Lotus Elite NOT NOW, CATO!
Largely unloved in its day, this Lotus has been totally transformed into a jawdropping, belly-scraping, air-bagged masterpiece.
Taking an old-school Lotus and slamming it to the ground is so hot right now. Luke Gilbert is leading the charge with this low-down miscreant, The Red Panther… Words: Daniel Bevis. Photos: Chris Frosin.
The element of surprise was vital to the storytelling mystique of the Pink Panther movies. Arguably the greatest narrative ingredient was the relentlessly startling character of Cato, expertly portrayed by Burt Kwouk, who’d always be waiting to leap out of a cupboard and pounce on Clouseau, his orders being to attack at random in order to keep the Inspector alert. It’s fair to say, then, that the low-slung Lotus Elite we’re basking in the glory of today owes rather a debt to Cato; indeed, it carries on the manservant’s work, pouncing on unsuspecting classic car enthusiasts and wrestling them to the ground with its belligerently non-conformist attitude. It’s one of a series of bagged Lotuses that have appeared on the scene recently, although this is no bandwagon-jumping exercise – it’s something its owner has been hankering after for some time, and the roots of the tale stem back to his childhood.
It’s often said that we, as a species, exist merely as the sum of our influences; everything we see, hear, taste, enjoy, disagree with, and hanker after shapes the rounded humans we each become. This is thrown into sharp focus by the example of Luke Gilbert, the man behind this Elite, as it acts as a flawless mirror of the televisual preferences of his formative years. “I grew up in a golden age of children’s TV, watching The Banana Splits, The Monkees, The Red Hand Gang, Sesame Street, and The Hair Bear Bunch,” he reminisces, a whimsical smile playing about the lips. A theme that tied many shows of the era together was the unusual cars that appeared on screen – the Pontiac GTO-based Monkeemobile, the weird little six-wheeled buggies that the Banana Splits drove, the Barris Batmobile, American TV was drip-feeding custom car culture into young minds with sneaky insistence. “As I grew up I always had these niggling questions buzzing around my head - who built these cars? Where did they come from? And after some research I became familiar with such names as George Barris, Ed Roth, Dean Jeffries; later on with the advent of Sky TV I learnt about Boyd Coddington and Chip Foose, and even recently the Fast ‘n’ Loud crew have all inspired me in my quest to create a car that recalls such legendary customisers.”
With a head full of dreams and a few quid in his pocket, Luke found himself in a position to do that which we all aspire to: make his dreams solid, by creating something unique and unusual. “A style and vision soon developed in my mind,” he explains. “Low and moody, big rims, quality detailing – that was my passion early on, and although my skillset is far greater now than those early days, it’s a rhetoric I hold dear. I never build a car to follow a scene or chase kudos, and I’m certainly not in it for the glory - my aim is to create a car that I like, and build on the classic hot rod principles: ‘Make it look better, go faster!’” With so many retro touchpoints on his palette and individuality for a brush, it was inevitable that he’d end up painting something pretty special. So how did this eager creativity come to manifest itself in the form of The Red Panther…?
At the time that this Lotus found its way into Luke’s life, he’d been without a classic car for a couple of years. The pressure to get back on the horse was proving too much to bear, and some inevitable Googling led him to the notion of rekindling an old flame; having previously owned and restored a 1978 Esprit S2, the idea of stepping back into oldschool Lotus ownership started to seem very appealing. Some fairly extensive searching unearthed a sorry-looking candidate; “a red #1977
Lotus Elite sitting at the back of a house, paint faded, bumpers cracked, flat tyres, and the most horrific botched interior you will ever see,” Luke recalls. “You get the picture. But unfortunately it was miles away!
So I called the guy - very nice bloke - and started chatting away… I could tell from his description that the car was potentially a good one, despite being rather tired.” And so a viewing was arranged – at, er, 1am, by torchlight. How Hollywood is that? “I was going on holiday, flying out from Stansted, and the car was near the airport, so it made sense to sneak in a viewing while I was in the area,” he laughs. “It was pitch black and freezing cold, but I could tell that the body was as straight as an arrow and the engine ran well; throw in the bonus of a recent chassis change, and the deal was done!”
Luke could see that he had a diamond in the rough, but ‘rough’ was very much the operative word – a faded and shabby exterior, a frankly hideous interior, oxidised wheels, and a flaky clutch that didn’t want to play ball. The latter was job one on the list; a job that involved taking the engine out, and as such ended up incorporating a thorough servicing and replacement of all seals and belts. It’s an interesting engine, in fact, the 2.0-litre slantfour effectively being one bank of a V8 with a couple of sodding great carbs strapped to it, and it imbues the Lotus with a real sense of character, not to mention a little mischief.
So if that was job one, what would job two have to be? Why, lowering the thing, of course! “Sounds easy, right?” Luke grimaces. “Nah, it was three solid months of headscratching and grazed knuckles, and I lost count of the times I clattered my head on the wheelarches. I mulled over various options – lowering springs, coilovers and so on – but concluded that the only way to realise my childhood vision would be to install airbags, so that’s what I did.” Now, the idea of airbags may conjure up images of VAG-themed show-and-shines for some of you, with young fellas in Golfs adjusting their suspension via mobile apps and whatnot. But you’ll be pleased to learn that Luke’s approach is gratifyingly vintage; he’s fitted universal bags over Spax shocks at the front and Monroe airrams at the rear, and it’s all manually pumped! None of this e-level trickery here, it works on the same principle as an airbed or a beach ball.
We can’t help but admire that enormously. “Once it had been dropped and was mechanically sound, I turned my attention to the cosmetics, which were seriously flagging,” he continues. “The interior was awful - someone’s failed attempt to reupholster it had gone badly wrong, with very poor fit and a hideous colour combination. So I spent the next eight months trawling the internet before I hit the jackpot – an original, unrestored Giugiaro interior – needless to say it was on my drive the next day!” A new dash and centre console quickly followed, requiring a six-hour round trip to retrieve, and Luke found himself obsessively and fastidiously carrying out a list of fixes as long as your arm: a custom headliner that took two months to craft, custom carpets that took another month, and all manner of piquant detail embellishments. “The effort’s paid off though, it’s a glorious place to be,” he enthuses. “A 1970s timewarp!”
It’s worth pointing out here that Luke was keen to tackle every job on the car himself. Every solution, every mistake, every skinned knuckle or blackened thumb was a milestone in the journey to completing his dream, and you can imagine how much more satisfying that makes the finished product for him. But the garage can be a lonely place and, as much as he’d always been shy of online car forums with their trolls and haters and potential for mischief, he decided to chronicle the build of the Lotus on Retro Rides. “To my relief, the response was amazing!” he says. “So much positivity, encouragement and advice just poured in. That sort of encouragement does a lot for morale - at times when it’s all going pear-shaped, when you’re up to your eyeballs in garage crap, when your tools disappear into the fifth dimension, but you know you have a supportive audience that wants you to succeed, it really helps.” It was around this time that the project came to be known as The Red Panther, in homage to Jay Ohrberg’s original Pink Panther custom – you can see clear parallels between the two, in the wedge profile, the swage lines, the pencil-thin whitewalls, the general air of bubblegum caricature. It really is movie-star cool.
That Tarmac-scraping stance is neatly augmented by a set of Rota BM8s, sourced from the USA as the particular combination of 7x15in up front and an extra inch of girth at the tail isn’t available in the UK. The back end is beautifully finished by a pair of Cherry Bombs along with a smidge of smoothing to the tailgate, accentuating the custom vibe that Lotus baked right into their angular conceptcar aesthetic back in the 1970s, and the brushed aluminium brightwork gives the car a gorgeously premium feel. Luke’s efforts to perfect the details have infused the Lotus with a hand-finished appeal that’s far more Rolls- Royce in approach than anything the Norfolk spanner-jockeys ever achieved in period.
“It is, let’s face it, a boulevard cruiser – low and slow,” he grins. “It’s all about catching a glimpse in a shop window, seeing the wheels glint in the sunlight. I get people shouting ‘nice car!’ in the street; a lot of people have never even seen one before, let alone one on air! I even had some teenagers run over to get a better look recently, and they started an impromptu round of applause as I drove by…”
The accolades are coming thick and fast, but Luke’s childhood vision isn’t entirely realised just yet. He’s thinking of upgrading to a managed system for the air-ride, and there’s even talk of a 4.2-litre Maserati V8. Pick your jaw up from the floor, he’s dead serious. “OK, there’s a logistical issue in that it might just be too damn big to fit,” he ponders, although we can’t see that being any sort of barrier. Luke’s the sort of guy who just rolls up his sleeves and gets things done. He didn’t build this car to impress you, he built it for one person alone: the child of the nineteenseventies that lives inside his head. And he’s probably bouncing off the inside of that skull with the excitement of it all – The Red Panther genuinely is a dream come true, and it’s still got plenty of Cato-esque surprises in store.
ENGINE & TRANSMISSION: 2.0-litre slant-four, twin #Dellorto
DHLA 45s, Cherry Bomb exhausts, 5-speed O/D gearbox, 160bhp
CHASSIS: 7x15in (front) and 8x15in (rear) #Rota-BM8
with custom whitewall tyres, universal airbags over adjustable Spax shocks (front) and #Monroe
air-rams (rear), OEM brakes.
EXTERIOR: Smoothed rear hatch, semi-debadged, brushed aluminium brightwork, Mazda MX-5 electric headlight lift motor conversion.
INTERIOR: OEM Giugiaro interior, custom carpets and headlining, hidden modern audio.
THANKS: “The Lotus Forums and Retro Rides (both amazing encouragement and support), Rob, Dean, In Motion Media, SlamMedia, TRAX, Ultimate Stance, Kelsey Media, my sanity, friends, Romans, countrymen, Kamp Freddie, Big William and the crew, and anyone else that has contributed along the way either with encouragement, parts supply, or just support - you know who you are, so thank you very much”
Interior is a shrine to all things wood and leather, and was a huge amount of work for Luke. Is it an estate? It is a hatchback? Who cares when it looks this good!
“It is, let’s face it, a boulevard cruiser – low and slow. It’s all about catching a glimpse in a shop window, seeing the wheels glint in the sunlight”
The Elite wasn’t as well received as its contemporaries back in the day - but maybe if it looked more like this, then it would have been. Practical? Maybe not, but it is desperately cool! Left: Luke’s considering swapping this for a full-fat Maserati V8. The guy’s either a genius, or insane… or maybe a bit of both. “A style and vision soon developed in my mind.
“Low and moody, big rims, quality detailing”
Air-pump air ride is a genius touch’
Do profiles get any more 70s than this?