The reaction of the Caterham driver said it all, really. There we both were, travelling in opposite directions in our spritely British sports cars, making the most of a clear (if chilly) day to enjoy drop-top roadsters. Kindred spirits surely wouldn’t be unreasonable, both folk who enjoyed driving for the sake of driving. Yet a waved hand in acknowledgment was greeted with a stony stare, eyes fixed on the straight ahead and no returned gesture. Nothing. The snub could hardly have been clearer.
But then that’s always been the Elan’s problem, hasn’t it? Despite tens of millions of pounds invested by GM in the 1980s, despite widespread press acclaim at launch and a supremely capable chassis, the poor little M100 feels somewhat ostracised by the sports car community at large. Perhaps the old boy didn’t see the bright yellow Lotus with an overenthusiastic goon flailing a hand at him; or perhaps he was another member of the not-special-enough brigade that sees the Elan as not innovative or rear-wheel drive enough to be a proper Lotus. If it's the latter, imagine when he sees his first Eletre on the road.
‘A good car at a bad time’ tends to be the retrospective view on the Elan. The best part of £40m was spent on developing the M100, and it would be Lotus’s first open sports car since the Series 4 Seven. It got independent suspension all-round, strong turbo power courtesy of an overhauled Isuzu twin cam, and a kerbweight - helped by tiny dimensions - of little more than a tonne. Everything was there for another sports car success, including rave reviews praising the Elan’s composure and cornering. But then the early 1990s happened.
A recession is never a good time to be selling sports cars as a small manufacturer - Porsche was in much the same boat, let's not forget. But the job of the Elan was made 100 times worse by the Mk1 Mazda MX-5, revealed just a few months earlier in 1989 and - for many - fulfilling the role of a Lotus Elan for the 1990s better than the actual Lotus Elan did. It was small, pretty, rear-wheel drive and affordable: where the Lotus was £20k, the MX-5 was less than £15k. You don’t need us to tell you how the next few years went.
But with the Elan’s 35th anniversary looming next year - and Lotus itself marking 75 years in 2023 - there seemed no better time to revisit the M100. Even if Caterham man didn’t want to know, the Elan remains a great bit of sports car design, a testament to Peter Stevens’ original work. Broadly you’d describe it as curvaceous at the front, short of wheelbase, wide of track and with a wedgy rear end - which sounds like a disaster. Yet the reality is far more cohesive (and attractive) in person, especially on the later S2 BBS wheels of this car and in Norfolk Mustard, aka the very best colour. It has real presence despite being well under four metres long, and works proportionally as a sports car even with no hiding where the engine lives.
The interior brings more surprises, chiefly as there’s so much room; those familiar with having to fold themselves into a great British sports car will be impressed. The Elan feels substantial, which certainly wasn’t expected for a 30-year-old tonne of Lotus, the view - with the dash actually preventing the driver seeing the front end - being quite modern. What’s less modern are the wonderfully early-90s dials, revs and speed and boost all in red font. Because red’s the fastest.
Is it against expectation or not to say the Elan feels immediately like a Lotus? Given the prevailing attitude to it in the intervening years, you’d think it was a disaster to drive. Nothing could be further from the truth; even ambling, there’s the feel of a proper thoroughbred sports car. The steering, of course, is beyond reproach for weight and feel (once beyond the low-speed heaviness), it’s damped expertly, the pedals are nice, the torsional rigidity is far better than might be expected - in short, it gives the impression of the Elan being a very serious, very sorted sports car. An MX-5 undoubtedly has a better gearshift, that’s not in any doubt - apparently, the S2 cables improve the situation here - but the Mazda feels like a much less focused driver’s car by comparison, it being not as immediate or alert. Which was unexpected.
What’s entirely in keeping with the script is how much faster the Elan is than the equivalent Mazda; it was the more expensive and more powerful car. Most to be found out there now are turbocharged, 167hp versions, rather than the 130hp naturally aspirated model, of which few were sold even in a modest production run. The Isuzu 4XE1-MT is a fascinating little four-pot, an old-school turbo thriller that probably isn’t one for the sports car purists - and which consequently suits the black sheep Elan down to the ground. As is the old forced induction way, the IHI turbo really needs revs to give its best, not properly shoving the Lotus along until 3,500rpm is on the dial. You’ll know when it does, though, the little Lotus picking up speed like it’s run over a Mario Kart boost pad. It keeps on giving, too, with peak power not appearing till 6,600rpm and a real sensation of speed building and building to that point, if not a little beyond as well. Can get a tad boomy, though, and rushed gearchanges aren’t encouraged, so you’ll often rely on the mid-range muscle and smirk at a sweet medley of flutters and whistles from the hard-working turbo. Even then it’s comfortably quicker than whatever Mazda would be parping along the same road; probably not far off the performance of matey boy in his Caterham, in fact…
Think of the great front-wheel drive cars and it seems fairly certain that the Elan won’t feature on many lists for a long time. It really should. Even in 2023, its ability to put down a decent wodge of power and torque is seriously impressive; 30 years ago it must have felt extraordinary, back when hot hatches with similar power were wheelspinning, axle tramping and generally misbehaving their way to less speed. It’s a masterclass in managing the ills of understeer, torque steer and the like, Roger Becker’s ‘interactive wishbone’ - mounting the front suspension far more solidly than had happened previously - keeping wheels in contact with the road and steering largely uncorrupted, the Elan possessed of the kind of calm and composure that you’d never credit an early-90s, FWD, open-diffed car with. That ingenuity, sophistication and expert touch of any Lotus are in abundance here.
Of course, it’s not infallible. Get too greedy and there’s a small flare of wheelspin, albeit a kids’ sparkler rather than the full Catherine wheel, and the Elan does have a rep for less than friendly lift-off oversteer. (Not that this was the day for learning about that, in case you’re reading Rob - thanks for your car!). Moreover, those lovely moments of balance in a front-drive, rear-engined car, with all four wheels helping steer the car around a bend, are of course absent. But those wild claims from back in the day - Autocar reckoned it was the quickest point-to-point car on sale, Motor Sport praised it for ‘unmatched poise’ - most certainly have foundations in reality. The Elan may not corner how people thought an Elan remake should have cornered, but it sure as heck can corner - and entertain, too.
However, as we all know only too well, a likeable engine and finely honed chassis weren’t enough to save the Elan. Even adding together the first 1989-1992 run with the 800 Series 2 cars made in 94/95, there are still fewer than 5,000 cars. There were nearly 20 per cent more made again as Kias, for some idea of how few that is. That’s a real shame. None of this is intended to belittle the achievement of the later Elise, of course; that truly was a once-in-a-generation sports car, a superb Lotus at just the right time and the perfect reminder that nobody did driver’s cars quite like Hethel. It’s a lighter, cleverer, prettier sports car than the Elan, one with a more traditional layout to boot as well.
Nevertheless, the Elan deserves a better reputation than it tends to enjoy, with so many of the Lotus hallmark attributes wrapped up in its unmistakeable shape. And with rarity on its side now, too. That a decent M100 now costs what’s asked for Mk1 MX-5s - there’s a lotta love out there for the Mazda - only strengthens its case. Perhaps it’s not what people see in their romantic vision of a classic British sports car, but those who dismiss the Elan on perception alone (or anecdotal evidence) are doing themselves out of a great little Lotus. If only our friend in the Caterham driver knew that.
SPECIFICATION | LOTUS ELAN SE (M100)
Engine: 1,588cc, four-cyl turbo
Transmission: 5-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Power (hp): 167@6,600rpm
Torque (lb ft): 148@4,200rpm
0-62mph 6.5 seconds
Top speed: 136mph
MPG: c. 30
On sale: 1989-1992, then S2 1994-95
Price new: £19,850
Price now: from £8k (April 2023)
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