wistful for the lighter touch
of a country road
The sub-text to the title of this blog expresses the ambition. The reality is that the yellow Elan, an early 1967 Type 45 (drophead coupé) in S3 S/E trim, has been parked in my garage for nearly 50 years and awaits restoration. It is in almost original condition, except for some minor finish tweaks and mechanical upgrades.
I drove the Elan for 32K mostly weekend miles before retiring it. It sits in various stages of disassembly, valiantly resisting entropy while patiently awaiting its turn on the road again.
This section of the blog concerns restoration of my Elan. Another section informs about this car’s provenential bona fides, the general technical details of the Elan two-seater model, and some history of the Lotus racing marque.
How Many Runners Are There?
Fortunately there are many Elans still being driven today, which amazes since they were famously fragile, fussy, and frequently flogged. These runners have escaped the dustbin of time that has undoubtedly claimed a majority of the 9,000 or so that were built. As of 2016, an Elan Registry has only ~650 vehicles of the Lotus Types 26, 36, and 45 of which I write. Hopefully these are still runners and that there are many more lurking out there somewhere. Who knows? The list growth seems now to be good, roughly 100 in the last year according to site statistics, so maybe there are as many as a thousand runners.
However many, they are surely a dwindling breed. Current owners and enthusiasts should feel some responsibility for preservation of the remainder. So this is not an abstract paean to a car long past, but rather a preservation plan to help extend the horizon of the Elan experience, by putting one more non-runner back on the road.
The Essence of Elan Ownership
The original Lotus Elan is an archetype for ‘less is more’ motoring zen, nearly up there with the Lotus Seven in purity, but I think sexier in conception and execution. A consistent pick on ‘best ten sports cars’ lists for nearly 50 years, the Elan of Colin Chapman and Ron Hickman has been emulated since by the Miata, in name only by the subsequent Lotus M100, and in part or in spirit by other sports cars. But the Elan experience is unique for all it offers: nimbleness combined with ride comfort, rarity, good looks, value, and fun for the buck. And very few have bested it for overall road competence at any price. For its time, it was special. And this special quality has proved timeless. We were blessed.
On the other hand, certainly the entirely praiseworthy scenario outlined above is selective memory and nostalgia working overtime. The Elan was expensive for its time, 2.5x the cost of much higher volume Spitfire, but handsomer and noticeably quicker. It had a temperament; smooth driving around town was difficult due to typically uneven response of the large-jetted Webers of the SE configuration, combined with the bungee cord response of the rubber donut articulation in the halfshafts; the concentration it took to be smooth about town could get really annoying. The cockpit was smallish; large people with large feet such as myself had to imagine ourselves smaller to be truly comfortable (although this 185cm driver always thought it was more comfortable than an XKE). The water pump serviceability would rate a worst 10 list. It needed valve shimming and carb adjustment with regularity. The water temperature gauge gave frequent problems. There was annoying oil starvation on hard right hand turns. If the carb mounting wasn’t spot on, engine vibration would cause running lean, which could burn a hole in a piston. What were we thinking?
To Mod or Not To Mod?
The Elan is considered a classic driver’s car, now of a rare vintage. While showing is a natural objective when one has one of the best ever, the ideal show car candidate is one whose original implementation was so exquisite that it is supremely important to capture the original in every detail. The Elan is not one of these.
Due to cost cutting at a time when Lotus needed a profit to continue to exist, the Elan has some cheesy bits that are unworthy of the design quality (e.g. rust-prone frame). It has some problematic bits whose negative aspects we learn to tolerate (e.g. body stress cracks, drooping headlights). It has some implementation details that render it quite labor-intensive to work on. And it has some parts that have been improved so significantly from the original that upgrading them will significantly enhance the driving experience (generator, rubber-jointed halfshafts, mechanical points ignition).
Since most runners today have had several ownership changes, the likelihood of finding one in as-built configuration with all original parts is vanishingly small. So originality buffs will have to recreate an original impression. It is done when cost is no object, but it means re-assembly from the ground up, beginning with a rebuilt chassis.
Perhaps most Elan owners will be better served by redirecting their budgets toward more practical concerns. From a performance and maintenance perspective, keeping everything original is not practical. One modifies an Elan as necessary to obtain the optimal driving experience available, together with as much reliability and ease of maintenance as possible, together with personalizing design details for driver’s taste, without changing the essence of the car.
How Much Customization?
Owners who share this point of view likely will drive customized Elans that better suit our driving needs. Each owner will have different sensibilities about how much can be done while still remaining true to the original concept. In my case, a valid customization will retain:
- the fiberglass shell in its original contour. Except for paint and metal coatings, it should look as new in the whole.
- some version of the Lotus Twincam engine and Ford 4-speed transmission
- original seats
- original suspension design and wheels.
When Money is No Object
I initially confronted major decisions: whether to do the work myself or contract it out, whether to go for broke (body-off, ground-up), or to try to get it drivable with minimum fuss. A contracted, for-broke approach will have to await a more wealthy future owner. I received a rough estimate from a restorer of $35K in the best case. Oops, in the 2010 Lotus market, that was way more than the car would be worth after the operation (although now in 2016, the Lotus market seems to be moving upscale quickly as our little cars approach their 50 year marks). Perhaps I will reconsider this option. But for now, my restoration plan will remain a combination of DIY and selective contracting.
The ‘for broke’ approach is still an option if I do the work myself. But I believe the chassis is sound, so a conservative approach has the most appeal and most fits a realistic assessment of my energy level and capability. I think small steps are the only sensible approach. Put it back together as much as possible and then reassess. Get it running and then reassess. Make it drivable and then reassess. Drive it a while and then reassess. Restore the body exterior and then reassess.
What am I giving up by not being able to financially justify a full-up modernization? Jay Leno is an Elan aficionado and provides an answer. His staff has produced a video about his personal love affair with the Elan. Apparently, cost is no object.
On the other hand, I once saw a web site, since deleted, by an archetypical Elan enthusiast, on a shoestring budget but with a lot of gumption and mechanical know how. It represented what most enthusiasts think Elan ownership should be about. That owner made me look like a cardboard cutout of an Elan owner. That site provided true inspiration.
With deep pockets, the Elan can become whatever you want it to be. But with an “I can do this” mentality, a willingness to put in the time, to suspend fear, and to learn by doing, success can be had without throwing (too much) money at the problem. And personal satisfaction and growth is so much greater through self-actualization.
The backstory of the initial Leno Elan is certainly the pressing reality for me, though, providing further motivation. I have kept putting off the endeavor, thinking life goes on merrily forever. Best to get it on, ASAP.
Coming To Grips
My restoration game is on, but without answers to a few fundamental questions, trepidation may creep into my resolve. Is the Elan in my garage irredeemable junk, or a roadworthy vehicle in deep disguise? How much damage has entropy wrought? Have I made a realistic assessment of my own capabilities. Can the person I am now pull it off? How much is prudent to plan to invest? Will it break the bank if costs escalate? How much obsessing will my better half tolerate? And above all, will I still like the little car as much as before, when it becomes roadworthy again?
There probably will be frustration in store. And since the current owner himself is the dreaded PO (previous owner), there will be some divine justice at work as well. The reason it has taken so many years to tackle the job is mainly priorities, a realization that it might make a good retirement project, accompanied by a vague feeling of being in over one’s head. The Internet has changed that. Now all the Elan owners and parts vendors in the world are virtually in the same room together, offering resources, sharing experiences (and competing for scarce parts). The comfort of not being the lone ranger has altered the emotional landscape.
Now that I am actually retired, the other excuses fall away as well. Hopefully all the needed parts can be bought, scavenged, or fabricated.
A Plan is Hatched
Let’s do it in phases, where each phase (Φ) includes the planning for the next phase. I can do the first four phases by myself and will get as far into ΦV as I can before hollering for help.
- ΦI: make a plan
- ΦII: baseline the project: sort the electricals; assess engine compression
- ΦIII: re-assemble the interior
- ΦIV: body hardware, doors and lids
- ΦV: engine systems: carbs, fuel pump, water pump
- ΦVI: wheels, brakes, suspension
- ΦVII: make it drivable
- ΦVIII: final body detail
These phases are more an organized discovery of tasks to perform, rather than a prescription for accomplishing the tasks. For psychological support, and from time management perspective, actual work task schedule will commence with the easiest tasks from phases 1-4, in no planned order. Making progress at the start is required if the project is to get anywhere at all. Because drive train work is my area of least experience and greatest potential difficulty, that will happen toward the end. This is backwards from how most true car enthusiasts would work, but it gives me the best chance of succeeding.
Following my usual WordPress style, this blog has only one post, this very one. The substance of the blog is found in various ‘pages’, providing the background information and current status of my project car. The blog pages are accessed via the menu in the footer of this post. Progress has been excruciatingly slow, proceeding in fits and starts. The pages titled Restoration Φx detail plan vs. progress, and any one can be updated on any given day.
Regards to all Elan and Lotus enthusiasts past and present. If you ever find yourself here, say hello and tell me what you think. If you have a Lotus blog, allow me to link to it. Enjoy.
waken yellow ghost
the road we glad will follow
glistens ‘neath the dawn