1997 Lotus Elise Review

By: Glenn Torrens, Photography by: Mark Bean

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Established by legendary motorsport engineer Colin Chapman, the Lotus sports car company in Britain was successful in Formula 1 in the 1960s and 70s.

 

1997 Lotus Elise

One of Lotus’s earliest yet best-known and enduring (and most copied) road cars was the Lotus Seven – a low, simple and light two-seater that remains available today as a Caterham and as various replicas. The later Lotus Elan – a more complete, easier to live-with car – was a strong design and styling inspiration for the Mazda MX-5. The Elise was launched in 1995 in the UK and took sports car innovation, simplicity and purity to new heights – even for Lotus – after the ever-heavier and more expensive Esprit of the 1970s and 80s and the misguided front-drive Elan. A transverse mid-engine rear drive roadster, the Elise was at first powered by a 1.8-litre Rover K-series four-cylinder – later with variable valve timing – and shared this and the mid-engine layout with Rover’s MGF.

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But it was the chassis that was the standout technical feature of the Elise; it was a tub-type design largely constructed from interlocking aluminium extrusions and sections bonded together with adhesives. The design intention was to make the alloy substructure an aesthetic feature of the car, too, so the cabin was largely un-trimmed, revealing the alloy components in the minimalist interior. It was a genius blend of simplicity and technology. Even the pedals are alloy; they’re perfectly designed for the task and are just one feature of the Elise that helps perpetuate Chapman’s often-quoted ethos of ‘just add lightness’. The deep-sided tub was clothed in a flip-fronted set of light yet sturdy – and incredibly lithe looking – fibreglass panels. The result was a remarkably agile and rigid roadster the sales of which, to be honest, pulled the Lotus company out of the poo.

This is a drop-top sports car for the genuine enthusiast driver and even with the early-spec 1.8, the Elise’s sharp steering and balanced mid-engine chassis dynamics over its modest but staggered tyres make it a beautifully rewarding – yet easy – drive. Sunny Sundays on a sinuous stretch of blacktop don’t get much better.

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Lotus Elise owner: Norm Needham

Norm Needham is a respected member of the Australian 4WD community, having established Traction 4, a successful 4WD equipment/servicing specialist, in Sydney during the early 1980s. These days, although technically retired, he’s a regular contributor to Unique Cars sister title 4x4 Australia and a regular at off-road motorsport events. So it’s something of a surprise to learn this trophy-winning off-road racer/driver has a Lotus Elise tucked in his garage, too.

"I bought it to replace a Toyota 4AGE 20-valve-powered Birkin Clubman," says Norm of his Elise S1, which was the first Aussie-delivered Elise and a display car at the 1997 Melbourne Motor Show. "It’s incredible performance for the dollar. Disregard the track and competition potential and nothing comes close at normal speed limits.

1997 Lotus Elise S1

Engine: Mid-mount east-west 1.8-litre in-line DOHC four-cylinder, rear-drive
The good: Sensational open-topped driving machine; pure-bred and innovative all-alloy sports car chassis has few equals for handling precision and finesse
The bad: Perception of Rover engine problems; once fixed it’s fine. Low seating position may challenge some
You need to know: Unlike most convertibles, the soft top on the Elise takes a few
minutes to erect.

 

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