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Lotus Elite

Lotus Elite Published: 16th Nov 2017 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

Lotus Elite
Lotus Elite
Lotus Elite
Lotus Elite
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Andrew Roberts looks back 60 years when the Lotus Elite broke cover at the London Motor Show but made a better racer than road car – plus remembering the Elan with extra everything; the Plus 2 at 50

It is very hard to imagine the impact that the Type 14 Elite made on visitors to the 1957 London Motor Show, a time when Ford was still selling the 103E Popular and when people in some parts of the UK regarded flashing indicators as examples of post-war decadence. And there on the Lotus stand is a two-seater GT with an all-GRP aerodynamic body with a drag coefficient of 0.29 powered by a light alloy ohc engine. The chaps at Motor Sport magazine went so far as to state that the Lotus “gave a merciful boost to British prestige at an Exhibition in which the majority of our cars rose very little above the mediocre’” or, in the words of the learned L J K Setright, “The heartbreakingly lovely little wind-shaped Lotus 14 Elite, less than 60 inches narrow and 1400 pounds light.”

The Elite was just one of four ground-breaking cars introduced by Lotus in 1957 and many observers were genuinely amazed at the ambition of the Lotus Engineering Company, which had only formally been in existence since January 1952. The 12 was their first Formula One Car while the Eleven, which won that year’s Index of Performance at Le Mans, was the result of Colin Chapman’s pioneering experiments into the use of aerodynamics on a racing car. And of course, a further show attraction was the new and eternal lasting Seven.

The origins of the Elite date back to late 1956, when Colin Chapman decided that he wanted to build Lotus’s first ever closed coupé and that furthermore, it was to be constructed purely from fibreglass. As he was a fully qualified stress engineer, Chapman believed that an all GRP construction not requiring a chassis would not only save weight, it would also reduce engine noise and cut down on the tooling costs that a pressed steel body Ian Walker’s class victory at the wheel at Silverstone on May 10th, 1958 and on Boxing Day Chapman competed against a certain 22-year-old driver named Jim Clark.

In the following year, Messers Lumsden and Riley scored a maiden 1500GT victory at Le Mans as well as winning the Grand Touring 1300 category at the 1000km Nürburgring. Lotus moved from Edmonton to a new factory in Cheshunt and by the autumn of 1959 full manufacture of the Elite had finally commenced – the first production model was acquired by Chris Barber, the genius of British jazz and blues – and by then the car was already a legend before even one was sold for road use!

This is worth remembering as Lotus initially experienced some problems with Maximar, a Sussex boat building firm who were subcontracted to make the Type 14’s body as the stress points were prone to failing due to heat. After around 250 units were completed, production moved to the Bristol Aeroplane Plastics Division no less but unfortunately, the Elite still experienced problems with the rear suspension and differential mounts which parted company with the car leaving the bodyshell stranded Keystone Cops-style. The Elite was also supposed to have spearheaded Lotus into the export game but quickly found that in the hot dry States, the GRP body would quickly fade its impregnated colour.

In 1960, Lotus introduced a Series 2 version, with improved rear springs with triangulated trailing radius arms. For the competition driver, there was the 85bhp SE (‘Special Equipment’) version with ZF transmission, twin SU H4 1½-inch carburettors and a four-branch manifold. The SE was recognisable via its silvercoloured roof and Lucas PL700 headlamps while the even more enthusiastic motorist was offered various stages of ‘Super’ engine tune. Any Type 14 is an exclusive sight but the Super models are exceptionally rare, Lotus making just 23 ‘95s’, six ‘100s’ and a further half-dozen ‘105’ variants.

Of course, any prospective buyer would have to be well-heeled to experience the ‘Queen of Grand Touring’. From late 1961 the Elite was available as a kit but at £1299 this was more expensive than a Ford Zodiac and if you opted for the factory-made model a price of £2006 made it £900 more costly than a Triumph TR4. Production ceased in 1963, a year after the début of the cheaper Elan, with a production run of approximately 1030 cars, Chapman was to subsequently claim that he lost £100 on every Elite (more than £1600 in today’s money!).

Certainly, the Type 14 was very rarely a paragon of reliability (little development testing was carried out), sales support for overseas customers could best be described as limited, was extremely expensive to construct and woefully unrefined for the lofty price tag asked – but it was a car that permanently altered the image of the marque. The performance was remarkable, with a Motor test quoting a top speed of nearly 112mph with 0-60 in 11.4 seconds with the testers raving about the car and the Elite certainly more than achieved the factory’s competition hopes with no less than six class wins at Le Mans.

Even more importantly, Colin Chapman anticipated the future of sports cars. It made its début at a time of flat hats, club blazers, Brylcreem and David Niven moustaches yet it had an equal appeal to engineers, scientists and anyone who appreciated truly great automotive design even if the concept came first and the customer second. Perhaps the Autocar review of 1960 best encapsulates the unique appeal of this key model in Lotus’s history:

“The road manners of the Elite come as near to those of a racing car as the ordinary motorist would ever experience. By this it is meant that an outstanding performance is obtained from a relatively small engine, and the controllability and safety in handling are as high as in any car tested by this journal.”

Like Jaguar E-type 2+2, the Elan Plus 2 never caught the public’s interest like the original two-seater even though it was the more rounded pick. It was often said that Chapman’s road cars reflected his personal circumstances at the time although his growing family were more likely to be seen in a big Jag which he preferred. Launched in late ’67, Lotus had left it five years to iron out the initial niggles before releasing the Elan’s more spacious derivative. The chassis was the same but wider by a whopping seven inches and the wheelbase grew by an extra foot (making it the best handling Elan ever, say those in the know).

The Twin Cam was used and yet the Plus 2 could have been V8 powered! During the early design days, there was a mooted merger of Lotus with Jaguar as William Lyons saw Chapman as the heir apparent. The Lotus boss had already been wooed by the lightweight Daimler V8 engine that Jaguar now owned and it was a whole lot better than the other units he was considering at the time, such as the old Ford Zephyr 1703cc engine, the yet-to-be-launched V4 Transit lump, and even the Triumph six-pot that ended up in the GT6. At £1223, the wallet-friendly Plus 2 undercut Jaguar’s E-type 2+2 by a hefty £500. A plusher Plus 2S surfaced in October ’68, and was also the first Elan not to be offered in kit form and never officially bore the Elan name either – it was simply the Lotus Plus 2S. In August 1973 the Elan was killed off, but the Plus 2S 130 survived until 1974 before the wedge-shaped Elite took over after some 5200 were built.

Remember when… 1957

The year the space race started which the forward thinking Chapman loved … Plus other highlights!

In the UK, Anthony Eden steps down as Prime Minister due to ill health, succeeded by Harold Macmillan who soon told us moaners that we never had it so good! Almost a year on, Egypt reopens the Suez Canal after Israel withdraws troops from the territory occupied by Egyptians. Ten years later, however a seven day war breaks out.

On 1st April BBC’s Panorama broadcasted what is believed to be the first April Fool’s Day joke on television with a hoax ‘spaghetti tree’ that was said to be cultivated in Switzerland. On a more serious note John Bodkin Adams is found not guilty at the Old Bailey of being a serial killer after it mooted that Political interference played some role.

In sport, Aston Villa dashed Manchester United’s hopes of doing the first double by winning the FA Cup Final 2-1. That same year, the legendary Sir Stanley Matthews plays his final England international game after a run of over 20 years but he still played domestically at the highest level well into the 1960s.

The space race is started with the USSR taking a commanding lead, until late 1965, when the Sputnik 1 satellite is launched that October. Somewhat closer to home, a major train crash in London kills 90 and injures over 170 while a flying boat crash on the Isle of Wight kills 45. On a happier note, The Queen delivers her first Christmas Day message via the new-fangled method of a TV!

Finally. petrol rationing due to the 1956 Suez Canal Crisis is finally lifted and the Motor Show was full of new cars – even though few could afford them on an average weekly wage of around a tenner per week! Macmillan was right if you could afford a new Morris Minor at £602 or a ’55 Healey 100 for £675!


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