The Lotus Elan was the first modern roadster. That may sound like quite a claim, especially considering that novel cars like the MGB were also around for 1962. The Elan, though, had something no other cars of its time had, or rather it had a combination of traits that none of its contemporaries could match. The Elan was purposeful and cohesive. While a car like the MGB used advanced unitary construction, it also used ancient and out-of-date mechanicals that may have left people wondering why MG had to stop short of breakthrough innovation. When Lotus introduced the Elan, there were no such compromises made.
Lotus endowed the Elan with an advanced body construction. Its aerodynamically-shaped fiberglass shell was draped over a rigid steel backbone chassis. Before production began, Lotus wanted to build Elans using a fiberglass monocoque, an exceptionally modern building style that had been used on the incredible Lotus Elite (1957-1963). When Lotus began initial tests of the Elan, though, they used a separate chassis for manufacturing ease.
This separate chassis proved to suit the car so well during early testing that Lotus changed it plans and decided to build the Elan with its more traditional steel chassis instead of the proposed unitary construction. The Elan was likely the best handling car ever to be built with a separate chassis, and during its time it out-handled the overwhelming majority of unit-bodied cars. It continued the Lotus reputation for building the best handling sports cars in the world.
Housed within the Elan's fiberglass shell was a thoroughly modern take on traditional sports car mechanicals. Beneath the low hood line sat a bristling engine. In its final and most capable form, the Lotus twin-cam four displaced a mere 1,558cc. Its power output, though, was at an incredible 126bhp. Wringing over 80bhp per liter out of a naturally aspirated power plant is no easy task today, and the fact that Lotus was able to do so several decades ago stands as time-tested proof of the company's ingenuity.
That thoroughly impressive engine was used in the 1970-1973 Elan Sprint, the highest performing incarnation of the long-lived Elan. The Sprint's weight, as on other Elans, was incredibly slim. At barely 1,500lbs, the Sprint offered a power-to-weight ratio rivaling contemporary Ferraris.
After reviewing all these impressive features, it's easy to recognize the Elan as the grandfather of the modern sports car. Evidence of this claim can be seen every time a Mazda Miata drives by. The Miata, the first of a new generation of sports cars, borrowed heavily from the Lotus Elan's design. Both cars used peppy twin-cam fours of similar displacement, both had simple, uncluttered interiors to declare their simple, uncluttered messages, and both had a light weight and an endearing character.
Perhaps the most obvious connection between the two, though, was the Miata's stylistic homage to the 2-seater Elan. The Miata borrowed the well-integrated bumpers, sleek and simple lines, and great proportions of the Lotus. New cars like the Pontiac Solstice and Saturn Sky, in borrowing from the Miata before them, have all brought the excellent features of the Elan into today's automotive spotlight through transitive presence. Looking back, it's clear that the Elan's design and engineering were absolutely timeless. Sources Used:
Wilson, Quentin. The Ultimate Classic Car Book. First. London: Dorling Kindersley Limited, 1995.
Cheetham, Craig. Hot Cars of the '60s. San Diego : Thunder Bay Press, 2004. By Evan Acuña