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.
I once saw Mr. T get out of an Elan S2 once in Toronto in the nineties.
Personalized plates too.
He is a big fella but not that tall.
Wish I got a picture.
“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…”
To be totally fair, it was Colin Chapman’s involvement that made the DeLorean project unsavory. There were quite a few reputable people involved who Chapman pushed out of the picture to clear the way for the accounting acrobatics that resulted in governments funding his F1 team with money granted to develop the DMC-12.
When I was much younger, I obsessively followed Chapman and especially his racers – Clark, G. Hill, Rindt, Andretti etc in the peak years – and had friends with original Élans, Europa’s, even Sevens and Cortina’s, some of which I’ve driven. I also knew of the later GM and Proton eras. And I’ve seen a handful of the FWD Élans. But I never knew about this Kia interlude. Thanks for the education!
For whatever reason I find this design quite attractive, when viewed from above it’s as close to square as any car has ever been. Wide and short, not usually considered a winning combination. I owned an Isuzu when this was available so maybe that’s it.
While aware of the Kia version I’ve never seen one or looked at one in pictures, it seemed to (on paper at least) be a good move on Kia’s part, the reality perhaps not so much. Still, perahps a great way of getting a Lotus on the cheap(er), there may be several engines that could be fitted after the fact.
I’d suppose that had they wanted, Kia could have kept using the Alpine’s tallights (a favorite design of mine), after all, they are likely built by a supplier and replacements would surely be available if an Alpine had a shunt. More likely it was viewed as cheaper or easier to use something more local. Or perhaps just time for a change!
That Lotus M90 also wears Toyota wheels, as seen on ’84-’85 or so Celica GTS, Supra, and Corolla GTS and I believe even they even fit the Cressida.
Beyond all that, the Elans are rare enough but to find the Kia version in Japan is quite the score.
I knew of the later Kia version too but never knew the backstory until now. I always liked the looks of the Elan but I now see the Alpine taillights are crucial to the look IMO, the Kia units look like bad aftermarket design, make the black trim chrome and they’d fit right into the godawful Altezza trend of the late 90s-2000s.
I actually never knew GM owned Lotus for a period either, I knew there was obviously collaborations with the ZR1 Corvette and whatnot but not outright ownership. It goes to explain why an Elan was used as the cool sports car in Honey I Blew Up The Kid with many other new GMs like Rick Moranis’s character’s solar powered Astro van
The car my 1992 Mercury Capri XR2 wanted to be when it grew up.
That is quite a find – I have never seen a Kia version and wasn’t absolutely sure any production cars were actually built, but trust the Professor to put me right. FWIW, that red and blue seat trim doesn’t look very Lotus to me.
Is the Elan really a Lotus? Is it a real Lotus? I guess the jury’s out, and may never come back in, but the combination of Japan and front wheel drive and confused post Chapman parentage doesn’t help.
Does anybody else see the irony of importing a LHD car from a British brand that builds RHD cars to Japan, a country with RHD cars?
Why go through the extra trouble of finding a British LHD car in a country that drives RHD? That’s like going to Japan to buy a RHD Toyota Cavalier, so you could drive it in LHD America. Why?
Also, why would selling Kias in Japan be so problematic? Weren’t Kias of that era just Korean built Mazdas?
I have been informed by both a Japanese friend, as well as a Korean friend, that there is a very long history of “bad blood” between the 2 societies, and both groups have a deep seated animosity towards each other. It’s rare that anything of Korean manufacture, or of a historical note, is found in Japan.
Up until recent memory, in Japan, Korean cars were considered inferior to Japanese cars. And due to the multiple examples of Japanese rule over Korea [I’m being polite here], to many older Koreans, the idea of owning a Japanese car in Korea is similar to an older Jew in Europe or America, owning a German car.
That said, Kia and Hyundai both tried selling cars in Japan, but gave up due to very low sales figures. That said, few “non-Japanese” cars are sold in the country anyway. Notable exceptions appear to be Mercedes, BMW, VW and Audi.
That said, high end cars like Rolls-Royce, Bentley, and various low production supercars do well in Japan, enough to make it worth the various companies to establish a presence in Japan.