Has the opinion-dividing Lotus Elan M100 finally come of age?
Not only does the Elan M100 use an Isuzu-sourced engine, it is – whisper it – front-wheel drive. After decades of rear-driven Elans, this smacked of heresy at the car’s 1989 launch, and although Lotus stood stubbornly by its decision throughout the M100’s life, it can surely be no coincidence that every other Lotus since then has been rear-driven.
The Elan’s perceived dynamic shortcomings are two-fold – the driving position is set well back, with the driver seemingly far away from the curved windscreen. Factor in handling that, to quote period press reports, was too flat, grippy and predictable to be any fun – especially compared to the rear-wheel drive Mazda MX-5 launched around the same time
– and the case for the M100 looks shaky.
Poppycock. The Turbo, in particular, is sensational, and if flat, grippy and predictable handling is a fault, then would that more cars were similarly ‘faulty’.
In truth, the Elan M100 is an absolute blast to drive. It might not make a particularly fruity sound, but as a talented and unusual alternative to the increasingly ubiquitous MX-5, it has few peers.
LOTUS ELAN M100 TURBO
Power (bhp@rpm) 165bhp@6600rpm
Torque (lb ft@rpm) 148lb ft@4200rpm
Top speed 137mph
Gearbox 5-spd manual
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
BODYWORK & CHASSIS
It’s advisable to have something to lie on when assessing any M100, as there’s plenty to check underneath the car. Being so low slung, the potential for impact damage is pretty high, especially on the front bumper and the rubber lip that lines its lower edge. Check also that the skid guard beneath the radiator is present and correct – heavy damage here should set alarm bells ringing. A guard that’s missing altogether leaves the radiator vulnerable to stone and salt water damage, and also suggests indifferent maintenance.
While you’re supine beneath the front of a prospective purchase, examine the longitudinal metal structure that forms the engine bay’s underframe. This is called a ‘prongeron’ and cars left the factory with a sticker affixed to it declaring ‘Do Not Jack’ for a reason: jacking damage here is a clear indication that a car has either been maltreated or maintained by a garage that isn’t a Lotus specialist. The prongeron needs to be removed in order to access the oil pick-up, too – if yours shows evidence of recent removal, ask the vendor why it was done.
The engine should be relatively clean and completely free from oil leaks. Failure of the cam angle sensor oil seal can leak oil onto the right-hand side of the engine (although it’s an easy enough repair), but evidence of oil leaks anywhere else is bad news. Turbocharged cars require an oil change every six months – if you check the dipstick and find dirty oil, then this rule clearly hasn’t been adhered to. Evidence of moisture on the dipstick and/or the presence of a mayonnaise-like substance on the underside of the oil filler cap often mean that the cylinderhead gasket is on its way out.
The quad pop-up headlights are very cool, but if they fail to rise smoothly together (or, indeed, rise at all) chances are the bulkhead-mounted control box is on the blink. That, or the bushes/gear teeth are worn. More commonly, the fault can sometimes be traced to a simple broken wire leading to the headlight pods themselves.
Persistent stalling and poor starting, especially on non-turbo cars, can often be traced to the rotor arm inside the distributor, which can work loose. Failing that, check the fuel pump – these can sound healthy enough even when they’re generating next to no pressure. It’s worth checking the fuel filter (for blockages) and ignition coil (for poor connections), too. As a matter of course, it’s always advisable to allow an M100’s fuel pump to prime fully before starting, especially when the engine is hot. And make sure the pump’s inertia switch has not been inadvertently tripped.
A known M100 weakness concerns the rear suspension, specifically the lower wishbones. Series 2 cars were fitted with properly galvanised lower wishbones but, for some reason, earlier models didn’t receive this protection, so over time they inevitably start to corrode and subsequently fail. Check that yours have either been replaced or that the originals have been suitably rust-proofed.
It’s taken a while for the Elan’s Peter Stevens-penned lines to mature into mainstream popularity, but where the MX-5 looks delicate and non-intimidating, the Elan looks squat, pugnacious and ready for a fight. Not for nothing has the M100 often been likened to a British bulldog.
Being so wide (more than six feet), the cabin is surprisingly accommodating – the deep dashboard may appear to distance the driver from all the action at the front, but it certainly makes the car feel much less claustrophobic than many of its rivals.
Buyers on a budget can opt for the standard (and considerably cheaper to insure) 130bhp naturally aspirated model, but they’re becoming increasingly rare in the face of the much more popular turbo cars. To be honest, the blown cars are much more fun to drive, sporting as they do 165bhp (160bhp on later catalyst-equipped models) and maximum torque delivered surprisingly low down in the rev range. And since you can pick up a low-mileage minter for less than £6000, they represent spectacular value for money, too.
In many ways, the M100 Elan is the roadster that time seems to have completely forgotten about. Its opinion-polarising styling and perceived dynamic weaknesses have further conspired against it over the years.
But to dismiss it as a niche bagatelle – something to choose only if you absolutely, positively MUST be seen as slightly left field at all times – is to sell it woefully short.
There are loads of them for sale at any one time, and very few are neglected basket-cases. Indeed, time, tide and inexperienced inability to control full boost on a wet roundabout seems to have weeded out the undesirable element almost completely.
The many surviving examples appear to be almost exclusively lovingly cared-for minters with an ownership network that is as knowledgeable and enthusiastic as they come. Small wonder values remain high.