Chapman’s diminutive Elan is utterly captivating
There is a wonderful delicacy to the word ‘Elan’. The dictionary definition reads: ‘Vigorous spirit or enthusiasm’, and it truly embodies the soul of this car. In fact, I cannot think of another model designation that so perfectly describes the machine behind the badge. It’s over 50 years since the original Lotus Elan was introduced, yet today, as I stand admiring this 1972 Sprint fixed-head, you can sense the vitality lying under its fibreglass skin, waiting to spill out for anyone willing to jump behind its wheel.
Rewind back to 1962. The mood had shifted at Hethel, with commercial consideration requiring more focus. This led to the replacement of the delicate, delightful yet fragile and expensive Elite with the Elan. Colin Chapman needed a vehicle that was cheaper to build, yet still offered the vivaciousness his cars were famous for.
Gone was the Coventry Climax engine, in its place a production Ford four-cylinder block topped with a Lotus designed twin-cam cylinder head. Initially available only as a 1.5-litre roadster, by 1964 a hardtop could be had to go with a slightly enlarged, and substantially more famous, 1558cc engine. In 1965 a proper fixed-head coupe came on-stream, while the range was completed with 1967’s extended-wheelbase Plus 2. True to Lotus form, if you were handy with the spanners you were able to purchase any Elan in kit form to lose a few pounds off the purchase price, and presumably your waistline.
The Elan’s elegant fibreglass bodywork covered hardware that was cutting edge in the early sixties, with a steel backbone frame providing the base for all-independent wishbone suspension from which four-wheel disc brakes were hung.
The initial design was refined and updated through four series up to 1970 production when, due to slowing sales (and suggestions the Elan was falling behind younger, fresher rivals), the Elan Sprint was announced at the Earl’s Court Motor Show in October.
With this announcement came details on a revised engine spec with a redesigned head incorporating lumpier cams and a higher compression ratio of 10.3:1. The ‘Big Valve’ insignia on the cam cover indicated larger inlet valves were also installed. Net power was stated at 126bhp (94kW) at a dizzy 6500rpm, with torque of 113 lb-ft (153Nm) generated at a 5500rpm peak. Carburetion was via twin Weber (later Dell’Orto) 40mm carburettors and contributed to a useful increase over the 110bhp (82kW) quoted for the standard, Stromberg-fed engine found in the Elan S4. The Big Valve donk gave the 700kg Sprint a power to weight ratio of 7.45kg/kw, which is actually superior to today’s Toyota 86.
To cope with the extra urge the Sprint gained a strengthened driveline. Particular attention was paid to the differential bracing and controversial Rotoflex rubber driveshaft couplings to increase durability (ask an Elan Sprint owner how that works out in practice…).
Body-wise, special two-tone paintwork was offered with ‘Elan Sprint’ script separating the top colour from the always-white bottom; apparently the script was added to cover up a sometimes-poor paint blend between the tones. The 13-inch knock-off wheels were initially offered in black, but grey was also common, and the Sprint generally made do with a flat bonnet; there were no Stromberg clearance issues with either brand of Italian carburettors.
Lotus released some performance figures just before the official on-sale date, in February 1971. The new Elan Sprint, with its standard-fit 3.77:1 final-drive ratio (a taller 3.55:1 was optional), apparently lived up to its name with a ‘zero to sixty’ sprint claim of only 5.9sec. It proved optimistic, with contemporary testers achieving times in the mid-sixes, which was still astounding for a 1.6-litre car and placed the Elan Sprint well ahead of a contemporary 4.2-litre Jaguar E-Type at 6.9sec.
Driving one today
Having read examples of highly respected automotive personalities openly gushing over the Elan driving experience, I approach this Sprint with much anticipation, keys in hand. Echoes of Gordon Murray stating “my biggest disappointment with the McLaren was that no matter what we did we couldn’t get the steering to match an Elan…” run through my head as I acquaint myself with the cockpit surrounds. Hint: The Sprint’s ignition barrel is on the steering column and not the dash, as on earlier Elans.
Easing inside by dropping inelegantly over the high side runner, the initial impression is of the tight footwell squeeze. The way the centre console contours towards the pedal box adds another claustrophobic dimension, and you have to make a conscious effort to space your feet adequately so as not to hit two pedals at once, necessitating thin driving shoes for comfort. Once in, however, there is surprising headroom under the canopy-like roof.
The overall feel of the interior is of minimalist quality, all supportive leather bucket seats and wood-grain dash complete with switches for electric windows; a curious touch in an otherwise-dedicated lightweight, but helping justify the Sprint’s price premium over contemporary rivals; when new, it was more expensive than a 2.5-litre six-cylinder Triumph TR6, even in component form.
Pump the throttle a couple of times before cracking it slightly open to prime the carbs. After a couple of cranks the twin-cam catches and settles to an irregular beat as it warms through, the single exhaust outlet gargling away with puppy-like enthusiasm.
A few moments later, it’s go time. Grip the delicate steering wheel, evocatively emblazoned with Chapman’s signature. Let the left hand fall naturally to the gear lever – dainty to look at, almost fragile to touch, just like the spindly indicator stalks – and first is initially reluctant to engage until absolutely warm, requiring a couple of exploratory prods of the clutch before it snicks in. Releasing the intuitively-weighted clutch, twin-cam revs flare as the Elan Sprint moves away, instantly responsive to the driver’s touch.
The delicate theme continues once on the move. You can feel it laced throughout, a featherweight touch mixed with a sense of vulnerability by being in something so small. It’s worth noting that period brochures suggested the car’s most prominent safety feature was its brisk acceleration, to get one out of trouble, you see. Quite a contrast to today’s airbags, electronically-controlled acronyms and ANCAP ratings, I’m sure you’ll agree.
Seek out a bend and immediately that wonderful, unassisted steering captivates, the thin rim writhing gently in your fingers as it passes every nuance of road surface back, the chatter from tiny, tall 155/75 tyres on 13-inch wheels hitting fingertips undiluted. There is a hint of free play off-centre, but once passed that point there is no car on Earth that steers better. At one stage, I involuntarily release an audible “ahh” as I tilt the Elan into an open second gear corner and feel it dance, poised, to the directional change. This magic evolves further when you have a chance to play with the throttle, adjusting the distribution of weight fore-and-aft at will, your wish heeded cleanly and quickly. The chassis then asks a simple question: “What do you want to do now?” There are myriad options; delve deeper into the right pedal’s travel and the rear will help pivot the nose towards the apex; feather it slightly and you simply grip-up and go. There is tangible body roll – the Chapman-era Lotus philosophy of soft springing but taut damping control coming to the fore – but it simply does not lead to understeer. In fact, the way this roll transfers load longitudinally and smears the outside-front into the tarmac actually aids the cornering process.
Once in a straight line, the Sprint gains speed with such alacrity that you forget its old-timer status, along with the size of its engine. Of course that low kerb weight and ‘semi-close’ ratio gearing helps proceedings, but the flexibility of the twin-cam unit is remarkable, pulling eagerly from 2000rpm then kicking it up a notch beyond 3500rpm, hungry Dell’Ortos slurping lungfuls of air as those bigger valves really start to flow.
About the only time the engine fails to sparkle is when holding a constant speed just off-cam, at around 3250rpm, when a slight vibration creates the sense of the Elan Sprint straining at an imaginary leash, demanding more throttle, more revs, and more fun. It also demands airflow, as a brief session in stop-start traffic proves. As the temp gauge increases, the cockpit warms through and the engine starts sputtering its protests.
This attitude points to a car that demands to be driven as its designers intended. The four-wheel discs may be diminutive by today’s standards, but yet again the lack of mass gives surprising levels of retardation and progressive pedal feel. Compared to the aforementioned TR6, and even a 105-Series Alfa Romeo GTV of similar vintage, the Elan feels much more modern in its dynamic capabilities, yet loses nothing in character.
Returning the car allows pause for reflection. The Elan Sprint combination really is irresistible, with its light weight and all its benefits to acceleration, turning and braking; spritely engine; keen handling and that incomparable steering feel. Even at 185cm tall, my frame fits comfortably enough, though I’d appreciate a larger footwell to properly work the pedals. Living with one day to day would be out of the question, but if you are looking for a great classic to while away a gorgeous weekend sampling feisty country lanes, the Lotus Elan Sprint is close to perfection.
|Specs||1972 Lotus Elan Sprint|
|Engine||1558cc inline four-cylinder petrol|
|Power||94kW at 6500rpm|
|Torque||153Nm at 5500rpm|
|Power to Weight||7.45kg/kW|