Riding the Rails

“It handled like it was on rails,” the proverbial old-timer at the bar always insists, tipsy with nostalgia. It doesn’t matter if he’s referring to a Mercedes or a TR6: His classic sports car handled better than whatever appliance he’s stuck driving today.

Unfortunately for fond memories, they’re often dead wrong. A new Hyundai Accent can run circles around most little British cars, never mind all the half-restored examples on the road today.

Sometimes, though, that man at the bar has it right. A handful of little British cars were ahead of their time, and their engineering sacrifices make them solid performers–and collectibles– to this day.

The Lotus 7: Minimalism for Masochists

Put simply, the Lotus 7 is an icon. It debuted in 1957, and new examples of the same basic car are still available for purchase today. Lotus’s premise was straightforward: Build a lightweight, inexpensive, no-frills sports car, and people will buy it. Well, people did–and they’ve continued to do so for nearly 60 years.

The 7 was a refined version of the Lotus 6, which bears the honor of being company founder Colin Chapman’s first “production” car. Of course, just because something is called a production car doesn’t mean it’s normal. Or reasonable. Or even delivered fully assembled.

Lots of Lotus 7s were delivered in kit form, skirting British taxes in the process. Tax laws said no assembly instructions could be included, so instead Lotus included disassembly instructions–to build the car, the buyer just read the instruction booklet in reverse. This strategy was symbolic of Lotus’s unconventional approach.

The 7 was a lesson in bare necessity. It exposed what car buyers thought they needed but really didn’t–a premise that forms the backbone of the company’s design philosophy to this day. Lightness took priority above all else, and it made the 7 fast, inexpensive and simple. Aluminum skin wrapped its steel tube frame, and buyers could choose from a variety of lightweight, low-power drivetrains. Figure you can find a Lotus 7 with anywhere from 37 to 125 horsepower.

Clever suspension systems, like an independent front that used the anti-roll bar as the forward link of the upper A-arm, stuck 7s to the track like glue. Their light weight and use of common parts also made them inexpensive to run, so winning races didn’t require a fat wallet.

If the 7 had one drawback, it was comfort–or a lack thereof. The side skirts featured awkward bulges just so the driver’s arm could fit inside. The roof took days to erect, or at least it seemed to in the middle of a downpour. The cockpit got hot. The ride was rough. 7s were much more at home on a track than a public road, but still, that’s what made them so much fun.

Our Test Car

Like most 7s, John Gault's example has been modified. But why? Besides the usual reasons, like the car being old and temperamental, modifications are just a fact of life for Lotus owners. These were inexpensive cars, many of them built in home garages and then raced for years. Add in lots of combinations of parts available from the factory over the 7’s nearly 60-year production run, and it’s tough to find a stock one.

A self-described “7 nut,” John fell in love with the model in high school. A cash gift from his parents allowed him to bring home, in his words, “a very tired, worn-out race car that had been run to death, with a 997cc Ford and an MG starter jammed in with a piece of wood.”

Fast-forward through 35 years and two marriages, and John has turned his car into the Lotus he’d dreamt about as a teenager. It now sports a 1700cc Ford racing engine, a Ford Sierra five-speed transmission, and a narrowed Mazda RX-7 rear axle. An instrument panel mimicking a mid-’80s Caterham’s completes the package.

The Lotus Elan: A True Sporting GT

The 7 was clearly designed with apexes and helmets in mind. Actually, most of Lotus’s models weren’t even meant to be driven on the road. The company had always been a builder of race cars, but as the story goes, that isn’t all Colin Chapman wanted. He dreamed of selling boutique sports and GT cars like Ferrari, marketed with the same kind of racing pedigree. And, in typical Lotus fashion, the brand accomplished this goal in a completely unprecedented way.

Its first attempt at a GT car was the Elite, and it was awesome. A fiberglass monocoque replaced the traditional body-on-frame layout of other cars of the era, with the suspension mounting points glassed right into the body. But while the Elite was a great car, it was also expensive and complicated to produce.

So Lotus went back to the drawing board, and in 1962 it released the Elan. Like the Elite, this model was meant to be a comfortable touring car. And like the 7, it was inexpensive and simple. Lotus had somehow managed to combine the best of both worlds into a car that became the design inspiration for the original Miata.

The foundation of the Elan was a steel backbone chassis that supported the suspension and running gear. Atop it sat a fiberglass body, open-topped at first but later joined by a coupe. Unlike the Elite, the Elan’s body wasn’t tasked with supporting the chassis, so it was easier to produce.

The Elan was less barebones than the 7, too. In addition to pop-up headlights, the Elan sported a more proper convertible top–and a trunk. A four-seat model, called the Elan +2, eventually joined the lineup. Compared to the 7, the Elan was downright cushy.

As a product of the ’60s, the Elan skipped the single-cam engines found in the original 7. Standard power came from the now-ubiquitous Lotus Twin Cam.

Customers could still build their own Elan–another attempt to skirt the day’s tax laws–but most came turnkey. The Elan’s production lineage wasn’t infinite, though: Lotus ended two-seat production in 1973, and the +2 left showrooms two years later.

Our Test Car

Ross Robbins bought this Lotus Elan in 2005, and it suffered a major electrical fire mere hours after the money changed hands. Three years of work returned it to its former glory–with a few additions. It now has a master disconnect switch, eight fuses and seven relays hidden under the dash. Ross also added a new heavy-duty wiring harness along with a Denso alternator. Other than the electrical work, the Elan is pretty much original. The rear differential ratio has been changed, but that’s about it.

Ross hasn’t been shy about driving his Elan. It’s been to the top of Mount Evans on the highest paved Road in North America, around Talladega Superspeedway, and up Pikes Peak.

What's the Verdict?

The Lotus 7 is a lot of fun. With it, Lotus gave the world an inexpensive, small, Spartan sports car that could rule the short race tracks and autocross courses of the world.

The Elan, in contrast, is the total package. It serves up stunning looks, great handling, and a level of comfort rarely felt in a sports car. The Elan would be the best car in the world if Lotus had spent a little more time on quality control and durability.

Both of these cars are great, but if we had to choose, it would be the Lotus Elan.

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Comments
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TR8owner
TR8owner HalfDork
8/20/15 6:39 p.m.

You could modify old cars with period correct parts as with Konis, better springs, fatter sway bars, wider wheels/tires, etc. but they're still no match against new technology at the limit. But so what - its way more fun to drive an older slower car fast than to drive a newer faster car slow. Most owners don't push their new high performance cars to the limit and I'll bet my brother's modified Lotus Europa can pull higher g's than most of them.

Gary
Gary Dork
8/20/15 7:36 p.m.

I can't speak for a Seven or an Elan, but I do have a '68 Spitfire Mk 3. I have a two-car garage. One side is my '96 NA Miata. The other side is my Spitfire. The Spitfire has been an ongoing project since 2002 (yes, 2002). People say to me "I bet you can't wait until it's done so you can drive it." But in reality, I think I'm enjoying the journey more than I will the end result. The Miata has spoiled me, and the sports cars I grew up with will never compare. So, the Spitfire is what it is. It's a fun project that I work on at my own pace. And in the end, it's simply a hobby that I enjoy using my skills to work on. But I'll drive the Miata forever.

Leo  Basile
Leo Basile HalfDork
8/20/15 8:57 p.m.

Sooo...

I have a 1966 Morgan, and a 2009 Lotus Elise. Let me tell ya, the Lotus does feel like its on rails, even more than my Cooper Formula car!

The Morgan is an elbows out assualt on the all the senses. I really would not want to "update" the Morgan at all. It really has charm. I drive both cars like the way they are supposed to be.

Now, allow me to paint the picture with a colorful true story: I was following my wife home one afternoon from a sportscar club meeting on a very fun, twisty road. She was hustling the Lotus up the road, and I was following. Not really paying attention...just following, like I said...Well, let me tell ya, I almost stuck the Morgan into a guard rail. What felt like a sprited drive in the Lotus was maybe an 8/10s experience in the Morgan.

I would have to choose one over the other. Both are a treat to drive and own.

Leo

Tom1200
Tom1200 Reader
8/22/15 2:47 p.m.

Leo a few stories for you:

The first 20 yrs ago following friends who were driving MGB and Spitfires around twisty lake road we were glued to their rear bumpers, in my wife's Geo Prism (Corolla). At our lunch stop we were laughing about it.

An SCCA friend scratchs his head about my love of my vintage motocross bike; we both agree it bottoms out constantly, the forks are weedy, in a 15 minute session the brakes only work well on the first and last lap because you stop using them on lap two and they cool down enough to work on the last three corners and that you exceed the bikes limits constantly............which is why I love it.

Finally telling a friend who makes his living building race cars and coaching about how well the Datsun is going and the poor modern Vette drivers I was lapping at the last track day. To he which he replied "you do drive it really well but even if you are the best Pro driver in the world you shouldn't be passing modern cars, they are so much better"

Modern cars, especially sports cars are now so amazing, this why we fall into the trap of thinking the lack sole, the real problem is we are driving them at 50%

Tom

Kenny_McCormic
Kenny_McCormic UltimaDork
8/22/15 4:39 p.m.
Tom1200 wrote: Modern cars, especially sports cars are now so amazing, this why we fall into the trap of thinking the lack sole, the real problem is we are driving them at 50%

Bingo, you can actually drive a stock old MG or what have you on cheap all season tires at 9/10ths on public roads and not attract much attention. Whereas you'd be going twice the speed limit in a modern sports car for it to start threatening to kill you in the same ways.

Even my 99 Prizm with OE grade shocks has too much grip to be as entertaining as it could be. Its a shockingly neutral car (by FWD Toyota standards) but you rarely get a chance to feel it. I sometimes regret putting 195/60/14 Altimax HPs on it, it was more fun, and still capable of going around a corner fast enough to scare some backseat passengers, with the dried out stock size generic all seasons it came with.

PeteLoBianco
PeteLoBianco
9/5/15 5:30 p.m.

Raced a Super 7 in SCCA back in the day, plus owned a street S7, several Elans, and a 26R. The Elan is a car. The Super 7 is a toy. You can take the Elan home to meet Mom. The Super 7 is the fun, kinky mistress that you keep hidden.

gfastr
gfastr New Reader
9/6/15 10:09 a.m.

In reply to PeteLoBianco :Wasn't it the LoBianco Trucking Lotus 7? Remember it from Lime Rock Park back in the '70s.

PeteLoBianco
PeteLoBianco New Reader
8/28/18 9:03 p.m.

In reply to gfastr :

You are correct!  Fun times.  Fun track.

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