Lotus elite

How could a small engine power such a fast car?

Lotus Elite Image

Colin Chapman, The founder of Lotus Cars, believed that the way to create fast cars which could win races was to make them as light as possible. This enabled him to use smaller engines which could then provide performances to match larger, and therefore heavier cars with much bigger engines.

With the Lotus Elite he took this concept to its extreme.

It is difficult to see how, in 1958, a car lighter than the Lotus elite could have been built. What set this two-door coupe apart from all the rest was the use of fibreglass in the monocoque construction. This material had already been used extensively for bodywork panels on other cars but in the Elite nearly the whole body shell, including load-bearing structures ,was of fibreglass.

A steel subframe carried the engine and front suspension, windscreen mountings, door hinges, rollover protection and jacking points.

Teething problems soon emerged; attachment points were found to pull out of the fibreglass structure initially but finally problems like this were overcome.

The aerodynamic styling of the car was created thanks to Peter Kirwan Taylor, a financial genius as well as a talented designer, who with the help of Frank Costin, who was a senior aircraft engineer, came up with an extremely low drag shape without the aid of windtunnel testing.

The result was a car weighing just 1110 lbs. Propelled by a 1.2 litre Coventry Climax straight four-cylinder engine which had initially been designed to power a water pump!) putting out just 75 brake horsepower the Elite could achieve 116 mph with 0 to 60 in 9.7 seconds; very fast indeed for such a small engine at that time.

It had disc brakes all round so it could stop as well as it could go, and it was easy to handle and highly manoeuvrable.

Not surprisingly racetrack successes started to add up particularly at Le Mans 24-hour race where an Elite came first in class six times!

Unfortunately some of the cars were offered for sale as a kit which meant that they were not necessarily put together terribly well. This affected the public perception of the Elite which was made worse by Lotus' own quality control which could have been better.

The biggest problem however was that Chapman was far more interested in racing than he was in selling cars. Had he spent more time and energy on financial matters rather than technical ones he would probably have realised that his selling price was far too low and that he was actually losing money on every car that was sold.

Numerous racing successes were clocked up by drivers in Lotus Elites and by the time production ended in 1963 approximately 1030 had been sold. Approximately 700 of these still survive, ample testament to the lasting abilities of fibreglass and the engineering skills of Colin Chapman and his team.