1991 Lotus Elan M100
Sometimes you just need to prove a point. An idea that conventional wisdom says it isn't wise. Armchair critics say it's foolish. Amateurs and experts alike all laugh at the idea. Such seems to be the case with Lotus, and the rebirth of their Elan.
The original Elan was a traditional sports car, following in the Lotus design principles of simplicity, compactness, and above all else, lightweight. It was a 4 cylinder front engine/rear wheel drive chassis that used a steel central spine with a fiberglass body bonded to it.
Lotus seemed poised to recreate the icon in the early '90s by following their tradition of a focus on a lightweight chassis using fiberglass body bonded to a steel spine. It would also use another 4-cylinder power plant, just like the original and just like many other Lotus cars that came before it. This time the reliable, and capable Isuzu 4XE1 and it's turbo variant. However, for the first and last time for any car in Lotus history, the Elan M100 would be a front wheel drive vehicle. Lotus set out to prove that for sports cars of a certain size and certain power-to-weight ratio, a FWD layout was actually faster in the corners. Indeed, reviews of the time lauded the Elan M100 has one of the finest handling sports cars ever built, and the best handling FWD sports car period.
Having proven their point, Lotus waited for the sales to take off. It was not to be. The car technically lasted from 1989-1995, but only sold for one model year in North America, where it moved less than 800 units. It lasted for a few more years as a UK market exclusive, and then interestingly Lotus stopped production and licensed and sold the Elan platform to Kia, which sold their own version of the car from 1996-1999 in Asian markets.
The reasons for its lack of sales are most likely a combination of its unusual (for Lotus and for a sports car) FWD layout, its price tag of around 40k dollars when new (comparable to a Porsche 911 at the time), and the market introduction of an affordable, simple sports car called the Mazda Miata. The influence of the original Elan on the first generation Miata was obvious, and many sports car enthusiasts simply went with a tried and true formula that costed less than half the amount of the Lotus. However, none of that can change what Lotus accomplished from a handling stand point, and this generation Elan remains impressive even today.
This particular Elan arrived with several inoperative electronic systems. Also, we can smell some coolant. Neither of these issues sounds particularly terrible (Well, maybe dealing with Lotus wiring), but information on these cars is limited. So let's do a quick walk-around on the vehicle and then get started.
Simple little sports cars from manufacturers like Lotus and Fiat are famously fun to drive, but also infamous for strange and destructive wiring problems. This Lotus has suddenly lost its electric windows, dash fan, cigarette lighter, and power mirrors. That could be a gigantic nightmare to resolve. Fortunately, the hardest part of tracking this problem is sifting through the cryptic wiring diagrams. The diagram layout for Lotus is a little different than larger manufacturers, but after an hour of searching subsystem diagrams, main diagrams, and probing around with a volt meter, we finally tracked down a relay underneath a dash panel that helps bring power to all those systems. It was only mentioned in one diagram, but testing confirmed it was our culprit.
Do You Smell Something?
The Elan only came in for the wiring problem, but on arrival we noticed you could occasionally smell coolant when the car was warmed up. Cars of course have certain smells just from operating, but after a while you learn when to be concerned and when it's just a normal smell. This smell had us concerned, so we pressurized the cooling system and checked for leaks.
Bingo, leaks confirmed. The first leak at the hose was fairly easy to resolve once a few other items were moved for access. The clamp was tightened, and things seem good. The radiator is not as easy. There's no getting around replacing it. We recommended upgrading to an all aluminum radiator made by a reputable vendor for the Elan and Elan M100, and the owner agreed. It's good to see an owner step-up and install a quality part even when they plan to sell the car. Follow along to see what was done.
After installation, the system was bled of air and tested. The car's temperature gauge indicated steady temps and the cooling fans cycled on and off normally. While nothing major was done to this car, it's certainly not a common vehicle and it was neat to have it in the shop. We hope you enjoyed following along with us.