From Esprit to Exige: The highs and lows of Lotus

Innovation was everywhere: Audi used to boast in the 1980s that its 100 saloon had a world-beating drag coefficient of 0.30 – but the Elite measured 0.29 a quarter of a century earlier. Its rear suspension was the so-called Chapman strut that used the driveshaft as its lower link. Most notable, however, was that it was the very first car to be constructed around a glassfibre monocoque, making it ridiculously light for a closed, surprisingly spacious road car. True, it’s just about the last car in which you’d choose to crash, but back then, people didn’t think that way. It wasn’t a lack of demand so much as escalating production costs that killed off the Elite in 1963, by which time its successor, the Elan, was already on the market. 

The Elan is rightly regarded as Chapman’s masterpiece. It was introduced in 1962, 10 years after the foundation of Lotus Engineering, and its engineering continued to influence production Lotuses into the 21st century. The key to providing low-cost, lightweight construction was its backbone structure, a design that went on to endure on the Esprit until 2004. Glassfibre was used only for the bodywork. 

The result was a still superlight car, but better finished than the rather rudimentary Elite, available as convertible and with a hard-top and more practical and civilised, too. It was a formula that worked at once. By the time of its introduction, Lotus had the fastest F1 car in the world (the Lotus 25), the world’s fastest driver (Jim Clark) and the most enjoyable, affordable sports car on the market (the Elan). The Elan stayed in production in various guises (including a rebodied 2+2 version) until 1975, with more than 10,000 units made in total, 10 times the number of Elites that were built. 

It’s hard to believe the last Elans were sold in the same year that the Esprit was shown, for the wedge-shaped, mid-engined, Giorgetto Giugiaro-styled supercar looks like a car from another generation and possibly a different planet. 

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