When it comes to adding lightness, Lotus has long been the master, and nowhere is this more obvious than where the original (Type 14) Elite is concerned. With a kerbweight of just over half a ton, this ground-breaking machine was the first production car with a glassfibre monocoque which is why – despite the fact it packs just 1.2 litres – it’s capable of well over 100mph and 0-60mph in just 11 seconds.
But while the raw figures are impressive enough it’s the way that the Elite does everything that’s so appealing. That light weight brings a raft of benefits, the chief one being an agility that you simply don’t get in a more conventional steel-bodied car. You get economy too, while reliability is also improved thanks to the reduced strain on the steering, brakes, suspension and transmission.
Of course there’s a downside though; the Elite is hugely sought after and values are high as a result. Limited production also means there aren’t many to choose from, but if you’re in the fortunate position of being able to buy one of these landmark cars, there really is no good reason not to.
Which one to buy?
The Elite is probably a lot rarer than you think, with fewer than 1000 made in all. Take out those exported, crashed or currently out of commission and you’re left with a relatively small number of survivors, with few coming up for sale from one year to the next. As a result you’ve got to be prepared to bide your time and travel when something suitable does come up.
Don’t get too hung up on spec, although you don’t want to pay over the odds for a car that doesn’t have a genuine Elite engine (see ‘what to look for’). The first cars (Series 1) have a chassis number prefixed EM, while EB denotes a Series 2. Buy an SE and you’ll get some extra power thanks to the fitment of twin 1 ½-inch SU H4s and a tweaked camshaft to give 85bhp. Given away by a silver roof and Lucas PL700 headlights, the SE also features a ZF close-ratio gearbox.
Even more sought after are the Supers which pack anywhere between 95bhp and 105bhp thanks to the fitment of twin Weber carbs and a high-lift cam. But with just 23 Super 95s made, along with six Super 100s and another six Super 105s, you’ll have your work cut out trying to find one.
Performance and specs
Lotus Elite S2
Engine 1216cc, four-cylinder
Power 83bhp @ 6250rpm
Torque 75lb ft @ 3750rpm
Top speed 118mph
Fuel consumption 40mpg
Gearbox Four-speed manual
Dimensions and weight
• The glassfibre bodyshell is well made and it isn’t especially prone to cracking or crazing. However, poor crash repairs aren’t rare so look for paint sinkage and evidence of gel coat damage.
• There’s steel reinforcement in the nose, embedded in the resin. If water gets in and the steel rusts, everything is blown apart. Anything can be done; new subframes, bodyshells and repair sections are available, but predictably the costs can add up very quickly.
• All Elites featured a 1216cc FWE Coventry Climax engine when they left the factory but some now sport a 1460cc FWB unit. Budget restorations can lead to fire pump engines or cylinder heads being fitted, so make sure the extra material is at the front of the engine, to which the dynamo bracket is mounted. SU carburettors were standard but Webers were a period option.
• Look for the standard signs of wear; blue exhaust smoke on the over-run and low oil pressure. Expect to see 50-55psi at a cold idle and the same when cruising at speed. If doing a compression test, expect to see 165psi on a healthy powerplant.
• An MGA gearbox was fitted initially, with parts still available for rebuilds. The Elite SE got a ZF transmission for which some parts are obsolete. If a decent used unit comes up for sale, prices are high.
• The diff can leak oil, which then gets all over the rear brakes. Keeping the breather clear makes all the difference but the parts are available to rebuild if necessary – although removing the diff is a pain.
• Front wishbones are prone to breaking which is why they should be replaced as a matter of course during any rebuild. The new items available from specialists are stronger thanks to extra bracing.
• There’s little to worry about with the interior as everything is available on a repro basis, to a high standard. This includes seat frames, carpets and trim panels.
• What you can’t find is the dashboard instrumentation which is unique to the Elite. Also scarce are rear-view mirrors and horn/flasher switches.
1957: The Elite debuts at the Earls Court motor show.
1958: The first examples of the Elite Series 1 are delivered to their owners, powered by a 75bhp 1.2-litre engine. These first cars are built by Lotus but the bodyshell is made by boat builder Maximar Mouldings. All Series 1s are right-hand drive.
1960: The Series 2 goes on sale, improved and strengthened suspension and upgraded interior trim. There are also now Special Equipment editions available with either 83bhp or 90bhp and a superior ZF gearbox. Lack of space at the Lotus factory means the Bristol Aeroplane Company laminates the bodies, paints and trims them.
Owners clubs, forums and websites
Summary and prices
A wonderful example of what makes a Lotus so special, the Elite is a sought after machine with the very top examples commanding a significant £80,000 price tag. Of course, generally good condition cars can be bought for closer to £35,000-£45,000, with projects starting from about £17,000.
Words: Richard Dredge