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1959-1963 Lotus Elite

1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963 Lotus Elite Design

Even in California, that arrangement was hardly ideal. These shortcomings make one wonder why the surviving 1959-1963 Lotus Elites are now so well loved by their owners, why they occasionally command high prices, and why they are looked upon nostalgically as very important stepping stones in Lotus’ complex history.

The Elite was not only a fine design in its own right, but it featured many Lotus “firsts.” Added to its being the first fiberglass monocoque is the fact that it was also the first purpose-designed Lotus road car and the first Lotus to be sold with a permanent hardtop coupe body. The design itself is well worth studying. Remember that when the Elite was conceived in 1957, the contemporary Jaguar was the heavy-chassis XK150, the MG the sweet-but-underpowered MGA 1500, and the Alfa Romeo the Giulietta Spider. All of these cars still utilized the soon-to-be-old-fashioned solid-beam rear axle, rear wheel drum brakes, and steel bodywork. The last, of course, incurred a significant weight penalty.

The Elite was conceived by Colin Chapman, but to turn it into reality he sought help from a number of associates. The styling ideas came from Peter Kirwan-Taylor, who then, as now, was a financial wizard first, but a motoring enthusiast all of the time. Aerodynamicist Frank Costin helped to refine the shape of the car to give it minimum possible drag.

1959-1963 lotus elite red side view
The 1959-1963 Elite was the first Lotus to be sold with a permanent hardtop coupe body.

Chapman wanted to produce a super-light, two-seat, road-going coupe that could also go motor racing. For that reason, he chose to produce a monocoque structure built almost entirely from fiberglass moldings. The only structural steel in the molding was inside the windshield pillars and door posts, along with a steel subframe to support the front suspension mountings. Everything else -- rear suspension, final drive, engine, and transmission -- bolted directly onto the fiberglass. Frank Costin recommended the small radiator air intake, but it was Kirwan-Taylor and Chapman’s combined aesthetic sense that helped to determine the coupe’s stunningly pretty styling.

The engine was a Coventry-Climax FWE unit -- in effect, the auto production version of the “racing fire pump” design with which Coventry had burst into motor racing just a few years earlier. Cylinder head, block, and sump were all cast aluminum. The engine had a single overhead camshaft and inverted bucket tappets in the classic Alfa Romeo/Jaguar style. Originally, the engine had been designed as a 35-bhp portable fire pump unit for Civil Defense use, but as applied to racing the 1.1-liter unit developed an easy 72 bhp. The FWE displaced 1,216cc as it was normally fitted to the Elite, and could be had in two versions.

Equipped with a single SU carburetor, it produced 75 bhp, but with twin SUs the rating jumped to 83 bhp. Both types were built in quantity, and both survive to this day. The engine’s reputation for using oil became well known, however; it required a quart perhaps every 300 miles. A BMC “B” series gearbox (MGA type) was fitted to all standard Elites, but later “Special Equipment” models used a West German ZF unit. They also came equipped with the 83-bhp engine and a specially designed lightweight final drive unit with ZF gears.

For more information on the 1959-1963 Lotus Elite classic sports cars, continue on to the next page.

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