If ever a car adhered strictly to Colin Chapman’s ‘simplify, then add lightness’ maxim, then the Lotus Elise is definitely it. We consider buying one as a classic proposition today
Conceived as the spiritual successor to the Lotus Elan, the Elise ripped up the rule book for a new generation of sports car wannabes in 1996. Compact mid-engined sportsters were nothing new at the time (the Toyota MR2 had been around since 1984 and Fiat/Bertone X1/9 production had stopped only seven years previously), but the Elise came as a flyweight bolt from the blue after years of development of the weighty Esprit and the opinion-polarising M100 Elan.
Power (bhp@rpm) 118bhp@5500rpm
Torque (lb ft@rpm) 122lb ft@3000rpm
Top speed 125mph
Gearbox 5-speed manual
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
BODYWORK & CHASSIS
For once, the word ‘rust’ will be largely absent here, since the Elise comprises a GRP tub that’s been allied to a chassis made from lightweight bonded aluminium extrusions.
The usual GRP checks apply, however. Mismatched paint or evidence of overspray signifies that body repairs have been made at some point. Check for crazing or star-cracks in the gelcoat, too.
That low nose renders the front foglights vulnerable to stone-chip damage. Given that repair involves the replacement of the entire unit (and the removal of the front clamshell), this can be costly. Corroded headlight reflectors should be replaced as a matter of course, too.
Series 1 cars used Rover’s oft-maligned K-series 1.8-litre 16-valve engine, so job number one should involve checking that both the original cylinderhead gasket and inlet manifold gasket have been replaced with later, uprated items. If they haven’t, they’re living on borrowed time.
The K-series engine is generally oil-tight, but it’s still worth checking the area around the crankshaft, as the sealing rings can fail. Puddles of fluid inside the undertray, or oil stains around the bottom of the engine, always warrant closer investigation.
Being mid-engined, the Elise’s cooling system works extremely hard, so check for failure of the coolant header tank cap, a blocked or damaged radiator and the tightness of the coolant pipe clips. The last of these can prove so weak that it will allow a pipe to actually burst off its mounting, with inevitable consequences.
Elises are popular with the track day fraternity, so it’s imperative that you check for evidence of any ‘offs’. Damaged (or missing) undertrays can be indicative of repeated sharp contact with speed humps, but might also have been caused by a high-speed exit from the bottom of the Craner Curves. The car should not be driven with the central undertray removed. A rattling sound from the front of the car is usually either from play in the steering rack (with outright replacement usually the only answer) or worn nylon anti-roll bar pivot blocks.
Less seriously, the rack’s protective rubber gaiters have a habit of degrading, especially on cars that are used all year round. Play in the wheel itself is usually as a result of worn or broken ball-joints.
A suddenly obstructive gearshift action may be gearbox related, but early cars’ red hydraulic clutch pipes, which can expand and lose pressure when hot, create similar problems. Later cars were fitted with a braided pipe that solved the problem at a stroke.
That lovely-looking aluminium trim is easily scratched and can eventually start to look really shabby. There’s not much you can do about this, so haggle on the price accordingly.
Vertical movement in the seats is often indicative of loose or missing retaining bolts. These should be tightened or replaced and then secured with a dab of threadlock. Stiff or non-operative windows are usually caused by loose or missing screws in the winding mechanism.
Indicator/wiper stalks are known to fail, too – but since they’re shared with various period Vauxhalls, locating replacements is currently easy and cheap.
Other common Elise irritants include sticking and/or squeaking clutch and accelerator pedals. The former is down to the flawed design of early cars’ pedal trunnions (modified after July 1999), while the latter is commonly as a result of a heat-damaged plastic throttle body. Upgrading to a metal body will solve the problem.
Simple: for its otherwordly handling. Nothing this side of a Caterham offers the sort of housefly-nimble road-holding that a sorted Elise musters for the same sort of money.
The car’s inherent lightness makes even the K-Series 1.8 engine feel super-quick, while the close ratio gearbox and super-responsive steering merely enhance what is an already mind-blowing driving experience.