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Ian Thomas acquired his Lotus Elan 3 in 1998.
Ian Thomas acquired his Lotus Elan 3 in 1998.

Car Enthusiasts

British sports car still casts a spell Add to ...

'The Lotus Elan must surely rate as the best new sports car of 1962. Chapman's best by far production car to date."

It's very likely I read the review of the latest creation to emerge from Colin Chapman's Cheshunt factory in the January, 1963, edition of Sports Car Graphic magazine that concluded with those taglines.

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It was one of the monthly magic mirrors through which I viewed an exotic automotive world impossibly remote from the Ontario small town I was growing up in. I certainly recall adding the Elan to my expanding sports car wish list.

The Lotus name, despite being around for only a decade, was by then capable of generating in a budding enthusiast's imagination a lust that, if unrequited, often remained latent for years.

About the same time I was falling under the spell of Brit sports cars, the same thing was happening to Iain Thomson in New Zealand.

His family (like mine) had emigrated from Great Britain, Scotland in his case, to a far-away place. But despite its greater distance, New Zealand - not being influenced as Canada was by the proximity of U.S. car makers - retained closer automotive links to "home." And it was a car-keen country to grow up in, according to Thomson.

"They were really into it in the '50s and '60s," he says, with local lads like Bruce McLaren, Denny Hulme and Chris Amon rising to stardom in Europe, and plenty of racing action.

"There were a number of circuits you could go to, and they had an absolutely eclectic mix of racing: motorcycles, sedans, sports cars." And in Formula One's off-season, they had the Tasman Series, "which drew guys like Stirling Moss and Jimmy Clark."

Thomson grew up with a father, uncles and a brother who enjoyed driving, and began early on to tinker with bikes, then scooters, motorcycles and cars. His first four-wheeler was a 1947 Austin 8, purchased as a newly licensed 15-year-old.

"But actually I was driving a lot earlier than that on private roads, and probably a bit illegally, too."

At 17, he headed to the University of Chicago on a scholarship, then went on to acquire a mechanical engineering degree from the University of Toronto and began a career in sales, marketing and engineering in the construction industry. He drove a 1,071-cc Mini Cooper S in his university days, stepped out of character to acquire a new Plymouth Barracuda Fastback in 1967, acquired a BMW 2002 in 1972, and then switched to Saabs, which he's driven ever since.

Thomson fell more seriously under the Elan's spell in the 1960s than I did, but didn't get a chance to sample its charms until the early 1970s, when he drove one his brother owned in the Bahamas (oddly, I had my only ride in one at about the same time).

"It just blew my mind," Thomson recalls. "I said, 'I've got to have one of these.'"

But that wasn't to happen until 1998, when he found the 1967 Elan S3, which had been laid up for almost two decades before being acquired and restored by a fellow engineer.

Colin Chapman had founded Lotus in the early 1950s and it went on to create a series of innovative formula and sports racing cars. Its first serious street car was the Elite of 1957, with a unique fibreglass monocoque chassis.

The sports cars that followed in the 1960s, however, owed their genesis to a tiny but potent mid-engined sports racer, the Lotus 23, powered by a 1.5-litre twin-cam four. It grabbed the attention of the racing world when, in the hands of Jim Clark, it led the Nurburgring 1,000-kilometre race, chased by Ferraris and Porsches, until sidelined by a mechanical fault.

Its key design feature was a tubular backbone chassis that became, when translated into sheet-metal form, the main structural feature of the 1962 Elite. And, in all-too-soon rusted-out form, it has become the bane of Lotus restorers since.

Chapman, who signed the paycheques, generally gets the kudos for the Elite, but this clever little car was in fact created with input from a number of the best and most inventive brains in the business in Britain at the time.

And a lot of the credit goes to Brian Hickman, who later designed the Europa and then, for a change of pace, the Black & Decker Workmate folding bench.

Tightly wrapped around the unique structure is an elegantly simple and aerodynamic two-seater roadster body in fibreglass with pop-up headlights.

These are operated by intake manifold vacuum and early cars suffered from a little problem dubbed "headlamp droop." If sustained full throttle was employed, they'd slowly retract, leaving you driving very fast in the dark.

The Elite was powered by a front-mounted 105-hp, 1,558-cc litre twin-cam (Lotus head/Ford block) engine with four-speed gearbox, had independent suspension with wishbones up front and Chapman struts out back and four-wheel disc brakes.

That may not sound like a lot of power, but the car only weighed 1,500 pounds (680 kg), could get to 100 km/h in about eight seconds, and had a top speed of 190 km/h.

This was blindingly quick for a car in its category back in the day and special equipment (SE) versions were even faster. By comparison, the 1.8-litre, 95-hp MGB, also introduced in 1962, weighed 2,030 lbs (920 kg), required about 12 seconds to get to 100 km/h and had a top speed of a little over 170 km/h.

The Elan's performance, particularly its racing-inspired road-holding capabilities, drew raves from reviewers of the day. And like the Lotus 23 racer, it could show its pert Kamm-back tail to cars boasting bigger engines and price tags. It sold for £1,095 in kit form, £1,499 assembled.

Thomson's '67 Elan is even quicker than the original, with an engine putting out 115 hp, thanks to a pair of 40DCOE Weber carbs and fabricated headers. It also has a close ratio gearbox.

And it looks very smart in its white paint with knock-on disc wheels and black leather and walnut interior, complete with the luxury touch of power windows.

The Elan was produced until 1973, and the larger Elan+2 until 1975, with a total of about 17,000 produced.

"It's a great car to drive. The steering is simply magic," says Thomson.

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