Agony and Ecstasy: 1966 Lotus Elan

The Lotus Elan is a study in contrasts. Built as the first Lotus designed exclusively for public roads, the car has attracted a following far in excess of its production numbers. Enthusiasts and writers wax poetically about its other worldly handling.  However, more than one owner has thrown in the towel after dealing with issue after issue rooted in Lotus’s lack of quality control.  Could the next owner of this 1966 Lotus Elan be the one to break the curse? This particular Elan, being sold here on eBay in Saline, Michigan, is described as a great project for someone.  With a current bid of $5,999, can this partially disassembled Lotus deliver driving ecstasy to whoever ends up with it? Or, will it provide nothing but agony for its next victim?

Why am I being so hard on the Elan?  I guess the reasons are rooted in a childhood that had me studying everything I could about sports cars.  The writers all agreed: the Lotus Elan was the perfect sports car.  Light, plenty of horsepower, a buttery smooth gearbox, and handling just this side of heaven.  I wanted one badly, but didn’t have the means.  When I finally got my own sports car, it was a ragged but running Porsche 914.  It was all I could do financially to keep it on the road.  Remember that old saying about being careful what you wish for?

I always kept an Elan in the back of my mind until I actually saw one in person.  It was then that I knew the plan was doomed to failure.  I would look like a circus bear on a tricycle in one.  I had also read about the multitude of problems that owners had with them, and had seen thinly veiled references to this unreliability in sale ads.  Owners always included a line or two about the reliability of their particular Elan.  When Peter Egan, the legendary writer for Road and Track, bought and started restoring an Elan, I read and re-read every snippet of news I could from his project.  It took a long time for him to restore the car.  It didn’t take nearly as long after an aggravation filled maiden voyage in it from Wisconsin to Alabama for the car to end up with a new owner.

Still, I can’t help looking at this one and thinking maybe it will be different this time for the new owner.  According to the seller, the car was purchased as a partially disassembled project.  There are some new parts that go with the car, a lot of old ones in boxes, and some parts are suspected to be missing altogether.  The good news is that the frame, a radical backbone design that formed the foundation for many Lotuses built after the first Elan hit the streets, is thought to be solid.  Rust damages these frames so thoroughly that you can still order a new one from England.  All it takes is a stout credit limit on your Master Card.

The other bit of good news is that the engine and transmission have been removed from the car and the engine still rotates.  There is no word on how worn out it is, but the grime we see in the picture points to it having seen many a mile.  There are folks that specialize in restoring and souping up these DOHC engines, but they charge a pretty penny.  By the time you finished restoring this car, you’d surely be upside down.

Still, you would know it inside and out.  You would also have the ability to address all of the shortcomings that these cars are known for.  Of course, that is the problem.  Many have come before you with the idea that they were going to come out of the other end of their Elan project with a perfect Elan.  One that you could spend hours and hours behind the wheel of without spending a minute on the side of the road.

You may succeed in making the perfect Elan with the reliability of a new Corolla.  You would also be the first one to accomplish that feat.

Are you ready to take that challenge?

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Comments

  1. bobhess bobhess Member

    Wouldn’t get near this one but if anyone needs an engine builder in the southeast the absolute guru on these cars is Steve Smith at Twin Cam Sportscars in Sarasota, Florida, http://www.twincamracing.com, 941-923-0024.

    Like 2
  2. Bob

    Years ago, I bought a 63 Elan from Kirk White in Philadelphia. I loved that car. The writer is correct in saying it is a daunting task these days to restore one. But,,,,after its done or at least drivable, when you get behind the wheel, you realize, it was worth it. The quickness, the handling, the intimacy with the road is indescribable. I still look for my old 26/104 to appear somewhere and dream of buying it back.

    Like 3
  3. Chris OD

    This article reminds me a lot of my first bought car,( as opposed to driving Mom and Dad’s), a 1973 MG Midget, in 1978. My Grandfather had a 1956 Robin’s egg blue XK Jag, and it reminded me of him. He had passed on in 1976, after having sold the Jag that spring. Although the Midget was pretty complete, it was my daily driver, and it wasn’t long before it could barely pass a service station without needing to stop in, as I had been told.Still, the car was a blast to drive, when it was roadable, and I give it much credit for one thing that my very capable Grandfather would have been proud of. By teenage income level necessity, it turned me into a capable automotive mechanic. As the article says, you’ll end up knowing every inch of that Elan! I don’t have the time or finances for that personally, and don’t suggest that Elan for the faint of heart, by experience.

  4. Francisco

    If driving a fun sports car is what you crave, then buy an old used Miata.

    Like 2
  5. RobertV

    Issues of original model reliability and quality control are largely irrelevant 50 years on. It’s all about the quality and diligence with which the most recent rebuild was done. A simple and ingenious design so that, rebuilt properly, these cars are bulletproof and rewarding. Without wishing to offend, a lifetime reading magazine articles is no substitute for time on the tools. Rebuild one…..then let’s talk.

    Like 11
  6. bobhess bobhess Member

    RobertV…after two Europas that are built very similar underneath I can say you can solve pretty much all of the original gremlins on any of these cars. By the time we finished a restoration on several of our cars you could drive them anywhere with confidence that you’d make it back. Most of our Porsches came with the reliability and we built it into the British cars we’ve owned or worked on. Agree 100%.

    Like 2
  7. bog

    12 bidders, one winner for eighty-eight hundred and change. Perhaps the seller was a “winner” too. I fondly remember the “Loti Pack” of young single Officers that had these when I first got to Germany in ’67. They had both ’66s and ’67s. There were six or seven of them in our unit. Yes they handled great, but I only liked them in sunny weather with convert top down. Not really made for a guy that was 6’4″ then. Oddly, I fit better in my Europa in ’68. Getting in/out gyrations, but well worth it once inside…to me even better handling than Elans.

  8. Greg Moore

    I bought Peter Egan’s Elan S1 in 2011, and after a bit of fettling at what turned out to be very small issues, it’s been a perfectly reliable, very fun regular driver. I’ve driven it from Philadelphia to Watkins Glen (LOG 33); from western Massachusetts to the AACA Museum in Hershey (in a November rainstorm at night), where the car was shown over the winter at the museum’s Lotus “Art of Lightness” show, and more recently to LOG 39 where it won Best Type 26 in the concours. Also, on the track at Thompson Speedway, and over the past three Labor Day Weekend Festivals at Lime Rock Park (I plan on driving it to LOG 40 in Salt Lake City from western Massachusetts next year).

    I daily drove a TR4 and later a GT6+ as a kid; and today daily drive a 1995 Audi C4S6 Avant, sometimes alternating in a Lancia Flaminia PF Coupe and the Peugeot 505 Wagon I bought new in 1985. But this Elan is the best car I have ever been privileged to drive. There must be nothing like it in the world.

    Like 1
    • bog

      Greg – that’s one of the best comments I’ve ever read here on Barn Finds. Did you actually buy the Elan FROM Peter ? As that would be the icing on the cake. Always loved reading his articles, exploits and following what he was restoring next. Since I live in Northern IL, and frequently drove around WI, especially going to Road America countless times, I can’t imagine how many times our paths crossed…and yet I’ve never met ” my sort of hero”. Others love him for his restorations of bikes and planes, but I’m a car guy. To each their own. If you’ve read my posts, you’ll know my sole Lotus was a new ’68 Europa, BRG, black interior. Sold when the Army clamped down on single Officers having more than one vehicle. Kick myself for not shipping it back….

      • Greg Moore

        Thank you. I did actually buy 26-3657 directly from Peter Egan.

        But more interesting than that is the huge folder of documentation from the original owner (from whom Peter bought it), including his correspondence with the maker of a prototype of the first consumer-useful radar detector, and a summons issued by the State Police of NJ for “improper use of headlights.” (The flashing system with micro switches and relay still works as designed).

        I have his original purchase invoice; a folder including what must be nearly every receipt for parts and service from new (until he put it on blocks sometime in the late 1970s); and from Peter Egan, every issue of Road & Track that included one of his “Side Glances” columns about the recommissioning of the car (with original address labels to his home in WI).

        About the car itself, I agree it’s most enjoyable with the hood stowed in the boot on a sunny day (at my age, that makes it easier to get in and out of), but it doesn’t stop me from taking it out whenever I can, whatever the weather. It’s only a bit noisier with the top on (or the “hood erected,” as they say in the old country).

        Tom Coughlin, who bought the Elan new in 1964 at Cox & Pulver on Madison Avenue in NYC was in his eighties when he told me he’d just bought the best car he ever owned in his life: a new Lotus Elise (!)

        I never drove a Europa, so I don’t know how an Elan compares.

        Like 1
    • bog

      Greg – you’ve become a bit of a “car-guy hero” with me now. I’m an “older gentleman” now myself…so understand all about in/out of smaller/lower cars. Not always so much fun these days. I’ll bet you had loads of fun talking about 26-3657 with Peter. Please don’t tell me Chris Beebe was there too..

      What a blessing to have all that history and material with the car. A small library worth ! All of the “next owners” of my sports cars got a nice binder and receipts (sometimes packaging) usually with sales brochures and magazine articles too. Often accessory catalogs I’d used. Fun stuff. Now I’m down to one car and dedicated space. So it goes.

      “Hood erected”, you slay me ! Wish I had the names/addresses of that “Elan Clan” of guys I served with. Some of them may still have their original car from back then..never know.

      I was the “odd man out” with my Europa. Obviously, no true open air driving, though the side windows are immense for a car that size. My car handled better than the Elans as it was lower to begin with, and had therefore an even lower center of gravity. One basically laid-down in the drivers “seat”. My derrière was mere inches from terra firma. And it was mid-engined, though, with a smallish Renault engine, it hadn’t the Ooomph of the later engine mods or Cosworth treatment. Anyway, it was great in dry weather, misty/rainy weather etc. Never had a good reason to drive it in the snow, as I also had my new GTA Fairlane and ’57 Fiat 500.
      Cheers & great to hear about your wonderful cars – bog

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