Lotus Elan, The Most Influential Sports Car Ever?

I like Jalopnik’s Question Of The Day feature. In the comments people post photos and info about some genuinely interesting and often very cool cars. Still, I usually disagree with the cars that make the final cut. The other day they asked what were the ten most inspirational car designs, looking for the cars that spawned the most “imitators, knock-offs, and tributes.” Readers of this site will know that I’m a Lotus fan. In fact I’ve owned a 1966 Elan drophead coupe for almost 40 years. Perhaps someday I’ll have the money to restore it. The Elan was my answer to that QOTD, that it was the most influential sports car ever. For their own reasons, the editors there decided that the MGB deserved a spot on the list. It’s a good choice, but the Elan was more influential.

Now you may find the idea that an obscure British sports car was the most inspirational sports car ever, but I think a compelling argument can be made in the Elan’s favor. Yes, there were two seaters going back to the MG TC and even before that the Jaguar SS100. And yes, in many people’s minds the MGB defined 1960s era two seat roadsters, but was the B that much different from the Austin Healeys, the MGA, and the Jaguar XKs? The Elan was the first modern sports car and it was introduced almost simultaneously with the MGB. Its contemporaries from MG and Triumph were primitive cars compared to it. To begin with, it’s backbone frame alone, even without the composite body, has more torsional stiffness than other contemporary sports cars. It was much lighter, coming in at less than 1600 lbs with a full tank of gas. It had modern components: an aluminum head with double overhead cams, a front suspension designed by people making F1 race cars with anti-dive and anti-squat geometry, true independent rear suspension with wide A arms and one of Colin Chapman’s many innovations, the Chapman strut. The Elan has disk brakes at all four wheels and if I’m not mistaken, at the time it was introduced in 1962, the Jaguar E-Type was the only other car that came standard with four wheel disk brakes. In 1962, drums were standard on the Corvette. The Elan was also kitted and trimmed out more fully than the MGs and Triumphs of its day, noticeably more finished and luxurious. I believe that radios were always standard equipment and from 1967 on, Elans had electric windows.

Then there is the Elan’s performance. Though not particularly quick by today’s standards, when Camrys have 270 HP, the Elan was fast in its day, with respectable 0-60 times. Of course straight line performance was not what the Elan was built for. It’s simply known as one of the best handling cars ever made. Today it is still the standard by which other cars’ tossability is measured. To drive the Elan on a twisting and turning road is to reach automotive Nirvana. The inputs are all almost perfectly weighted, the steering, the gearbox, the brakes and accelerator. It’s all fingers and toes and putting the car within millimeters of your line. Watch this video from Jay Leno’s garage and you can see how much Leno, a truly knowledgeable car guy, respects this car. Leno owns a McLaren F1 and he knows designer Gordon Murray. He says that Murray told him that the F1 was inspired by the Elan.

Well, if the Elan had only inspired the McLaren F1, it would deserve a spot on the list, but the Elan has directly inspired two other historically important sports cars, and probably a couple of others as well. One of those influences you may know about, the other is less obvious. Toyota is not exactly known for its sports cars. Other than the MR2 and the Lexus LF-A supercar, the company is known for making transportation appliances. However, in the 1960s, Toyota wanted to show that it was a player on the world automotive scene and introduce the 2000GT. The 2000GT is generally regarded as Toyota’s take on the Jaguar E-Type coupe because of the cars’ styling similarities and the inline DOHC 6 cyl engines. Under the 2000GTs skin, though, the car is a near copy of the Elan’s chassis.

 

Lotus Elan Chassis

There is no question that the Elan’s backbone frame, Chapman strut rear suspension, and general layout was copied by the 2000GT. Other than the two extra engine cylinders, the two cars’ chassis look almost identical. Chapman’s design, of course, had cutouts in the chassis’ sheetmetal to add some lightness.

Toyota 2000GT chassis (scale model)

 

In terms of styling while I think that the similarity with the Jaguar is obvious, I also see some lines borrowed from the Elan, the front fender line and the rear end particularly. It’s particularly noticeable in the one-off 2000GT made for one of the James Bond films.

James Bond's one off 2000GT

 

If Toyota’s copying of the Elan’s mechanical design is not widely known, the fact that Tom Matano and the other Mazda designers involved with the first Miata used the Elan as a design brief is common knowledge. A few years ago, when it was announced that Mazda had built and sold over 750,000 units of the Miata/MX-5/Eunos, I had the opportunity to ask Matano how it felt to be “the most successful sports car designer ever”. Chevy may have sold more Corvettes since 1953, but that car has gone through more radical styling changes than the Miata. Though there have been a number of Miata generations, the car’s basic styling language has remained the same. Matano told me that because the Miata was based on the Elan, he was actually prouder of the last RX-7, which was a clean sheet design.

1990 Miata, the resemblance to the Elan is obvious and acknowledged by Tom Matano and other Mazda designers

So the Elan directly influenced three of the most historically significant sports cars of the past half century, including the best selling sports car design ever. Just on the Miata’s sales figures alone, the Elan inspired more actual cars, more units, than any other sports car. If you look at some of the other two seat roadsters and coupes that were available after the Elan came out, like the Fiat 124, and contemporary Alfa Romeos, I think you can say that the Elan influenced them as well, with their 4 cyl DOHC engines and other features.

Not only is the Elan remarkable, as Jay Leno points out, for its own merits, it’s also quite possibly the most influential sports car ever.

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