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Lotus Elite

Published: 7th Apr 2014 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

Lotus Elite
Lotus Elite
Lotus Elite
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Forerunner to the Elan, the Elite is an entirely different animal and so appeals only to the most dedicated Lotus lover both on the road and track says Ian Wagstaff, who slid behind the wheel of one of the most famous examples

It’s 50 years ago this summer that Lotus killed off its most radical car ever. Forget the Elan and even the Elise, the 1950’s Elite with its fully fi breglass monocoque construction was just as maverick as other mould breakers of that decade such as the BMW Mini and Citroën’s delightful DS. While GRP-bodied cars weren’t new back then, they came with a chassis. Colin Chapman, who when designing a car to take on the likes of the Porsche 956 both on the track and in the showrooms, thought of going fully fi breglass to save production costs and weight. Aided by a shape that’s not only beautifully pure but also one of the most aerodynamic ever, he offered 110mph sports car motoring from just 1.2-litres and almost 40mpg – fi gures today that many major carmakers can now only achieve. Yet for all its innovativeness and desirability, the Elite was a commercial disaster that only the simpler Elan which replaced it could turn the company’s fortunes around. Fabulous if fl awed, the Elite is living up to its name as a classic that only the chosen few appreciate. This is a Classic Choice with a difference insofar that not only do we give you our verdict on this Lotus that was killed off 50 years ago but also give you our exclusive driving impressions of a very special racing example.

Which model?

Production fi gures quote 998 in total and it’s reckoned that out of the UK consignment of 500 between 100-200 remain. So, there’s a fair number around to be picky but before you even consider splashing the cash think carefully. The Elite is nothing like an Elan, or Europa, to drive – that doesn’t make it inferior, just different so try as many examples as you can. If you still want one, then the best models are the Series 2 versions which featured many improvements, especially to the racing design rear suspension. But the biggest gain has to be a vastly improved build quality of the fi breglass body, which was now being made by the Bristol Aeroplane Company.

The Coventry Climax engine (essentially designed as a fi re pump engine where a spin-off also found its way into the Imp) was available in various states of tune using single or twin carbs for the normal versions and SE variants (75, 83 90, 95bhp, 100bhp and 105bhp – the last two units being to racing spec and fully balanced). Most Elites used an MGA gearbox but the wide ratios didn’t suit the engine particularly well so a closer ratio ZF unit became an option on SEs. Only one trim level was provided, suitably upgraded on S2 versions although the Elite is by no means as plush as an Elan.

Lotus expert Paul Matty probably sells more Elites than anyone and recently told us: “A project will cost at least £40,000, which is daft when you consider that a car that’s up and running is only another £5000. And with restoration costs being so steep, it’s impossible to buy a project, get it up to scratch, then get back anywhere near the money you’ve spent. Something nice – rather than just running – is closer to £55,000, while the best cars can fetch up to £80,000,” (he currently has a pair, which includes a well known racer in period Team Elite colours, almost touching this fi gure). As for the handful of Lotus Twin Cam-powered Elites Lotus played with at the end of the car’s run, name your price…

Behind the wheel?

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that the Elite is like an Elan – it’s a totally different animal, being much cruder. Noisy but nice was how one road test put it and the echo chamber of a very Spartan interior clad in an all GRP body makes a radio useless and it’s a tiring car to drive long distances unless you’re dedicated. It’s this aspect that spoils the car as a tourer because as a pure driver’s car, the Elite still impresses and it must have been sensational when it was new. Granted, that the performance from the 1200cc ohc engine is now only up to modern diesel standards but the car’s ultra slippery shape and light build ensures around 110mph and 40mpg.

Ian Wagstaff takes up the tale of recently driving one of the best known ex-racing Elites. “The memory that really remains is just how stark the interior of such a car is when it has not been subjected to the requirements of historic racing. You can only slide the harness-free seat forward and back and even that movement is limited if you do not want to jam your knees up against the steering wheel.



Colin Chapman hatches a plan to build a lightweight sports car that could take on the Porsche 356 and Alfa Romeo Giulietta, both on the circuit as well as in the showroom. As a steel-bodied car would prove too heavy and costly, resorted to fully glassfibre instead to much acclaim.


The car finally débuts at the Earls Court motor show although the first customer cars weren’t delivered until the last day of 1958 due to racing orders, and production didn’t get fully underway until October 1959, when the company’s new Cheshunt, Hertfordshire factory was opened.


Littered with defects, a Series 2 Elite is introduced with improved build. From October 1960 there was a Special Equipment (SE) option, with twin SU carbs, a four-branch manifold (to boost power to 83bhp) plus the option of a pokier Stage II Climax powerplant, offering up to 90bhp.

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