Sports Car, Race Car

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The Elan

For nearly 50 years, a consistent pick on ‘best sports cars’ lists is the original Lotus Elan of Colin Chapman and Ron Hickman.


My Elan story begins at the 1966 LA Auto Show. I saw a picture of the yellow Lotus Elan S/E roadster on the floor there and became intrigued. I had a new job that payed pretty well and was ready to have some fun, in the form of a sports car to complement the big Lincoln. Under consideration were the Cobra, Porsche, and now the Elan. I decided I couldn’t afford the first two, and began to research the Elan in earnest. It didn’t hurt that the Emma Peel (M. appeal) character in The Avengers British TV comedy series drove an Elan to offset Steed’s Bentley; excellent product placement. The Elan choice had financial implications, though. If I had bought the Cobra, I could be significantly wealthier now. We are the sum of our choices.

Deciding the Elan had the required design purity and performance for the dollar, I visited La Cañada Sports Cars to see if I could buy the yellow model from the show. Their price was just shy of $5500. I didn’t want to pay a premium, but they weren’t interested in dealing. So I found an ad for West Side Cars of Amsterdam in the back of a magazine and purchased my yellow Elan by mail on 30 December 1966. The total cost including shipment was ~$4000. I was now an importer, of sorts.

The little car arrived at the port of LA on 4 May 1967, while I was on the East Coast on an extended business trip. I asked my father for the big favor of going down and getting it through customs and parking it for me at home. I think he enjoyed the experience, although he had to work way too hard to get the protective cosmoline-like junk off the exterior. Someone apparently had stolen the cigar lighter and gearshift knob in transit, but otherwise the car arrived in new condition. I filed an insurance claim.

Aside: My business trip involved the job that kept me out of Vietnam. It was the last chance my draft board had to get me before I aged out on them, and they weren’t taking no for an answer, having unanimously rejected my medical excuses and overruled my company’s formal appeal. So my company found a contract for me at Ft. George Meade. Faced with a new argument, the State Appeals Board then ruled unanimously in my favor; I could do my time in NSA instead of ‘Nam. Good lawyers and a good company perhaps had saved more than just my bacon.

I learned how to drive a stick shift while driving the Elan. It was captivating; I have never looked back into auto land, though it was embarrassing how clunky a driver I was for a while. Aside: My first stick effort came at age 16 when I got a job to mow someone’s lawn. There was an old pick-up parked on it and I had to move it. Somehow, I figured out how to do it. I recalled how my Dad had shifted in years prior. Later, around age 19, my roommate’s friend had come back from a frat rush party so drunk that he had left his TR3 running in the parking lot. I went and parked it for him. By then I was an expert in first gear. I also had observed a new category of drunkenness: falling on the floor and actually bouncing off it while looking amused you had just done that.

Everyone wanted to ride in the Elan, but I kept putting them off until I felt comfortable downshifting for a corner, braking, and then up-shifting again while powering away. Heel and toe was out of the question for a while. I bought the Elan a car cover, which was promptly stolen. I don’t know why; the Elan is so tiny there is no other car it would fit. Moral: People will steal anything.

Lotus ownership demanded conversing with other owners. Before the Internet, this happened by joining a local car club. In 1966, the Lotus West club was organized in Los Angeles, with regular meetings, outings, and a newsletter ‘Stress Cracks’ that had good technical articles. I was a charter member and had weekend fun with the club on most of the great roads in So Cal. I also took the car to the Sierra’s a few times. But the Elan never left California until its latest move.

In July of 1968, the club held an autocross in the Rose Bowl parking lot. It was my only competitive driving attempt, finishing in the middle of the pack after 8 runs on stock tires. My skill with the gearbox had improved a little by then. But I didn’t particularly enjoy flogging the little car.

Before a club run over Angeles Crest, we queued up at the side of the highway. This was just after California passed a law requiring external driver’s side mirrors. Many of us had not yet complied, presenting a feast for the CHP unit that happened by and held us up to ticket each mirror-challenged Elan. Where’s your sense of humor?

A club event from 1968:
Club Event 1968

Lotus through the forest:
Lotus Through the Forest

Lotus through the chaparral:
Lotus Through The Chaparral

By 1970, Lotus West had swelled to over 100 cars. Members I recall or have read about since include Dennis, author of an authoritative book on the Elite and numerous related articles; Dean, a club founder who had a coveted ‘garage with a pit’ and hosted a great fondue party; Dick, owner of a coupe with a nifty Alfa 5-speed conversion who rebuilt my engine for a small fee; a Lotus dealer who campaigned his racing Elan in SCCA; and many others; it amazes me how many names I recall from the membership list.

I have many other Elan memories, such as the time I misjudged a decreasing radius curve and spun out in Topanga Canyon, causing the car to tip on its side (gently). It was back in the day of the canyon culture; some locals came out in a flash to help set the car back on its wheels before the gendarmerie came asking embarrassing questions.

In the dating scene, I would keep women off guard by not telling them which car I would be picking them in up in, the Lotus or the Lincoln. Well, I thought it was cool.

My parents, who had never been in a sports car until this one arrived, borrowed it for a touring trip. The what’s-wrong-with-this-picture effect, watching them drive off together in this truly tiny car, is a priceless memory. They had a blast, including being stopped by a CHP unit for no front plate, but basically just to ask what kind of car it was, a common experience. The picture at the beginning is a memento of their trip, an old Polaroid snap if I recall correctly.

A rite of ownership for some of us was the honor of being thrown out of Bob Challman’s dealership when bringing a non-purchased vehicle there for service. I admired the purity of his business concept. Challman was the local Lotus distributor and knew which cars ‘should’ be here and which shouldn’t.

I had a boss who owned a Ferrari and lived on Tigertail Road. We had a brief running verbal joust about which car could get up his street the fastest. Good sense prevailed. But on a racetrack, Elans strut their stuff to great effect. I used to drive to Riverside and Willow Springs to watch SCCA races. A local Lotus dealer campaigned his racing Elan there. Sitting on the hill above the esses at Willow, watching the Elan slipping around the lumbering Vettes in a mixed-class race was worth ten prices of admission (actually, I don’t recall any admission fee). The Vettes were so loud that the Elan seemed to be pure, silent poetry of motion.

A driveway accident messed up the right front corner a little. My bad. I decided to have the entire car repainted and they suggested lacquer. It was mainly a Corvette shop; lacquer works great on the thicker fiberglass of the Vette, but not so well on the Elan. I think lacquer is too brittle a coating to apply over flexible fiberglass; it has developed many cracks and I don’t think they are all stress cracks. It will have to be redone sometime; who knew? One good thing that resulted was a decision to do a contrasting BRG backlight area and pinstripe. I still like the effect.

My Elan was driven 32K miles between 1967 and 1972, mostly as a weekend car. Ownership was a mite fussy, adjusting the Webers, shimming the valves with regularity. The only early mod was installation of a Mark IV capacitive discharge ignition system. In this form, the car was basically trouble free for three years. The Elan suffered a major breakdown at 27K miles – a hole burned through a piston – must have been running lean. A Lotus West club member offered to rebuild it for a small fee.

Engine After Rebuild

The rebuilt engine had only 5K miles on it before the driver’s door fell off on the ground one day. The immediate WTF diagnosis: the factory had only installed one of two bolts for the upper hinge, and the bobbin on the other bolt pulled out from stress. The other, as-new hinge bolt was found lying in the bottom of the door. I learned some fiberglass techniques and repaired the door. Then being apparently down a few brain cells at the time, I decided to do a major overhaul of the interior. Prime motivators were a few cracks in the dash veneer, aging carpets, a dislike of ashtrays and flakey water temperature gauges, and no speakers for a tape player. And there she sits today.

The Elan immobilization coincided with marriage and children, and my focus shifted dramatically. I lost contact with the Lotus club and moved on. I looked up the vestige of the club in around 2000, but it was nothing like it had been; the original Lotus vehicles were becoming rare birds.

Out-of-service precautions included: car cover, drain fuel tank, remove battery, add oil to the upper combustion chambers, keep the tires inflated, push the car around occasionally in gear. Deserving of a better ending, it patiently awaits restoration while doing its best to resist entropy.

For a complete rundown on the Original Lotus Elan and my efforts to restore mine, visit my blog The Original Lotus Elan.

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The Alfa

In 1969, a group of racing enthusiasts at work (me included) put up some money and bought a new Alfa sedan to campaign for a year in SCCA racing in the C-Sedan class (mainly baby Alfas and Minis).

GTA Jr. at Riverside
We stripped the GTA so that it had a completely gutted interior and replaced window glass with plexiglass where possible. (I thought it was a hell of a thing to do to a brand new car; guess that’s what they mean when they say “it’s only business”). We campaigned right at the minimum legal weight, around 1800 lbs, while getting 140+ bhp at 8K rpm from our 77 cu. in. engine.

Our team was organized and lead by Loren, a VP and engineering guru at my company, who previously had been campaigning Triumphs in SCCA racing. From Loren’s Triumph team we got our driver Jeff and our mechanic Jack, who with his brother owned a sports car repair shop in the Culver City area. We all had roles in preparing the car. Mine was minor compared to the metalworking and mechanical talent we had on board; I can recall ordering fabrication of some special diameter anti-roll bars. Jeff drove our Alfa to the Southern Pacific Division C-Sedan championship in a virtual cakewalk. I made all the local races from Sears Point to Phoenix as a member of the pit crew. It was a great season of wins for us. I got to see SCCA racing from the inside for a minimal investment.

Sears Point Race Staging

All the SCCA division class champions came together at the end of the season for one championship series of races, the American Road Race of Champions (ARRC). In the 60s it alternated between Daytona Beach and Riverside (long since closed). At the 1969 ARRC at Daytona Speedway, we believed we had the winning team, but were not the favorite (which was more or less determined by points earned in a season as I recall). I was working in Houston on a contract at the time and exchanged my first class ticket to Houston for a coach ticket so that I could return home via Daytona for the same price (there’s always an angle).

When I got to Daytona, qualifying was over and the team was in a quandary. We were down on power and qualified well back. They had tried different rear ends and suspension setups to no avail. I joined them in the garage the evening before the race and offered the only suggestion that made any sense to me: “Sounds like the throttle must not be opening all the way.” It had been checked, but they decided to re-check it. Sure enough, the linkage was slightly bent and was only opening about 90% of full throttle. Instant fix. It was sort of an “out of the mouths of babes” moment for me, but my suggestion was also rooted in my frequent fiddling with the dual Weber linkage on the Elan, similar to that on the Alfa.

During race day warm ups, with a working throttle, we turned the fastest lap and bested the top qualifying time, getting the attention of the favorites, who were also timing us. Starting back in the pack (~32nd position) in the first race of the day (35 combined C and D Sedans), Jeff went for it big at the start and passed everyone on the outside, high up the bank of the oval, but came in too hot to the first tight turn where the road course left the main track for the infield. With the tires still not up to race temp, he lost it and spun off the course, ending up dead last. He fought his way back to third against a field of winners, beaten by the favorite GTA Jr (campaigned by an Alfa dealer from the Northeast Division) and if I recall correctly, one quick Mini also out of the Northeast. Had the race been a little longer, who knows? The track announcer became a believer and credited Jeff and the car with the racing performance of the day, ending up 14 seconds behind the winner in a half hour race that averaged over 88 mph. We broke up a C Sedan monopoly by the NE Division who placed 1, 2, and 4. Although coming up short at the end, the year had been an ‘E’ ticket ride well worth the price of admission. The race results are available on the Internet.

Daytona 1969: ARRC C-Sedan pre-race strategy session
Daytona Pre-Race

Daytona 1969: ARRC C-Sedan pre-race lineup with our Alfa a back marker
Daytona Start Order

Daytona 1969: Moving out to start the race

Daytona 1969: ARRC C-Sedan 3rd place finisher waiting for its tow home.
Waiting For Tow Home

A favorite memory of that season was watching our junior GTA out-drag a Corvette at the start of a mixed class race at Phoenix (77 vs. 327, how did it do that?). They did have the same number of spark plugs, so perhaps it was a fair race. Thus arose an enduring affection for the Alfa marque.

Ours was a one-season campaign, and we subsequently sold the car and went our separate ways. Jeff went on to drive for factory teams. His name re-appeared much later, as driver of a pre-war Alfa in the Monterey Historical Races. I heard much later that Loren sadly did not survive an encounter with a deer and tree. The others I do not recall very well.

By nature a cruiser rather than racer, race driving did not tempt me strongly. Using the brakes does not come naturally to someone of my sensibilities. Thus, for me, the Alfa campaign was an abstract pursuit of excellence in automotive performance. It appealed to part of the Elan driver in me: doing the most with the least. But behind the wheel, my driving elan derives from going as far as possible as quickly as possible without touching the brakes.

Aside: My driving preference is also reflected in sports. I liked practice rallying in tennis much more than match competition. In a rally, the objective is to keep a point going as long as possible. I was amused to read an anecdote by a kindred spirit, pianist Susan Tomes, who noted that prior to formal instruction, she learned a game where you hit the ball near your friend, the object being to keep the back-and-forth flow going uninterrupted for as long as possible. Then a teacher showed her ‘proper tennis’, the objective being to hit the ball away from your opponent so as to make returning it difficult or impossible and in effect applying the brakes to the point.

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