With Lotus open to selling the tooling to its iconic Elise, Jethro Noble analyses the pros and cons of a list of potential suitors
If I asked you to conjure up a simple and engaging sports car, there is a fairly high chance you would create a list of ingredients that look a little bit like a Lotus Elise. Fuzzy engines, very compact dimensions, a manual gearbox, incredibly low weight for a car with a roof and windscreen, and a budget that is thrown almost entirely at making it handle as best as it could.
For those of us within a certain age group, the Elise is the definitive Lotus. It is everything that the brand has always stood for, to be simple and light, and this shines through in spades when you see them out in the wild, tiny amongst modern traffic, and seemingly skipping over the surface of the road. This led to people like me, who grew up during the heyday of the Elise to be absolutely enamoured by it, being a dream car for so many and defining what Lotus would look like in the 21st century. Let’s not forget that this burst of innovation came from a relatively small British outfit, that when the Elise came along were still producing the front wheel drive Elan, which seemed ancient back then, nevermind now. Such a technical leap forward was a bit unheard of, and the agile little Series 1 debuted technology in 1995 that has become commonplace for many cars since, like the extruded and bonded aluminium chassis, technology which later went on to form the entire backbone of Aston Martin’s VH platform which produced such cars as the Vanquish, Vantage and DB9. The revived Alpine A110 has also utilised a bonded aluminium chassis. The aluminium brakes were less successful, but they contributed to the original Elise’s stunning 725kg kerb weight. Team with a modest but fizzy 118bhp Rover K series engine, the Elise could still crack 60mph in under six seconds and became the purest sports car driving experience bar none.
The Elise really did reinvigorate the Lotus brand and launched it back amongst the big players, which is why when it was announced that Lotus would cease production of all of their current cars last year, I was rather crestfallen. Should I have been surprised? Probably not. Such a car lineup is not viable in the current climate, as EV sales skyrocket, and modern regulations on safety and emissions make it increasingly difficult to produce a car like the Elise and keep it true to its small, lightweight form.
The good news is the Elise is set to live another day. Lotus have confirmed that they are open to selling the tooling required to make the car to the right buyer, and there are a few establishments and individuals that could actually do a very good job. One of the obvious choices would be a company that Lotus have had dealings with before, being Caterham. Back in the 70s, Caterham bought the tooling for the Seven and have built a successful brand based around this car, in a multitude of current forms, so they are very well versed in copying others’homework. That’s not a bad thing though, as I think Caterham and Lotus share a lot of values, and their take on an Elise would add a more useable depth to their current lineup, one for the rainy days. The question is, does Caterham have the financial muscle to make it happen given their recent takeover? Caterhams’s recent update of their three cylinder variant shows what could be done with the Elise platform, and the prospect of the car returning to its roots is a tantalising one.
Another established outfit, successful with their race and track cars who have also dipped their toes into road cars but are yet to fully make a mark in the road going market is Ginetta. A brand who has recently been more in the limelight due to one of its racing series’ landing them a slot on prime time television in the name of TopGear, and former Ginetta Junior competitor Lando Norris now being a figurehead for young drivers wanting to get into the sport has solidified their reputation as a serious name in the motorsport business. They have had road cars before in various forms, although compromised by being a bit too similar to their race car counterparts with stiff clutches and unassisted steering. Starting with a road car platform would enable Ginetta to hone their take on an Elise to strike that key balance between enjoyment and comfort, which is exactly the next step of evolution required for the brand. Sadly, it is likely we can rule Ginetta out due to some allegedly unkind comments in the past made by the company with regards to the Elise.
However, there is a potential buyer who would seem to be at the top of the pile of
bidders, that being Radford. Established as a coach builder over 50 years ago, the brand has recently been revitalised by Jenson Button, and they are already in collaboration with Lotus on their Type 62/2 supercar, inspired by the Type 62 from the 60s. The opportunity of there being a close relative to the Elise in future, to sit alongside as a more accessible little brother to the 62/2 is seemingly too good to pass up for Lotus and Radford, but time will tell. All we know for sure is that the company being run by a certain Mr Button will certainly boost our chances of being treated to a replacement for this icon, as he is a car fanatic himself.
To sum things up, I think we can all agree that it is sad to see the Elise go, but that Lotus does indeed have an undeniably exciting future. The launch of a new car in the shape of the Emira, the prospect of more models in the lineup from strong Chinese backing and a completely rejuvenated, automated production line all add up to a company that is fit for producing some incredible vehicles. That said, it’s unlikely to be quite like the days of the old school Elise’s, so if something like that is what you’re after, then you best get in now before the prices go through the roof.