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Hammond's icons: the Lotus Elan
I don’t think a person can ever really grasp the concept of ‘petite’ in a car context until they’ve been up close to a Lotus Elan. It’s a ballet dancer with wheels. And with a purity and simplicity to the styling, it leads up to a great big question: how comfortable are you in a sports car with all of the macho aggression removed? As it turns out, I’m very happy indeed. And in something as far from a muscle car as an electron microscope is from a hammer, this comes as something of a surprise.
First launched at the Earls Court motor show in 1963, the Elan was originally a convertible. It cost £1,499, though Lotus would knock off a few hundred quid and deliver it in pieces to those who preferred to assemble it themselves. An optional, retrofit hard-top came along soon after, though the fixed-head coupe - the S3, like the one we have here - waited until 1965. All versions used the now-famous steel backbone chassis, which was good for handling. But occupants sat outside of its protection zone, meaning the only thing between them and, say, an enormous lorry, was the fibreglass body. So, sitting inside one of these things is like wearing a paper suit to a jousting contest. And although this one’s in immaculate nick, you’d be lucky if yours survived without any cracks or grazes. Repair bills are notoriously huge…
The advantage, of course, is that it was light. Very light, in fact, at just 688kg. But before I sample the effects of this famed skinniness, I first breathe in possibly the best car smell I’ve ever encountered. Essence of Elan should be listed alongside sandalwood, mint, pine trees and Scotch as the best possible pongs available to parfumiers. This particular car was originally owned by Jim Clark’s manager, and Clark himself, a double F1 world champ with Lotus, actually drove it on a trip to his native Scotland back in the Sixties. A little bit of pedigree like that certainly adds to the heady atmosphere in a cabin already pungent with history.The engine is the famous four-cylinder, 1.6-litre twin cam by Ford. It only has 105bhp powering the rear wheels, but then - as you may have gathered by now - the S3 is very, very light. And as a result, a unique pleasure to drive. The absence of weight and bulk makes every manoeuvre, every turn, every change of direction or speed a joyous little leap. Unfettered by great ugly dollops of inertia or huge rushing waves of momentum, it can brake and steer with an immediacy I haven’t felt anywhere beyond that £3 million Lamborghini Sesto Elemento I raved about on the telly last series.
Turn into a fast corner, and there’s no sense that the skinny little tyres would rather part company with the rims. Everything moves together, as one. As a result, you can feel every part of the process, from the braking to the steering, in the best possible sense: through your feet on the pedals, and through your fingers as they pinch the thin and delicate wooden steering wheel. It’s old-school, analogue stuff, this.
The simplicity of the package does make itself felt in less wonderful ways, though: hit a bump mid-corner, and the old-fashioned suspension takes its time to settle down, even though it’s only handling the weight of an envelope full of leaves. But once settled, the little four-pot engine barks and snarls just menacingly enough to make its intentions plain, and the view down the long, narrow bonnet reminds you that this is a sports car, albeit an especially slender and petite one.
But, ballet dancer or not, it turns out the Elan actually likes a bit of rough treatment. Indeed, the car’s very petiteness and purity only enhance the pleasure to be had when meting out a bit of the tough stuff. I’ve never mud-wrestled a nun, but I should imagine it is a sensation very close to that of caning an Elan S3 around our track.
Pictures: Justin Leighton
This feature first appeared in Top Gear magazine