Lotus Elite rebuilt from a box of bits. The second generation Elite was designed to launch Lotus into new market sector and this fine example has been lovingly revived from a part finished project. Words & Photography Ivan Ostroff.
GAME CHANGER Reader Resto Lotus Elite 501 Type 75 Restoring the car that took Lotus upmarket wasn’t an easy job.
The Lotus Type 75 ‘Elite’ was launched in May 1974 pitched at the mid- 'Seventies luxury market and remained in production until 1982. Right from the start the Elite was intended to be a sophisticated, luxurious upmarket sports coupè with a higher price level than its predecessors. Over its production cycle the Elite was available in four guises; the 501, 502, 503 and 504. The new four-seat Lotus was a major part of Colin Chapman’s ambitious plans to take his company upmarket. A popular review at the time of the Elite’s launch rather ambitiously stated how the new Lotus had been priced to compete with the futuristic looking Citroën SM and the V8 powered Alfa Romeo Montreal.
The Elite 501 was the basic entry level model; the 502 had the added luxury of air conditioning, the 503 came with power steering, air conditioning and electric mirrors, whilst the 504 was specified similarly to the 503, but with the addition of an automatic gearbox. All models were fitted with an inline-four 1993cc DOHC engine.
Unlike its earlier namesake, the Type 75 Elite was never supplied as a self-build kit but only as a finished turnkey product. Under the Elite’s wedge shaped GRP clothing, the car retained much the same type of traditional Lotus backbone chassis as the earlier Europa. Front suspension was formed from pressed steel double wishbones and an anti-roll bar, whilst at the rear there were pressed steel semi-trailing arms and a lower link. The design was particularly noteworthy, as the drive shafts formed the rear top link and the car’s all-round independent set-up utilised coil springs and dampers at the front and rear.
Oliver Winterbottom designed the Elite’s wedge shaped bodywork and although the style may not be to everyone’s taste today, it was certainly fashionable in the ‘Seventies and had the advantage of an exceedingly good drag coefficient of 0.30Cd. The car’s two-door GRP body shell benefited from a rear hatch or tailgate that managed to provide excellent access to a capacious rear boot area. The interior had been created by Giugiaro’s Ital Design studio and the Elite’s airy and spacious cabin featured enough space for four adults to travel long distances in comfort.
The Lotus Type 75 Elite was the first car to use the Lotus 907 aluminium block, four-valve per cylinder 1973cc engine. Historically, this engine is often referred to as having ‘evolved’ from Vauxhall’s slant four unit. However, in reality the 160bhp unit fitted into the Elite bore little connection to the former Vauxhall unit. Transmission was via the same five-speed gearbox originally developed for the Elan Plus 2 130/5 and was basically an Austin Maxi gear cluster fitted into a Lotus gear casing. The final drive was the Salisbury 7HA unit.
The Elite’s aerodynamic body shell utilised a new glass fibre moulding process that Colin Chapman had been working on for some time prior to the Elite’s launch. In order to cut down the time needed in the rather labour intensive laying of the glass fibre matting by hand, Chapman developed a system of Vacuum-Assisted Resin Injection where pre-cut glass fibre mat was laid into moulds and the air expelled whilst the resin mix was injected. As the bodyshells were built in two halves the seam between the two halves was hidden by a lateral rubbing strip running around the car’s waist.
Elite owner Leon Douch loves ‘Sixties and ‘Seventies cars: “I like the purity of the lines from that era and I remember the Mansell and Senna years. My grandfather bought me a Corgi model Lotus Transporter with an Elite and a JPS Formula One car on the back, so that period is ingrained deep within me.”
Having owned a Series One Esprit for some time, Leon has been a fan of the Lotus brand for quite a while, but has always longed for an Elite 501 – the car that took Lotus upmarket. As Leon explained: “One day I came across this car sitting with a Lotus specialist as a partially finished project. When I went to see the car it had just 28,000 miles on the clock and I realised that although the Elite needed some TLC to bring it back to life, it was a very original car”.
The fettling was carried out over a period of around two and a half years but it was worth waiting for. Luckily, I was able to enlist the help of Lotus specialist Mike Taylor of Lotus Bits at Marton, near Rugby. Mike sorted the car mechanically and Morgan Jones at Stratton Motor Company in Norwich retrimmed the interior. In a perfect world, I would have kept the old brushed nylon foam filled seats but they had become very tired and were not really economically salvageable. Since that was the case, and as leather was an option when the car was new, I decided to bite the bullet and had the seats re-covered in best Connolly hide”.
Leon believes that if you look after your classic car properly, there is no reason why it cannot be used as regular transportation, so this Elite is no show queen and is used all the time. Lotus unfortunately has a reputation for unreliability – remember the old anagram Loads Of Trouble Usually Serious – but these cars have to be maintained properly. It’s usually the badly maintained cars that prove unreliable.
However, when the Elite chassis left the factory in period, they were not galvanised and as Mike Taylor of Lotus Bits explained: “Lotus didn’t fully understand how to make paint stick to steel back then. Three- to five-year old cars were often found suffering from a rusting chassis. On the other hand, all the after-market replacement chassis from the mid ‘Seventies onwards were galvanised and so a car fitted with a later treated chassis has no worries in this department.”
Apart from checking for a rusty chassis, potential buyers should look out for rusty rear cross-members too. If you find a car with those problems, the only answer is either to remove the body and replace the old chassis with a new galvanised one or shot blast and powder coat the original, replace all bushes and bearings, fit a new steering rack and reassemble. That will cost approximately £6000 at a specialist.”
One of the major weak spots on these cars is with the front trunnions. This is because Triumph Herald uprights are used and just as with the Triumph, if they are not regularly lubricated correctly with heavy oil, not grease, they will seize and eventually snap. The drive shafts that form the top link of the rear suspension have to deal with a lot of lateral force going through the rear suspension. It’s therefore important to fit the correct rear universal joints to avoid failure.
The rear wheel bearings are actually from an Austin Maxi and they will fail if not torqued up correctly and lubricated with top quality grease. The torque setting is rather high at 200ft/lb and most people don’t have a facility to torque up to that poundage.
According to Leon, the Elite’s Achilles heel can be its five-speed gearbox. The ‘box was originally designed for the Elan Plus Two and although the casing, bell housing and tail-shaft castings were manufactured by Lotus, the internals that originated in the Austin Maxi were unchanged. Whereas in the Elan Plus 2 the gearbox was able to cope just fine, but in the heavier Elite with it’s extra 20 per cent torque to handle, the gearbox was not really up to the job. If driven in a somewhat highly spirited manor, all too often the gearbox will generally succumb. Leon reckons the only answer is to remember to drive smoothly and avoid stabbing the throttle on full torque in second gear. Driving like this will obviously extend the life of the gearbox. The 1993cc DOHC engine is a good strong unit but the tension of the timing belt requires regular checking if you want to avoid the timing belt jumping or coming off. If this happens it will almost certainly result in the destruction of a perfectly good engine when the pistons hit the valves.
Most Elite spares are still available and although there is a shortage of good chassis, it is possible to use the later Excel chassis as it is so similar. Most of the interior trim for the Elite is still available, however the difficult bits are the aluminium trims around the gear lever and the bright anodised trims below the windscreen.
ON THE ROAD
Your scribe has to admit that he wasn’t too enamoured with the Elite’s wedge appearance but once ensconced in the driver's seat, it felt very good. As soon as you are strapped into the Elite 501, you know you are in a Lotus; everything feels so absolutely right. Even the pedals are ideally placed, so that the side of your right foot just rolls on to the throttle when you are on the brake, allowing the driver to execute perfect heel and toe double de-clutching. This is a proper Colin Chapman inspired driver’s car. But for those expecting lightning Lotus performance, this car is hardly a wild screamer.
This is not a Lotus 7, or an Elan, but it is a genuine four seater Grand Tourer that will take two sets of golf clubs in the boot. Once you get your head around that fact, you start to realise that for the size of the engine the Elite’s performance is pretty good. The handling is of course utterly superb. Through corners the car feels very neutral, delightfully controllable and turns in very nicely.
The steering is extremely responsive and feels very direct. If you are brave enough to stamp on the throttle in mid-corner, the back end will break away but you can steer the car sideways on the throttle very happily up to an angle of 45 degrees.
Although economy is hardly staggering (Leon reckons he can expect around 25mpg on a run, or 20mpg when driving aggressively) the Elite provides a fantastic driving experience. The ride is markedly compliant and seating certainly achieves Giugiaro’s goal to transport four adults in extreme comfort, making long journeys a pure delight. The main disadvantage of the Elite when new was the price of £5445, which was then rather on the high side. Today, when compared it to the Elite’s siblings such as the Esprit, where prices have gone bananas, the Lotus Type 75 Elite appears decidedly undervalued and as such is great value.
The Elite's Oliver Winterbottom designed wedge shape bodywork may not appeals today but was very fashionable in the 'Seventies.
According to its owner, the Lotus Elite is a very comfortable and capable tourer.
The Elite used the Lotus developed 1973cc 907 all-alloy inline-four capable of pushing out a reasonable 160bhp.
The Elite is able to carry four in comfort and a rear hatch combined with a decent sized rear load area makes this Lotus a good tourer.
Period motoring magazines described the Elite's interior as 'functional' but in reality it's typical of the day.
It's the attention to detail, such as the superb finish to the wheels and
paintwork that make this Lotus Elite stand out from the crowd.
The 29,000 miles on the Elite's odometer is the original mileage but the seats have been recovered in leather.
When pushed hard into a fast, flowing corner the Elite's neutral handling inspires plenty of confidence.
Driving a well-sorted Lotus Elite 501 is always an enjoyable experience.
WHAT REACTION DOES THE ELITE 501 GET ON THE ROAD?
People think it’s very space age, the always get admiring glances. When you pull into a petrol station everyone wants to look at it and chat about the car.
WHAT WAS THE BEST MOMENT AFTER THE CAR WAS REBUILT?
Just driving the Lotus for the first time, the car just drove so well.
WHEN YOU THINK ABOUT THE CAR AND THE PROJECT, WHAT ARE YOU MOST PROUD OF?
Keeping the originality of the car. It hasn’t been over restored.
With the exception of the seat covers, it is exactly as it was when it left the factory. Even the carpets are original.
WHAT IS IT LIKE TO DRIVE?
It’s a fantastic tourer, the car isn’t overly fast when compared to a modern sports car of course but it’s so responsive. You can throw it into a corner, point the nose and know exactly how the car will track.
WHAT’S SO SPECIAL ABOUT THIS CAR?
For me it is exactly what Colin Chapman was all about. His cars were quicker because they were more nimble and lighter.
THE FACTS LOTUS ELITE 501
ENGINE: 1973cc straight four-cylinder aluminium block, four-valve DOHC. Two twin-choke Dellorto DHLA 45 carburettors
MAX POWER: 160bhp at 6500rpm
MAX TORQUE: 140 lb.ft at 5000rpm
TOP SPEED: 124mph.
GEARS: Lotus five-speed (BL Maxi internals)
SUSPENSION:. F: Double wishbones, coil springs and dampers, anti-roll bar. R: Semi-trailing radius arm, lower link, fixed drive shaft, coil springs and dampers
STEERING: Rack and pinion
BRAKES: F: 10.5in R Inboard drums. Servo assisted
WHEELS & TYRES 14x7in
CLUBS AND SPECIALISTS.
MIKE TAYLOR, LOTUS BITS
Marton, Rugby www.lotusbits.com
COMPANY Long Stratton, Norfolk. www.strattonmotorcompany.com