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The Lotus Elan from the Type 26 to the 2010 Paris Motor Show concept by Peter Stevens

20 July 2015 | by Peter Stevens

The conception and design of a new model by a major automobile manufacturer is usually a structured process that will have come from a careful analysis of the market and a projection of costs and sales and therefore profitability. There are some smaller companies that have never worked in this way and, historically, Lotus is a good example; the products were the result of a passion for building cars that demonstrated the engineering philosophy of Lotus’s founder, Colin Chapman.

He believed that simplicity, light weight, and, in particular, the adoption of new materials and processes gave a sports car the combination of excellent ride quality and outstanding handling that would differentiate his cars from the compromised offerings of the company’s competitors.

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Chapman began thinking about a replacement for the original and tremendously successful 1962 Lotus Elan (1) almost as far back as 1974. The Elan was Lotus’ biggest commercial success to that point, reviving a company whose resources were much depleted by the more exotic but much more costly to produce Elite. Four different series of Elans were produced up until 1973, including a coupé version. Seventeen thousand original examples, including the Elan+2, were produced. The original Elan was designed by Ron Hickman, who went on to make a considerable fortune when he patented the Black & Decker WorkMate.

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At the start of the ‘New Elan’ project, designer Oliver Winterbottom, with support from Tony Rudd, at that time Lotus’s chief engineer and Michael Kimberley, engineering director, began work on a two-seat, short chassis version of his Lotus Elite. Winterbottom’s design language at that time was very much of the hard edged, ‘wedge’ school of form development, as shown by his 1976 Lotus Elite 2+2 front-engined grand-tourer (2), codenamed M50 or Lotus 75 in the company’s complex numbering system.

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In 1981, Oliver Winterbottom, who had left Lotus in the late 1970s, was brought back to Lotus, after a stint developing the Tasmin for TVR (3), somewhat similar in style to much of his work at the time. He was asked to design a new car to complement the Excel and the Giugiaro-designed Esprit and to bring some profitability for the company through increased production.

Lotus was always short of money and to a degree still is. The new car was to reintroduce the Elan name, which had not been used since 1975. Like the Lotus Excel of that period, the plan was to make use of the company's close relationship with Toyota and use their already well-engineered suspension and engine components.

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His first M90 thoughts (4) were developments of his TVR and earlier Lotus work. Winterbottom always had a rather dramatic and sometimes confrontational relationship with Colin Chapman; the development of the M90 was particularly difficult time for both of them, Chapman was not happy with the designs that he was shown and neither was chief engineer, Colin Spooner.

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The M90 went through many iterations (5, and 6) and finally, following suggestions from Toyota, who were to supply the 1,600cc twin cam engine, Winterbottom tried softening his design using a white foam full-size design model, tentatively called M90/X100. (7)

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In 1982 Colin Chapman died of a heart attack and at this point M90 ground to a halt; at this point Lotus started to run out of money again!
In early 1984 David Wickens of British Car Auctions ended up taking a controlling interest in the company, and so the Winterbottom project was started up again, apparently still named M100. An open two-seat roadster version was built for evaluation, this was a running car complete with a folding soft top.

Wickens decided that as an indication of the new regime at Lotus future projects would be given an ‘X’ ahead of their number instead of an ‘M’, unfortunately he forgot to tell anyone at the company about this and so caused a large amount of confusion at Lotus when he announced to the press that there was to be a new smaller car, the X100, particularly confusing for Winterbottom who thought that his project had been cancelled!

Both Lotus and in particular Spooner were beginning to lose interest in the project and could see that the proposed ‘New Elan’ was never going to be a production success unless there was a big change of culture, and maybe that should come from outside the company. As a result of this decision I was approached by Colin Spooner in June of 1984 to become involved as a freelance designer for Lotus; the project was described to me as being a small two-seat open sports car. At this time it was not known whether the car was to be front-engined, rear-wheel drive – front-engined, front-wheel drive – or even mid-engined; not an easy brief to follow. It was also not clear what the project code actually was, I was told it could be either M90 or maybe X100, or even M100!

The big problem with Lotus’s production method at the time was that the body was made in two halves, a ‘top shell’ and a ‘bottom shell’, joined by an ugly out-turned flange that was covered with a big black, square section moulding. To my mind both the Esprit and Elite were ruined by this detail.

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Therefore one of my first thoughts was how to redesign this joint condition. I produced a number of design sketches for review by Spooner (8) and I guess Kimberley, although at this stage I had no direct contact with him. One design was chosen and from this; using the Royal College of Art clay studio over the summer vacation period, I made a 1:5 scale model, and using Letraset graphics called my model both X100 and M100 (9).

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This was presented to Mike Kimberley and Winterbottom by Colin Spooner; the occasion was, not surprisingly, rather tense and then noisy. Winterbottom had not been told about my proposal and was not happy with the outcome but Lotus management had made the decision to abandon M90 and pursue X100 using my design theme.

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At this point in time Lotus was working with Giorgetto Giugiaro and Italdesign on a concept car for the 1984 UK motor show; the intention was that this car, ‘Etna’ (10), was to be a long term replacement for the Esprit. I was invited to examine the show model before it was introduced to the public and asked if its design language could be adapted to the ‘New Elan’.

By this time it was decided that the X100 would most probably have a Toyota FWD drive train but I was asked to consider that it just might have a mid-mounted engine! Having seen the Etna I was convinced that we needed something more sophisticated than my earlier proposal and so started work on a new design with some Etna styling cues (11).

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To save time, and probably money, it was decided that the full-size model of X100 would be built in Italy by a company in Turin called CECOMP. They were the modeling facility that many of the Turin based design houses went to for quick, high-quality concept models; they worked in plaster rather than the styling clay that I was used to, the inflexible material resulted in rather ‘stiff’ surfaces. It was at CECOMP that I began to understand why the contemporary VW Golf and Scirocco looked as they did. The completed plaster solid show model was shipped to Lotus for a presentation in February 1985.

On arrival at Hethel it was greeted with great enthusiasm, it looked as if at last we had a car to develop. Simple test cars were built using somewhat crude GRP (glass fibre) panels and work started on developing the ride and handling of the front wheel drive coupé, but to me it just did not seem like a Lotus ‘sports car’. I was never totally happy with the scaled down ‘Etna’ look of the car. (12)

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To be continued…