Posts Tagged ‘Lotus Elite’

I was travelling down Alexandra Avenue in the twee Melbourne suburb of South Yarra last summer and fell in line behind a Lotus Elite and Lotus Elise, it reminded me of a magic day a few years ago…

My mate David Mottram is a doyen of the Victorian MG and Lotus Clubs. He is a racer, restorer and fettler of renown of these and other marques. On occasion he invited me along to the MG Car Club Driver Training Days to help out, it was always fun to attempt to impart some knowledge, the only downside being scared shitless once or twice alongside people whose levels of bravery made Gilles Villeneuve look like a ‘Big Sheila’.

The best part of the day was always the final 45 minutes during which the instructors had the track to themselves. At the time I had a standard’ish Series 1 Elise, the original Rover K-Series powered jobbie. It didn’t have a lot of power but with a free-flowing exhaust, a smidge stiffer springs which the standard Koni’s could just control, some decent track tyres on original wheels and competition brake pads it was both a fun road and track car.

My frame of reference at the time was a Lola T342 Historic Formula Ford I raced for over a decade. My 911 Carrera 3.2, using the same Formula Ford prism was a horrible track car! The Elise’ standard gearset was the only circuit shortcoming really-  second was too short and fifth ‘moonshot tall’ even at Phillip Island without a strong tailwind. The 111S gear cluster was the solution but I never quite got around to making that change.

Lotus Elite cutaway (James Allington)

 

(S Dalton)

Anyway, on this particular Sandown day David brought along his ex-Derek Jolly Lotus Elite Super 95. This buttercup yellow car will be familiar to many Australian enthusiasts of historic racing as David and Pat Mottram have contested a gazillion Regularity events in it across this great brown land of ours for the best part of 25 years. Whilst I had ridden in it on the road I’d never had a steer before.

I jumped out of the Elise after 15 laps or so and straight into the Elite, cars built forty years apart.

The thing which struck me like the proverbial bolt from the blue after only a couple of laps was the sibling similarity of these two wonderful, light, low powered, beautiful handling cars.

Chapman had nothing at all to do with the Elise of course, the design team were fiddling about with its key design elements 15 years or so after the great mans death of a heart attack in late 1982.

But the Lotus brand values transcended the founder, which is of course exactly as it should be. ‘Brand Essence’ is what we ‘arty-farty, limp wristed commo-poofter bastard’ branding practitioners call the intrinsic elements of a brand. One of my buddies used to refer to me in those glowing terms during my years as a Partner of one of Australia’s foremost branding consultancies.

Lotus Elise 111s cutaway (Lotus Cars)

 

Elise conceptual drawing or sketch (Lotus Cars)

The first thing which impressed about the Elise as I drove what became my own car down bumpy, rutty Church Street Richmond on the initial test drive was the ‘pitter-patter’ of the cars tyres as the wheels rode the bumps with the chassis absolutely stiff. It was like a honeymooners todger- rock solid.

You can feel what the wheels and tyres are doing as they are so beautifully controlled with a light aluminium chassis of amazing torsional stiffness by road car standards. Still, our Col did invent the modern aluminium monocoque, the 1962 Lotus 25 GP car was his first expression of the art.

These cars have relatively soft springs, the bushes are firm to give good control- the cars are noisy as a consequence of minimal sound deadening but the springs themselves are softish and have reasonable travel. Just like the Elite, the chassis of which, famously, was the worlds first fibreglass monocoque.

It was a bastard to make, but magnificent in conception and in use as long as you didn’t have an early, ‘problem-child’ car. Things improved when Bristol Aircraft took over construction of the chassis from Maximar, the original ‘trail blazers’ in interpretation and manufacture of Colin’s baby.

The Elite is also ‘drummy’, noisy just like its younger cousin, mind you I’d rather do the Melbourne to Sydney trip in the older of the two cars despite the lack of a tall fifth, cruisin’ down the highway gear.

Lotus Elite and 16 Climax FPF F2/F1 car at the London Motor Show in 1958

 

David Mottram aboard the family Elite 95 at Phillip Island (Mottram)

Your freckle is very close to the ground too, the Elise’ seat is a ‘form-fit’, no barge-arses should apply thing. To sit in it is the closest thing to the feel of a sports-racer on the road as is possible to experience. Use enough imagination and the view is pretty much what drivers of a Lola T70 Coupe had with the ultra low seating position, curved minimalist dash, exposed aluminium each side of you and guards not much higher than your nose. The seat isn’t sprung, its solidly mounted to the cars tub so all of the messages from the road are transmitted to your bum, fingers, wrists and toes- the sensory side of things, if that kinda stuff gives you your jollies, is amazing. Lotsa rubber bushings, who needs ‘em?

The Elite is more generous in the comfort department but only marginally so.

You sit up a little more and the seats whilst thinly padded are more comfy than the Elise. Even with a lap-sash road type belt you are retained nicely between the high transmission tunnel and the door with an array of Smiths instruments in front of you which is oh-so-period. My Elise was fitted with a six-point Willans harness which held me in the standard seat rather nicely for competition work, the Elite was not so endowed but the driving position is the same, a very comfortable one with long arms to the wheel and pedals nicely set for heel-‘n-toe operation

Steering of the Elise is delicious- in my experience there is nothing close to it on the road. Jumping from the Lola to the Elise was ‘same, same’- that’s not an indictment of one of 1975’s most competitive Formula Fords but an acclamation of Lotus design.

The weight of the steering, its feel, the wheel’s design, size, material and rim thickness, feedback and directness are superb in the way you can place the car on the road and the warning you get as the limits of adhesion are approached. The Elite rack is a Triumph item, the Elise’s was made by Titan Motorsport. Both have the same characteristics though in terms of the way the cars have steering of exceptional feel, delicacy and precision. The Elites wood-rimmed wheel is larger and thinner, the suspension, wire-wheels, tyre width and aspect ratio are period differences which mitigate against the same Elise level of precision but the Elite was a steering benchmark in the late fifties-early sixties period and a pleasure to guide around Sandowns fast corners. The Elite rolls about a bit, as you would expect, the Elise sits much flatter and ‘points’ or turns in much more nicely despite the lack of a rear roll bar- its mid-engined and 40 years younger after all.

That other marques/supplier donated the steering rack highlights another Lotus attribute down the decades. In part they are an assemblage of parts made by others. It doesn’t impact in a negative way in use. Mind you if you are in the market for an alternative to a 911, the bragging rights of an Evora powered by a Toyota V6 are not quite on a par with a Porsche despite the utility of the Japanese motor.

The Elite’s Coventry Climax FWE engine was revolutionary in its day, the 1216cc SOHC, 2 valve all aluminium road version of the very successful FWA race engine was quite something in the context of the wheezy, mainly push-rod engines of the competition. Sensitive, regular maintenance was important. In Super 95 spec, the twin-Weber fed engine produces over 100bhp and punches the car along nicely but the lap times are achieved by the cars brakes, entry speed, neutrality with limited power thru the corners and fine aerodynamics rather than outright mumbo.

It’s a ‘momentum car ‘ just like the Elise and lower powered single-seaters. Whilst the performance variants of the Elise/Exige are a different kettle of fish, the original all alloy DOHC, 4 valve, fuel injected 1796cc 118bhp Elise was all about economy of power, weight (circa 725Kg) and delivery. They are subtle delicate things which respond well to inputs of a similar type, they are not tools for the ham-fisted. So too was the Elite, its competition record belied its specifications.

The Elite’s ZF gearbox is a much nicer snickety-snick thing to use than the Elise’s. The linkages of the modern car are sub-optimal but familiarity and ‘light hands and wrists’ as Frank Gardner put it, soon has you slicing thru the gears ok. Both cars have superb brakes too- unassisted discs all round, inboard on the rear of the Elite, all outboard on the Elise with the latter rotors in aluminium to help keep unsprung weight down.

‘Uncle Dave’ was soon waving at me from the pitlane, I pretended it was encouragement for a couple of more laps but his intent soon became clear when he waved an empty fuel drum at me.

I buzzed for hours afterwards, it was a magic, fun day- the Elite was a vastly better car to drive than I had imagined. On the suburban grind back to Camberwell I reflected on just ‘how right’ Chapman would have thought Julian Thomson and his design and engineering team got the Elise. Chapman bottled the essence of Lotus- his designers have since periodically dispensed it in a manner in which he would be proud…

Pat Mottram and Elite at Wakefield Park, Goulburn (Mottram)

Etcetera: Clark/Whitmore Elite at Le Mans in 1959…

How youthful does white-shirted Jim Clark look?

The pair were tenth outright and second in class behind the Peter Lumsden/Peter Riley Elite, the Roy Salvadori/Carroll Shelby Aston Martin DBR1 were victorious.

Photo Credits…

M Bisset, Mottram Family and Stephen Dalton Collections, Getty Images-Klemantaski

Finito…