging wife-give it some thought–she might fracture your skull. It’s a great piece of machinery for what it is. My advice: make sure you know what you are before buying.