Lotus Elise Sport 135: PH Fleet

If, reading previous updates, you've come to the conclusion that the Elise is a constant thorn in my side with no redeeming qualities whatsoever, I'd like to put the record straight. Yes, things go wrong - and in recent history they seem to have been going wrong more frequently- but after three years of ownership, I am under no illusion that tenure of a teenage Lotus will always be occasionally painful. You only need spend five minutes looking around a Lotus forum to see how many S1s have gone through, or are currently undergoing, major rebuilds to realise that they can get pretty stroppy at this age.

Looks dry, track was anything but
Looks dry, track was anything but
The silver lining to this particular cloud is that, being pretty minimal, there's less stuff to go wrong, and provided you've got the time, patience and a suitable place to work, DIY is a realistic proposition. Unfortunately I don't have a suitable place to work, which helpfully means my dedication can remain unchallenged.

When it is running sweet, and more often than not it is, the driving experience is so pure, so involving, that it quickly gets back under my skin. I can't think of nothing else for the initial outlay and running costs that offers such a special driving experience. Which is why it's still parked outside after three years.

One of those timely reminders came at Goodwood in mid-December for the PistonHeads track day. It's not a circuit I'd been round in the past, so with zero track knowledge, a worrying lack of run-off and possibly the coldest, dampest, greasiest surface I've ever encountered, I turned to a piece of advice that had lodged in my brain - from where I don't recall - 'Goodwood should be treated as you would drive a country road'. It became my mantra for the day, further moderated by Mr Harris's recent revelation that the Elise is the most dangerous car he's ever driven in the wet.

Over three years in and Danny's still smitten
Over three years in and Danny's still smitten
As a result, my pace advanced at a glacial rate, before scurrying back to safety with its tail between its legs after a couple of lock-ups into St Marys and Woodcote, oversteer at the chicane and 100mph understeer through the damp patches on the exit of Fordwater. Gulp.

Then people began falling off. The red flags started flying and I continued crawling, ever more desperate not to join them. Grip improved slightly around mid-afternoon, and although a dry line was still a dream, this gave me the confidence to brake harder and later and carry more speed into St Marys, Lavant and Woodcote. Sketchy? Yes. Exhilarating? Hell yeah!

It was far from ideal conditions for a lightweight, mid-engine sports car with no driver aids, but did that stop me from thoroughly enjoying every minute? Not a chance. It's a circuit that rewards flow, something that comes so naturally to the Lotus. And while my Elise was built in 1998, there's something about these little plastic cars that seem to be perfectly at home amongst Goodwood's heritage. Going back when it's dry is now a priority.

In good company at Analogue Automotive
In good company at Analogue Automotive
I've always liked the standard Nardi steering wheel; it's not too small, the rim is nice and thin and the simple styling suits the minimal cabin. Of course the Sport 135 came with a red and black Alcantara-covered version, but mine has seen better days and was replaced by a leather version by a previous owner. I was toying with the idea of getting it refurbed, as I'm a huge fan of Alcantara (and I still might at some point), until I saw a photo of an Elise fitted with a Momo 88 wheel. Just a touch larger in diameter, the lovely suede rim wouldn't get slippery in the summer heat and could also be brought closer to me with the addition of a spacer; improving knee room. When I saw one on eBay for £40, I didn't hesitate.

Fitting wasn't actually that bad, but inevitably it ended up a gnat's cock off-centre; something I've been trying to rectify ever since. But aside from that, I'm really happy with it.

My other bargain eBay purchase was a brand new upgraded toe-link kit. This is something I've been meaning to do for ages, but keep getting distracted by vital upgrades such as steering wheels... Secured for £200, a healthy saving over retail, it was back down the A3 to Steff at Analogue Automotive to get them fitted. What I only found out when the old ones came off, was that Lotus's recall had never been carried out on my car, increasing the chances of, what could have been, a pretty significant failure.

Reconditioned heater donated from a Sport 160
Reconditioned heater donated from a Sport 160
Another area needing attention was my heater motor. It packed up in November, finally succumbing to years outside in the damp. This in itself wasn't a big problem, as I'm definitely of the mindset that throwing on an extra layer trumps turning up the thermostat. But clearing the windscreen with no airflow was a nightmare. Of course replacement motors are now all but extinct, and the housings are ludicrously expensive. And if you're going to fix the motor, you may as well overhaul the whole heating system. Steff's OCD came to the rescue, as the unit out of his Sport 160 (which is currently being rebuilt) was working but not up to his high standards. Back home I stripped it down, repainted it with POR 15 marine paint and reassembled it. A new heather matrix - the same unit used in black cabs, would you believe - was ordered, and while Steff fitted the toe links, I went about replacing my old corroded heating system with a lovely reconditioned one.

Finally, I've learned that for all the construction similarities with a canoe, an Elise doesn't float. When you unintentionally drive into deep water (because it's dark and you've got a queue of traffic behind you), what actually happens is that a bow wave breaks over the bonnet, the aluminium tub becomes a paddling pool and enough steam comes off the radiator makes it look like you've driven into a Turkish bath. Astonishingly, everything still works though. Even the heater.

Fact sheet
1998 Lotus Elise Sport 135
Run by: Danny Milner
Bought: October 2010
Purchase price: £9,500
This month at a glance: Kept it on the black stuff at Goodwood, submerged it on the way home from fixing the heater.

Previous reports
For speed add lightness, to wallet in this case
Suspension fettling brings results, just in time for the alternator to go pop
Scottish road trip answers 'should I sell?' dilemma
Is it time for the Elise to go?
A cry of alarm from the Lotus - just drive me!
To Goodwood in the Elise
Why is the Elise slower on its new suspension then?
Nitron suspension upgrade for Danny's Elise

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Comments (65) Join the discussion on the forum

  • daveco 22 Jan 2014

    Is the short wheelbase the main reason for the scary handling?

    Is there any point in owning one when it rains almost every day?? Really would like one as a weekend toy.

  • Pablo16v 22 Jan 2014

    An orange '98 S plate 135 is one of the few cars I regret not buying. The test drive was an absolute blast (on the South Deeside road between Aberdeen and Banchory for anyone that knows it).

  • MJK 24 22 Jan 2014

    daveco said:
    Is the short wheelbase the main reason for the scary handling?

    Is there any point in owning one when it rains almost every day?? Really would like one as a weekend toy.
    They're ok in the wet as long as your proceed with caution IMO. That said, personally, I don't enjoy driving them in the wet so mine doesn't get a huge amount of usage at the time of year.

  • mk1fan 22 Jan 2014

    I can fully agree with the last paragraph.

    Similar happened to me whilst driving Tamy back home on NYD. biggrin

  • SidewaysSi 22 Jan 2014

    daveco said:
    Is the short wheelbase the main reason for the scary handling?

    Is there any point in owning one when it rains almost every day?? Really would like one as a weekend toy.
    Elises are not scary at all if they have a decent geo and tyres. Mine is a honey and totally predictable with little lift-off oversteer. A smidge of understeer followed by easy, controllable power oversteer.

    Yes, do need to be careful in standing water, however in damp or just wet conditions it is fine. My Caterham is much more twitchy in the wet and demands more care to drive quickly.

    I think the reputation came from early cars which had rubbish tyres. Totally unjustified IME.

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