- Best model: Anything complete
- Worst model: Any project
- Budget buy: If only…
- OK for unleaded?: Should be but use additive
- Will it fit in the garage? (mm): 3658x1473mm
- Spares situation: Generally good
- DIY ease?: Maintenance yes, not restoration
- Club support: Very good
- Appreciating asset?: Very much so
- Good buy or good-bye?: Yes but an acquired taste
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With prices now soaring, this Lotus is starting to live up to its name. And it’s certainly the choice for the purist where an Elan just won’t do...
Pros & Cons
It’s so easy to assume that any car of the 1950s is old-tech in the 21st century, but even now some models from the era continue to impress, because in some ways they’ve never been bettered. Take the original Lotus Elite for example, one of the most advanced cars ever made, bar none. The world’s first genuine glassfibre monocoque, Colin Chapman’s first genuine production car was cutting-edge in so many other ways too. With disc brakes all round, a drag co-efficient of just 0.29 and both 40mpg and 115mph available from the 1.2-litre overhead cam Coventry Climax engine, the Elite was truly revolutionary when it arrived an amazing 55 years ago. Indeed, it was so forward-thinking, it would still create a stir if unveiled in 2012.
Elites still do on the classic scene. While the Elan will grab all the headlines in its 50th year, the Elite is the more purist choice and what’s more their values are rocketing. An expensive car when new, costing similar money to XKs and E-types, they are worth similar amounts now so this Lotus does live up to its name – and acronym if you don’t buy right.
In 1956, Colin Chapman hatched a plan to build a lightweight sports car that could take on cars such as the Porsche 356 and Alfa Romeo Giulietta on the circuit as well as in the showroom. A steel-bodied car would prove too heavy, and he didn’t have the resources or finance to build one anyway – so he resorted to using glassfibre instead.
The material had recently been proved by Jensen, Chevrolet and Turner, but while those marques all resorted to a steel chassis, Chapman would build the whole structure from glassfibre. It was an ambitious plan, but Chapman reckoned he could do it. He’d hang everything off the glassfibre structure; engine, gearbox and rear axle. Only the front suspension would be fixed to a small steel subframe, bonded into the structure.
For the design, Chapman turned to his friend Peter Kirwan-Taylor, a 27-year old accountant who had done a good job of creating an attractive body for his Lotus Six. He came up with a superb design, heavily influenced by the Bertone BAT concepts as well as Ferrari’s Superfast. However, before the final design was settled upon, it needed some refining courtesy of the legendary Frank Costin, who incorporated a Kamm tail; Costin would go on to refine the Elite’s shape further, for its racing exploits.
Powering the Elite was an engine no less revolutionary. Made by the renowned Coventry Climax company who went on to power Lotus F1 cars, the FWE engine was actually designed for industrial use (such as water pumping) as one of its forte’s was the ability to go flat out from stone cold wilth no ill effect. Cynics could say it was the most reliable engine Chapman ever used in a Lotus… It’s not the Hillman Imp engine! This was a later design by Coventry Climax and a 7/8th scale of the original FWA fire pump unit.
Although the Elite made its debut at the October 1957 Earls Court motor show, the first customer cars weren’t delivered until the last day of 1958, and production didn’t get fully underway until October 1959, when the company’s new Cheshunt factory was opened. Although the car was expensive (at £1949 it cost as much as a Jaguar), the press raved about it because of its fabulous dynamics and styling. The problem was, despite the high purchase price, Lotus lost money on every Elite it made thanks to the inordinately high production costs. And unreliability.
From 1960 there was a Series 2 Elite; earlier cars had glasfibre monocoques built by a company called Maximar, while the new edition brought Bristol-made bodyshells, which were made to a much higher standard. At the same time, triangulated wishbones were fitted, to reduce rear-wheel steering while the interior was also tidied up.
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 Stage II Climax powerplant, offering up to 90bhp. For those who felt 90 horses weren’t enough, Lotus also built 23 examples of the twin-Webered Super 95 (launched in May 1962 and with 95bhp), plus half a dozen Super 100s and six Super 105s. These latter cars featured fully balanced engines, a high-lift camshaft and an 11.5:1 compression ratio.
By now the cheaper, simpler Elan was in production and so the Elite’s day were numbered. After an estimated 1029 cars, the final Elite was produced in September 1963 – yet it would be June of the following year before the Elite entered its last race at Le Mans.
The Elite was a circuit car for the road, not the other way round – and it shows with the driving experience. Tweak the steering wheel and the road wheels respond instantly; there’s no play, just a sharpness that’s missing from pretty much all of its contemporaries not simply back in 1957 but a lot more modern GT cars.
With its tall and narrow tyres, getting the car to slide is easily done, but it’s an entirely predictable process – this isn’t a car that catches you unaware. The balance between ride and handling is also spot on; the long-travel suspension and soft damping give the car an amazingly comfortable ride, yet it doesn’t roll too much in the bends. What’s more you’re well aware of the (lowly) limits of adhesion, ages before you reach them – not that many owners will drive these cars that hard nowadays. Also impressive are the brakes; with a disc at each corner, the Elite’s stopping power, helped in no small part by that low kerb weight, pull the car up with much greater reassurance than you’d think.
Speed isn’t what the Elite is about anyway. With only 71bhp to play with the 1261cc engine gives what now can only be described as fairly lively performance (0-60 in under 12 seconds/112mph). And with such a small engine there’s hardly limitless torque either, but the low weight gives the Elite a surprising alacrity all the same – and the speed doesn’t taper off as quickly as you might think, thanks to that amazingly aerodynamic bodyshell.
If there’s a downside to the Elite’s construction, it’s that there’s a lack of refinement. One road test at the time described the Lotus as “nice but noisy”. Specialist Paul Matty says he can now eradicate a good deal of the harshness but the Elite can never be called quiet. An Elan seems like Rolls-Royce in comparison!
There’s no such thing as a truly affordable Elite that’s in good nick. With so few cars made, and a survival rate that isn’t as high as you might think, demand has always exceeded supply by a huge margin. As a result you’ll pay heavily for any Elite that’s in good condition, but you’re unlikely to lose any money unless you pay really daft sums.
Most of the surviving Elites are in the UK and US; Lotus guru Paul Matty probably sells more Elites than anyone. He’s convinced that prices will continue to rise thanks to the Elite’s enduring desirability. Matty comments: “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, although few Elites are worth more than £70,000”.
If an Elite has some period racing provenance it can make quite a difference to how much it’s worth, but if the car has been campaigned more recently that won’t affect its value significantly.
Over the years the Elite has gained a reputation for being fragile, and in some cases that’s deserved. However, there are few things you can do to upgrade an Elite to improve reliability, and it’s little different when it comes to drivability. That’s because unless you make wholesale changes that will compromise the car’s originality, you can only tinker on the margins.
According to Paul Matty, one of the areas that’s worth overhauling is the suspension bushes; ensuring decent polyurethane items are fitted can help significantly with the dynamics. If you’re rebuilding the engine it’s a good idea to fit higher quality valves and seats, while Elan callipers will improve the braking noticeably. But as Matty explains, going through the car and paying attention to detail with how well everything is fitted together can work wonders and the best ‘mod’ of them all.
Says Matty: “Something as simple as balancing the driveshafts or ensuring the differential is aligned properly with the propshaft can make the car much smoother, quieter and even more of a pleasure to drive”.
What To Look For
- While you can’t dismiss the condition of the mechanicals, it’s the bodyshell that you should pay the closest attention to. It’s inevitable that any unrestored car, or one rebuilt a while ago, will need plenty of remedial work. Frost, water and heat all take their toll on the glassfibre, and over time it will start to delaminate and crack. Repairs need professional attention; you could get away with helping to prepare for the final paintwork, but probably no more.
- Beware of any cars that have already had work started on them, but have been left unfinished. The glassfibre may have been damaged by poor preparation, or it may have been repaired inexpertly. As a result, it may take more work to put right than if it was in its original state.
- Don’t underestimate the cost of applying a fresh lick of paint, so if all the bodywork has been done, but it still needs finishing, that final stage could still cost thousands – especially if there’s preparation still needed.
- Also be very wary if the car has clearly been subjected to a quick blow-over before sale. If this is the case, you’ve got to budget for stripping the paint, possibly a lot of repairs to the glassfibre, then a final coat of paint once everything has been prepared properly – all of which will be well into five figures.
- The Elite’s structure consists of doubleskinned glassfibre, which should be as smooth on the underside as it is on the outer panels. If it isn’t, the car has been bodged and repairs will probably be both involved and costly.
- The engine also needs close inspection, because rebuilding it can be fiendishly costly - think £xxxxx. Don’t worry if there’s little pull below 3500rpm, or if the unit seems rather harsh – they’re all like that.
- Parts availability for the Coventry Climax unit is good, but you’ll pay heavily for some bits. However, at least there’s no reason for an Elite to be stranded through a lack of parts.
- Check the dipstick to see what the oil level is like; a caring owner will have kept it up to the mark even though consumption can be high. It can be as high as 150-300 miles per pint, even when healthy – but don’t expect one of these engines to last much longer than 35,000 miles between rebuilds, so establish when it was last overhauled.
- Despite the engine’s thirst for oil, there shouldn’t be any blue smoke from the exhaust; if there is when you lift off, it’s because the valve guides have worn. If you see the smoke when you accelerate, it’s because the piston rings have worn. It’s also worth taking a look at the coolant in the radiator, because if there’s evidence of water having mixed with it, the engine has been allowed to overheat at some stage.
- Taking a look at the gauges may give some clue as to the engine’s condition. Tickover should be a steady 900rpm, while there should be 10-25psi at tickover, or 40-55psi when cruising. Also expect to see the coolant sit at a steady 65 degrees; these engines tend to run very cool.
- The Climax engine is often damaged by mechanics who don’t know what they’re doing. The biggest problem is overtightening of the various nuts and bolts, which don’t need such high torque settings.
- The head bolts for example are done up to just 20lb ft, while the big ends are done up to just 22lb ft for example.
- Because the cylinder head bolts are sometimes overtightened, it’s not unknown for the casting to crack. The giveaway is antifreeze staining and water seepage around the dynamo mounting.
- Standard Elites were fitted with a BMC fourspeed gearbox, which used the same ratios as the MGA. A sickly one of these shouldn’t pose any problems, but that’s not the case for the ZF unit that was optionally fitted to the S2. If there’s much whining, clonking or rumbling from any gearbox, use it as a reason to haggle, rather than reject the car.
- There’s nothing to worry about as far as the back axle is concerned. However, the alloy casing was unique to this car and now unavailable, although the internals were only from the BMC parts racks.
- The rest of the running gear is durable, although the universal joints need greasing every 500 miles if they’re not to wear prematurely. Rear wheel bearings can also wear if they’re not greased regularly, but more of a worry is if the wheels have been kerbed. This can easily lead to the wishbones and suspension links distorting, leading to weird handling and odd tyre wear.
- Although the braking system is inherently reliable, you need to check that the diff isn’t leaking oil all over the in-board rear discs. If it is, not only might the rear brakes need to be replaced, but the diff will probably need removing to replace the seals.
- Interior trim has usually been replaced by now, due to water leaks into the cabin. The Plexiglass side windows don’t seal very well and the quality of original trim wasn’t great.
- Damp may well have led to the seat runners seizing solid. The answer is to obtain some Triumph Herald replacements and modify them accordingly. Other interior parts were taken from contemporary cars, with the Wolseley 1500/Riley 1.5 supplying much of the switchgear. Interior door handles are Triumph while the exterior handles were taken from the Commer Cob or Hillman Husky.
Three Of A Kind
IReliant Scimitar GTEA sporting, practical GRP-bodied hatchback, with room for four in luxury, that’s able to cruise economically, restfully yet provide sports car thrills on a whim that has still to gain classic status. No, it’s not the Elite but the Reliant Scimitar GTE launched fi ve years earlier! Like the Lotus these carsremain criminally cheap, but are also usually in a poor state as a consequence. It’s another car we can see getting its deserved dues pretty soon.
TVR TasminIf you can see a likeness between this 80s TVR and the Elite, it’s not surprising because they were both penned by Oliver Winterbottom. Other similarities include a sporty chassis, Eclat-like 2+2 option glassfi bre construction, good overall performance and handling. Lotus-like indifference among enthusiasts, neglect and cheap prices are the downside. Later 350/390 models are better bets and spares and support is better than with the Lotus.
Porsche 944In its day, the Elite and Eclat were considered just as good as the 944, dynamically, but the German had much better quality and stamina long term. These practical Porsches make great, inexpensive buys, being as fast as a 911 yet as easy and trusty to use daily as a VW Golf. The 16vs and Turbos have proper Porsche pace and,don’t forget, the improved lastof- the-line 968 range. If you buy well, you’ll have a proper, cheap, supercar.
You’ll need deep pockets to buy an Elite, but there’s little to touch the driving experience. Of course you have to choose carefully, but if you buy wisely you can’t go wrong; short supply means the Elite will always be in demand. And there’s the rub; there aren’t many to go round, so you might have to wait a while, and search carefully, before you turn up the car that’s right for you.
When you do find one to buy, don’t jump in with both feet. Just because you’ve successfully managed to run an Elan, don’t think you can do the same here, not without plenty of specialist assistance anyway. Elites need to be maintained let alone restored by someone who really knows what they’re doing; this isn’t a car that you dabble with. However, drive a properly restored car and you’ll see why modern cars feel so bloated in comparison. That’s because they are; the lightness and agility that you can savour from an Elite are things that it’s very hard on which to put a price on. On the other hand if you think the Elite is more a hard core Elan then you’ll be disappointed because it’s an entirely different type of Lotus.