Lotus Elise S1: review, specs and buying guide - Lotus Elise S1 buying checkpoints

One of the all-time greats, now from just £10K. We help you track down a good one

Greg Lock runs long-established specialist Hangar 111 in Waldringfield, Suffolk, and is our guide here. ‘People would get into an Elise from another modern car and be blasé, not realising it was more fragile,’ he says, ‘so early cars got a reputation for breaking. But they’re fine with careful maintenance. Some parts are hard to source from Lotus now, though.’

Engine and transmission

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The head gasket is a worry, its failure typically caused by a leak from the very small-capacity cooling system. Much has been written on the K-series’ potential troubles, including the way the head goes soft if it has overheated, but treated well it’s a good unit and the latest type of gasket has cured the failures. ‘Check the service history,’ says Greg, ‘but if it’s been looked after well, you shouldn’t know if there’s been a head gasket problem apart from the bill.’

The gearchange will sound clunky but the action should be smooth and easy. ‘The gearlever cables are very long and tend to stretch, especially if people are rough with the gearchange. They always need adjusting after 20,000 miles and must be checked at every service. Otherwise the selectors will ultimately be damaged and there’ll be a £600 bill.’

Suspension, wheels and brakes

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‘When the wishbone bushes start to go, there’s a vagueness in the steering. The bushes should last around 40,000 miles but trackdays wear them and the balljoints out more quickly. It’s important to have a full alignment check – nearly everything is adjustable – every two years. A worn wheel bearing will set up a harmonic whine through the chassis. Lotus stopped using the original metal-matrix brake discs soon after the start of production; they are available from a third party but we don’t recommend them because they are poor in the wet. The original five-spoke wheels buckle easily and are like hen’s teeth now. If there are lots of balance weights, ask why.’

Chassis, body

‘The chassis has survived the test of time well, but the visible epoxy (glue) – it can be red, green or blue depending on the car’s age – shouldn’t be cracked or chipped. And there must be no welding repairs to the aluminium, because the heat will cause the glue to fail. Replacing the chassis isn’t really viable because of the work involved. It’s a £12K bill, including cutting through the adhesive that bonds the side panels to the chassis. Re-bonding the panels is a high-precision job.

The front and rear clamshells are bonded on, too, and are becoming hard to get. The body lasts well, but the paint can spontaneously bubble in very cold or hot weather, typically along the top edges of the doors. If the rubbers are wavy, work has been done there. The steel headlight mountings can rust badly. We replace them with powder-coated ones. The roof shouldn’t leak if it’s a correct one fitted centrally so the seals can work properly. Some aftermarket ones are too small.’


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‘The window winder mechanism is delicate and needs to be treated gently. A noise from the Stack rev-counter’s stepper motor is annoying but quite normal. Condensation under the rubber matting can make the aluminium oxidise. Lotus used to fix it by bonding another sheet of aluminium over the original.’

>Find a used Lotus Elise for sale on the Classic and Performance Car site<


Engine In-line 4-cyl, 1796cc, dohc,16vMax power 118bhp @ 5500rpmMax torque 122lb ft @ 3000rpmTransmission Five-speed manual, rear-wheel driveTyres 185/55 R15 front, 205/60 R16 rearWeight (kerb) 731kgPower-to-weight 164bhp/ton0-60mph 6.1secTop speed 126mphPrice when new £18,990 (1996)

What to pay

The earliest, leggiest Elises are under £10,000 now, but better to spend a little more and find a tighter, brighter example with a diligent history. Under £16,000 will buy one with perhaps 50,000 miles covered, but it’s tempting to look harder and find a real low-miler for £4-5K more. The 111S and Sport 160 command £20K upwards. Some cars have been converted to Ford Duratec, Audi TFSI, VW R32 or Honda power. Approach with caution.

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