Engineered by a genius, styled by a bean-counter and powered by a fire pump, this adventurous GT represented a giant leap – sideways
by Richard Heseltine. Photography: Howard Simmons
Never a man to settle for dull routine, every car that Colin Chapman conceived, whittled and brought to bear had a point and a purpose to it. Considered contentment was never his thing – but the Elite? As envelope-pushing exercises go, the realisation of this achingly pretty little coupé was an act of breathtaking audacity even by his lofty standards. And, as with most cars that eschewed conservatism, it never made any money: blazing trails is rarely profitable.
Too much too soon? For Chapman, soon was never soon enough. When the Elite broke cover at the 1957 Motor Show at Earls Court, Lotus had been in existence for barely a decade. From the kernel of an Austin Seven-based trials car, the marque had blossomed into a serious player in national motorsport and the other car on the stand that year was more in keeping with the traditional Lotus idiom: the Seven was a clubmans’ racer for home assembly. But its debut passed almost unnoticed as jaws slackened in front of Chapman’s brave new baby. Lotus was reaching for the stars.
It seems such a stretch; that a cabal of young men without much meaningful backing behind them would have the daring – the balls – to create a glassfibre monocoque, despite little prior experience of the newfangled wonder material: notwithstanding the very concept of such a structure being alien to, well, everyone other than Chapman. That his newest conceit would also boast a drag coefficient of a then astounding 0.29 (for comparison the Ford Sierra, which was launched 26 years later, scored 0.34) is equally incredible. That it should also be crowned with dizzying beauty courtesy of an accountant... An accountant? Implausible doesn’t quite seem to cut it.
Except that this was the Chapman universe. The Elite was, inwardly at least, an entirely rational idea: there was nothing “wing and prayer” about its conception. The would-be motor mogul was all too aware that if Lotus was to grow it needed a foothold in the road car field – and there was clearly a healthy market for a small-displacement coupé. But Chapman being Chapman, there was also a competition-related ulterior motive: the emergent sub-1300cc GT class was ripe for the picking.
Chapman was only too aware that unitary steel construction cost a prohibitive amount for such a small-scale product. Glassfibre was the answer: it was lighter than metal, didn’t corrode and required less tooling. Only problem was, nobody had made the leap to creating a monocoque out of the stuff. But with Chapman’s background as a qualified stress engineer, combined with his flair for making the impossible entirely possible, he pulled it off.
Chapman, along with number-crunching and artistically gifted friend Peter Kirwan-Taylor, set to designing the car, with Frank Costin later applying his learned aerodynamic bent to tweaking its outline: the rear end was cropped, minor changes were made to the nose to make it cleave air more cleanly, and the once-envisaged semi-enclosed front wheels were opened up; this may have created drag but the Elite would otherwise have had the turning circle of an ocean liner. Progress at the Edmonton workshop throughout 1956 was slow, with just one man, the unsung John Frayling, turning conceptual drawings into a full-size mock-up. Plans for the model to debut at the 1957 Le Mans 24 Hours came and went and so it was a shell-shocked London audience that first got to glimpse Lotus’s brave new world.
The specification was, on paper at least, without equal in its class. Powering the tiny device – 12ft long, 58in wide and 46in high – was the light-alloy overhead-cam Coventry Climax four, designed originally as a portable fire pump. Adopted and developed for road use as the FWE (Feather Weight Elite), with a 10:1 compression ratio, it produced 75bhp even in single-SU carb spec.
Suspension owed much to the Lotus 12 single-seater: coil springs and double wishbones up front, Chapman struts at the rear – their tops anchored high in the tail of the cockpit under conical ‘Sabrina’ towers, their bottoms carrying alloy hubs located by double-jointed driveshafts, forward radius arms and triangulated brackets. This set-up was typically economical, imaginative and efficient. The braking arrangement was equally advanced, with discs all round, the fronts mounted inboard to reduce unsprung weight.
Inside, it was sparse but elegant, the Nardi copycat steering wheel fronting an instrument binnacle shaped to resemble the outer profile.
By the time the Elite arrived at the Geneva Salon the following March, a deal had been struck with boatbuilder Maximar of Pulborough, Sussex to mould the bodyshells (manufacture subsequently shifting to Bristol Aircraft Ltd).
And, predictably, it wasn’t long before the model made its competition debut, Ian Walker kicking things off with a 1600cc class win at Silverstone in May 1958. Of greater import, Jim Clark, in only his second full year of racing, battled against Chapman at the Boxing Day Brands Hatch meeting and entered into legend.
Then came Le Mans. For the ’59 running, Peters Lumsden and Riley drove their privateer Elite to first in the 1500cc GT class and eighth overall: they’d covered 2259 miles, averaging 94.1mph and 18.97mpg. A year on, four Lotuses made the start, and the marque scored a 1-2 in the 1300cc GT category while also scooping the Index of Thermal Efficiency. Four more class wins followed to ’64, by which time the car was out of production.
Brilliant though it was, there were a few fundamental flaws to Chapman’s daring. Reliability wasn’t too hot, the engine main-lining oil, while punters complained of resonance through the structure at speed. In overseas markets, dealer back-up was practically non-existent, which almost did for Lotus’s reputation in the US. Improvements with the Series 2 edition from mid-1960, with its revised suspension mountings and geometry, did little to improve its fragility. A new Special Equipment edition introduced that autumn meant a useful power hike to 85bhp (in time, 95 to 105bhp was available with the Super editions) and a close-ratio gearbox, but Chapman was still losing a fortune. By now, the Elite was offered at an eye-watering £2006 – but it cost at least £100 more to build. A last resort to offer it in the UK in DIY form at £1299 (from October 1961) brought about a minor revival, but the writing was on the wall. And it was no great surprise that when production ended in 1963 (by which time 1078 had been made), its replacement, the Elan, featured an easy-to-fabricate steel backbone chassis.
Flop it may have been (if only commercially), but some 50 years on since its inception the Elite still captivates. Kirwan-Taylor may have been an amateur stylist, his slender portfolio numbering only the lacklustre Citroën Bijou and a one-off Frazer Nash, but this is one hell of a legacy.
And it’s small; a foot shorter than a Porsche 356. Yet step inside and the elegantly simple cockpit is cosy without being claustrophobic. You sense that real thought went into the ergonomics. The driving stance isn’t askew, and the door tops don’t crowd you. As Peter Rix, a man with 35 years of Elite ownership behind him (over 20 with this car) says: “It isn’t like you’re bundled in or sitting on a chassis rail. I think a lot of people expect the Elite to be some sort of superior ‘special’ – but it’s much more than that.”
He’s not wrong. In every aspect of driving sensation, the Elite is vibrant. It demands to be driven. Not altogether lively below 3000rpm, it starts getting vocal as you pile on the revs and is happiest near the red line. As Rix puts it: “In just about every other area, it’s a decent-enough GT. It’s just that you can’t cruise in it because it’s so loud. You can drive through it, but things only level off at 100mph.”
Engine harmonics aside, where the Elite really stumbles is in traffic. It isn’t especially tractable, and while this can be a chore with any car made in 1962, as with this Series 2 edition, here the clutch has a peculiarly short movement.
But God is it fun. The ZF ’box is precise (early cars had an MGA item), the stubby lever fitting into the palm of your hand, its tall ratios proving perfect here. The rack-and-pinion steering is as alert as you would expect from a Lotus, with instant feedback, even if there is occasional kickback over uneven surfaces. That said, what really amazes is the ride quality. There’s proper suspension travel, traversing topographical unpleasantness with real ease, proving just how advanced Chapman’s thinking was.
And the brakes… If anything, a car weighing just 1445lb doesn’t really need big anchors: the four-wheel discs are super-effective for a car of this vintage.
Yet for all its virtues – and it has many – you have to ask yourself: what did the Elite really achieve? While famously the world’s first glassfibre monocoque (admittedly with steel reinforcement to the front subframe), you can gauge just how successful any design is by the number of subsequent copyists: that would be the Rochdale Olympic, then. But that shouldn’t denigrate an exercise in, to borrow an Americanism, thinking outside the box. But then Chapman would most likely have redesigned the box first anyway.
He was like that.
Thanks to Peter Rix: www.lenhamsportscars.com