Launched in 1989, the M100 Elan was a two-seater, convertible sports car designed to utilize a reliable Isuzu engine and manual transmission in conjunction with a light-weight British roadster design. Built with the development and testing resources of backer General Motors, the M100 marked a production milestone for Lotus in development, design and production. Its design featured a fiberglass composite body over a rigid steel unibody chassis, holding true to founder Colin Chapman’s philosophy of achieving performance through efficiency and light weight. It was with these very design virtues in mind that the M100 took on the name of its famous 60’s predecessor; Élan.
The 1986 purchase of Lotus by General Motors provided the critical financial backing to develop a new, small, affordable sports car in the same spirit as the original 60’s era Elan (last built in December 1972). A development prototype, the M90 (later renamed the X100) had been built a few years earlier, using a fiberglass body designed by Oliver Winterbottom and a Toyota-supplied 1.6-litre engine and transmission. Lotus was hoping to sell the car through Toyota dealerships worldwide, badged as a Lotus/Toyota, but the project never came to fruition and the prototype was shelved (although Lotus’s collaboration with Toyota had some influence on the design of the Toyota MR2).
Throughout the 1980’s this idea for a small roadster powered by an outsourced Japanese engine remained a prominent focus for Lotus design, and in late 1986 Peter Stevens’s design for the Type M100 was approved and with new GM financial backing work was begun by Lotus engineers. The entire design process was completed in just less than three years; a remarkably short time for design and production even in today’s much more digitally automated automotive industry.
The M100 Elan was conceived as a mass-market consumer sports car and in particular one that would appeal to both UK and US buyers. Consequently, Lotus put an enormous effort (for such a small firm) into testing the car; over a two-year period 19 crash cars and 42 development vehicles were built, logging nearly a million test miles in locations from Arizona to the Arctic. The Elan was driven at racing speeds for 24 hours around the track at Snetterton. Finally each new car was test-driven for around 30 miles (48 km) at Lotus’s Hethel factory to check for any manufacturing defects before being shipped to US and global dealers.
The choice of front wheel drive is unusual for a sports car, but according to Lotus sales literature, “for a given vehicle weight, power and tire size, a front wheel drive car was always faster over a given section of road. There were definite advantages in traction and controllability, and drawbacks such as torque steer, bump steer and steering kickback were not insurmountable.” This was the only front wheel drive vehicle ever made by Lotus. Every model made since the M100 Elan, such as the Elise and more recently the Evora has been the more traditional rear wheel drive layout.
The M100 Elan’s cornering performance was undeniable (on release the Elan was described by Autocar magazine as “the quickest point to point car available”). Press reaction was not uniformly positive, as some reviewers found the handling too secure and predictable compared to a rear wheel drive car. However, the Elan’s rigid chassis minimized roll through the corners and has led to its description as ‘the finest front wheel drive car to date’. Unlike the naturally aspirated version, the turbocharged SE received power steering as standard, as well as tires with a higher ZR speed rating.
The M100 Elan used a 1,588 cc double overhead camshaft (DOHC) 16-valve engine, sourced from the Isuzu Gemini and extensively modified by Lotus (a third generation of this engine was later used in the Isuzu Impulse), which produced 162 horsepower (121 kW). 0–60 acceleration time was measured by Autocar and Motor magazine at 6.5 seconds, and a top speed of 137 mph (220 km/h) was recorded.
Significant differences in the Isuzu-Lotus engine from the original include a new exhaust system, re-routed intake plumbing for better thermodynamic efficiency, improved engine suspension, and major modifications to the engine control unit to improve torque and boost response. Almost all models featured an IHI turbocharger.
Two variants were available at launch, the 130 bhp (97 kW; 132 PS) Elan 1.6 (retailing at £17,850) and the 162 bhp (121 kW; 164 PS) Turbo SE (£19,850). Initial sales were disappointing, perhaps because its launch coincided with a major economic recession in the UK and USA, and perhaps also because it coincided with the cheaper Mazda MX-5 Miata which was arguably similar in concept, though the MX-5 was quite intentionally nostalgic and old fashioned, while the M100 was deliberately futuristic, modern and forward looking. The Elan was regarded as a good product in a bad market, but was also very expensive to make (the cost to design and produce the dashboard alone was more than the total cost of the Excel production line), and sales figures were too low to recoup its huge development costs. When Lotus was sold by GM to Bugatti, its new owners had no interest in continuing manufacture of the loss-making Elan.
Altogether 3,855 Elans were built between November 1989 and July 1992, including 129 normally aspirated (non-turbo) cars. 559 of them were sold in the US, featuring a ‘stage 2 body’ which had a different rear boot spoiler arrangement together with a lengthened nose to accommodate a USA-compliant crash structure and airbag, and 16-inch wheels (optional in most markets, standard in the U.S.) instead of 15-inch as on the UK model..