Friday, July 1, 2011

Lotus Elite

The Lotus Elite was first unveiled at the Earls Court Motor Show in 1957. Until the introduction of the Elite, Lotus and its founder (Colin Chapman) were famous for making racing cars to compete in road racing, hill climbs, or club racing. The Elite was the first attempt at a dual purpose car that could be truly road worthy as well as competitive in racing. The Elite would meet both objectives with six consecutive competition class wins at LeMans and an enthusiastic motoring public clamoring to purchase the car.
The car was very advanced for its day. It featured front and rear independent suspension, four wheel disc brakes, inboard disc brakes in the rear, and a very slippery shape with a .29 drag coefficient. However, the signature feature of the Elite was its highly innovative fiberglass monocoque construction. Mimicking the construction of a fiberglass boat with an upper and lower section bonded together to create a monolithic load bearing structure, a steel sub frame was attached to support the engine and front suspension. The resulting outcome was a feather light total vehicle weight of just under 1,200 pounds. This was a true manifestation of Colin Chapman’s fanatical mission of weight savings in pursuit of racing performance. The Elite was fast but at a sacrifice to strength. The cars were fragile and even a minor shunt could result in major damage.
The engine was a Coventry Climax four cylinder displacing 1,216 cubic centimeters. The history of this engine is interesting. The Coventry Climax engine was designed and used as a water pump engine on fire trucks prior to being discovered by British sports car manufacturers. The Coventry Climax engine was desired for its light weight aluminum construction and its overhead cam design. The racers found this engine superior in performance to the ubiquitous cast iron / push rod four cylinder engines of equal displacement from MG, Morris, and Ford. The engine produced an impressive 75 horsepower from 74 cubic inches meeting the benchmark of one horsepower per cubic inch. The light weight of the Coventry Climax engine helped the Elite to achieve not just a favorable overall weight but also a balanced front to rear weight distribution.
The body of the Elite was an absolute sensation. The actual body design was a collaborative effort between Peter Kirwin Taylor and Frank Costin. Peter Kirwin Taylor was an accountant friend of Colin Chapman who designed the original shape. Frank Costin was an aerodynamicist for DeHaviland Aircraft Company. It is ironic that one of the most beautiful and brilliant automotive designs of the 1950’s was created by an accountant / merchant banker. The Lotus Elite would be Peter Kirwin Taylor’s one and only automotive design. The car featured is a 1960 Lotus Elite owned by Brian Wertheimer and beautifully restored by Randall Fohr of Horton Restorations (just south of Tacoma). This car drew an admiring crowd at the All British Field Meet in Bellevue on July 24, 2010.

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