Elan Buyer's Guide

The following article was published in the Sept 2003 issue of Classic Motorsports. www.classicmotorsports.net

By Kiyoshi Hamai

Sports Car (noun): An automobile equipped for racing, especially an aerodynamically shaped one-passenger or two-passenger vehicle having a low center of gravity and steering and suspension designed for precise control at high speeds. (The American HeritageŽ Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition)

Rightfully there should be a photo of a Lotus Elan attached to this definition because the Lotus Elan, produced for eleven years 1962 to 1973, epitomized the Lotus philosophy of "getting more from less".

Now, 40 years after its introduction the Elan is still saucy and seductive. At least four generations of sports cars have come and gone and yet the Elan remains the definitive small-bore sports car, the standard by which all others are measured.

Elan History and Background
The Lotus Elan was the replacement for the costly, but lovely, Elite. The Elan was launched at the Earls Court Motor Show in October 1962. Imagine the stir the Elan created. Here was a lightweight (under 1500 lbs), four-wheel disk brakes, four-wheel independent suspension, twin cam engine, aerodynamic sports car that was built by a renowned Formula 1 constructor. Remember this was a time when disk brakes were still two years off for a Porsche, and Ferraris were fitted with a live rear axle!

Colin Chapman called upon Ron Hickman (inventor of the WorkMate portable workbench) to hasten the development of the new car. Hickman scraped the concept of a full glass fiber chassis of the Elite and penned the now infamous center backbone frame. The front suspension was twin A-arms with coil springs and dampers, and the rear featured the Chapman Strut. This produced a soft but well controlled ride and superior Lotus handling.

The first cars (Series 1) were delivered in May 1963. The cars were fitted with a 1500cc Lotus Twin Cam engine. The Twin Cam had a special DOHC head and bottom end came from Ford pushrod engines popular in the Escorts and Cortinas.

Within a few months Lotus raised the displacement to 1558cc (1600). In 1964 the Series 2 Elan was introduced with a full width wood veneer dash, lockable glovebox and clustered tail lamps.

In 1964 Lotus developed a lightweight racing version of the Elan, dubbed Type 26R. Only 43 were built through 1966.

Then in late 1965 the S3 (Series 3) Fixed Head Coupe (FHC) was introduced followed in early 1966 by the S3 DHC (Drop Head Coupe). The US cars lost the Weber carburetors replaced by Strombergs. More creature comforts were added, full window frames for improved weather sealing, electric windows and head restraints. By mid 1966 the S3 S/E (Special Equipment) was launched with a bit more horsepower and knock-on wheels.

In 1967 Chapman's family was growing and the answer as a stretched version of the Elan, the Elan+2, with 2+2 seating.

1968 brought the introduction of the S4 with low-profile tires, servo-assisted brakes, flared wheel arches, new rocker switchgear and Stromberg carburetors replacing the Webers. And in 1971 the most powerful Elan was launched as the Sprint version.

Elan Care and Feeding
The good news is that Elans are simple cars and to save costs Lotus used the parts bin of nearly every British carmaker of the time.

The bad news is that Lotus left quality control up to the customer. Left to their own these would be engineers found numerous and creative ways of fixing the problems. More often than not the buyer of used Elan will spend more time undoing the faulty repair work of the previous owner(s).

The fiberglass body is a stressed member and adds stiffness. Over time flexing causes minute cracks, stress cracks. No amount of re-sprays will eliminate them only cover them up temporarily. The interior used Smith gauges, easy to have repaired. Triumph steering gear - rack and column are used. The wood veneer dash exposed to weather will check and delaminate and the center console is prone to cracking. The bucket seats will hold you place during the most vigorous cornering, but do split at the seams.

The stamped steel wheels were light and over time show cracking problems around the pin drive and ventilation holes. Aftermarket alloy wheels are available and worth the expense. Many owners have added fender flares to fit wider wheels and tires, too often poorly done.

The chassis, while ahead of its time in design has weaknesses at the base of the strut towers and the attachment points for the differential and gearbox. Then there is rust that after 30-40 years of service is highly likely. All of this can be cured with a replacement chassis is still available from Lotus or through the aftermarket.

The drivetrain - engine (lower end), transmission and differential are all Ford. As such all the major bits are still available. The Twin Cam engine is prone to weeping around the timing case and in the later smog equipped cars the Strombergs can be a bit fiddly.

A basic tune-up consists of spark plugs, points and condenser. Expect to remove the distributor to replace and set points since the distributor is located deep beneath the carburetors.

The water pump is integral with the timing case, thus a water pump replacement requires both head and sump removal. Engine cooling is marginal for warmer climates. The 2 bladed engine driven fan of the early cars was upgraded from the S3 on with an electric fan. Owners today can easily upgrade the radiator for further improvement.

Proper oil level is critical. Even a half-quart low will result in oil starvation in hard right-handers, leading to pre-mature engine wear.

The exhaust system hangs below and runs down the center of the chassis. The original oval shaped pipe have long since rusted away and been replaced by round tube. On S1s and S2s the clamp attaching the manifold to the down pipe is given to failure and the later S3 on cars have a gasket between the two sections that burns out with frequency.

The clutch and gearbox are straight Ford parts. Gears are near impossible to locate for the close ratio box. The original hydraulic clutch hose should be replaced. The differential internals are strong, but the output shafts are known to fail, and can be replaced by stronger modern shafts.

On each end of the rear half-shafts are rubber rotoflex couplings. These are prone to cracking which if not replaced will lead to dramatic failure, allowing the half-shaft to whip around much to the detriment of the fiberglass bodywork!

The brakes are a combination of Girling and Triumph bits. Nearly all the pieces are still available today. Designed for cars twice the weight of the Elan, the Elan will pull to a stop in incredibly short distances. S1 and S2 cars used a single master brake cylinder. The S3 on US cars came with a dual master brake cylinder and brake servos. Rubber brake hoses are getting expensive and it is less expensive to fit braided steel replacements.

Electrics are typical sixties British with lots of Lucas. Early cars were positive earth, then going negative earth beginning with the S3. The vast majority of electrical problems are traced to poor grounding. The lovely retractable headlamps were raised using engine vacuum in the S1 and S2 cars. Marginal vacuum systems would cause the head lamps to dip on long hill climbs. Later the vacuum system was used to hold the headlamps down, leading to long parked Elans with their headlamps slowly rising. Nearly every electrical component, from starter, generator to switches are used on other much more popular British cars and fail with regular British electrical frequency.

Buying A Used Elan
Finding an Elan is not the problem, so much as finding the "right" Elan. As is the case with most cars of this age there are four general categories of cars - Basket Case, Runners, Restored, and Concours.

The Basket Case Elan is just that, a bin full of parts that will quickly turn you and your wallet into a Basket Case. It is recommended to stay away from Basket Cases unless you have a lot of time and money.

Finding a Runner is a great option. Here's a car you can drive. You'll commonly see a re-spray, worn bits, cracking dash, tears in the upholstery, oil leaks. Beware of cars with coolant leaks, smoke from the exhaust (worn valve guides), major oil leaks. Watch for chassis rust, especially at the base of the strut towers. A bad chassis will require a body off restoration to replace the chassis. Head light lowering/raising problems may be symptoms of chassis rust.

Check the boot (trunk) and pay special attention to the fuel tank, in particular look for signs of rusting.

For a few thousand more you can locate a restored Elan. There is a spectrum of poor to wonderful restorations. Consider what you are going to do with your Elan, everyday driver, Sunday driver or Autocrosser. A Sunday car can be an Elan that has been restored to near original specification, whereas the Daily car should have modifications done for the sake of reliability.

Driving the Elan
In 1971 Road & Track magazine surveyed 77 Elan owners. Of the Elan owners, a staggering 89% said they drove hard or very hard! They complained about problems with radiator leaks, overheating, electrical problems, instruments, body parts, oil leaks, weather leaks, generator, wheel bearings, headlights, water pump, rotoflex couplings and tuning.

After all those problems and poor dealer support R&T reported, "How do you suppose the owners feel now? They love the car. A full 85% would buy another. The Elan is the most troublesome car we've surveyed, yet its owner loyalty ranks with cars that all but repair themselves."

Driving an Elan today's street environment, littered with 2-3 ton SUVs is a challenge. At just a tad over 12 feet long and only waist high the Elan is below the sightlines of every SUV driver.

But those apprehensions instantly vanish with the turn of the key and the Lotus Twin Cam engine snaps to life. The pedals, while close and not made for wide EEEs, are perfect for the ultimate heel-toe downshift as you descend into the tight right-hander. The gearshift is switch like with a snick as a gear is selected. The steering is light, with an intimate feel of the tarmac; you'll know exactly what each tire is doing.

Speaking of tires, there's not a lot of tire patch, as the stock 4˝" wide wheels cannot handle modern low profile tires. Still the Elan works wonders cornering at rates still not rivaled by today's machinery. And even if you overcook a corner the Elan is forgiving and tells you exactly what's happening. Quickly you realize that the Elan has become an extension of your senses, you think brake, heel-toe, apex, power out and the Elan heeds your brainwaves.

Wind buffeting is light, and there's enough room in the boot for a weekend trip. You'll get asked where you got the tiny Miata. And you'll have to explain the Mazda folks realized that to build a perfect sports car they should model the Miata after the car that is THE definition of a sports car, the Lotus Elan.

Today's Typical Prices
Model Estimated Price
S1 $10,500 - $18,000
S2, S2 S/E - DHC $10,000 - $17,000
26R $60,000 - $98,000
S3, S3 S/E - DHC $9,000 - $16,000
S3, S3 S/E - FHC $7,000 - $12,500
Elan+2, +2S/130 $4,500 - $10,000
S4 S/E - DHC $8,500 - $15,000
S4 S/E - FHC $6,500 - $12,500
Sprint - DHC $9,500 - $20,000
Sprint - FHC $7,500 - $13,000

Years Elan Model/Series Type No.
Year/Model Type Number
1963-1964 Series 1 DHC 26
1964-1966 S2 DHC 26
1964 S2 Racer 26R
1966 S2 S/E 26
1965-1967 S3 FHC 36
1966-1967 S3 DHC 45
1966-1968 S3 S/E DHC 45
1966-1968 S3 S/E FHC 45
1968- 1971 S4 S/E DHC 45
1968- 1971 S4 S/E FHC 45
1971-1973 Sprint DHC 45
1971-1973 Sprint FHC 45

Production Numbers
Year Production
1963-1965 6,716
1966 80
1967 1,117
1968 913
1969 1,148
1970 965
1971 748
1972 537
Total 12,224

Technical specifications
  S1 S2 S3 SE S4 SE Sprint
Dimension 145.3in x 56.0in 145.3in x 56.0in 145.3in x 56.0in 145.3in x 56.0in 145.3in x 56.0in
Curb Weight 1420 lbs 1485 lbs 1540 lbs 1580 lb 1630 lb
Engine 1558cc DOHC Weber 90bhp 1558cc DOHC Weber 105bhp 1558cc DOHC Stromberg 105bhp 1558cc DOHC Stromberg 110bhp 1558cc DOHC Stromberg 125bhp
Brakes (f/r) 9˝" disk / 10" disk 9˝" disk / 10" disk 9˝" disk / 10" disk 9˝" disk / 10" disk 9˝" disk / 10" disk
Front Suspension Coil-springs wishbones, Sway bar Coil-springs wishbones, Sway bar Coil-springs wishbones, Sway bar Coil-springs wishbones, Sway bar Coil-springs wishbones, Sway bar
Rear Suspension Chapman Strut Chapman Strut Chapman Strut Chapman Strut Chapman Strut
Gearbox 4-speed close-ratio 4-speed close-ratio 4-speed 4-speed 4-speed
Wheels 4˝ x 13 bolt-on 4˝ x 13bolt-on / knock-on (S/E) 4˝ x 13 knock-on 4˝ x 13 knock-on 4˝ x 13 knock-on
Tires 5.20x13 145/80x13 5.20x13 145/80x13 145/80x13 155/80x13 155/80x13
Cost New $4295 $4980 $4995    

  S1 S2 S3 SE S4 & Sprint
0-60 mph 8.7 sec 7.6 sec 8.0 sec 6.8 sec
Braking 60-0       124 ft
Fuel Mileage 27.9 mpg 24.6 mpg   22.2 mpg
Sources: Road & Track, Car & Driver, Sports Car Illustrated

Parts & Service
Dave Bean Engineering
636 E St. Charles - Star Route 3
San Andreas, CA 95240
(209) 754-5802

Kampena Motors
28935 Arnold Drive, Suite F10 (Sears Point/Infineon Raceway)
Sonoma, CA 95476
(707) 933-8049

375 Pine Ave. #26
Goleta, CA 93117
(805) 967-5767

R.D Enterprises
290 Raub Road
Quakertown, PA 18951
(215) 538-9323

Sports Car World
Rt.1 Box 21
Evant, Tx. 76525
(254) 471-5539

Randall Fehr Restorations
30 South Horton Street
Seattle, Washington 98134
(206) 622-7469