The original, unadulterated Elise is the one we all keep coming back to

The Lotus Elise represents everything that’s great about a sports car. It’s light, tiny, and it allows you to have fun way before you reach impoundable speeds. Sadly, the ultra-light, two-door delight is on its way out and that means only one thing: special editions such as this ’Type 49’ model built some 21 years ago will only become more desirable and more expensive in future years. Want one? Get one and do so faster than that 6.1-second 0-60 mph time.

Adding a little more retro-chic is the two-tone, F1-inspired paint job

Remember The Good Old Days with This Lotus Elise S1 Exterior
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During his tenure as Bugatti’s boss, Italian entrepreneur Romano Artioli decided he should also add Lotus to the list of famous brands he owns. While he can be blamed for the failure of what’s been often referred to as the ’Italian Bugatti’ brand, Artioli must also be credited for bringing the necessary funds that allowed Lotus to develop one of the most beloved sports cars ever made, the Elise.

It’s barely been a few weeks since the news dropped that, indeed, Lotus will ax both the Elise and its track-loving sibling, the Exige, this year to make room for a breath of new models including the Type 131 that’s said to come in as the Elise’s direct replacement. The Evora is also on the chopping board as Lotus plans forward for an electric future but before the new comes in to fully replace the world, we’ve got an excuse to look back to the past. Lotus too gives us a pass since the Hethel-based automaker also likes to fall back on its storied past, often coming out with limited-run models over the years. The ’Final Edition’ Exige and Elise we’ve talked about recently are amazing but we’re here to talk about something slightly more restrained, the original Elise.

Remember The Good Old Days with This Lotus Elise S1 Drivetrain
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Introduced in 1996, it pioneered the usage of an extruded aluminum chassis that was glued together rather than welded.

Tipping the scales at just 1,611 pounds (in its original Euro-friendly guise), the Elise S1 got away with using a Rover K Series engine that developed a tepid 118 horsepower. The car you see here sports that very same 1.8-liter four-pot that can supposedly get you past 125 mph and from naught to 60 mph in just over six seconds. But you won’t care about the figures - you never do when you’re in an Elise.

Lotus Elise S1 specifications
Engine 1.8-liter four-cylinder
Horsepower 118 HP
Weight 1,611 lbs
0 to 60 mph 6 seconds
Top Speed 125 mph
Remember The Good Old Days with This Lotus Elise S1 Interior
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The focal point of the Elise was and is to this day the living and breathing bit between the steering wheel and the seat’s cushion. Raising the hairs at the back of your neck as it perfectly hugs the apex of a country road is the Elise’s day job. The no-nonsense approach behind this car, revitalizing Colin Chapman’s old adage on the paramount importance of lightness in an automobile, made it something many tried to copy only to fail.

But this Lotus Elise also enjoys showboating and that’s because it’s been optioned with the rare ’Type 49’ visual package introduced all the way back in 1999.

In January of that year, Lotus introduced the 111S model bringing variable valve control (VVC) to the range as well as extra oomph and, later on, the Italian market was graced with the 'Heritage Edition', also known as the 'Type 79' when it reached British shores.
Remember The Good Old Days with This Lotus Elise S1 Interior
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The name was self-explanatory as the Elise could now be had in a very stylish black-and-gold livery reminiscent of that seen on Grand Prix-winning Lotuses of the ’70s and ’80s, back when Lotus’ racing exploits were bankrolled by John Player & Sons.

The JPS-colored Elise wasn’t the only special edition model to arrive in ’99 as the visitors of the London Auto Show witnessed the introduction of another Elise adorned in a throwback color scheme. This time, the color combo of choice was white and red with a touch of gold which again harkened back to Formula 1 cars. Those were the colors of Gold Leaf, another brand of the Imperial Tobacco family. Between 1968 and 1971, Colin Chapman’s single-seaters raced in these colors, Jochen Rindt and Graham Hill both winning the World Drivers’ Title in Gold Leaf Lotus cars.

It was, then, a natural choice for Lotus, following in the footsteps of the JPS and Essex-themed Esprit models of the ’80s. The car you see here is a product of Y2K and it is one of just 92 original K Series-engined models that left the Lotus factory before production ceased. At the time, customers could choose to have both the ’Type 79’ and the ’Type 49’ styling packages added to either the standard Elise or the 111S.

Remember The Good Old Days with This Lotus Elise S1 Interior
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With under 26,000 miles on the clock, this RHD example is as fresh as a daisy and you can boast about the fact that it once shared the same garage with a McLaren F1 and a Ferrari F40. Invoices for some $4,150 spent getting the car all dolled up for its next caretaker are on the file which means it would be a shame if you went out and curbed those gorgeous, Lotus-designed, six-spoke golden rims. You’re excused, however, if you do so while heading to your local road course because, as we’ve said before, the Elise just begs to be driven.

What did people think of the Elise S1 when it hit the market?

Remember The Good Old Days with This Lotus Elise S1 Exterior
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On the 20th anniversary of Nirvana’s groundbreaking ’Nevermind’ album that by and large brought grunge into the mainstream, everyone flocked to recall how they were taken aback by what three young men from Seattle had come up with, often reciting their thoughts that this was ’something different’. But how many really felt that in 1991? And, to bring my point closer to home, how many realized just how special the Elise truly is when Artioli pulled the wraps off the first prototype, a green roadster, at the 1995 edition of the Frankfurt Auto Show?

We think very few did on the spot, although the fact that Lotus collaborated with Ciba Polymers of Switzerland and Hydro Aluminium, of Denmark, to bring to the market the first car underpinned by a glued aluminum monocoque surely raised eyebrows. Never before had that technique been used in a production car although you’ll find that a similar technique is employed in extruded aluminum double glazing windows that are bonded together.

Remember The Good Old Days with This Lotus Elise S1 Interior
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The all-aluminum K-Series engine had its flaws, particularly the flimsy head gaskets, but it was light and compact and, thanks to its through-bolted configuration and low-pressure sand casting construction, it wasn't as faulty as previous aluminum-cast units.

With its composite sintered brakes and unassisted steering, the Elise was loved by the motoring press from day one although some would comment that the steering felt a bit too light before you got used to it. In any case, it erased all the memories people had of Lotus’ previous sports car, the Lotus Elan M100 that tried to go up against the Mazda Miata before ending up as a weird case of badge engineering with Kia selling it as the Kia Elan right up until 1999.

Remember The Good Old Days with This Lotus Elise S1 Exterior
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The Elise was never disrespected in such a heinous way - granted, the Elan was FWD which never really helped its case - and that’s also because you could make a point that it helped save Lotus from bankruptcy. While Artioli left the boat at the end of ’98, some 10,000 Elises had been sold by the end of the S1’s production run in 2000. Oh, and it’s also worthy to mention that MG tried to out-Lotus Lotus with a two-door sports car of its own that was powered by the same K Series 16-valve engine, the MGF, and it sort of worked, MG selling over 77,000 units of the lilliputian roadster in seven years. But it never drove like the Elise, partly because it weighed an impressive 35% more.

"[Lotus] set themselves a sports-car mission - low price, sky-high driving excitement - that has been attempted so often it’s a cliche," wrote CAR Magazine in the summer of 1996, tipping that Lotus was doomed to fail, as it had done before in the quest for sports car perfection. But they didn’t, as the magazine found out. "The links between driver and car are so precise, so electric, so light, they’re almost synaptic. Input doesn’t bring about response: input is response. What’s more, as accurately as the car reads what you’ve asked of it, so you can read its actions. There’s a transparency and a feedback to the Elise’s controls that even supercar drivers couldn’t dream of. When a car is this light it has no need for a brake servo, no call for power steering, no place for sense-dulling bushes, no need for anything that interposes itself between you and the action.

Remember The Good Old Days with This Lotus Elise S1 Interior
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"In the lower gears we’re in the performance territory of an M3. But that doesn’t tell the whole talc," goes on CAR’s initial review. "Because it’s geared so much shorter than the M-car, the Elise makes you much more the master of your speed. You’re more likely to be in the right gear, and the next one will be closer. If you pull out to overtake, there’s no initial feeling of a mighty engine waking up to overwhelm a heavy car; instead, the Elise snaps forward instantly, to the precise degree you’ve ordered. That makes it a great overtaking tool, always at the ready. It’ll slot neatly back into lines of traffic, too, thanks to the marvelous precision of the brakes," adds the editor who also praised the car for its ability to ’barely roll and never pitch or lurch around.’ It’s, in short "just so flickable and agile, so effortless, so fabulously economical in the efforts it asks of you.".

The American market got its first taste of the Elise only when the second-gen model rolled out but Car & Driver was impressed by what it had discovered some two years earlier when it was let loose with an S1. "The Elise makes you feel supremely confident but without dominant understeer," wrote Larry Webster who summed it up in a few words that would be echoed by many other pundits. "The Elise is fast, confidence-inspiring, and a hoot to drive," he said, something both Road & Track and Evo Magazine could confirm in more recent times.

Remember The Good Old Days with This Lotus Elise S1 Exterior
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Was it faultless? No car is and, as such, the Elise isn’t perfect, Webster arguing that, "the shifter lacks the mechanical feel of a Miata’s, and the engine note is just plain wrong. Instead of a sweet-sounding mechanical wail, there’s a rough-sounding growl. It doesn’t suit the car." He goes on to add that getting the soft top up or down is complicated (it takes a good few minutes to manually complete the process), "and the spartan interior amplifies the rough engine noise." Mechanical gremlins emerged a tad bit later but, all in all, Lotus got the recipe right straight away.

P.S. You know how, for a decade, Lotus made something called the ’Excel’? It was styled, just like the M100 Elan, by the one and only Peter Stevens but that didn’t save it from not living up to its pretentious name. The Elise, however, did excel.

Source: Classic Driver

Michael Fira
Michael Fira
Associate Editor and Motorsport Expert - fira@topspeed.com
Mihai Fira started out writing about long-distance racing like the famous 24 Hours of Le Mans. As the years went by, his area of interest grew wider and wider and he ever branched beyond the usual confines of an automotive writer. However, his heart is still close to anything car-related and he's most at home retelling the story of some long-since-forgotten moment from the history of auto racing. He'll also take time to explain why the cars of the '60s and '70s are more fascinating than anything on the road today.  Read full bio
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