‘I’ve wanted an Elite since I was eight… The List – Your dream drive made real It’s taken 43 years, but Andy Duncan gets to drive his dream Lotus today. Words Emma Woodcock. Photography Jonathan Jacob.
Reader Andy Duncan fulfils a childhood dream by taking on Lotus’s luxury GT, the Elite
The List We put a lucky reader in his Seventies childhood dream: the Lotus Elite
Inspecting the underbelly of a Type 75 Elite at Lotusbits, professional engineer and Classic Cars reader Andy Duncan is impressed by what he sees. ‘As Colin Chapman used to say, “add lightness”. It’s such a compact and straightforward piece of engineering.’ He scans the structure of the car, which is up on a lift, part-way through a full restoration. ‘There’s a backbone chassis operating as a central spine and the glassfibre moulding used to create the body is way ahead of its time. There are so many simple, thoughtful design cues.’ Ducking under the driveshaft, Andy leads us to the rear suspension to illustrate his point. ‘This is a Chapman speciality,’ he continues. ‘It’s something you see on Lotus Formula One cars of the same period too – the driveshafts are used as the top link. And why wouldn’t you? It works and it saves a whole load of weight.’
Examining one hasn’t resolved his questions about the driving experience, however. ‘I expect it to handle very well, thanks to the independent, Chapman-designed suspension, but I also think it’ll feel old-fashioned and don’t know whether the Elite will be an accurate drive. I’m in two minds.’ Today, he’ll have mile upon mile of leafy, twisting backroads to find out.
Just for now, the moment of truth can wait. The car we’ve been exploring is far from the only interesting machine in residence at Lotusbits. The company specialises in every model powered by the 900 Series slant-four engine, and the premises throng with Elites, Eclats, Excels, Esprits and every related part you can imagine. Founder Mike Taylor appears, offering a tour and quantifying the scale of his stores, ‘If somebody asked, we could build them a new car from the ground up.’ From an untouched barn find, ready to be stripped for parts, to a collection of new old stock chassis, Andy grabs the chance to look at everything.
Time to step outside, where a 1976 Elite beckons. Owned from new by one family and never restored, its injection-moulded body catapults onlookers back to the disco era. ‘I’ve been excited about this,’ says Andy, as he examines the rear valance. ‘To drive the Elite will be a 43-year dream fulfilled.’ The story can be traced back to when he was just eight years old.
‘My father indulged his car-mad son by taking me to Camden Motors in Leighton Buzzard. They had all these lovely prestige cars in the showroom, things like the Aston Martin DBs, Jensen Interceptor, Jaguar E-type…’ he remembers. ‘But right in the middle was a brand-new, bright-yellow Lotus Elite. It was like a spaceship compared to everything else and I was allowed to sit in it, so it’s stayed with me.’
Now it’s time for him to resume that position, nudging the chrome square to open the door and fall into a reclined driver’s seat. Snug between the sill and the transmission tunnel, he seems immediately at home. ‘This is a very British driving position,’ he says. ‘There’s plenty of room for your legs, but your arms are reached out to the wheel too. I’m quite tall, but the Elite has more space and adjustability than my partner’s modern Mercedes-Benz SLK! My feet are out straight and this amplifies the long travel in the brake and clutch pedals. We’re sitting a lot lower than we would in my Porsche 986 Boxster, and yet that doesn’t stop me from seeing out. The dashboard and the waistline are higher up, but there’s a lot of glass around us too.’
The light floods in to illuminate a dashboard of harsh angles and horizontal wood grain, broken up with flashes of chrome. ‘The two-button radio and beige velour dates it,’ says Andy. ‘And the painted panels signal that it’s a small-production car. I’ve just noticed the gearknob; it’s a wooden ball and the marking for top gear reads “O/D” instead of “5”. It’s more modern in here than I expected but these details are the key to the Seventies experience.’
‘I’d forgotten the feeling of a cable throttle and carburettors! The response is immediate and amazingly mechanical’
A stroll around the almost estate-like exterior reveals another contrast with the present day. ‘It’s a lot smaller than I’d thought. That’s always the case with cars from this era. The Elite was a relatively large car in the Seventies, but we live in a world of bloated vehicles now.’ With blemish-free paintwork and precise panel gaps, the condition of this example also impresses. ‘Every Elite you see is a barn find or immaculate,’ Andy says. ‘This one has clearly had a lot of money spent on it. Fair play to Lotusbits!’
He turns the key and the Lotus endorses his assessment by firing first time. A calm, steady idle says we’re ready to drive. Slow, deliberate movements define the first few metres, Andy hauling from the elbows to work the unassisted steering and stamping at the brakes. It’s an awkward introduction, yet it doesn’t take long for the initial heft to fall away. ‘The steering lightens tremendously as soon you starting moving and it doesn’t feel like anything significant now,’ he says. ‘It hasn’t taken long to get back in the zone and I like how this one still has the original steering wheel. The rim feels very thin, something that’s very much of its era, and you get a lot more feedback as a result. I’d forgotten just how much cars from the Seventies can communicate!’
Gathering speed as we tip into the sweeping turns towards Leamington Hastings, Andy gets his first feel of the chassis’ response. ‘This feels twitchy, but there’s that race car design to consider. I think I’ll soon learn to trust it totally.’ The run out from each apex shows the throttle to be just as sharp and Andy can’t resist a smile. ‘How quickly I’d forgotten the feeling of a cable throttle and carburettors! The response is immediate and amazingly mechanical, with none of that “do I want to?” electronic lag you get with drive by wire.’
Three miles later, the tarmac bursts onto a vista of open farmland and the Elite crunches onto a nearby gravel expanse. Handbrake on, we trace a cautious arc with the front-hinged bonnet and examine the slant four within, Andy sharing the benefit of his thorough research. ‘That’s very original,’ he gasps, looking towards the front of the engine bay. ‘This Elite still has the Lotus glassfibre timing belt cover. Most owners take these off and they’re very hard to replace – the parts are long, long gone. There’s the factory airbox here too – that’s another rarity. Many Elites have got an aftermarket K&N filter fitted now and I hear they never quite run right with those attached…’
‘The steering is immediate, with no nervousness on the straight. That’s down to the geometry’
There are no such problems with this example. As we set off again, pointing the Lotus’ chisel nose at a flowing A-road, Andy is enjoying the engine with ever-increasing confidence. ‘I feel I’m getting better with the controls, now I’ve realised it doesn’t have the torque of a modern car. Acceleration and physical speed are comparable to a 21st-century machine, you just have to use the revs to access it. Overcome that mental hurdle and it’s no slouch!’
‘This four-cylinder doesn’t feel as old as its years,’ he continues. ‘It feels so good and it’s probably punching above its weight.’ Wider and straighter than before, the road invites a run into the tachometer’s higher reaches. Dropping to third, Andy obliges and our seats flex back, the Elite squatting into its rear tyres. Volume builds towards 4000rpm, cresting in a harmony of twin overhead cams at the engine’s upper reaches.
A blue wisp flits in the rearview mirror and the revs fall back with a smooth crack, Andy’s left hand moving decisively across the gate. He’s clearly found a rhythm with the five-speed transmission too. ‘It’s a slick change now, but you do have to be precise. Bear that in mind and it’s no problem at all; it’s quite direct and positive too. And the clutch is almost unnoticeable.’ From the passenger seat, you’d never know that Andy’s previous experience centres around far more modern classics.
‘Now it’s warmed through, I’m becoming aware that the Elite is a car, not some untouchable artefact, and I’m less in awe of the experience. I feel more part of it as a result, and it feels more a part of me.’ The cohesion shows in his inputs: the wheel moves once when he turns into a corner, smoothly loading up the chassis, then once more to straighten out. ‘The steering is immediate,’ he says. ‘There’s no slop through the turns. You’d expect to pay for that with nervousness on the straight and that’s not the case at all; that can only be down to the geometry.
‘It’s a perfectly stable chassis – the Lotus feels like I could push it a long way on track before it ever broke traction – and I can always tell where the wheels are. That translates to confidence and it’s what makes the Elite so intuitive. Handling was one of Colin Chapman’s biggest achievements, after all, and I’d sum it up as a car you can trust.’ The same can’t quite be said of the brakes. ‘They do feel pretty marginal. The pedal has a very long travel before it bites, but the response is there when you get to that point.’ Few classics are better suited to the fast S-bends and camber shifts of Snowford Hill, so the next half hour blurs by in smiles and speed.
Paradise can’t last and the Fosse Way begins to throng with afternoon traffic when we aim back towards the Lotusbits workshop. Andy shifts up to fifth – or ‘overdrive’ in period Lotus parlance – and the conversation shifts to refinement. ‘The engine is a little agricultural at times; there’s a buzzing sensation past 4000 revs, and the gearbox emits a noisy, churning sound in top. They’re things you can accept in a car of this age, though.’
Neither sensation impacts his enjoyment, the smooth flip-roll of the rising headlights raising a smile as we queue into the twilight. ‘I do prefer it with the lights up,’ he laughs, before returning to the model’s usability. ‘This is a comfortable, compliant chassis, in addition to having very good handling, and it feels like I could do a great distance without developing any aches. Let’s put it in perspective: the Elite was a luxury car in its day and the most expensive four-cylinder car you could buy. Maybe I should’ve expected the Lotus’ over-and-above capabilities…’
Pulling up next to a pristine Esprit Essex Turbo, Andy is in high spirits as he takes the key from the ignition. Over 40 years after he fell for the Elite, today hasn’t disappointed. ‘They say don’t meet your heroes, but this was a special car in its day and it’s still relevant in the 21st century: the drive has proven just how viable the Elite remains. This one is outside my toybox budget, but I’d still love to take it home!’ Walking back to his car, he casts an appraising eye over the other models around the Lotusbits premises. A seed has been planted…
It doesn’t take long to sprout. Barely two weeks after our day in the Warwickshire countryside, I receive a message with two photos attached. There’s no mistaking the subject – bright red and angular, it’s a Lotus Excel SE. ‘I’ve put my money where my mouth is,’ Andy laughs. ‘I decided a classic Lotus would be more fun than my Porsche. The Excel has taken longer to get used to than the Elite, but it’s that little bit more refined and usable, thanks to the Toyota transmission. An Elite was my childhood dream and I never thought I’d have a similar model on the driveway!’ Praise for the front-engined Lotus family can’t come much higher.
Emma and Andy take in the chiselled nose that Oliver Winterbottom bestowed the Elite with. Headlamps popped up is Andy’s preferred Elite attitude Beige velour has survived since the Seventies. The ‘501’ badge signifies the base model of the four variants. Eagle-eyed Andy spots the original Lotus glassfibre timing belt cover. Four-cylinder twin-cam engine is built for revs rather than refinement. Elite marked a step upmarket for Lotus. The drive helped Andy make a big ownership decision…
1976 Lotus Elite 501
Engine 1973cc inline-four, dohc, twin Dell’Orto DHLA 45E carburettors
Max Power 160bhp @ 6500rpm
Max Torque 135lb ft @ 5000rpm
Transmission Five-speed manual, rwd
Steering Rack and pinion
Suspension Front: independent, wishbones, coil springs/dampers, anti-roll bar; Rear: independent, wishbones, trailing arms, coil springs/dampers
Brakes Front: Servo discs; Rear: inboard drums
Weight 1060kg (dry)
Top Speed: 128mph
Cost New £5749
CC Guide Price £5k-£30k
ANDY DUNCAN’S CAR CV
From off-roaders to mid-engined moderns
FORD FIESTA XR2
‘Caspian Blue. It was my first decent car and I was 20. I almost polished the paint off it…’
1980 LAND ROVER SERIES 3
‘I can’t imagine life without a Land Rover. Once you’ve got them in your blood, they’re forever. The S3 was serious fun but a real boneshaker.’
1995 MGF VVC
‘Great fun and peanuts to buy. It became a retirement present for my father-in-law, who stills runs around in it.’
2001 MERCEDES-BENZ SLK230 KOMPRESSOR
‘Followed a similar 320 but I quite liked the supercharger on this one! It had a very different sound and was immaculate.’
2002 PORSCHE BOXSTER 986
‘I always wanted a Porsche! Boxsters are so cheap and, though they’re a bit of a pain, I like to maintain it. The mid-engined layout arguably gives even better handling than a 996 911.’
ANDY’S DREAM DRIVE LIST
GK1 Italian styling, British engineering, US V8. Magic!
Saw one at Lydden Hill rallycross as a teen – it just walked away from everything else.
Every boy’s dream.
Fixed head coupé for the shape.
Ford Capri RS3100
Something that I aspired to as a teenage driver – I did end up owning a Capri, but it wasn’t an RS…
Ferrari 308 GTS
Simply enough, I had an Athena poster of a QV.
My father was Welsh, so I love the idea of a Welsh sports car!
I saw one when my dad took me to Camden Motors in Leighton Buzzard when I was eight – and the name helps too.
The boyhood dream! Lamborghini Miura SV
Monro, St Bernard Pass, preferably without the bulldozer. Defines Sixties excess.
Facel Vega HK500
Beloved of the rich and famous, with the goose feather-painted dashboard. Special.