The Lotus Elite was Anthony Colin Bruce Chapman's first road design following the production of several sports-racing cars. Chapman earned fame in his native England with a series of early-50s racing “specials,” then set up a small company called Lotus to produce small numbers of sports-racing cars to his design. Before long, however, his ambitions turned to road cars, and in 1957 he announced the sleek Elite coupe as his first. Though displayed at that year’s London Motor Show, it wasn’t fully developed, so customer deliveries didn’t begin until 1959.
The Elite was not only the first practical roadgoing Lotus but the world’s first production car with unitized fiberglass construction, with no more than a tiny amount of steel stiffening. (This compares with the Chevrolet Corvette, which uses a fiberglass body on a separate steel frame.) Chapman, who liked his cars as light as possible, thought this the ideal way to save weight without compromising structural rigidity. It also seemed the most affordable approach. A separate chassis was old hat, he felt, while a monocoque would have been too costly if built in steel.
Though beautiful and a real image-booster, the Elite was not a corporate success. It was unrefined and unreliable in many ways, which hindered sales, while production costs proved higher than expected, so it never made any money. Worse, the fiberglass monocoque proved such a difficult construction job that Lotus had to switch suppliers in midstream, the later, higher-quality shells coming from a subsidiary of Bristol Aeroplane Company. Nevertheless, this was valuable production experience that would stand Lotus in good stead when it turned to the altogether more practical Elan in the early Sixties.
And despite its problems, the Elite was a technical marvel. The monocoque was extremely light, as was the engine, an all-aluminum overhead-cam four supplied by Coventry-Climax. Chapman had persuaded C-C to productionize its FWA racing engine, which it enlarged into the torquier FWE unit for the Elite (hence the different end initial).
Independent front suspension and all-disc brakes were expected, but ACBC had devised a simple and effective irs that he cheekily called “Chapman strut” suspension. It was simply a modified MacPherson-strut layout transplanted to the rear, but it fit perfectly with the layout and concept of this lean and lovely coupe. Like sports-racing Lotuses, the Elite had soft springs and relatively firm shock absorbers for a comfortable ride with truly excellent grip and handling balance.
The result of all this was a car that weighed half as much as a Jaguar XK140 but was almost as fast and far more economical, thus further confirming Chapman’s weight-saving design philosophy. Low aerodynamic drag further aided both performance and fuel efficiency, while road manners were responsive -- quite feline, in fact.
But refinement -- that is, the lack thereof -- was the Elite’s downfall. With all running gear bolted directly to the main structure, and given the superior noise-transmission properties of fiberglass versus steel, too much mechanical and road ruckus found their way into the cockpit, making the Elite tiring as an everyday car. Also, the barrel-section doors precluded drop-down windows, so occupants either had to swelter in warm weather or remove the windows completely. And with a wheelbase of just 88.2 inches, cockpit room was limited for larger folks, a literal shortcoming that would characterize future Lotuses.
Finally, there was poor workmanship, another failing that would persist far into Lotus’s future. The Elite was designed, and largely built, as a kit to take advantage of British tax laws that levied a heavier surcharge on assembled cars. Yet even factory-built Elites were rather fragile, especially in America’s more demanding driving conditions. This and the U.S. importer’s financial problems and subsequent upheaval did nothing for sales or Lotus’s reputation here, especially since the Stateside price was a lofty $4780 POE.
Yet when all was in order, the Elite was a magnificent driving machine: quick, smooth-riding, amazingly obedient. And it became even better. Series II cars, produced beginning in 1960, had revised rear suspension and a ZF gearbox, while a few later examples were built as “Super 95” and “Super 105” models with more powerful C-C engines. Still, the last Elite was essentially the same as the first.
Alas, demand evaporated once the Elan was revealed in 1962, and a tentative proposal to continue the Elite with the new Lotus-Ford twincam engine was abandoned.
But the Elite was certainly an auspicious beginning for a small company entering the production-car lists. More than that, it was a modern milestone that was even recognized as such in its own time. Colin Chapman had done well indeed.