1959-1963 Lotus Elite

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.

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1959-1963 lotus elite blue side view
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.

1959-1963 lotus elite engine red
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.

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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.

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

Apart from the fiberglass monocoque, the suspension of the 1959-1963 Lotus Elites stood out as the most advanced of their innovations. The independent front end came straight out of the Type 12 single-seat Lotus race car, combined with rack-and-pinion steering, while the independent rear end featured what Lotus always called “Chapman struts.” They were in reality the same type of combined spring/damper units as MacPherson struts. The drive shafts were of fixed length, and the car had inboard disc brakes. Center-lock wire-spoke wheels were also fitted.

The suspension was mechanically elegant and the geometry very precise. More than that, though, Chapman’s Elite had a ride quite different from that of any competitor. It allowed for more than the usual amount of wheel movement, resulting in a far more supple ride than anyone could have expected from a sports car. Even though the Elite could be encouraged to roll noticeably, it always remained amazingly controllable and possessed inch-accurate steering.

1959-1963 lotus elite steering wheel
The suspension of the 1959-1963 Lotus Elites stood out as the most advanced of their innovations, with rack-and-pinion steering high among
their achievements.

Lotus could not put the Elite into production right away. The original Hornsey factory was much too small and cramped. Until Lotus moved to larger facilities in Cheshunt, just a few miles further north from the center of London, and until it had completed the car’s development, no Elite could be delivered to a customer. The unfinished prototype shown at the British Earls Court exhibition in October 1957 was fitted with the wrong engine and didn’t even have a radiator or driveshaft.

Thus, it wasn’t until 1959 that series production finally got under way. At that time, Britain levied a hefty Purchase Tax on the sale of new cars. The tax didn’t apply to car kits, however, so Elites were delivered in kit form to customers looking to save some money. The kits -- some of which were poorly assembled by the buyers -- go a long way toward explaining why so many of the early cars were badly finished.

Over the next five years, Lotus phased in an improved body shell, a major engineering alteration, and myriad minor improvements. The first body monocoques were produced by Maximar of Pulborough of Sussex, but after 250 units had been made, Colin Chapman placed an order with Bristol Aeroplane Plastics for the next run.

These bodies were used from July 1960 onward -- about 750 shells of what are now referred to as the Series II Elites. The Bristol-built shells were better made and better shaped -- and they’re now in more demand by enthusiasts. Series II cars also used a different location for the rear suspension strut, and many trim and minor development changes took effect. A higher proportion of the Series II cars utilized the twin-SU-carbureted engine, and a large number had the specially designed ZF S4-12 gearbox as well.

A limited number of Lotus Super 95, Super 100, and Super 105 Elites were built. They were really factory-prepared racing versions, with engine horsepower outputs corresponding to the model title. They went on to race with great success at Le Mans and Sebring.

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

If you find a Lotus Elite today, you’ll have to ante up a good bit of money for it -- up to twice the original U.S. price of $4,500 for a clean one. While on the one hand the relative value of an Elite is due to its limited production, on the other it speak­s well for the car’s unique and advanced design and its reputation for perfor­mance. Most of all, the Elite stands as one of Colin Chapman’s many lasting accomplishments.

Find specifications for the 1959-1963 Lotus Elite in the following chart:

1959-63 Lotus Elite Specifications


Front-engine, rear-drive, two-seat, two-door coupe

Fiberglass monocoque chassis

Fiberglass body
Dimensions and Capacities

88 inches
Overall length
148 inches
Curb weight
1,450 pounds

Engine type
Coventry-Climax FWE ohc inline 4-cylinder
1,216 cc/74.2 ci
Fuel Delivery
1 or 2 SU or 2 Weber carburetors
Net bhp @ rpm
Transmission type
MG 4-speed or ZF 4-speed manual

Front suspension
Independent, wishbone,coil springs, shocks, anti-sway bar
Rear suspension
Independent, Chapman struts, trailing arm
Rack and pinion
Brake system
4-wheel discs
15-inch wire, knockoff hubs

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