Features

Lotus M90 Elan – Dead on arrival

Financial issues, the death of the company founder and a change of drivetrain ethos at a Japanese giant all played their part in the demise of this 1980s concept for a rear-driven Elan

Lotus M90 Elan Dead on arrival

During the 1970s Colin Chapman steered Lotus upmarket, selling the Seven to Caterham and killing the original Elan in order to introduce the upmarket Elite coupe of 1974, briskly followed by its Éclat sister and the mid-engined Esprit. However, these fancier models weren’t enough to run the Hethel factory at capacity, which is why Mike Kimberley, Lotus’s chief engineer and later managing director, asked designer Oliver Winterbottom to start work on a cheaper, 2+2 sports car, based on a cut-down Elite chassis.

The project promptly stalled for lack of finances, only to be re-ignited at the end of the ’70s when Chapman agreed to a new entry-level car if Lotus could persuade a larger manufacturer to provide a cost-effective powertrain. Kimberley set about finding a big fish to whom Lotus could provide know-how from its new engineering consultancy in return for hardware, and in late 1980 sealed a deal with Toyota. Lotus would undertake development work for the Japanese giant (engines initially, though they would later work on the Supra and, according to unconfirmed rumour, the original MR2) in return for which Hethel would receive the 2-litre four and RWD drivetrain from the Celica

With a deal done, the project was assigned the codename M90 and Winterbottom was left alone during 1981 to refine the style and packaging of coupe and roadster versions. Unfortunately, the early ’80s weren’t kind to Lotus and in December 1982, as the company ran dangerously short of money, its problems were compounded when Colin Chapman died of a heart attack. The M90 was the last Lotus project to receive his input.

> An uncomfortable journey in a Lotus 2-Eleven – evo Archive

In the wake of its founder’s death, Lotus teetered on the brink of collapse until Kimberley persuaded Toyota to take a 22-and-a-half per cent stake, quickly followed by major investment from David Wickens of British Car Auctions, who bought up 29 per cent and became the company’s new chairman. With a fresh start for the company the M90 was given a renewed sense of purpose. The wheelbase was chopped to make it more agile, the Toyota engine was now the 1.6-litre 16-valve unit from the AE86, and the design was refined with a sharper, shorter nose and the slender rear lights from the Aston Martin Lagonda. The first running prototype, a roadster, was completed in March 1984.

On paper M90 was a promising idea, what with a zingy little engine driving the rear wheels and a target weight of just 860kg. Unfortunately, the finished car didn’t live up to this promise, blighted by poor chassis rigidity and a wedgy design that risked looking dated by the time it went on sale. Worse yet, there was a feeling within management that the car was too predictable, at odds with the Lotus spirit of innovation. 

Meanwhile, the Toyota consultancy had allowed senior Lotus engineers to compare the existing rear-drive Corolla to an early example of its front-wheel-drive replacement, and their conclusion, cemented by findings on projects for other car makers, was that the future would be pulled rather than pushed. Without telling the M90 team, Lotus management asked Peter Stevens to work up a new styling theme for a possible front-wheel-drive sports car, and in early 1985 the increasingly unloved M90 was brought together with a full-size model of Stevens’ proposal for a management review. The board voted to proceed with a front-driven car and the rear-wheel-drive M90 was dead.

The lone prototype was stashed in a Hethel warehouse until 1998 when, as part of an auction of unwanted assets, it was sold to an American collector. In what might pass as a happy ending for this doomed one-off, the car was subsequently restored and made road legal, while its usurper would evolve – via a GM takeover, a complete redesign and a switch to Isuzu power – into the M100 Elan of 1989.

Recommended

Chrysler ME Four-Twelve – dead on arrival
Chrysler ME Four-Twelve – front
Features

Chrysler ME Four-Twelve – dead on arrival

In 2004, Chrysler showed off a radical supercar concept with an 850bhp V12. Sadly it never came to be.
15 Feb 2024
New Lotus Type 135 sports car to replace Emira in 2027
Lotus Type 135 – front
News

New Lotus Type 135 sports car to replace Emira in 2027

The Lotus Emira is set to be replaced by a new electric sports car designed and developed in the UK
31 Jan 2024
Porsche 984 Junior – dead on arrival
Porsche 984 Junior
Features

Porsche 984 Junior – dead on arrival

This miniature marvel could have seen Porsche enter the ’90s with a truly affordable entry-level sports car
11 Jan 2024
Volkswagen W12 Syncro – dead on arrival
Volkswagen W12 Syncro
Features

Volkswagen W12 Syncro – dead on arrival

A genuine supercar from the maker of people’s cars seemed tantalisingly possible – until logic prevailed
8 Dec 2023

Most Popular

Toyota GR Yaris Gen 2 2024 review – first drive of the production ready hot hatch
Toyota GR Yaris – front
Reviews

Toyota GR Yaris Gen 2 2024 review – first drive of the production ready hot hatch

We've driven a prototype GR Yaris Gen 2 on track, now we've driven a production car on ice. Is it still looking good for the ultimate supermini?
27 Feb 2024
New Alpine A290: latest details on the Renault 5's hot hatch cousin
Alpine A290 concept
Features

New Alpine A290: latest details on the Renault 5's hot hatch cousin

Good news for fans of accessible performance, as Alpine reveals more details about its forthcoming EV hot hatch, the A290
26 Feb 2024
Hyundai i30 N and i20 N axed
Hyundai i30 N and i20 N
News

Hyundai i30 N and i20 N axed

Production of petrol-powered Hyundai N hot hatches has come to an end in Europe, with electric N models picking up the baton
23 Feb 2024