Purity is a precious, fragile and vulnerable thing. The first Lotus Elise oozed purity from every extruded-aluminium and hand-laid glassfibre crevice, with nothing superfluous to besmirch the notion of a truly minimalist, focused sports car. It weighed just 731kg, so 118bhp of mid-mounted, 1.8-litre K-series engine was enough for a 0-60mph time in the low-sixes allied to muscular pull in the higher ratios.
Designer Julian Thomson and engineer Richard Rackham wanted to create a car with something of a motorcycle’s feel, portrayed in the aluminium-and-rubber interior and neat little Stack instrument pack as much as in the dynamic intimacy with the road and the air. The Elise was a reaction to the increasing sophistication and bulk then apparent in Lotus road cars, an attempt to recreate Colin Chapman’s early ideas before he abandoned them in a move upmarket. The original Elan was, and is, thought by many to be among the most dynamically pure sports cars ever made, and the Elise wanted that accolade for itself.
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It was daring new territory, with a chassis-tub of bonded and extruded aluminium, metal-matrix brake discs of sintered aluminium, and elements of traditional Lotus styling reinterpreted for a new age. Initial plans were for a limited production run of 2500 cars from 1996 to 2000, because not many people would want such a basic sports car at a hefty £18,990. Would they?
They would, and did. Through its first and (from late 2000) second generations, the Elise and its Lotus-badged siblings have been replicated over 33,000 times to date, plus another 10,000 Vauxhall VX220s and Opel Speedsters. But mainstream Elises are heavier, more sophisticated cars nowadays, with their Toyota engines and, quite often, carpets and air-con and airbags. They’re still great, but the simpler, more demure Series 1 still defines the breed.
Many Elises will have been flung around tracks with the wear and tear that entails, but there are still cars around that have lived easy, well-serviced lives as a weekend road toy. Of the various special editions and Sport versions offering more power, the 111S was the best, using the Variable Valve Control K-series with 143bhp. It was to have been called Elise Sprint after the hottest Elan, but Mercedes scuppered that, claiming it would cause confusion with the Sprinter van. Incredible but true.
'I bought one'
Hugh Marriage - Hugh, owner of the yellow Elise featured here, has owned his car from new. ‘I’d taken my motorcycle test a couple of years before, but my wife said I was silly to have a motorcycle so I bought this instead. I’d been in one at the Goodwood Festival of Speed; I had an old Jensen at the time and this was at the opposite end of the scale.
‘There have been no mechanical disasters, but on a rally in France it died after I drove into a big pothole. The inertia switch had triggered with the jolt and it took ages to find it, buried down in front of the engine.
‘The balljoints don’t seem to last long, but there’s been no gasket problem. It did lose water when a hose clip came undone but the head gasket didn’t go.
‘I plan to keep it for many more years yet. It takes me back to old-fashioned, back-to-basics sports cars that give so much back when you’re driving them. It’s a modern classic.’
What we said
Icon review, April 2017 - evo235, John Barker
The first hundred metres down the road in an Elise is rather like hearing the opening bars of a favourite song on the radio; it’s hardly begun but already you know you’re going to be entertained. Sure, the intro is a bit wobbly (think the opening chords of The Smiths’ ‘How Soon Is Now?’) because the steering is disconcertingly light and the floorpan clatters noisily over bumps, but you know that once it hits its stride you’re going to be right into it.
When the Elise appeared in 1996 it seemed almost to have come out of nowhere. Three years earlier, GM had sold Lotus to Italian businessman Romano Artioli. It’s unclear why Artioli acquired Lotus for £30million at a time when his gloriously ambitious resurrection of Bugatti with the EB110 was taking him to bankruptcy at 213mph, but he gave Lotus just what it needed – the freedom to build an all- new sports car. The small, affordable and truly innovative Elise was the result and Lotus is still enjoying the benefits today.
Steered by Lotus’s guiding principles of light weight and simplicity, the best minds at Hethel concluded that the chassis of the new car should be formed from extruded aluminium sections. Welding was a possibility but aluminium is tricky stuff and thicker sections are needed at weld points. But not if you glue the sections together. Danish company Hydro Aluminium had been working on adhesive bonding, which is also neater and more consistent than welding, and Lotus worked with them to develop the process for its first automotive application.
The bare chassis, minus roll hoop, suspension arms and aluminium brakes (more on them later), weighed just 67kg. For reference, Lotus reckons the carbon tub of the more recent Alfa 4C weighs 65kg... Every new Lotus since the Elise has used a form of that chassis, including even the Corvette ZR1-engined GT1 Elise racer, and if back in 2001 you’d got a close look at the aluminium chassis underpinning the new Aston Martin Vanquish you’d have seen Lotus’s fingerprints all over it.
Mid-mounted beneath the rear deck of the Elise was the ideal engine: the compact and lightweight, all-aluminium Rover K-series. Lotus selected the 1.8-litre version of the British-built, 16-valve ‘four’, producing a modest 118bhp. However, because the Elise weighed in at just 731kg, the multiplication effect of its sub-ton kerb weight gave it 164bhp per ton. That’s about the same as a contemporary Z3 2.8, so still modest, but the gutsy little K-series proved the perfect match for the Elise’s mass and grip, helping create a deliciously well rounded and satisfying car.
Despite being so avant-garde at its core, the Elise was given a retro look by Julian Thomson, with fared-in headlamps and lots of curves, perhaps to distance it from the wedgy Elan M100 that preceded it. That car, which was famously front-wheel drive, had never really hit the spot. Some reckoned it was a good car in a bad market, restricted from reaching its full potential by the early ’90s recession. But, like many potential Elan customers, I didn’t buy that. It was impressively competent but you had to go hunting for the magic, whereas the Elise gave it up freely, at ordinary speeds, to anyone who took the wheel.
Twenty years on, nothing has changed. This is a very early example, registered just a couple of months after the launch in September 1996. Its current owner, Ian Lain, bought it in ’99 and although it was his daily driver for a couple of years, the Stack instrument cluster shows only 62,000 miles. It’s not totally original. The springs and dampers were uprated to S2 spec when they needed replacing, because they were better and less expensive, says Lain. And OE supplier Pirelli no longer makes the diddy Pirelli P Zeros – a mere 185/55 R15 at the front – so instead there are Yokohamas all round, the fronts being mildly fatter 195-section Neovas that slightly muffin-top the alloys.
Up close with the Elise again, I’m reminded that achieving a kerb weight of 731kg meant interrogating every part, hence the wind-up windows, no internal adjusters for the door mirrors, basic slider heater controls and very little interior trim: just a square foot of mat each side, a coin tray at either end of the dashboard and a pad the size of a geography teacher’s elbow patch on each sill. That’s it. There’s a little bit of genius in the exterior ‘door handle’, which is just a small plastic ridge hidden under the overhang that your fingers naturally find when you push the lock button.
Caterham Seven-style cars are even lighter, but part of the broader appeal of the Elise is that it has real doors, with glass that goes up and down. And don’t underestimate the reassurance you get from the deep-sided aluminium tub when you’ve slipped down into the shell-like seat (which looks painted-on but is surprisingly comfy and accommodating). The downside is that, with the roof in place, you have to struggle in through a narrow slot. Lain is 6ft 1in and broad of shoulder and says getting in with the roof on is like ‘using the letterbox to get into your house’. Perhaps it’s no surprise that in the early concept stage of the Elise it was what Lotus calls a ‘stepper’, that’s to say a car without roof or doors that you step into, like a bath. Explains where the 340R came from, doesn’t it?
Once you’re settled, the dynamic initiation can begin. How light is that unassisted steering? Well, if you’ve ever sat in your car with the front wheels jacked off the ground and twirled the wheel, that’s pretty much the Elise’s steering at town speeds. And that’s with wider Yokohamas. In the wet, with so little resistance to work against, you have no sense when the front tyres are slipping wide. And that’s not all to watch out for when it’s raining...
Aluminium brakes sound right up there with chocolate fireguards, but the car’s low mass allowed the use of an innovative technology. The Elise’s Metal Matrix Composite (MMC) discs were made from aluminium with 30 per cent silicon carbide and it was estimated that they would last up to 100,000 road miles. Lain’s car still wears its original discs and, with their mirror-like finish, they look better than brand-new cast-iron discs. They haven’t been available for years and it’s increasingly rare to see them; they go for about £200 a disc, so some owners have them stashed in the loft.
Back in the ’90s it was feared that, rather like carbon discs, they could be destroyed by severe overheating, and some owners swapped them, foregoing the very real benefits of lower unsprung mass at each corner to wheel control, and a lovely short pedal, too. But because they use a different principle to regular disc brakes – adherent friction instead of abrasive friction – the first application in the wet can be worryingly unresponsive. Again, not unlike early carbon brakes.
No such worries today, with the spring sun beating down and the south coast calling. Clear of town, the Elise starts to get into its stride and turn on the charm. The clatter you hear over sharp bumps and ridges is a characteristic not a fault and you learn to ignore it, realising that the ride is in fact remarkably supple and unusually fluid. The stiff aluminium platform and light brakes allow this comfort and control, this remarkable ride quality that is the original Elise’s outstanding, defining dynamic characteristic. You fear no road surface, relishing the challenges the surface throws at the car, guiding it with confidence onto precisely the line you want.
Greater pace transforms the steering. You find yourself carrying speed and committing confidently to turns and then it dawns on you that the tiny Nardi wheel is suffused with feel, changes of weight revealing the level of grip. The car feels four-square, planted, balanced – you can hustle it, but it’s not necessary to get great cross-country pace out of it. This is the reward for low mass. It’s also the reason why you rarely hanker for more urge from the K-series at your back; it’s so instantly responsive, so generously torquey that it becomes a natural part of the blend, the flow. It sounds eager, too, thanks to the sports exhaust that adds fruitiness rather than shouty volume.
The gearshift is less slick than I remember. The little wand has a snappy throw but the gate feels dry, like there are burrs on the edges of the H-pattern. It’s all good if you add a bit of exaggeration, a bit of a flourish to your cross- gate shifts. A shame, though, that the brakes squeal like a fork across a plate until they’re up to temperature. They’re powerful, with superb feel and response, but it’s a bit distracting.
It will kick the tail wide if you’re keen, and do it tidily, but that’s not really its style. It’s the Elise’s deftness, its effortlessness across the ground that was unique and compelling back in 1996 and still is now. Back then, I got as many people into it as I could and it entertained and delighted them all, whether they drove or rode in it. Well, almost all. Not Jez Coates, technical director at Caterham Cars. The maker of the Seven had been looking for years to expand its range with a more habitable, lightweight sports car and in August 1996 launched the 21. A month later, Lotus launched the Elise.
It was Caterham’s worst nightmare come true. Beneath the 21’s swoopy bodywork was a Seven spaceframe with lateral extensions for side impact protection, and there was a boot and real doors, too. It drove well, like a Seven in fact, and in entry-level, 115bhp K-series trim weighed about 60kg less than the Elise. But it was more expensive. Only a bit, but enough.
Jez didn’t believe the Elise was deserving of all the praise my fellow journalists and I were heaping on it. So we went for a drive on roads with lots of tricky bumps and surfaces. His mood got darker the further we went and after one particularly challenging section of asphalt that the Elise dispatched as if it was a large rubber conveyor belt, I shouted over: ‘Impressive, isn’t it?’ The reply was a grudging grunt. The 21 wasn’t a bad car but it was doomed, and we both knew it.
Inevitably, when you make something that handles so well, even if it seems to have just the right amount of power, more potent versions come along. I can claim to be the only journalist to have driven the first of them, the 143bhp Elise Sprint, fitted with the VVC K-series. Sprint is an evocative name with authentic Lotus heritage but you’ll know the model as the 111S because at the time the use of the Sprint name was successfully contested by another brand. Think about that the next time you’re overtaken by a Mercedes Sprinter van...
Just over 10,600 S1 Elises were made before the more grown-up, better-equipped S2 took over in 2001. It’s a testimony to the concept that, almost 21 years on from launch, the original 118bhp S1 still delivers. As with other great drivers’ cars such as the E30 M3 and the original Elan, all things feel in balance – power, grip, handling and mass. Indeed, the dynamics of the Elise are so fluid that the ride and handling are the same thing. It makes for a uniquely satisfying experience – and guaranteed five-star evo icon status.