1959 Lotus Elite
1959 Lotus Elite. Click image to enlarge

Story and photo by Bill Vance

Englishman Colin Chapman was a brilliant engineer: innovative, imaginative, and shrewd. And his technical creativity was beautifully demonstrated in the Lotus Elite, his first real production road car.

Chapman graduated from London University in engineering just after World War II. In view of his later achievements it is a little surprising that his discipline was civil, not mechanical engineering. He went on to invent some of the most advanced automotive engineering concepts ever applied to racing and road cars, and for almost 30 years Lotus cars were a formidable force in Formula 1 Grand Prix competition.

The car bug bit Chapman early. In 1947, while still only 19, he borrowed 25 pounds sterling (about $100 in the exchange rates at that time) from his fiance, Hazel, and bought a rundown Austin Seven. In his capable hands this mundane little sedan blossomed forth in 1948 into a competitive racing car, which he named Lotus. It would be dubbed Mark I, and there would be many more “Marks” as he developed better and faster racers based on production car components.

Finally, in 1952, Chapman was able to launch his tiny car-building enterprise, Lotus Engineering Co., and build the first production model, the Mark VI, in kit form. It was to be the beginning of a classic, almost rags-to-riches fairy tale story.

The announcement in 1956 that there would be an international racing class for Grand Touring cars with 1300 cc engines gave Chapman the final push into the development of his high-performance road coupe, the Lotus Elite.

Although production plans for the new car were far higher than they had been for any former model, the resources of Lotus Engineering were too slender to absorb the cost of the stamps and dies necessary to manufacture an entirely new car out of metal.

The innovative Chapman turned to a relatively new product, resin-impregnated glass fibre. Its use in cars was not new, of course; Chevrolet had brought out its glass-fibre-bodied Corvette in 1953, and the material was well known in boat building. Chapman’s stroke of genius, however, was to make the whole car out of glass fibre.

It would be a monocoque comprising three major components: the undertray with all wheel wells, a front metal subframe and transmission mounting points; an intermediate tray that had all interior panels; and the third moulding that comprised the exterior panels of the car including the roof, fenders and trunk. Separate door and trunk lid mouldings were used.

The only metal parts in the body-chassis unit were the subframe in the undertray, and a sturdy metal hoop moulded into the second tray just ahead of the doors. Chapman was always looking for ways to combine more than one function in a single component, so this hoop served as door hinge attachment and roll bar, and its bottom ends were extended down to become jacking points for the car.

The method of construction was basically to stack the three trays on top of each other and glue them together. The engine, driveline, suspension and steering components were then bolted onto the glass fibre using rubber-isolated bushings.

It was a pioneering achievement, an ingenious design that was light and very strong, particularly in its resistance to twisting.

For power, Chapman, like so many other small builders, turned to a four-cylinder, overhead cam engine that had originally been built by the Coventry Climax company to power portable fire pumps.

The cylinder head, block, oil pan, camshaft and timing chain covers were all made of aluminum. One of the dictates of fire pump use was that it be capable of going from start-up to 5,000 rpm immediately, which meant that it had to have high volume oil flow and be fairly loosely-fitted internally.

The first prototype Elite was shown at the Earls Court Motor Show in the fall of 1957, but the second wasn’t delivered until May of 1958. It was received by British racing driver Ian Walker, who immediately drove it to the Silverstone race track and entered it in a 1300 cc class race – and won!

What a great little car, he thought, so to see if it really was that good, he took it to the Mallory Park racing circuit the next day and entered a 1600 cc event, which he also won, this time with Colin Chapman in the stands.

The Elite was a very small car. It stood only 1,168 mm (46 in.) high, rode on a 2,235 mm (88 in.) wheelbase, and was a mere 3,658 mm (144 in.) long. It weighed about 658 kg (1,450 lb).

Performance was excellent; in January of 1960, Road & Track magazine recorded a zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) time of 12.2 seconds and a top speed of some 185 km/h (115 mph).

When production of Lotus’s milestone Elite ceased in 1963, just over 1,000 had been built. Colin Chapman’s Lotus company went on to produce many more road and racing models, but that little Elite was the one that really launched it into production automobiles.

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