Yesterday (August 7, 2021), I had a delightful FaceTime conversation with the gentleman who purchased my Lotus Elan from the dealer in California who’d acquired it at the Gooding Auction earlier this year. It is now on its way to his forever home in the UK to join a small collection of elite cars. The Elan’s garage mates will be a ’59 Porsche 356A, ’86 328 GTS. , and a 1972 Porsche 911: all with low mileage and in concourse condition. I could not be more pleased the Elan is returning to the land where it was made and into the hands of someone who cares deeply about cars of this vintage and style.
The new owner has been involved in the auto industry since he was young; working for Rover, Jaguar, and Ford. In his later career he’s moved around the world with professional services firms like PwC and KPMG. He’s currently living in Toronto, Canada but makes frequent trips back to the UK. Brian Buckland, arguably the #1 Elan expert in the world and who played a big role in my 2013-2014 rebuild of this car lives in Bristol, England, and will no doubt find it much more convenient to pop in and visit it there than having to come to Phoenix every few years. Of course, we do hope Brian will find other excuses to visit us here in Arizona, as the entire community of Phoenix Lotus owners loves and misses him.
My Elan, which I purchased in 1972 at 21 years of age, played an important part in my life. Many events and experiences would never have occurred were it not for the purchase of this car. I’ve written about my Elan extensively, even producing a coffee table book about the car. More information than you’d ever want to know is in the automotive section of my website.
Here is a shorter summary: On a Saturday morning in the summer of 1972, I received a call from Jeff Munger, service manager at Munger Imports, telling me my 1965 Triumph Spitfire repairs were complete and the car was ready for me to pick it up. Arriving at the shop, I saw they were pushing a yellow sports car toward the open showroom door. They explained it was a 1969 Lotus Elan that had come in on trade the day before. It had just 3,112 miles on it and looked new. A short drive left me stunned. I’d never experienced anything like it. Rounding the curves at the end of 4th street, the car not only seemed to hug the road, but it felt as if I was being launched from a slingshot when accelerating out of each corner.
Back at Munger Imports, I did my best to suppress what had become an overwhelming desire to own this car and asked Jeff what he had in it. He told me and I instantly said “Okay, I’d take it.” Confused, he said, “Wait, that’s what we have in it, not what we’ll sell it for – besides, your Triumph is here, aren’t you picking it up?” After a half-hour of negotiation with Jeff’s father who owned the dealership and ran the sales department, I agreed to pay them a nominal fee over what they had in the car. Terms were accepted, I visited my bank for a loan and by that afternoon I owned a yellow, 1969 Lotus Elan SE.
The first several months with the Elan went from infatuation to deep affection and finally the realization that I was hopelessly head-over-heels in love. I took the longest way possible to get to work. In the employee lot, after parking the Elan, I walked slowly backwards to the entrance, watching the car the whole time. At work, I couldn’t wait for the day to end, so I could go get in and drive the Lotus. I dreamt about the car. I literally could not believe my good fortune. I kept thinking this was a dream and I would wake up and it would be gone. More than once I got out of bed, went to the window to check and see if it was still in the driveway. I was embarrassed by how little I knew about this amazing vehicle and began doing research. This was before the Internet and meant searching back issues of car magazines at the library. I visited foreign car dealerships showing them the car and asking what they knew about it. I slowly came to understand my Elan was unique and while not widely acclaimed, had caught the imagination of some of the most discerning moto-journalists and more than a few hobby racers. Eventually, I decided if I wanted to understand this car, I’d need to track down her birthplace. But how?
For the first several years I owned the Elan, it was my daily driver. Although people told me to expect it to be unreliable, it wasn’t. I drove it through a Minnesota winter, although not when there was snow on the road. To better appreciate the Elan’s handling, I entered club-sponsored Autocross and Gymkhana competitions. More a tribute to the Elan’s remarkable handling than my driving abilities, I managed to obtain several trophies – a couple for first place. I found a driving instructor at a Slalom training day familiar with how to leverage the Elan’s tendency to twitchiness and I got even faster.
One day I saw an ad in the paper for a low-cost roundtrip airfare to England. With little thought and no real plan, I booked it. After arriving in London and spending a day getting over jetlag, I took a train to the place on the map where I understood the Lotus factory to be, in Hethel, near Norfolk. From the train station, I asked a taxi to take me to the address I’d found for Lotus and arrived mid-morning on their doorstep and walked in. I did not know I should have made an appointment. After waiting about 20 minutes in the lobby, the head of Lotus PR came and got me. He was great. Apparently spending time with me was more fun than whatever else he had to do that day, as he gave me a tour of the entire place introducing me to all sorts of people as “this bloke owns a Lotus Elan in the United States – he came to visit its birthplace.” I shook lots of hands. He took me to lunch in some sort of prototype car. Back at Lotus headquarters, he loaded me up with Lotus swag – brochures, reprints of reviews, t-shirts, pens, and a cigarette lighter. He even gave me the Lotus Annual Report for 1971. I still have it, along with most of the other stuff. What could have turned into a major disappointment worked out extremely well.
The Elan moved with me to Milwaukee and then to Minneapolis. It went from primary transportation to a second, weekend and special occasion car. I drove it to automobile races, took it on camping trips including once to Colorado, and of course, car shows. Older guys would see the car, approach me and tell me stories of their first English sports cars and how, after they’d married and perhaps had children, deemed it no longer appropriate and sold it. They’d look wistfully at my Elan and say, “Selling my (fill in the blank: Triumph, MG, Morgan, Jaguar), was the dumbest thing I ever did. I’d do anything to have that car back again. Don’t ever sell this car, son, you’ll regret it the rest of your life.”
In early 1980 I changed companies, started a new career, and met a new love – Maggie. At our wedding reception, my dear aunt Effie asked my new bride, “Now that Steve’s married, will he be getting rid of that little yellow girl-catcher of his?” Maggie thought a moment, looked up at Effie, and said, “If my husband is going to have a mistress, I’d prefer her to be in the garage, so I can keep an eye on her.” Maggie was true to her word. We’ll have been married 40 years in December of 2021 and she’s never once complained how the Lotus has taken up precious garage space, the cost of putting the Elan on moving trucks to Los Angeles, then to New York, then back to Minnesota and finally to Phoenix. The Elan always got the most preferred and comfortable spot on the moving trucks or in the garage.
We eventually arrived in Phoenix and made it our permanent home. Heeding the advice of the old men, I ignored the need for more garage space and my failure to drive it regularly and hung on to it. Early in 2013, inspired by Jay Leno’s purchase of and complete rebuild of a 1969 Lotus Elan, I finally had all 3 of the critical elements required to successfully rebuild of a car like this: space, time, and funds. While blessed with support from the geniuses in the local Lotus club, I also managed to locate Brian Buckland in the UK. Buckland is the undisputed authority on the Lotus Elan and his book on rebuilding the Elan is the Bible for every Lotus enthusiast undertaking any significant work on the car. Buckland made an early trip to Phoenix to see my car and some of the Arizona sites as part of his guest appearance at an annual US Lotus Owners event in New York. In his first trip, Buckland helped chart the direction for the rebuild, provided a host of guidance on the best steps for us to take, in what order, and advised us where we might have pitfalls. Buckland made two more trips to the US to supervise aspects of the work and to personally undertake some of the trickier bits.
The full story of the rebuild process starts here with a ton of photos. Once the restoration was complete, the Elan was driven to various car shows and events. At the Annual Lotus Owners Gathering in Colorado one year, it was voted the “Best Elan.”
But the Elan was now not the only collector car in the garage, and it had to share attention with a 2001 Acura NSX, a 2014 McLaren 12C, and a couple of Polaris products, the 3-wheel Slingshot, and the big off-road RZR. It took a while, but I finally realized it needed a new home, and I’m so thrilled that it has found such a good one.
While not totally unique, it is a bit rare to own one car for 50 years. It says a lot about the car and something about the owner, too. On my website I’ve chronicled the Elan story and its coveted place in automotive history, recording what car aficionados like Jay Leno, Gordon Murray, Peter Egan, and Philip Richter have said about the Elan. But I’ve not written much about why I kept it for fifty years. Now that it’s gone, I can think of at least one reason for this.
From my first day of owning this car, I sensed it was special. It is impossible to drive this car without a sense of wonder at how everything fit together so perfectly. Seeing the various engineering choices when working on the car, myself and others frequently paused, scratched our heads and muttered, “That is just friggin’ brilliant.” This didn’t just happen once, but time and time again. Colin Chapman, the man behind the Elan, is regarded as one of the greatest automotive designers to ever live. While perhaps not the best automotive businessperson, Chapman’s creativity and innovation have been lauded by nearly every significant and respected critic. Chapman was at the zenith of his powers with the Elan and the S4 is the best incarnation of that car. That absolute magic, the unmistakable sense of awe at least once in every ride, conveys a driving experience like nothing else. Those moments are pure ecstasy, an unmatched feeling of joy and exhilaration. The car may be gone from my hands but those feelings and memories will never be gone from my mind.