Uncommonly beautiful, brilliantly courageous but ultimately doomed. We profile the 1957 Lotus Elite.
“Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angelic Orders? And even if one were to suddenly take me to its heart, I would vanish into its stronger existence. For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror, that we are still able to bear, and we revere it so, because it calmly disdains to destroy us. Every angel is terrible.” René Karl Wilhelm Johann Josef Maria Rilke – First Elegy.
Anthony Colin Bruce Chapman was no angel, but a visionary, risk-taker, rascal, genius? He’s been called many of these things and indeed some of them may even be true. But regardless of one’s opinion of the man, his first serious road car was not only his finest, perhaps the most outstanding sports / racing car design of the 1950s. However it not only broke hearts, both for its beauty and its fragility but also came close to breaking Lotus Cars themselves.
Chapman was qualified stress engineer in addition to being a keen motor racing enthusiast. By the mid-Fifties, he created a growing business making small, lightweight single seaters to compete in the burgeoning 1950s motorsport scene. Following the 1955 Le Mans disaster, motorsport rules militated against large capacity machines; the production 1300 cc GT class being a particularly vibrant and to Chapman, potentially lucrative one, with the right car. Of ideas there was no shortage, but lacking the funds for a steel or alloy-bodied design, a more creative solution would have to be found.
Like many small scale specialists, Chapman was interested in the use of glass-reinforced plastic construction, so combining his knowledge of structures, he envisaged the first production glassfibre stressed monocoque. With a tiny team of engineers, including accountant, Peter Kirwan-Taylor, who drew the basic bodyshape, work began on what was referred to as the Type 14.
The compact, stiff and very light bodyshell was to support a theoretical technical specification of the angels. Front coil springs and double wishbones were derived from those of the Type 12 racer, while at the rear, a novel strut suspension design was employed. With top strut mountings high in the tail, the lower links on alloy hub carriers were located by the driveshafts, forward radius arms and triangular brackets. Carefully located and isolated by rubber bushes, the suspension allowed a good deal of compliance combined with stiff damping, so it rode beautifully. Brakes were disc all round, the rears being mounted inboard.
Power came from a 1216cc single overhead cam Coventry Climax four. Originally designed to power portable fire pumps, it was adapted by the engine specialist for racing and here, road use. The Feather Weight Elite (FWE) engine, with a compression ratio of 10:1 was designed to attain maximum revs from stone cold and developed a healthy 75 bhp with a single carburettor, rising to 90 bhp in twin carb form. Racing models developed a good deal more.
While this doesn’t sound like much, the Type 14’s commendably light weight – pared with maniacal rigour by Chapman – coupled to the work carried out on the car’s bodywork by aerodynamicist, Frank Costin, meant the Elite was a flier. Having worked on such projects as the De Havilland Comet airliner, Costin was probably the pre-eminent exponent of the science of airflow management in the UK.
His alterations to the type 14 saw the nose lowered, air intakes and extractors carefully positioned to improve both air penetration and centre of pressure, while a Kamm-style tail replaced Kirwan-Taylor’s teardrop shape, resulting in a drag coefficient of a staggering 0.29.
Work was slow at Lotus’ North London skunkworks in Edmonton and the car’s projected debut at Le Mans 1957 was missed. The Elite was finally announced at the Earls Court motor show that October to much acclaim. Unsurprisingly however, the car wasn’t ready for sale and it was over a year before the first customers took delivery – and they were in for something of a shock.
Not only was Chapman a bit of a weight-fetishist, he also penny-pinched elsewhere, resulting in a car which required almost constant attention in order to run at all, much less reliably. This was less of an issue for those who simply intended to race – who would essentially rebuild the car themselves, but for road-going owners, the Elite was essentially unfit for the purpose.
The Climax engine’s design allowed for wide clearances to allow it to run at high speed, so it guzzled oil and required a lot of attention to stay in tune, the quality of the bought in components were to typical British standards of the time and worst of all, either Chapman’s calculations were out or Lotus’ supplier was unable to make the bodyshells to spec. Differential mount failures were legion. Overall build quality wasn’t up to much either and it wasn’t until body production was moved to Bristol Plastics in 1959 that quality improved.
But the delightful little Elite shone on the racetracks, winning its class at Le Mans three times, while racer John Lumsden won his class at the Nurburgring 1000kms in one while on a touring holiday. Most Elites were raced, since this was their metier, but as a road car, severe (and unresolved) NVH issues notwithstanding, it was probably unmatched in its litheness, grip, poise, ride quality and compact dimensions. Point to point, a well driven Elite was as fast as anything with three times the displacement.
It was also staggeringly beautiful. Small, yet not dainty, muscular, yet demure, as a piece of automotive styling, the Lotus is just about flawless. In the flesh it’s absolutely tiny and yet everything about its shape, proportions and detailing is so perfectly judged, it beggars belief that this was the work of largely inexperienced upstarts. Either from a visual or indeed conceptual perspective, the Type 14 even now makes every contemporary closed GT of the era seem antediluvian.
Yet it was a commercial failure. By 1961, unsold cars were piling up and with an asking price that would get you into an E-Type (if you could wangle one), and lurid tales of lots of trouble, usually serious, there were few takers. Chapman in desperation offered the car in kit form, which cleared the stocks, but it was obvious he needed to alter course. By 1963 and with around 1000 examples built, the Elite was no more.
Lessons were learned and its replacement Elan was a cheaper, more rounded product (and a fine machine in its own right), but for all the road cars Lotus subsequently produced, nothing ever came close to the purity of intent and sheer delicate grace of the Type 14. Perhaps the most perfectly realised forms of exquisite pain ever.