My Elan story begins at the 1966 LA Auto Show. I saw a picture of the yellow Lotus Elan S3 S/E roadster on the floor there and became intrigued. I had a new job that payed pretty well and was ready to have some fun, in the form of a sports car to complement my daily driver, a big Lincoln (Mexican Road Race vintage) that I had bought in college for $475.
Under consideration were the Cobra, Porsche, and now the Elan. I decided I couldn’t afford the first two, and began to research the Elan in earnest. It didn’t hurt that the Emma Peel (M. appeal) character in The Avengers British TV comedy series drove an Elan to offset Steed’s Bentley; excellent product placement.
The Elan choice had financial implications, though. If I had bought the Cobra, I could be significantly wealthier now. We are the sum of our choices. I also could have bought the racing Elan and been much more well off today with the deal, but it cost nearly 70% more at the time and I did not see myself getting into racing.
Deciding the Elan S3 S/E DHC had the required design purity and performance for the dollar, I visited La Cañada Sports Cars to see if I could buy the yellow model from the show. Their price was just shy of $5500. I didn’t want to pay a premium, but they weren’t interested in dealing. So I found an ad for West Side Cars of Amsterdam in the back of a magazine and purchased my yellow Elan by mail on 30 December 1966.
What a joy that my generation could independently buy/import most cars. What a shame that we have become so rigidly regulated by government and so controlled by manufacturers that we have to take what the distributor tells us we want, and then have to pay extra for the privilege.
The Elan sales price was $3,760, including a tonneau cover, touring kit (spare parts), and shipping from Amsterdam to Los Angeles. Customs duty and wharfage fees were ~$190, resulting in a comparable stateside purchase price of $3,950. I was now an importer, of sorts, and saved nearly 40% off the available local deal (my kind of discount).
The little car arrived at the port of LA on 4 May 1967, while I was on the East Coast on a hastily arranged extended business trip to Ft. George Meade (my alternative Vietnam duty that my company was able to set up for me). I asked my father for the big favor of going to the port and getting the Elan through customs and then parking it for me at home. I think he enjoyed the experience, although he had to work way too hard to get the protective cosmoline-like junk off the exterior. Someone apparently had stolen the cigar lighter and gearshift knob in transit, but otherwise the car arrived in new condition. I filed an insurance claim.
According to the bill of lading, this car weighed 1433 lbs. with a dry fuel tank. Adding 12 gallons of fuel brings the kerb weight to 1510 lbs. The advertised kerb weight of the S/E is 1580 lbs. (R&T) or 1540 lbs. (Elan manual). These are large discrepancies, apparently comparing apples to oranges to bananas. The car was shipped with two speedometers, one metric, one English units (one was stored in the boot).
Lotus ownership demanded conversing with other owners. Before the Internet, this happened by joining a local car club. In 1966, the Lotus West club was organized in Los Angeles, with regular meetings, outings, and a newsletter ‘Stress Cracks’ that had good technical articles. I was a charter member and had weekend fun with the club on most of the great roads in So Cal. I also took the car to the Sierra’s a few times. But the Elan never left California until its latest move.
In July of 1968, the club held an autocross in the Rose Bowl parking lot. It was my only competitive driving attempt, finishing in the middle of the pack after 8 runs on stock tires. My skill with the gearbox had improved somewhat by then, but I didn’t particularly enjoy flogging the little car.
Before a club run over Angeles Crest, we queued up at the side of the highway. This was just after California passed a law requiring external driver’s side mirrors. Many of us had not yet complied, presenting a feast for the CHP unit that happened by and held us up to ticket each mirror-challenged Elan. Where’s your sense of humor?
A club event from 1968 or so:
Elan Through the Chaparral:
By 1970, Lotus West had swelled to over 100 cars. Members, whose names ring a bell, include Dennis, author of an authoritative book on the Elite and numerous related articles; Dean, a club founder who had a coveted ‘garage with a pit’ and hosted a great fondue party; Dick, owner of a coupe with a nifty Alfa 5-speed conversion, who rebuilt my engine for a small fee; a Lotus dealer who campaigned his racing Elan in SCCA (and who missed the opportunity to sell me a new one).
I have many other Elan memories, such as the time I misjudged a decreasing radius curve and spun out in Topanga Canyon, slid up a raised shoulder embankment, causing the car to tip on its side (gently). It was back in the day of the canyon culture; some locals came out in a flash to help set the car back on its wheels so I could vanish before the next enforcement unit happened by to ask potentially embarrassing questions.
My parents, who had never been in a sports car until this one arrived, borrowed it for a Sierra touring trip. The what’s-wrong-with-this-picture effect, watching them drive off together in this truly tiny car, is a priceless memory. They had a blast, including being stopped by a CHP unit for no front plate, but basically just to ask what kind of car it was, a common experience. The alpine picture above is a memento of their trip, an old Polaroid snap. It shows the car in original trim.
A rite of ownership for some of us was the honor of being thrown out of Bob Challman’s dealership when bringing a non-purchased vehicle there for service. Challman was the Western US Lotus distributor, instrumental in building the brand in the States. He knew which cars ‘should’ be here and which shouldn’t. I admired the purity of his business concept, and was also moved by learning of the great sorrow attached to the name of his business enterprise, Ecurie Shirlee.
I had a boss who owned a Ferrari and lived on Tigertail Road. We had a humorous running verbal joust about which car could get up his street the fastest. Good sense prevailed. But on a racetrack, Elans strut their stuff to great effect. I used to drive to Riverside and Willow Springs to watch SCCA races. A local Lotus dealer and club member campaigned his racing Elan there. Sitting on the hill above the esses at Willow, watching the Elan slipping around the lumbering Vettes in a mixed-class race was worth ten prices of admission (actually, I don’t recall any admission fee). The Vettes were so loud that the tiny yellow Elan seemed to be pure, silent poetry of motion.
A driveway accident (my bad) messed up the right front corner a little. I decided to have the entire car repainted and the shop suggested lacquer (probably acrylic). It was mainly a Corvette shop; acrylic lacquer works great on the thicker fiberglass of the Vette, but not so well on the Elan. I think this particular lacquer is too brittle a coating to apply over the Elan’s flexible fiberglass; it has developed many cracks and I don’t think they are all stress cracks. It will have to be redone sometime; who knew?
One good thing that resulted was a decision to do a contrasting BRG ‘blackout’ backlight panel (since faded considerably) and rocker panels, topped off by boot lid pinstripe. I still like the effect. Around this time, the original flimsy steering wheel broke at the rim and I replaced it with a better one with smaller diameter. I also retired the original clear hooters and installed Maserati Air Horns in the nose.
The only other early mod was installation of a Mark IV capacitive discharge ignition system. In this form, the car was basically trouble free for three years. The Elan suffered a major breakdown at 27K miles – a hole burned through a piston – defective part, or may have been running lean. (I learned later that Webers not mounted with correct tension on the mounting washers are subject to a vibration mode, causing a float problem that results in lean mixture; a burned piston was not an uncommon ailment.) A Lotus West club member offered to rebuild it for a small fee.
I gave Dick full freedom to experiment on my engine, so coincident with the engine rebuild were several mechanical upgrades and builder tweaks: alternator conversion (still +vE), tubular headers, swinging-baffle oil sump, forged pistons, stellite valve seats, forged steel center main bearing cap, ported and polished head, oil-vapor separator from an Alfa that vents from the front of the cam cover with return line to the sump, re-routing of the external head breather tube back to the sump, 6-bladed plastic engine fan from an Alfa, coolant recovery tank, coolant bypass hose from coolant intake to thermostat housing, external Franz oil filter, which I unsuccessfully tried to talk him out of, gave up on that before bad feelings could materialize, and then removed it myself later.
During the rebuild, Dick noted that my car surprisingly had the new beefier con rods and a press-fit oil pickup tube, although it seemed to have the original MK1 engine. Only recently, in the book by Robinshaw/Ross, did an explanation materialize. My engine was manufactured just prior to the MkI/Mk2 engine block transition period and received a mixture of parts. It has a Mk1 block/crank, Mk2 connecting rods and oil pick-up pipe, hybrid Mk1/Mk2 sump, a Mk2 head, and Mk1 cam covers.
The rebuilt engine had only 5K miles on it before the driver’s door fell off on the ground one day, when my fiancée was opening the door in her garage. My WTF diagnosis: the factory had only installed one of two bolts for the upper hinge, and the bobbin on the one bolt pulled out from stress. The other, as-new hinge bolt was found lying in the bottom of the door. I practiced some fiberglass techniques I had learned and repaired the door. Then being apparently down a few brain cells at the time, I decided to do a major overhaul of the interior.
Prime motivators were a few cracks in the dash veneer, aging carpets, a dislike of ashtrays and flakey water temperature gauges, and no speakers for a tape player. And there she sits today. Some upgrades were completed: custom matte black chroming of bright metal bits that were too reflective; custom dash layout with two new gauges; speakers mounted in fiberglass-ed enclosures in the exterior foot well cavities.
The Elan immobilization coincided with marriage and children, and my focus shifted dramatically. I lost contact with the Lotus club and moved on. I looked up the vestige of the club in around 2000, but it was nothing like it had been (of course, neither was I); the original Lotus vehicles were becoming rare birds.
Now that the distant future has of necessity arrived, the car project is providing an enjoyable pastime for my retirement, even if I likely will be too old to drive it! And always in the back of my mind, I had hoped it would be a reasonable investment as a collectible car. (2016 prices for one in top condition with complete provenance are approaching $70K at auction, a smallish dream coming true.)
Out-of-service precautions included: car cover, drain fuel tank, remove battery, add oil to the upper combustion chambers, keep the tires inflated, push the car around occasionally in gear. Deserving of a better ending, it patiently awaits restoration while doing its best to resist entropy.
As to why I would keep the car for so long and in such a sorry state, it’s a question I often ask myself, and one my spouses have often asked me, since it was allocated half our garage space for 40 years, while my daily driver got parked in the driveway.
Perhaps the situation indicated to them that I was some type of ‘mental’. At any rate, it became my humorous pseudo identity for my entire adult life; I am often greeted with “How’s the Lotus?”.
Synthetic reasons for the ‘albatross car’ abound. The Elan may represent an important phase of my life with which I need to retain contact. More intellectually, its presence is an unforgettable (highly visible) reminder of unfinished business, sidelined by family and career building. I am a ‘finish what you start’ kind of guy, so long as I can believe it can still be finished.
Finally, my personality seeks out useful objects of impressive design. Being archetypes, such objects are allowed to accompany me throughout my life’s journey. The Lotus has those qualities and satisfies that need. And perhaps, by its 50th birthday next year, it may be functional again and restore a bit of my youth.
As of 2016, a worldwide Elan Registry shows fewer than 50 of my specific S3/SE model registered, implying perhaps fewer than 20 early ones with toggle switches on the instrument panel. Even if only a small fraction of current owners register their Elans, the evidence points to its becoming a smallish club.
Proceed to Elan SE Specifications.