During the 1980s, the rise of the hot hatch, spearheaded by cars such as Volkswagen’s Golf GTi and Peugeot’s 205GTi, virtually killed off the soft-top sports car. In a market flooded with go-faster shopping baskets, only a handful of specialist sports car makers persisted until, in 1989, Mazda hit back with their MX-5. In effect, the Japanese company simply updated the classic Lotus Elan but did it so successfully that the Japanese company’s version of the traditional British sports car would actually outstrip the production numbers of the real thing – the MGB.

In 1991 Lotus made an attempt to compete against the rising success of the MX-5 with the front-wheel drive, Isuzu-powered Elan. Although the Elan was remarkably competent on the road, betraying few of the vices normally shared by FWD cars, it did little to revive Lotus’ flagging fortunes and the design was eventually sold off to Korean automaker Kia.

Gavin samples the Elise

For their next attempt, and now under new management, Lotus turned back the clock and decided to go right back to their roots with a serious upgrade on company founder Colin Chapman’s evergreen Seven. The basic concept was to achieve performance through low weight and minimal equipment, a formula that had already ensured a staggeringly long life for the Lotus Seven in all its various forms.

However, the Seven’s basic space-frame chassis or even the original Lotus Elan’s novel backbone chassis would need to be updated in light of modern safety regulations – neither chassis offering much in the way of crash protection, especially when it came to side impacts. Instead, a state-of-the-art chassis designed by Richard Rackham would feature aluminium extrusions and panels, all of which would be bonded together with epoxy glue rather than more traditional welding procedures.

With a body designed by Lotus in-house designer Julian Thomson, the Elise quickly came together with power supplied by Rover’s 1.8-litre K-Series four-cylinder engine. This lightweight, all-aluminium unit had previously been seen in the MGF.

Lance at the wheel of the Renault

The chassis itself – the completed assembly weighing in at less than 50kg – was manufactured and built at Hydro Aluminium in Denmark and it’s at this point that the Renault Sport Spider enters the frame.

 

The French Connection

At the same time as Lotus conceived the Elise, Renault decided that they also wanted to have a stab at updating the classic Lotus Seven – although clothed, of course, in a rather more stylish French dress. Never designed as a mainstream vehicle, the subsequent Sport Spider was originally brought to life through Renault’s motorsport division which came up with the idea for the car and for its use in a prestigious one-make circuit racing series. With that in mind, Renault’s head designer Patrick Le Quement got in touch with Claude Fiore, a competition car designer, and Alpine, the Dieppe-based company responsible for a whole series of sports cars carrying their name.


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