Colin Chapman's most fully realized and practical production vehicle was also his greatest stroke of street-car genius. If the kartlike, rough-riding, and laughably impractical Lotus 7 was the ultimate streetworthy expression of Chapman's lightness-at-all-costs mantra, then the Elan was his masterwork, the fantastically balanced Lotus-for-the-people that behaved like a real car.
The 1962-73 Lotus Elan succeeded where the fiberglass-monocoque Lotus Elite before it had famously failed: it was fast, relatively durable, comfortable enough, and surprisingly suited to mass production. In marrying a rigid steel backbone frame to a fiberglass body, Chapman gifted the Elan with remarkable lightness and stiffness. In the same motion, he avoided the structural woes of the relatively fragile Elite, where a thick fiberglass shell bore all suspension and powertrain loads. In contrast, the Elan's engine, gearbox, suspension, and differential mounted directly to the backbone frame, leaving the bodywork virtually unstressed. As a result, the Elan's fiberglass panels were free to be as thin (and light) as was practical for a road car.
The upshot was a curb weight of just over 1500 pounds. A 105-hp, twin-cam, 1.6-liter four lived under the hood. Four-wheel independent suspension; 145-section-width, thirteen-inch tires; and four-wheel disc brakes rounded out the package.
Of course, clever engineering and light weight alone do not a driver's car make. And so we come to the Elan's greatest attribute: balance. Through a combination of carefully located mass, precisely tuned suspension, and a whole lot of Chapmanian gusto, the Elan ended up . . . perfect.
Everything on the Elan exudes lightness and delicacy. It starts with that spindly little steering wheel--the black-rimmed factory three-spoker is so thin that you have no choice but to hold it with your fingertips. Couple that with effortless, quick steering, and you find yourself turning the car simply by flicking your wrists. The tiny shift knob and gear lever--a grape on the end of a drinking straw--are so small that you fear for their health. The doors, hood, and trunk lid are light enough that they take flight in the faintest of breezes.
Look: there's a corner. Turn in, and the Elan simply grips, no drama. The car changes direction if you so much as tense up the muscles in an arm. More bends come up, so you take them a little faster, and a little faster, until suddenly, almost surprisingly, the car is drifting. Four wheels are adrift, sliding equally, and four tiny tires are skittering across the pavement at thoroughly modern speeds. You might as well have been asleep for all the talent it took.
Feedback? An endless rush of information buzzes and flows through that microscopically rimmed wheel. Get it wrong, and long before the faintest whiff of understeer shows up, the front tires telegraph their distaste. (You can actually feel their sidewalls deflecting.) The twin-cam barks a hollow, snorty cry, and you snick the shift lever--it actually makes this noise--with another effortless flick of the wrist. Few cars have gotten everything this right.
The Elan is the nearly ideal embodiment of every sports car clich we've got, and while other cars may be faster, smoother, and endowed with higher limits, none of them are quite as entertaining, friendly, and brain-dead easy to drive. Therein lies the Lotus's fundamental greatness. Sam Smith