► Rowan Atkinson: what makes a British car?
► Our former columnist on the Lotus Elan S2
► Part of our CAR+ archive service
Attempting to define the Britishness of a motor car leads you into no less dangerous waters than those you would be forced to navigate in order to define the Britishness of a human being: to define (and, especially, to boast about) racial qualities in the politically correct age is assumed to denigrate by implication every other race on earth. We are discouraged from drawing any conclusions about this island race. We are encouraged to believe in a Global Village and a European Community, so it doesn't matter if BMW takes over Rover because we're all the same people, really. Any traditional analyses are reckoned to be outdated. It's an old-fashioned idea that the Germans are clever, conscientious and militaristic; it's yesterday's thinking that the French are cultured, surly and overbearing.
The British are in an unusual position, because old-fashioned is exactly what foreigners want us to remain. I remember a rather weak US mini-series with Peter Ustinov as Hercule Poirot, in which Agatha Christie's detective was, rather radically, operating in the present day. The updated Hercule was seen drifting around present-day London, armed with his traditional arsenal of bizarre Belgian vowel sounds. The conceptual high point was when he was summoned to 'Scotland Yard', which was fancifully depicted as a beautiful five-storey house in a pristine, stucco-fronted Victorian Square; a stark contrast to the modern office block on the Thames, where the Yard in fact resides. To ensure verisimilitude, a Rover SD1 with an orange stripe drew up to the iron railings.
Americans are always keen to see us as we were, rather than as we are. A good friend was once seated on a bus behind two Americans recently landed in the UK who were expressing their incredulity at the fact that the road from Heathrow to central London wasn't cobbled.
At Lotus, it was a genuine attempt to redefine this nostalgic (although affectionate) view of Britishness that motivated many of those involved with the development of the new Elan. It would have been easy enough to develop a simple, rwd, TVR-esque, flailing-elbow sort of machine, but something stopped them. The best brains in Lotus Engineering had been working on a small sports car concept for some time and had made the most terrifying discovery. That the best handling, grip and point-to-point performance for their planned power-to-weight ratio was obtained from a car with front-wheel drive. Ouch. What a frightening conclusion. It's not just Americans who have fixed views about what constitutes a British sports car. Well, they hummed and they haahhed and they tutted and they doodled and then, believing that a racing car manufacturer should produce the best chassis it possibly can, they made one of the bravest decisions in automotive history.
Sadly, but predictably, they paid a price for their courage and vision. At launch, the new Elan was criticised for its front-wheel-drive and for its expense, the latter mainly resulting from the use of a high-technology platform to give the required rigidity. Sales were slow, and production was eventually brought to a half two years ago.
The problem, I suppose, was that the Elan was too good. People just couldn’t get it to let go, which British sports cars were supposed to do, preferably with as little provocation as possible. How odd that we have to come to this pretty pass. Gone are the days when sports cars were designed to be dynamically superior to their saloon siblings; these days, perversely, the opposite is almost the case.
The Elan bucks this trend with a display of genuinely modern British thinking. In S2 guise, they’ve tweaked the chassis a little, improved the hood, resisted the handbrake and improved the seats, but it remains what it has always been, a great sports car. The handling and the grip are mind-boggling: you feel you could never unsettle its resolute poise. On my driving day, a howling gale blew across the Norfolk steppes, strong enough to remove a man’s spectacles without his permission, but the Lotus left me in blissful ignorance of it. Dynamically and aerodynamically, this car is without peer.
Now the Elan is back in production again, and I hope that this time around people will be a little less cynical of its new-fashionedness. I know it doesn’t give you the slippery-slidey fun of a traditional sports car, but it does give you some very untraditional dynamics and solidity. The fun is in the gripping, not the sliding. After five laps of Lotus’s test track, you can summon the courage required to get the thing to slip, but on the road, the car’s limits are… ermm… well, best forgotten about, really. You’ll kill yourself trying to find them.