In 1996, when BMW created the crusty Z3 roadster, which was put together with parts from the then outgoing 3 Series, Lotus introduced a model that literally got the world to take notice of its nameplate again. It was called the Elise.
The small British carmaker slipped away from the limelight after its ownership was passed from General Motors to Italian millionaire Romano Artioli. Then in 1996, Malaysian automaker Proton became its new daddy.
The Elise was named after Mr Artioli’s granddaughter, Elisa. It was the company’s first new model name since the Esprit. It also became the company’s most successful model ever.
The Elise Mk 1 was little more than a fibre-glass body wrapped over four tiny tyres, two skinny seats and a Rover-sourced engine. This might not sound like the makings of a high-tech sports car, but the Elise really was advanced beyond the realms of regular production cars.
Not that you can tell from the engine. The K-series 1.8-litre engine was rated at only 118hp, hardly stirring stuff when equivalent Honda engines were making 50 percent more. But the engine was chosen for two good reasons: it was one of the lightest of its kind and it was available for sale.
The Lotus magic showed up at the scales, thanks to a host of innovations, including an extensive use of aluminium in the construction and the innovative use of epoxy bonding in lieu of heavier rivets. The car was immensely strong, as well as incredibly light. A running model weighs all of 720kg – half as much as a 2.7-litre Porsche Boxster.
Fuse that lightweight package with Lotus’ usual high standards in chassis and suspension tuning, and the Elise roadster became really something else on the road.