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The Lotus Experience

PHOTO (select to view enlarged photo)
Lotus Elite Type 14 Courtesy Elite Club North America

By Carey Russ (c) 2004

I think it started when I made an offhand and disparaging comment about Lotus longevity to a friend who has a Lotus Europa. For those of you unfamiliar with the marque, Lotus is a small British manufacturer of sports and racing cars. Founded by Colin Chapman in 1952, its first few years were spent making small batches of small-displacement sports-racers. Its earliest street-legal sports cars were still more race car than road car, although it eventually built some fine Grand Touring-style road cars. Lotus fortunes have been nothing if not checkered, but it is still with us, and in fact will soon introduce its latest sports car, the Elise, to the U.S.

In common with other British makes from the 1950s and 1960s, Lotus did not have the finest reputation when it comes to long-lived, trouble-free cars. Innovative engineering? Absolutely, almost a synonym for Lotus, as was light weight. But those characteristics were also a double-edged sword, as new technologies and an obsession with light weight meant that Lotus was also a synonym for fragility. Its first ``production'' car, the Mark 6, was built in very small numbers. The second ``mass-produced'' Lotus was the Mark 7, first built in 1957. For a variety of reasons, the rights to production of the Seven, as it was known, were sold to Caterham Engineering in 1973, and Caterham still builds the car today. The Elite followed the Seven, and was diametrically-opposed to it in concept and execution. Where the Seven was as basic an automobile as could be conceived, the Elite was one of the most technologically-advanced cars of its day, and is compares well to any car built today - over 45 years later. The Seven's simple sheetmetal body covered a tubular space frame, with cycle fenders over the wheels. It looked vintage when new. The Elite was a stunningly beautiful, and tiny, coupe. It was designed for efficiency, and low aerodynamic drag was part of that efficiency. Its coefficient of aerodynamic drag was 0.29 - better than most cars built today. And it didn't merely have a fiberglass body. The Lotus Elite had a fiberglass unibody (monocoque) structure.

While the Chevrolet Corvette and other cars had been built with fiberglass bodies before the Elite commenced production around 1958, those cars used fiberglass for the non-load-bearing body only. The Elite had a unibody structure similar to that of most cars built today. Unlike today's unibody cars, in which the chassis-body structure is built from welded pieces of steel, the Elite's was molded from fiberglass. Five major pieces were bonded together, with steel subframes bonded to that in order to mount the front and rear suspensions, and another steel hoop going from the bottom of the car up and around the windshield for additional protection and rigidity. That would be considered high-tech composite construction today, but in the late 1950s, when nearly all other cars were built like pickup trucks, with steel channel ladder frames and leaf-sprung live rear axles, it was revolutionary.

The Elite's suspension was among the most advanced in any car of its day, street or competition. The independent wishbone front suspension was not unusual. But at the rear were ``Chapman struts,'' an innovative lightweight and simple engineering solution to independent rear suspension. With a lower A-arm and coil spring/shock damper strut, the design is similar to the MacPherson struts commonly used for front suspensions today. But the drive axles do double duty - besides transmitting power to the wheels, they act as the top locating members of the rear suspension. The same design was used in contemporary Lotus racing cars.

Overhead-cam engines are commonplace today, but when the Elite was made they were rarities, mostly found in race cars and ultra-expensive Italian exotica. The Elite used a 1216 cc (75 cubic inch) single overhead cam Coventry Climax FWE four-cylinder engine that started life pumping water for British fire departments. It was small, lightweight, and available. In standard tune, with a single SU carburetor, it made 71 horsepower; with twin SUs maybe 85 was available. When tuned for racing, over 100 horses could be found easily and reliably. Power was transmitted through a ZF four-speed gearbox. Brakes were four-wheel discs in an era when even most race cars had drums all around.

If 80 or so horsepower doesn't sound like much, it didn't have to move much weight. Curb weight was around 1400 lbs, half of what a Honda S2000 weighs. And its dimensions - length of under 150 inches, width of 58 and height of 47 inches - make the S2000 or a Mazda Miata look huge by comparison. Stock acceleration, if not impressive by today's standards, was excellent by the standards of the day. A 0 to 60 time of around 11 seconds was comparable to that of a much larger Austin Healey 100-6, with a 3.0-liter engine. The Elite was a car that gained performance not by brute power, but by finesse. It's been on my short list of cars I'd love to own, or at least drive, since I first saw one as an impressionable gearhead kid in the early 1960s. I saw a few then, mostly at or around sports car races, but don't recall seeing one since the late 1960s.

So much for background. As I recall, I said something to my friend the Lotus owner like ``What ever happened to the Elite? I haven't seen one in maybe 30 years, they must have all fallen to pieces.'' Fighting words to say to a Lotus enthusiast. ``They're still around,'' he said. ``In fact, I know someone who has nine.''

``So that one will maybe be running at any given time, right?'' I replied, tongue only slightly in cheek.

``No, they all run. Maybe I can arrange for you to drive one.''

Interesting possibility. It was and still is a remarkable automobile. So when he called a few days later and said ``You're going to drive an Elite tomorrow,'' I was ready. We drove over to his friend's house, where I saw more Elites at one time, in one place, than I've seen in the past 30 years. The one I drove was in original condition, unrestored, with around 80,000 miles on the odometer. If not exactly a daily driver, it was hardly a garage queen.

Before getting in, I familiarized myself with the car. The fiberglass was not the thin material I expected, it was thick, with plenty of cloth and resin. The level of finish was better than in an early Corvette. This was not the flimsy piece expected given Chapman's reputation for taking lightness to extremes. The car was properly British, with right-had drive and left-hand shift, but I had been driving similarly laid-out Japanese Nissans a couple of weeks previously so was reasonably familiar with that layout. Lotuses, particularly the older models, have another reputation besides that for fragility. Colin Chapman was about five-foot eight, and was said to design cars for someone his size and no larger. At five-six, I got in and couldn't see over the steering wheel. A couple of towels on the cushion of the nicely-contoured bucket seat solved that problem. A six-footer might get a little contorted getting in or out, but should fit fine once inside.

A quick run up the street and back was suggested for familiarization, so off I went. When it was time to turn around, one small problem arose. Where is reverse? Not to the right and up, or down. Not to the left, either... it's got to be somewhere. But wherever it was, it wasn't wanting to be found. So I did a U-turn in a clear section of road, and, seeing that clearance to the curb was tight, put the car in neutral, opened the door, and pushed it backwards up a slight incline with one foot. Try that with anything else! And reverse, as it turns out, is to the left and up just a little - as it is in the gearbox of the new Mini Cooper S. Must be a British thing.

Back at the owner's house, several Elites and one Seven were lined up and we took off to some of the better and more appropriate local back roads. I started slowly and cautiously, not wanting to damage anything expensive. Quickly, I noticed two things: the shift linkage was the best I've ever used, amazingly quick and precise with a very short throw. It made the S2000's linkage, the previous best, seem like it belonged to a pickup truck - and the S2000's linkage is very, very good. Number two: this nearly 50-year old car feels completely contemporary. My local roads show the effects of 40 years of state budget politics and deferred maintenance, and can be uncomfortable in many current sports cars. Yet the Elite's rigid chassis and relatively supple suspension dealt with the bumps and expansion joints with equanimity. This is commendable today, but in the late 1950s it must have been truly amazing. I've driven MGs and Healeys from those days, and grew up with a Sunbeam Alpine, and all of those cars felt like, and handled like, trucks. Chapman was far, far ahead of his time in chassis and suspension design.

Since it wasn't my car, I didn't push it hard, and shifted well below the redline. Acceleration was leisurely, but that didn't matter. Even with 5.00 x 15 tires that were skinnier than those found on modern motorcycles, handling was amazing. Don't need slow down for the corners. Credit again to low weight and proper chassis design and suspension geometry, and even with no power steering assist the steering effort was light. The brakes, also unassisted, required a fair amount of pedal pressure but stopped the car well.

The Elite was remarkably unremarkable, meaning that it felt like a modern sports car. True, the amenities that we take for granted today were lacking - if you need power windows, look elsewhere. The Elite's side windows are either in place or stored in the luggage compartment. Air conditioning? Try the wind wings for a cooling blast. Radio? Excess weight. Heater? Same as what actually worked in my old VW Bug - a good jacket. Need a navigation system? Check the map pocket. But compared to a Seven, and most other sports cars of the day, the Elite was a luxury car. It was expensive - at around $5,000 it cost more than a Jaguar XK150 - and the Lotus dealer network in the U.S. was spotty, to be diplomatic. It was a car for the committed enthusiast, and still is. When I asked, I was told that prices today range from under $10,000 for a restoration special to around $35,000 for a restored and well-running example. Not exactly inexpensive, but far less than any of the big-name British or Italian race-bred exotics. I still can't afford one, but, if I could just... I could almost....