1997 Lotus Elise S1

1997 Lotus Elise S1

It should have been so different for Lotus. Given the clear pent-up demand for small convertible sports cars in 1989, its ahead-of-the-curve Elan M100 should have cleaned up and finally provided the company with the kind of volume-seller that it could only have dreamed of during Colin Chapman’s luxury-GT era. There were some problems though – it was front-wheel drive, unprofitable to sell and about £5k too expensive to buy.

The Elise which replaced it had a strikingly short gestation period of just two years from sketch to launch. Lotus knew it couldn’t deliver Mazda-style mass-production, so it took aim at a different market entirely: superbike riders.

I’m made acutely aware of this as I slide myself vertically into this Elise. Described aptly as a ‘step-in car’ by designer Julian Thompson and inspired by a combination of Lotus 23 sportsracer and Ducati 916 motorcycle, it requires me to contort myself around the steering wheel as I descend. The sills are so high I can use them as armrests. The roof was a last-minute afterthought – early Elise concepts didn’t even have doors – and once ensconced I find myself in a world of bare aluminium and a deeply-scooped windscreen that looks like it came from a Group C car. It’s wilfully user-unfriendly and I’m amazed that Lotus sold so many. But this was the late Nineties. Ordinary people had more disposable income pre-2008, and they splashed out on toys.

There is Sixties inspiration here, but unlike the MX-5 it’s the motor sport of the era that’s lent a guiding hand. As I fire the engine, slot the bare metal shaft of the gear lever into its ratios and accelerate away, I can scarcely believe this is the same mechanical package that shifts the MGF. Here it’s savage and cacophanous.

The gear lever, aluminium pedals and tiny steering wheel all responding to the tiniest of inputs. The car seems to lack anything extraneous that could upset its sense of balance, and this inspires the confidence to chance outrageous cornering speeds.

As the K-series howls and spits, the gear lever clanks home satisfyingly and the windscreen and headlamp nacelles funnel my awareness, encouraging me to concentrate on cornering lines and apexes, those Sixties motor sport visions coalesce into something more definite. No MX-5 could ever hope to generate this sensation regardless of offering an optional wood-rimmed steering wheel – in the Elise, I’m transplanted into period footage of the Targa Florio in the era of Nino Vacarella and Vic Elford, of flimsy roofless mid-engined sports-prototypes hurtling down dusty, sun-baked country lanes. An Elise S1, an MSUK Interclub licence and a season of HSA sprints would fulfil the kind of racing fantasies no other car here would have a hope of matching.

Unfortunately, the motor sport inspiration extends to the one weakness of the Elise driving experience in terms of road driving – its brakes. Intent on keeping the drive as pure as possible, Lotus didn’t even bother giving them a servo. If you come to an Elise from a more conventional Nineties sports car, the shove you need to give the brakes to bring the car to a halt or scrub excess speed off is harder than you might expect. Still, as with everything on an Elise, it’s something you soon adapt to. It’s a piece of sports equipment, and as with a tennis racket, its movements ultimately follow yours.

‘I can scarcely believe this is the same mechanical package that shifts the MGF’

Despite costing £20k when new — Z3 money — the Elise S1 depreciated the least, and prices started to climb a long time ago. The cheapest decent one we found was a 1998 model in Birmingham for £15,700, but very low mileage examples are prevalent at £20k-£25k asking prices, like the yellow 2000 in Kent for £23,995. Although it has the same engine as an MGF, lower mileages and less heft to shift tends to mean Elises avoid head gasket failure, but they still need regularly servicing and coolant attention. The main worry is trackday damage to the aluminium chassis; some specialists will take on repairs on a case-by-case basis, but Lotus won’t warrant them and insist on a new chassis, costing £8k plus fitting.

Each of these cars offers something dramatically different, from the retro thrills of the MX-5 and Z3 E36/7 to the futurism of the MGF and SLK, and the exotic Boxster. However, while the MX-5 reintroduced the sports car, the Elise reinvented it for a world of track days. It led to the likes of the Ariel Atom, KTM X-Bow and Alfa Romeo 4C, and with them a whole new era. And yet, would any of this have happened without the original Mazda MX-5? Emphatically not.

Owning a Lotus Elise S1

Neil Marshall has only owned this Elise a week, but he has a long history with S1s. ‘In 2000 I had a 1996 S1 for four months as a stop-gap, and of all the cars I’ve owned it’s the only one I wanted to go back to,’ he explains. ‘For the best ownership experience, it had to be standard specification with an undamaged chassis. Before this, I bought one unseen from a friend and it turned out to have 15-year-old chassis damage. It’s easily overlooked because track-day damage doesn’t turn up on the insurance database, but I struggled to find a repairer and had to get rid of it for a big loss. Basic floorpan sections can be repaired, and racing teams have ways of riveting repairs, but it leaves a question mark over durability and badly harms resale value.

‘I got this Elise from Castle Lotus for £20,000 and the fact that it had an undamaged chassis was the most important thing for me. Otherwise, running costs are very low. About £500 a year is normal and I’d be gutted if I ended up spending more than £1000 a year running it.’

1997 Lotus Elise S1

  • Engine 1795cc transverse four-cylinder, dohc, MEMS MPI electronic fuel injection
  • Max Power 120bhp @ 5500rpm
  • Max Torque 118lb ft @ 4000rpm
  • Transmission Five-speed manual, rear-wheel-drive
  • Steering Rack and pinion
  • Suspension Front and rear: independent, double wishbones, coil springs, telescopic dampers
  • Brakes Discs front and rear
  • Weight 731kg
  • Performance 0-60mph: 6.1sec
  • Top speed: 126mph
  • Fuel consumption 44mpg
  • Cost new £20,950
  • Classic Cars Price Guide £9500-£17,500

1997 Lotus Elise S1

Elise will tingle your senses like no other car here, so for some it’s too harsh. Everything you need if you enjoy driving; luxuries are for softies. Twin-cam K-series four-cylinder is well suited to the featherweight Elise.

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