Guest contributor: Royce Hong on his 1967 Lotus Elan S3
I first started sketching and drawing cars at the tender age of five, and have always sketched and drawn a “top 12” list of cars that I – an industrial designer and motoring enthusiast – consider to be the best cars ever made. I am a die hard fan of ingenious engineering wrapped in simple, sumptuous curves that give an inimitable driving experience. These attributes are the very essence of industrial design: genuine, accessible, yet highly rigorous in concept, form, and performance. And on this top 12 list of mine sit two Lotuses, the Series 1 Elise and the original 1960s Elan.
Being a loving owner of a Series 1 Elise in Taiwan for almost ten years now, I have lusted over its predecessor the Elan for as long as I can remember. Due to both work circumstances (I split my time between Taipei and the San Francisco Bay Area) and wayward luck, I had never crossed paths with an Elan that ended up going home with me. The Elan had always eluded me, and I would always think how absurdly fantastic it would be to drive a roadster Lotus in Northern California. I could just imagine how the Elan would drive down a twisty mountain road as I hear the car working with me. Honestly, what could be a purer driving experience? As luck would have it, late last year I finally met my Elan.
An old college friend from LA shot over a link to a blue ’67 Elan S3 for sale on a British car enthusiast forum. One look at the posted photos and I’m bewitched. The seller is a well-known professional car photographer, and the photos really capture what it feels like to own and drive the car.
I showed the pictures to my wife, and to my absolute delight, she urged, “Get it! Get it!” (above all else, perhaps definitive proof that Royce Hong is an incredibly fortunate man- Ed.), thereby sealing the deal for me and my Elan. After a friend checked it out for us in LA and came back with a favorable nod, we bought the Elan, sight unseen.
For me, driving is about a total experience formed by how the car works, how it looks, how it sounds, and how it performs. It is about the injection or superimposition of personality, story, and poetry into a precisely-engineered performance machine. Unlike the various Porsches I’ve previously owned, British cars – especially older British cars – are anything but perfectly engineered. Nor are they exactly reliable. They have a ‘well, it more or less works’ build quality about them and ALWAYS give you an unpredictable driving experience. Something unexpected always happens with these cars – be it mishap or delight – and mine is no exception. It started during delivery, before I even had a chance to drive it.
We had the Elan trucked up north to an auto shop in the Bay Area as we wanted to have the car properly looked at. On the day of the scheduled arrival, a severe winter storm broke out. Worried that the car might be caught in the storm, we asked the trucking company for an update on their truck’s whereabouts but were told they were not able to locate the truck or their driver! A huge panic ensued and phone calls raged as hard as the blowing wind. When we finally located the truck, they insisted – quite vehemently – that the car was delivered, even though our auto shop said they never took delivery of an Elan. More phone calls ensued, and a good deal of further hellraising later, we finally found the Elan. As it turned out, the truck driver had dropped the car off at another auto shop next door!
The car was finally found, without windows and top (removed by the previous owner for lightness, in sticking with Colin Chapman’s philosophy) and with boxes of parts in the trunk. As we waited for the rainy winter to pass, we had the top and windows put back on, the racing roundels removed, the bumpers painted, and the running gear given a good onceover.
Spring finally arrived and out came the Elan for a drive. I met up with a friend in a Miata – the Elan’s spiritual successor – at Alice’s Restaurant on Skyline Blvd. Next to the compact Miata, the Elan looked like a 70% reduction of a car, tiny and svelte— more like a toy than a real car. Yet my 43-year-old Elan had no trouble keeping up with the track-prepped Miata on Skyline’s numerous curves.
We stumbled upon some seriously narrow and twisty back roads, where the Elan really shined! It was such an incredible feeling carving through the turns so effortlessly. The car swung and swayed in smooth, lithe rhythms— light and springy, yet nimble and powerful. As if on cue, the swing music of the bandleader Benny Goodman started playing in my head, conjured from thin air. For a continuous 20-mile stretch, I really did feel like I was dancing with the car, swinging to the big band sounds of Benny in glorious California spring weather without a care in the world. I was having a gasoline-fueled metaphysical bonding experience with the Elan— a sort of tarmac nirvana, and a moment I’ll never forget.
Similar driving highs would help me get stranded on Skyline sometime later, albeit through no fault of the car. Once, I needed to recharge after a month-long business trip in Asia, so I headed straight for the hills with the Elan the minute I got back. Trailing a beautiful (and considerably more powerful) Aston Martin V8 Vantage all the way up the twisties, the Elan danced beautifully and was engaged in full-swing mode. I was having loads of fun keeping up with the big Aston when suddenly I felt a hesitation from the car. I immediately realized that I was so immersed in the driving experience that I had completely forgotten to check the fuel gauge! The car was running on empty. By then, the Aston was already way out of sight. I coasted down the mountain for about five miles until the car slurped up its last drop of fuel. Having this much fun had left us without gas in the middle of nowhere. I had no navigation tools with me, nor any idea where we were.
A car came along and, with the Elan by my side, I managed to convinced the Prius driver that I was no serial killer, thereby successfully hitching a ride to the nearest gas station five miles away. I hitched another ride back to the car with the station attendant who had just clocked off. Once gassed up, I turned the Elan around and headed back for the hills.
One of the reasons for getting the Elan was that I wanted to get into autocrossing. The local and very active Golden Gate Lotus Club runs a great series that is usually held at the Marina Municipal Airport near Monterey. Two nights before my first event, I went to dinner at a German restaurant with some friends in Sunnyvale. Later, as I walked out to the Elan in the parking lot, a heavily modified late-model Mustang was warming up next to my Elan. It was loud, visceral, and it sounded good. I started the diminutive Elan, then heard a loud clunk, followed by some clanging sounds— as if something had fallen off the Mustang amidst all the V8 noise. The two guys in the Mustang got out to check out their car. I didn’t think much of it and drove off.
Come the next day, I started packing up for the autocross and wanted to warm up the car. This time, the Elan wouldn’t start. I had just fixed the solenoid and a faulty starter switch, so I fiddled around with that for awhile, trying to figure out why the car wouldn’t start. I remembered the bratwurst from the night before and the mysterious sound I heard in the parking lot, so I jacked up the car to have a look underneath. As it turned out, half of my starter was missing! I immediately hopped into my daily driver – *not* a British car – and headed back to the restaurant. From a distance, I could see dark hunks of metal on the ground. It was the other half of my starter, in pieces— still there 24 hours later!
I gathered up the parts and scrambled home for an ad-hoc fix, just in time for the autocross the next day. With the skinny M+S tires which were on the car at the time, the Elan slid around quite a bit, yet in a totally controllable manner. My times were obviously non-competitive with the modern day Elises and Exiges, but I was absolutely amazed by the telepathic handling of the car and became addicted to her effortless four-wheel drifts. And to my pleasant surprise, my ad-hoc, slapdash fix to my starter hadn’t put any dampers on the car’s performance at all.
I’ve never owned a car that developed so many problems over the course of ownership and left me stranded so many times. Yet I am starting to feel that they are an integral part of the vintage motoring experience (that is, assuming you decide to really uncork it). I was quite surprised at how calm I was during each event, which I began to think of as the spacetime and mechanical temperament of the Elan. In fact, I’ve started to anticipate and accept these mishaps as adventures, and the moments of transcendental connections with the Elan as some sort of man-and-machine-as-one cyborg fantasy.
I think Peter Egan said it best in one of his recent Road & Track columns about the Elan:
“One minute I’d think, I’m free at last, finally done with British cars; I can see a whole new life ahead of me. And the next minute, I’d swing through a big sweeping S-bend, feel that almost miraculous Lotus roadholding, and say to myself: This is the best sports car anybody ever made. I must fix this thing and keep it forever.”
Words: Royce Hong
Images: Morgan J. Segal and Royce Hong
Nicest We’ve Seen: 1967 Lotus Elan S3 (Bring a Trailer Cover Story)
Heart of Gold, Electrics by Lucas
Road & Track’s Peter Egan Is Secretly Selling His Lotus Elan (an amusing postscript- Ed.)
Royce Hong is the founder and big head of design of IPEVO.