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LET’S CELEBRATE A TWO-SEAT SPORTS CAR, its twin-cam front engine linked efficiently with rear-wheel drive by a central spine of boxed steel. It has a soft top, tidy styling, pop-up headlights, and it’s an absolute ball to drive.
In fact, I have such a car, a 1990 Mazda Miata which happens to be the first car featured here at SimanaitisSays.
Yet more than two decades before the Miata’s genesis, the Lotus Elan defined this concept. Here are tidbits from R&T issues of 1963, a January introduction and a December road test once Elans started arriving on our shores.
Fundamentals. From January 1963 R&T: “The introduction of a new Lotus is always of interest to motoring enthusiasts…. At first sight the Elan looks relatively conventional—apart from its recessed headlamps. It is front-engined, with rear-wheel drive.”
Elan Backbone. R&T described, “Chassis and body are separate items, but the disadvantages of such a layout are overcome by providing torsional stiffness of an order normally found only in the best unitary designs; this has been achieved by basing the chassis on a deep propeller shaft tunnel (of 16-gauge sheet steel) which is in effect a large-section rectangular tube.”
R&T continued, “Deep, flanged side members run forward on either side of the engine to a cross member which incorporates mountings for the front suspension; a similar layout at the rear provides pick-ups for the rear suspension and final drive unit.”
Fast-forward More Than Two Decades. Wikipedia shares details of journalist Bob Hall’s chat with Mazda’s Kenichi Yamamoto (destined to be the company’s chairman) about the need for a “wind-in-the-hair classically-British sports car.”
“The design of the MX-5 took inspiration from the Lotus Elan,” Wikipedia writes, “and details such as the pop-up headlights… and slim chrome door handles all recall the famed British roadster.” Further inspiration came from the Elan’s backbone as well.
R&T Elan Analysis, 1963. The magazine wrote in December 1963, “On, in and around this strong center spine is hung everything else. The molded fiberglass body drops down over the chassis box and is bolted onto the flange at 14 points along the bottom of the box. The body is molded as a stressed-structure single unit with double thickness and reinforcing ribs where needed.”
“The suspension is independent at both ends,” R&T noted, “with double A-arms and coil-shocks at the front and coil-shock strut and lower A-arms at the rear…. The brakes are discs, outboard at both front and rear.”
Accommodations. “Getting into the Elan requires a bit more agility than for most sports cars,” admitted R&T, “mainly because of the 6.5-in. high door sills and immovable objects that the knees and feet must be guided over and around. Once seated, however, we found the driving position snug and firm, with what the importer calls a ‘light drive fit.’ ”
Snick-snick. R&T said, “Driving the Elan, the all-synchro gearbox snicks crisply into first, the clutch bites gently but firmly, and too many revs at clutch-pop can result in a little dance to the right. Shifting into 2nd, a short snick-snick away (you can chirp the tires again if you try), you can rush off to 60 mph in a brisk 8.5 sec before resorting to 3rd.” Top speed just topped the ton.
Elan and Miata, Kindred Spirits. A corresponding data panel for R&T’s first Mazda Miata road test, July 1989, makes for interesting comparisons. The Elan’s “light drive fit” was improved by about 10 in. in each direction: overall length, 145.2 versus the Miata’s 155.4 in.; width 56.0 versus 65.9 in.
Other Comparisons. The Miata’s exemplary folding top is an engineering marvel compared to the Elan’s DIY, which had “numerous round pegs to be fitted into round holes, bits to be fitted together, ends to be tucked in, and two fittings that require the use of a 7/16-in. wrench.”
Both engines are state-of-the-art double-overhead-cam designs, the Miata’s 1597-cc four cylinders emphasizing its state of the art in having four valves/cylinder and producing 116 bhp. The Elan’s 1558 ccs produced 105 bhp.
The Miata’s safety-enhanced and equipment-featured 2205 lb. curb weight was 705 lb. more than the featherweight Lotus design’s. This likely contributed to an added acceleration time to 60 mph, the Miata’s 9.5 seconds versus the Elan’s 8.5.
Nevertheless, the Elan and Miata are kindred spirits in providing gobs of driving pleasure. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2022