Elans Tested @ Hethel (Roger Becker, Nick Adams)
Lotus Elans tested at Hethel
Is any Elan the same after years of abuse, modification and restoration? Two Lotus engineers compare four very different cars at the Hethel test track
Text: John Simister / Photos: Paul Harmer September 2012
Every classic car car has a different life. That life affects each in different ways, so five decades later a car could be a totally original low-miler, a rolling wreck, a restored pride and joy, a modified retro-toy or something else altogether.
Anything could happen.
In the case of Lotus Elans, it probably does. Repairs, improvisations, bodges even; all were more likely to come to the Lotus than to most other sports cars. Partly this is because they attracted a mechanically minded, thrill-seeking sort of owner; partly it is because even an Elan’s greatest fan would not cite robustness, durability and quality among the
tiny car’s many virtues. And drilling holes for nefarious bodges and ad-hoc mods is worryingly easy in a glassfibre car. So is refilling them, perhaps with glass-stranded Isopon P40, which could easily have been marketed as Lotus Elan In A Tin.
They are fragile, demanding cars to own, although their gossamer weight, punchy power and telepathic controls make them hugely satisfying when they are right. And too often, over the years, the demands weren’t met.
So now, as the Elan breed reaches its half-century marked by much-deserved celebration and some strong price rises, we can examine how four examples have fared over their lives to date. We’ve gathered them all at the place where they, or at least the kits of parts from which they were assembled in someone’s domestic garage or an obliging workshop, were made. They all started off as very similar cars, so how different have they become from each other over the years? Which most accurately reflects the way it was, and the way it felt, when new? And can modifying them make them better?
To help us here, they are joined at Lotus’s test track at the Hethel factory by Roger Becker, Lotus’s chief of vehicle dynamics at the time of our gathering (he retired shortly afterwards), back in Elan days a development engineer.
To discover what he thinks of the Elan today, given what he has since learnt, will be intriguing.
Our four Elans are all later models than the 1962 original, all with a straight waistline and right-angled lower windscreen corners instead of the first cars’ haunched rear wings and rounded windscreen. It’s amazing how much more modern that subtle re-shaping made the Elan look, although the squared-off wheelarches introduced for the S4, to clear the fatter tyres, killed the delicacy of what many consider the optimum Elan shape, that of the S3.
All have taken very different routes through life. Oldest is Bryan Smart’s 1967 S3 DHC in flaky white. This is a fantastically original, unrestored car whose untouched bodywork brings a new meaning to the notion of
patina. It has had a new chassis, as most Elans have, but it was done a
while ago. The first owner kept a log of every fuel fill, service, speeding ticket, the lot. Bryan likes his cars to be in tip-top shape but he also
prizes originality. And that’s why he refuses to do anything to the
bodywork of the tattiest, most time-travelled car in his collection.
Newest, by contrast, is Peter Burgess’s 1970 S4 DHC in red. This has had a complete restoration and looks lovely. Its engine now has Weber 40DCOEs attached to the appropriate cylinder head in place of the original Strombergs, and the former bonnet bulge has been excised accordingly. Chassis specification, like that of Bryan’s S3, is standard but the components are rather newer.
The yellow S4 DHC is a very early 1968 example of the series, so it retains the S3’s Ford Zephyr MkIII-sourced heater grille atop the facia and the triangular depression in the rear valance at whose apex is a petrol tank bolt. It belongs to Lotus development engineer Nick Adams, the man largely behind the 2-Eleven trackday car.
He’s owned it for a very long time, and has tuned the suspension to his liking with a lower ride height and slightly stiffer springs, although the replacement of the pairs of driveshaft doughnuts with CV joints takes away the additional springing effect found here in the standard car. The engine is a replica of the big-valve, BRM-badged units offered as an option by Mike Spence Motorsport in pre-Elan Sprint days. Mike Overton, who built the BRM Elan engines, did Nick’s cylinder head and donated a genuine BRM badge.
Our fourth car is my own S3 Coupé, a very late example of the series just a few chassis numbers away from Nick’s S4 and fitted since new with the
S4-style rocker-switch dashboard. Originally painted a muddy brown called Burnt Sand, it has worn Lotus Pistachio Green since its mid-80s restoration.
At the core of the rebuild, which included a cylinder head with Cosworth L2 camshafts and bigger-than-Sprint valves, is a square-tubular chassis from Spyder in place of the pressed-steel original. This was, and is, a popular modification; it is stronger than the Lotus chassis and gives much better accessibility to some of the Elan’s mechanicals, but it is more expensive to make and is ‘impure’ in the sense that it is not a Lotus design. Indeed, can an Elan with a Spyder chassis still be a true Lotus? Oh, the angst.
Either way, the chassis strength is still concentrated in a narrow, central backbone. Crash protection was starting to become an issue in the early 1970s so Lotus decided to crash test an Elan or two to see how they fared. Roger Becker explains what happened.
It would meet the 30mph frontal impact test with its collapsible steering column, but not the Federal side intrusion. And to think how many times I went round the MIRA test track in it, so close to the barriers that once I took a doorhandle off…’
With that thought filed away where it can’t be reached for the rest of the day, along with the salve of possibly buying a footwell and sill-bar impact kit as doubtless fitted to all racing Elans, we venture out onto the Lotus test track.
Actually, not all the cars are quite ready yet. Bryan hasn’t even arrived because his resolutely original, points-triggered ignition system has given up the ghost. To me, that’s an originality too far; my car has an Aldon Ignitor,
so no longer do I have to fumble under the carburettors to check the points gap at every service.
Nick’s car should be the most expertly developed, given his day job and his racing activities (nowadays involving a Lotus 23), so we begin with that one to set a standard. It has a well-used, much-enjoyed look and feels absolutely lovely, with a crisp, punchy engine, steering of total transparency thanks to the exorcism of all detectable friction, and a benign, confident handling balance. Better than my Coupé, I have to say.
Nick elaborates: ‘The steering is lighter and more immediate in my car, but it will push into understeer. It bites and turns in and then washes out quickly. This suggests my damping is good at low speed but geometry takes it away at higher speed. If applying throttle, you have to be very aggressive to provoke oversteer. Your car is very much easier to take into oversteer. It immediately adopts a neutral stance, then you press the accelerator further and it settles into gentle, very controllable oversteer. If you come off the throttle it comes back in again.’
The differences are intriguing. Mine, too, is on lower and slightly stiffer springs, but it has a mix of Spax front dampers and special rear Konis from Tony Thompson Racing, plus tyres of a more modern 165/70 section. It feels stiff at the back, which probably explains why it oversteers more than it should, yet the ample roll angles suggest otherwise.
‘There’s an odd thing about your car’s ride, too,’ adds Nick. ‘It feels too high on the road, as if there’s too much bump damping and not enough rebound. But both cars have that falling-over-into-a-corner feel, a rolling motion followed by the turning.’ Clearly mine needs some fine-tuning of the damper settings. That’s the problem with adjustable dampers; the sweet spot might be hard to find. ‘Give the customer an adjustment and he’ll mess it up,’ Colin Chapman used to say.
Next up, Peter Burgess’s red S4. A few laps later, Nick returns with his assessment. ‘It has a similar balance to your car’s,’ he opines, ‘but the turn-in is not as sharp. Both have a duller turn-in than my car but more oversteer. However, Peter’s car’s ride is more composed than either of ours, and it doesn’t have the up-in-the-air feel that yours has. It doesn’t seem to roll as much, either, and it feels better resolved.
But it has has very, very stiff steering, heavy and dead. Many rebuilt racks are poorly done, so it might be that. Or the track rod ends.’ Roger Becker, who has been doing some rapid laps of his own, joins in the discussion. ‘If you have the car at the standard ride height but with the wheels off the ground,’ he says, ‘you should be able to flick it to full lock. Then you don’t have to turn above the friction.’
So what does he think of the three cars so far? ‘John’s and Peter’s cars have a more entertaining oversteer balance than Nick’s,’ Roger reports, ‘but Peter! Your brakes! You’ve still got the servo. The first time I came to a corner the brakes locked, then they came off, then they locked again. They’re very on-off and they judder, too.
‘I had the servo on mine,’ adds Nick, ‘and I hated the way the brakes grabbed. The Elise S1 was unservoed and there’s no need for one on an Elan, which is even lighter.’
Time now to ride with Roger Becker, the man who was there back in the day and whose son, Matt, continues the tradition with today’s Lotuses. We’re in Nick’s car, the best representative so far of how an Elan should be, and I’m wondering if I’m ever going to be able to decipher my notes as I attempt to balance pen, notebook and g-forces.
We’re powering out of the test track’s hairpin, Roger steering back and forth with one hand as he holds the Elan in a smooth slide. ‘You forget how far you’ve come as an engineer. Brakes, yaw stability… These were the cars when drivers were drivers. You can feel there’s a major lack of torsional stiffness here – the Elise is much stiffer.
'The angle of roll used to break the doughnuts. We used to break them there… [slides through the hairpin again] …so we devised a series of tests. We could snap them just like that! We could foresee when they were about to fail because the rubber started to peel.’
Was it fixed in the end? ‘No. We tried stiffening the suspension, but even doubling the spring rate only reduced roll by a quarter. We put the chassis on a twist rig, and it got to the point where stiffer springs made no more difference. It made the chassis twist instead.
Aha! So that’s the untold reason for the Elan’s legendary suppleness.
It was to stop the chassis twisting.
‘There’s none of the base stiffness of cars today, none of the ability to lean on the car in a corner. It’s always in the transient region where you feel the grip building up and its relationship to lateral acceleration. But we used to drift round the steering pad all the time, a nudge of oversteer to register where the grip is, then jerk the car and feed back the throttle.’
Meanwhile, where are Bryan and his S3? Phone calls are exchanged, Bryan has fixed the problem, he arrives and we’re instantly transported back 40 years. His car even has original-type Dunlop SP Sport Aquajet tyres, which he’d been storing in the loft for rather too long until he had a car on which to put them. As Roger discovers as soon as he and I take the S3 out on the track.
His face cracks into a nostalgic grin as we slither into the first bend. ‘It’s not building up any grip at the rear. And it’s very soft and loose. We used to change the dampers and the doughnuts at the same time, every 5000 miles… You have to turn this big steering wheel’s rim a long way.’
Then Nick has a go, and on his return he leaps to the timewarp Lotus’s defence. ‘It’s very linear, unlike an MGB in which you never knew what would happen next. The Elan has intuitive responses.’ ‘Yes, no surprises,’ says Roger.
Nick is clearly smitten by Bryan’s relic. ‘It doesn’t need a respray. It’s a real delight to see one so original and patinated. Please don’t restore it!
As for driving it, in some ways it felt the most like mine with the lack of friction and the way it rolls down the road. The handling balance is very similar to John’s and Peter’s cars but it’s a far more extreme case – it has no measurable grip at the back at all. The ride is nicely damped with that down-in-the-road feeling, not floating at the top like John’s.’ All of which suggests that the best suspension for a Lotus Elan is the suspension that Lotus designed for it. No surprise there.
So which one is best now? Roger has to shoot off to a high-power meeting, so Nick gives his verdict. ‘I’d vote for the white one,’ he says. ‘The fact that it reminds me of my car makes me happy, because it makes me feel I’ve done mine the right way. It’s the closest to how they should be.’
Unfortunately I have to place mine last, having put Nick’s at the top. It still needs some detail honing, I feel (and its gearbox seized on the hairpin with tyre-smoking consequences, but that’s another story). Peter’s and Bryan’s
tie for second place, the S4’s tighter feel offset by the stiff steering and
What this test has shown is that the passage of time can make once-similar cars feel very different – and that what was considered brilliant half a century ago is nowadays seen as primitive by those involved at the time, given what they have developed since.
Roger Becker is pragmatic on this, as forward-thinking engineers usually are. But that still doesn’t stop a good Elan, 50 years on from the breed’s launch, from being one of the most nimble, tactile and lovable sports cars ever made.
Hone your Spyder sense
Does changing the Elan’s original chassis make a tangible difference?
A key Spyder chassis attribute is its claimed increase in torsional stiffness, which concerned Lotus sufficiently back in 1981 for it to carry out its own tests. The test result was 1960lb ft/degree, compared with 1580 for the Lotus chassis in S4 guise. Slightly sniffily, the Lotus test observed that the improvement was achieved at the penalty of a 10kg weight increase. A weight increase worth suffering for a 380lb ft/degree improvement, you might conclude.
These figures bear further scrutiny. The Elan chassis was typically described on its 1962 unveiling as, in the language of the time, an ‘immensely strong’ backbone design. Yet 1580lb ft/degree is a very low figure, and the 1500 measured in a 1964 test before the chassis was strengthened was even lower. This test also revealed that adding the body increased stiffness by just 444lb ft/degree to make a total of 1944.
By any standards, this is not a rigid structure. For some reason, other contemporary figures once lodged in a young Simister’s mind and they make a useful comparison now: 5200lb ft/degree for the MkIV Ford Zephyr, and an impressive 13,800 for the BMC 1800 ‘Land Crab’. Today, even open cars routinely exceed 6000.
In our four-Lotus test, my Coup� clearly felt the most rigid car, although the roof, and especially the glass, helped here. But was the stiffer chassis at the root of its different dynamic feel, or was it just springs and dampers? Answers, in true 1960s fashion, on a postcard please.