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Lotus Elan S3 SE | PH Fleet

The lightest car on the fleet since Matt's beloved Caterham Seven and the oldest since, well, ever

By Sam Sheehan / Sunday, March 29, 2020

I'll open with an apology for not introducing the old man's Lotus Elan to PH sooner, as the 1966 S3 SE has been on the extended fleet since 2018. But in truth, like all old Lotuses, it's taken about that long to get the 696kg sports car back to its very best, so the timing now feels right. Right now, CVL 41D sits patiently in the garage in probably its best state yet, waiting for all this chaos to blow over. Especially because this particular 'Series 3 Special Equipment' was once a bit of a rotter, sat under a cover in Lotus's old Delamare Road factory in Cheshunt, destined for the crusher.

You see, 41D was a pre-production S3 prototype, a car that should have been dismantled following the end of that series' development period. But this was Lotus in the sixties. Things weren't always done by the book. So for whatever reason this car left Delamere Road as a rolling chassis with only its fibreglass body, requiring its first custodian to buy a new double-overhead cam 1.6-litre and, more than likely, give the car a good polish to clear away the factory dust. It was registered for the road proper in May 1966.

Series 3 aficionados will note that this date is a month before the S3's official launch. That, plus a few other details, have been confirmed by Club Lotus after a recent verification of the car's rare, prototype status - even if there's no original record of its existence. Not that Lotus was particularly good at keeping records back then. 41D's wiring loom, for example, is a mismatch of S2 and S3 lines, while the car's chassis VIN number starts with 26, which is designated to S2 models, rather than the S3 type number, 45. But the car came from the factory with S3 electric windows and its steering wheel is a unique, pre-prod design that was never rolled out on either the S2 or S3 variants. In short, this one's special.

Since then, the car's had three more keepers, the next being the original owner's daughter, who at one point had it dry stored for more than 20 years. A chap bought it off her and restored it to its former glory, before my dad, Steve, purchased it and set about making it as good as his former Elans. A mechanic of almost half a century, he's the sort to fix rather than replace parts, and the S3 SE has become a central project that's benefitted from this fast-dying engineering philosophy. Most of us would have been over the moon with the fresh Elan he received two years ago, but having owned three others - the first when he was still a teenager - he knows how to tune them to perfection. He's found lots to do.

The car's received too many detailed improvements to list, but the biggest changes include new dampers all-round, new tyres, and pretty much everything bolted to the engine barring the gearbox has been refreshed or rebuilt. The pair of factory-fit twin-choke Weber carbs can be temperamental in a varied climate, but the old man's obsessed with finessing the fuel to air mixture, and in the cool air of spring, it starts on the button, ticks over smoothly and, when revved out to its 6,000rpm peak, pulls remarkably strongly.

The four-cylinder motor develops just 117hp, but at less than 700kg and with four tightly stacked ratios, the S3 can hit 60mph in about 7.5 seconds. Sat aboard its fibreglass body with the roof down, it feels even sprightlier. And thanks to those narrow tyres, there's more than enough poke to make the car wonderfully playful; the balance is just perfect and body control excellent, with feedback pouring through the chassis and unassisted steering - which thanks to the car's mass and those narrow boots, is still very light to turn. The car's so light on its toes that the ride's even pretty good.

And gosh, it's pretty isn't it? The Elan might be most famed for its handling, but it's a success in the looks department, too. This is a sports car of matchbox proportions next to modern crossovers and SUVs (it's just 1.4 metres wide!), but it absolutely never goes unnoticed. Even on a drive over the weekend, just before non-essential trips outside were banned by government, the Elan cut through the Covid-19 weirdness and brought smiles to people's faces.

It is now waiting for the world to return to normal, hopefully just as the spring sun really takes hold - because putting that tent-like roof up manually is an absolute nightmare. But more on that next time. For now, though, say hello to PH's latest recruit. Roll on freer times...


FACT SHEET
Car:
1966 Lotus Elan S3 SE (prototype)
Run by: Sam's dad!
Bought: May 2018
Mileage at purchase: 62,578
Mileage now: 63,429
Last month at a glance: The Elan awakens just in time for spring. And a UK lockdown.

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