Conceived in 1957, the 1959-1963 Lotus Elite stood in stark contrast to the then- contemporary Jaguar XK150 by virtue of its tiny size, light 1,450-pound overall weight, all-independent suspension, fiberglass monocoque construction, and aerodynamic design. Although its little 1216cc engine cranked out only 83 horsepower, that was enough to propel the Elite to 118 mph.
The original Elite was one of those cars that no one -- journalist, rival manufacturer, enthusiast, or owner -- could ignore. It aroused passionate feelings from everyone, but those feelings depended strongly on how well one knew the car. The Elite was at once beautiful, infuriating, dauntingly unreliable, mechanically elegant, crude, advanced, uplifting, and rage-provoking. Much more was right than wrong with the Elite, but it could have been developed so much better if Lotus had known anything about road cars before starting on the Elite in 1957.
The 1959-1963 Lotus Elite continues to be a favorite of sports car enthusiasts, despite some glaring mechanical and design problems. See more classic car pictures.
The Elite was not the sort of car to be handed down from father to son with pride and a great deal of reluctance. Rather, it was the sort of car to be passed on with an incredulous grin and a slight shrug of the shoulders. It was a car so technically advanced for its day that the whole motoring world sat up and took notice of its launch. But it had many built-in problems that were never solved to the end of its production run, when it was phased out in favor of the new Elan.
The Elite bristled with advanced features. For one thing, it distinguished itself by being the first car in the world to utilize a fiberglass monocoque structure. Monocoques were old hat by 1957, and so were fiberglass bodies, but the two features had never before been married together. In addition, the Elite sported a smooth, aerodynamic shape at a time when sports cars still had knobby looks. It was so slippery that it could reach an honest 118 miles per hour in spite of its tiny 1216cc engine that cranked out a modest 83-brake horsepower.
The sleek Lotus Elite could reach speeds of 118 miles per hour despite its tiny engine.
The Elite’s extreme lightness, about 1,450 pounds at the curb, also contributed to exceptional fuel economy of up to 40 miles per gallon. The suspension rated very highly, too. Not only was it all-independent, but it managed to provide a supple ride and the ability to go scurrying around corners like no other sports car in the world. Added to that were the four-wheel disc brakes, super-accurate rack-and-pinion steering, and -- of course -- a most attractive and alluring design.
Along with the high marks came the low ones. The Elite was a noisy car inside, with every bit of mechanical commotion seemingly finding its way into the cockpit. No one at Lotus apparently knew anything about deadening or eliminating unwanted noise, especially the symphony that emanated from the final drive, which was bolted directly onto the monocoque itself without any rubber cushioning. Ventilation was somewhat of a poor joke, too. The shape of the doors prevented the plexiglass windows, which were curved in both planes, from retracting, so to get any amount of air into the cabin they had to be completely removed. That called for a certain level of bravery in Britain’s wet and breezy climate.
For more information on the 1959-1963 Lotus Elite classic sports cars, continue on to the next page.
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