Curbside Classic: 1996 Lotus [Kia?] Elan M100 – Politically Incorrect

This may end up being the most controversial entry of all this titillating topless timespan we call CConvertible Week. There are certain things about this car that are extremely fishy (duh, it’s a Lotus), both in the model’s general history and in this particular example. But if nothing else, this little roadster represents one of the most internationally twisted tales of all automotive history. Hang on to your backbone chassis and let’s dive in!

After Lotus founder and Svengali-in-chief Colin Chapman unexpectedly passed away in December 1982, the British firm entered a prolonged period of troubles. To be fair, the troubles had started a couple years prior to Chapman’s demise, forcing Lotus’s engineering arm to dip its fingers into several unsavory pies, such as the De Lorean, as well as some completely respectable ones, e.g. the Toyota Supra. The carmaking arm and the F1 team were not exactly flourishing at the time – the latter, in particular, was dying a slow and expensive death.

Lotus’s white knight in shining armour was General Motors, which bought a majority stake in Lotus in January 1986. As part of the great GM family, Lotus were put to work fiddling with the Isuzu Impulse / Gemini, the Corvette ZR-1, the Vauxhall Carlton and even a V12-powered Cadillac dream car. But Lotus’s own carmaking branch also needed new blood, which came as the M100.

Certain aspects of the M100 were 100% Lotus in spirit: a backbone chassis, a small and aerodynamic GRP body, an affordable 4-cyl. engine – in the present case an Isuzu 1.6 with DOHC – expertly souped-up to within an inch of its life. However, said Isuzu engine would power the front wheels, which was a major break with tradition, and quite a novel solution indeed for a sports car.

General Motors did not spare time and treasure towards developing the M100. By late 1989, after having spent dozen of millions of Pounds and having spent over two years crafting the car, Lotus were ready to unveil their groundbreaking roadster at Earl’s Court (above). Perhaps to soften the shock of the car’s innovative nature, they picked the name Elan.

Actually, the name Elan is a legacy from Colin Chapman’s final months and the M100’s stillborn elder sister. Back in 1982, work began on the M90, which like the Excel, was to employ a lot of Toyota technology. This was to include the 1.6 used in the AE86 Levin/Trueno and MR2, the latter of which, coincidentally, was co-engineered by Lotus. Chapman wanted to call the small Toyota-based drop-top Elan, harking back to Lotus’s glory days. A fully-functioning prototype was finalized in 1984 (above), but the company was no longer able to access Toyota technology, so the matter was dropped. The name stuck in everyone’s mind though, notwithstanding the fact that the M100 was a completely different animal.

Alas, the Elan could not shake the rumor that “Lotus” was actually an unfortunate acronym. The car had its fans, but it was expensive for what it was, which after all was a FWD Isuzu-powered wedge. The styling, though dynamic and pretty characterful, was not exactly inspired – particularly compared to its sexy ‘60s namesake.

Lotus wanted to sell the Elan in the US, but the US$40,000 price tag made most clients sign the dotted line for a Corvette or a Miata instead. The rest of the world was not entirely convinced, either – sales were very sluggish. After about 3800 units made, production was halted in mid-1992 and GM decided to divest themselves of their heavy ultralight British specialist carmaker. In 1993, the marque and its assets were bought by Romano Artioli, who was then busy launching the Bugatti EB110, among several festive money-burning schemes.

Lotus immediately started planning to undertake a second production run of their front-drive folly – the main issue being that Isuzu were no longer producing their engine. In time, a number of leftover blocks were bought in Japan and allowed the Elan S2 (above) to be born in 1994. A little over a year and about 850 units later, as Artioli’s empire crumbled, burying the Elan yet again.

They say you only live twice, but not if you’re a Lotus. Twice is for amateurs. The marque cheated death and changed hands again in 1996, now the propriety of Proton, Malaysia’s number one carmaker. Perhaps in order to turn a quick profit from what was still a very modern and usable design, Proton sold the M100’s blueprints and tooling to Kia. The Korean firm re-launched the Elan under their own name, and with their own 1.8 litre 151hp engine, in 1996. There were few major external changes from the Lotus version, except the taillights: Lotus had used the Renault Alpine’s units, but that car was no longer in production. Kia thus had to design their own taillight assembly, which is the one we have on our feature car.

And this is where the really fishy stuff begins. Despite (or perhaps because of) deep and complex historic links, as well as geographical proximity, Korean cars are never, ever seen in Japan. But apparently, Kia did manage to sell a few Elans over here back in the late ‘90s – the car was more Lotus than Kia, after all, so it blurred the lines for its own benefit. There are a few niggling details on this car that make me wonder if this might be a Kia masquerading as a Lotus.

Besides the rear lights and the absence of front marker lights (those are not on the Bugatti-era S2s, either), I had my “Ah-ha!” moment peeking inside a second time. Not that I could tell the Lotus and the Kia version apart from each other, but I can read what’s on that steering wheel. Busted! Either the external badging was applied after the fact to hide the car’s true country of origin, or this is an actual Lotus with (presumably cheaper) Kia bits added later. I’m leaning towards the former.

Kia made just over 1000 additional Elans between 1996 and 1999, even as they had their own brush with bankruptcy and came under the aegis of Hyundai. It seems the Elan was marketed as the Vigato (WTF?) on the Japanese market, but information about this is extremely scarce. Very few cars must have made it here. So not only might this be the first Korean car I’ve ever spotted in Japan, but it’s a rare one, assuming it is what I suspect it might be.

One last little detail is the radio antenna, which is always on the right rear fender on the Lotus Elans, but switched to the left rear on the Kia ones. The Lotus name carries a lot more cachet and I’ve seen a couple of rebadged Kia Elans online (one of which was even registered in Korea), so this would not be the first. Just needs a Lotus steering wheel and Alpine taillights to really complete the look – so long as nobody looks under the hood of this American-funded, British-designed, Italian-relaunched, Japanese-engined, Korean-rebranded two-seater, especially now that Lotus is owned by Geely. Hiding this car’s exact provenance is obviously a matter of acute political and nationalistic sensitiveness, so I’ll trust all of you to keep this under your hat. This Elan is a Lotus, it’s always been a Lotus and there’s nothing else to see here. And don’t mention the war.