Lotus Elan: What you need to know before you buy

Photography Credit: Tom Suddard

How about a classic sports car good enough for F1 stars, Hollywood leading men and mysterious secret agents? It’s an athletic machine that trades luxury for lap times. 

Meet the Lotus Elan. 

Lotus released the Elan for 1962, filling its tidy package with a lot of contemporary, cutting-edge technology: four-wheel disc brakes, front and rear independent suspension, rack-and-pinion steering, fiberglass body over a backbone chassis, and a twin-cam engine. It even sported flip-up headlamps.

From a 1964 review by Car and Driver: “The Elan very simply represents the sports car developed in tune with the state of the art. It comes closer than anything else on the market to providing a Formula car for ordinary street use. And it fits like a Sprite, goes like a Corvette, and handles like a Formula Junior.”

The Elan didn’t hide in the shadows, either. F1 legends like Jackie Stewart, Jim Clark and Jackie Oliver campaigned the 26R, the factory’s race-ready variant, while Emma Peel chased bad guys in the street version. Even Paul Newman, the salad dressing guy, ran one. 

Elan production lasted all the way through 1975 and eventually saw a fixed-head coupe and four-seat +2 variant joining the original roadster. One warning: Prices are going up, with Hagerty showing top values for first-year cars just crossing the $50,000 threshold.
David S. Wallens

Why You Want One

  • Cool enough for the Avengers, right up there with miniskirts, cat suits and bowler hats.
  • About as pure as you can get: maybe 1500 pounds and usually more than 100 horsepower.
  • As we proved when restoring one broken in two, rough cars can be saved.
  • It takes a certain level of commitment to own and drive one. People will give you a nod of respect.
  • Two words: Lotus Twin Cam. (Okay, that’s three words.)
  • Plenty of motorsports pedigree on both sides of the pond, with the Elan regularly catching seemingly stronger cars in the corners.
  • Even though only about 12,000 were built, they still regularly come up for sale. 

Lotus Elan Shopping Advice

Hayes Harris

First things first, jack up the car, take a screwdriver and tap around the chassis. When hit, the chassis should sound tinny rather than like a dull thud. If you find any questionable areas or visible corrosion, that’s a big problem.

The front shock towers are most susceptible to rust. They have small drain holes to let out water, but debris can clog them. 

Some people cut away the rust on a chassis and patch it. Most people feel that’s a no-no. You really, really need to know what you’re doing.

Lotus makes a replacement chassis made with galvanized steel. Spydercars also makes an aftermarket version. It’s a big job to replace a chassis; you’re essentially performing a frame-off restoration.

The insulation mat between the body and chassis can hold moisture and result in corrosion to the chassis.

The Elan used Rotoflex couplings. Replace them every 3 to 5 years or if they are cracked.

The Elan has great parts availability and aftermarket support. As the car grows older, though, the specialists do, too, and there are fewer than there used to be.

The last Elans produced were the Elan Sprints, with the “Big Valve” twin cam engine. These and the early Series 1 Elans tend to be the most collectible.

Lotus had an interim model, the Super Safety, in 1968 to comply with new U.S. regulations. Most people don’t know they have it. It has a different dash, with rocker switches instead of toggle ones. In 1969, Lotus fully complied, introducing headrests, Nader nuts and Stromberg carburetors. Both versions, before and after the regulations, work well for everyday driving.

The Weber carburetors, used before the regulations, work better for performance applications. Changing the Stromberg carburetors to Webers requires changing the head.

Values are going up. They’re worth restoring. For vintage cars, they’re a pleasure to drive, and they also make fantastic race cars.

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