When the Lotus Elan ended production in 1995 the company was facing a rather unique issue: they didn’t have a single car in their lineup that fit their founder, Colin Chapman’s philosophy, ‘simplify, then add lightness’. Sure, there was the 1300kg Esprit, but compared to the Elan’s curb-weight of 997kg, it was a bit of a porker. Thankfully, 1996 saw the introduction of the simpler, lighter Elise.
Named after the Elisa, Granddaughter of Romano Artioli, who was the chairman of Lotus and Bugatti when the car launched, the little mid-engined roadster was a true return to form for lotus. The Elan M100 had been produced with the American market in mind, and consequently featured a number of cardinal sins for any small lightweight sportscar. It had a needlessly heavy and complicated folding roof, and worst of all was the front wheel drive, which is only perfect if you love torque-steering into crowds of innocent schoolchildren. The Elise S1 set right the wrongs of the Elan with its mid-engined layout lending its superior balance and weight distribution, while the folding roof had been replaced with a much simpler removable Targa top. Its body was light too, made of fibreglass and sitting on a lightweight extruded aluminium chassis. Early cars even featured featherweight Metal Matrix Composite (MMC) brakes, which were made by US-based Lanxide Corp from special silicon carbide aluminium. The result? A curb weight of just 723 kg, making it the Mo Farah to the Elan’s Kevin James.
Although it was certainly light, it wasn’t what you’d call powerful with its 1.8 litre inline-4 cylinder Rover K series engine producing a rather embarrassing 118 feeble and malnourished horses. However, The Elise’s performance on the road was anything but feeble; 60mph could be dispatched in a very respectable 5.8 seconds, after which the petit sportscar could reach a top speed of 150mph. While low, the power output may have been, the way the K-Series engine delivered that power is what helped make the Elise so bewitching to drive, with peak torque available from just 3000rpm and peak power at 5500 rpm.
However, Lotus was clearly still a tad insecure about the Elise’s power figures because in classic Lotus fashion they released a plethora of special and limited editions, each more powerful than the next. First, in 1998 they released the Sport 135, which had 135 bhp, then in 2000 came the 160bhp Sport 160, and finally the rather manic 190bhp Sport 190. There was also the green and gold 50th Anniversary Edition, the very pretty two-tone red and white Type 49, and the black and gold Type 79, which each refers to their respective successful Lotus Grand Prix car type numbers. With so many “special” editions, the word begins to lose its meaning, but clearly that hasn’t phased Lotus as it helped give financial stability to the brand, and so they continue to employ the same strategy to this day.
If you’ve managed to wade through that seemingly infinite list of limited edition Elises, then I commend you. However, there is still one more in the form of the 111s, which was released in 1999 and again featured the 1.8 K-Series engine, this time fitted with variable valve timing that allowed for a flatter torque curve and an increased power output of 145bhp. I promise that’s the last one.
If reading that list of special editions hasn’t put you to sleep or forced you to misplace your will to live then you may be eyeing that gorgeous Julian Thomson designed bodywork and thinking you’d like one yourself. Well, then I have some good news for you because you won’t have to look very long or very hard through the classifieds to find a number of excellent examples. Prices range from around £12,000 to around £22,000, depending on whether or not you go for one of the special editions. If you were to go for a bog-standard S1, I’d look for one of the early cars that still featured the Metal Matrix Composite brakes, before Lanxide Corp went bankrupt and Lotus switched back to heavier steel units. I’m more partial to the Red and White Type 49, but unfortunately, those cars fall firmly on the more expensive end of the Elise spectrum. Whatever you decide on, you’ll be sure to see the wisdom behind Colin Chapman’s philosophy.