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1969 Lotus Elan S4 SE

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This bright red Elan S4 is also supplied for test by Gerry Wadman of Sussex Sports Cars.

He says: ‘I have driven about 5000 classic cars of all shapes and sizes over the decades. Given the choice of model for a fast blast through the country lanes, I will always go for the Elan. It is a tremendous little sports car that is so rewarding to drive.’

McLaren F1 designer Gordon Murray holds a similar view, telling Octane that he thinks the Elan is one of the best-handling cars ever. The Lotus really is tiny, appearing about three-quarters the size of a normal car. Its styling is very advanced for its age, with faired-in pop-up headlamps, contoured bumpers and minimal protuberances. The tiny 13in wheels are shod with slim 165/70 tires – which is all that’s required on a car weighing a mere 690kg.

In SE guise the Elan’s double-overhead-cam Cosworth-developed head, based on a Ford Kent four-cylinder engine, produces 115bhp. This should be more than enough to propel the Lotus to a 120mph top speed.

Driving the Elan requires you to shrink to size. Its door is small, and you squeeze in and down into the lightweight bucket seat. The upholstery is perfunctory black vinyl, and the swathe of walnut dashboard looks somewhat incongruous in such a modernistic sports car. Again, boasting a thin and delicate rim, the drilled steering wheel is very 1960s. The engine fires eagerly and lets out an enthusiastic note, while the gearshift is mounted high on the transmission tunnel and is snappy of throw thanks to the short lever.

The Elan immediately feels comfortable. With its steel backbone chassis, the fully independent suspension is set soft and the skinny tires don’t create much drag. This is a very original example and Gerry later points out that it has its original chassis, which has more flex than the later aftermarket replacement units that are fitted to most Elans.

This Lotus is obviously very different from the vintage Frazer Nash and 1950s Ace, but it is shocking to realise that it is of a similar era to the MGC. The car feels generations younger and incredibly advanced. It just moves so effortlessly and lightly. Everything is small and delicate, from the foot pedals to the neat gearshifter.

The engine is as sharp as a tack, with little flywheel inertia and immediate response from the Weber carburettors. It revs with gusto, and snaps and crackles when lifting off. It feels a whole lot stronger than 1558cc as it pulls the Elan along with vigour.

The steering is an absolute delight and totally free of any build-up, while communicating exactly what the front wheels are doing. Soon you are charging into corners, leaning briefly on the effective disc brakes and dialling the little Lotus through the curves at ever-increasing speed. Actually, this braking is largely unnecessary, as the Elan will go in harder and faster than you initially dare. This is the car for which the cliché ‘corners on rails’ was coined.

But with it being so light and nimble, you have to keep your wits about you when pushing the Elan. It is alive to the point of nervousness, so every input to the controls creates a reaction. There is no allowance for any ‘sneeze factor’, and you need to remain focused and alert. This is not a model for loafing along in. That’s because it is one of the finest sports cars to have come out of Britain and is incredibly advanced for its age. A revelation and a damning indictment of overweight and overly powerful cars that seem rather pointless.

Lotus specialist Paul Matty reckons that Elans have been undervalued for too long, but their time has now come – and it really is the right time to buy. The Lotus is on the rise at the moment, yet it is European buyers who cottoned on first in recent years, so a great many examples have gone overseas.

Currently, the difference in values between concours and average cars is huge, and Matty reckons that’s down to the cost of restoration, despite great parts availability. Bank on £13,000-15,000 getting you into an Elan, but be prepared to spend well over £20,000 for the best models. Matty says that the most important Elan buying point is its backbone chassis. ‘These cars need a new chassis these days: corrosion and wear will dictate this. If it’s not had a replacement, then fit one. This is a £4000 job all-in,’ he explains.

Then there’s the paint: ‘Never underestimate this – Elans are hard to paint, and cost around £5000 to do properly,’ Matty adds.

The engines are stronger than most people think. With modern materials, a rebuild will net you 100,000 miles – and doing this is a great opportunity to get more power. ‘140bhp is more than enough to reinstate the Elan’s authority,’ Matty smiles. These are the main points, but don’t forget about suspension adjustment and electrical issues.


Specifications

Engine: 1558cc in-line four, DOHC, twin Weber carburettors 
Power: 115bhp @ 5500rpm
Torque: 110lb ft @ 4500rpm 
Transmission: Four-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Suspension: Front: independent by coils & wishbones. Rear: independent by lower wishbones & coils, driveshafts as upper links 
Brakes: Discs all round 
Weight: 690kg
Performance: Top speed 120mph. 0-60mph 7.8sec

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