Return of the Elite! The '68 Twin Cam Elite
Car Magazine, January 1968
AND WHAT'S SO SPECIAL ABOUT Elites? They went out two models ago, you'll say. And you'll be right. But there is something special about Elite: they're coming back!
But not in their old form. They're coming back revamped and re-engined and CAR has scooped the pool with the first-ever test of the work prototype.
The original Elite, as you'll recall, was a real head-turner produced like so many of Chapman's cars, well ahead of its time and killed off prematurely by maintenance and production problems. It was the sort of car that transformed old men into young boys again, introducing a sort of stylish sophistication into sports car motoring. Sports car thnking, pre-Elite, had been in the time-hounoured, hard-sprung, uncomfortable, draught and not particularly aerodynamic or even good-looking traditions, Powered by the FWE Coventry Climax engine, the Eite with its sleek wind-cheating glassfibre body was a howling success on the roads and a screaming success on the tracks. Drivers like Les Leston and Graham Warner made their names running wheel-in-whel to the delight of Lotus fans at Brands. Even I can remember that.
Low weight, sleek lines and the 85 horses from the aluminum engine gave the original car a top speed of 115 mph pre-B days when you could use most of it. And 99 mph could be had in third gear. All sort sof people raved about the Elite: even the hard-bitten staff of CAR back in January of 1966 rated in higher than the Elan in the pure good-looks department. But it had its disadvantages. Commercially the Elan turned out to be much more attractive - easier and cheaper to build and with the Ford double-knocker engine, and Ford and STI running gear and ultras-simple transmission, far more reliable.
Yet how much prettier was the Elite than the Elan. people continue to say. How much better was its roadholding. All of which has made Mr. Chapman think again about something he'd thought about before he produced the Elan - to wit, the possibility of dropping-in that twin-cam Ford and updating the car itself.
The first time the subject carne up Chapman called all his lads together. includmg Ron Hickman in those days. and asked how possible it was to do this sort of thing. Being good boffins they pondered awhile and then said 'Feasibility drawings would lilke a week, then we could assess it at blueprint stage in about three weeks and have a test installation in two months.
'Nonsense' cried the Great One. 'Get an Elite kit delivered to Team Lotus after lunch. get a twin cam from producuon and deliver !hat to Team Lotus. They'll open the bonnet, lower it in, cobble together whatever needs cobbling - then we can see what we're doing. Five days later the first twin cam Elite was on the road; and running fast.
The trouble was it didn't handle. They'd dropped in engine too far forward and the result was that the back end kept wanting to be the front and the whole thing was slightly off balance. The car was eventually sold and was last heard of being extricated from a hedge in Northhamptonshire.
Then came David Lazenby, the general manager of Lotus Components Lot. He'd been working on the Indy project and when that would up he was given Components to run. One of the perks that went with the job was a company car.
Remembering the old bodged-up twin cam, he opted to build his own company car. He managed to convince Chapman that it was a cheap way for the company to provide him with a tweaky runabout and at the same time initiate a no-cost reassessment of its performance and reliability.
The boss agreed, largely because it looked to do providing an answer to the problem of what to with 40 perfectly good and still brand new Elite shells that happened to be lying around ...
Lazenby's twin-cam Elite is an improvement on the original cobbled and chopped illegitimate version. He started by fining a dual braking system, thicker front roll bar and Series One springs and dampers. The interior was retrimmed Elan-style, complete with Elan seats, and the short stubby gear lever was given a close-ratio Ford box to live in. The whole lot was dropped on to 13in 4.5J wire wheels, which make the car even lower and sleeker than before and give improved roadholding by way of a lower C of G.
Lazenby had put 11,000 miles on his hack prototype before we talked our way into the seat. The only troubles he'd had were four blown exhaust gaskets and a lack of rearward visibility. He overcame the blown gasket problem by fining new ones and the rear vision problem was cured by fining a larger mirror. Now he can see the law coming-very important in a motor car which gets up to the legal limit as effortlessly as this one.
Lessons were being learned all the time. The car that we got it was by no means perfect: in fact some of its shortcomings were-downright annoying. But this is what a prototype is for. We promised Lazenby that we wouldn't criticise the more obvious faults since this would be unfair. He was developing them out of the car before going ahead with production. which is just as well.
However, it's worth looking at some of the early problems just so that you can check when your rich friend lets you drive one round the block. The handbrake doesn't work worth knowing about, but the good David already has a scheme to make this okay. Fumes from the engine leak in at an alarming rate and even Lazenby rides around with at least one of the drop-out windows always out: this will be cured by plugging and effective sealing around the bulkhead. I hooe so: since 1945 there must have been a rule written prohibiting the use and manufacture of mobile gas chambers.
But to continue. The diff, at full gallop, sounds like one of those sink waste disposal units that has been fed a milk bottle by mistake. Much of this is in the mounting-resonances and vibrations and technical things like that. There are thoughts of mounting the diff on a subframe which could cure all or some of the mixer noises, though Elites were always rowdy in that department and nobody seemed to mind. Overall noise generally could be cut down by the addition of more lining felt in strategic places. There's not a lot of foot room around the pedals, and the only answer to this one is to buy smaller-sized shoes. And that's it, really.
The engine in our car was a tired 15,000 miler and the clutch felt like it feels when you put your foot into a day-old cow pat. The performance figures we got weren't all that startling-in fact they were nowhere as good as a good Elan or even an old FWE Elite in fighting trim. This was due almost entirely to the boggy clutch. Obviously with a good engine and clutch the Twim Cam Elite will be as fast as, and probably faster than, a good Elan.
The first thing you notice when you slide into the 1968 Elite is that it fits and everything is in the right place. The next thing you notice is that there is an automatic distributor cut-out at 6000rpm, which doesn't much matter since the twin cam produces its max power at around five-five.
Jeff Daniels said that we weren't to break Mrs Castle's limit on the M4 (why?-Ed) and he sat in with me with clocks and slide rules - a great help on jobs like this (he's the only mobile 17stone computer I know). If we had disregarded the limits we would have been doing 93mph at five-five in top and 103 mph at 6000 just before the cut-out came in. Don't ask me how we worked out that 11O mph on the clock is equal to a genuine 103.
Cruising in top gear she will go from 60 to 80mph in 7.3sec and from 70 to 90 in 9.5. Third gear takes you all the way up to 84. which makes the Elite a great high speed long-distance touring car. With both of the drop-out windows out there's practically no draught and almost no wind noise. That's aerodynamics for you.
On the test track and through the handling course we experienced roadholding the like of which I haven't come across outside a competition car. On the wide-open skidpan we started to toss it around, trying hard to lose it: practically impossible. The only way to get it screwed out of shape was to line up for a full-bore turn and then chop locks and lift your foot right off. Even then it didn't really want to get away. Full bore gradual turns could be taken in complete control with the inside front wheel well off the deck. And the really long ones worked out best if you steered from the rear end with the inside front wheel touching down every 20yd or so.
Geting the car into a controlled opposite-lock slide wasn't easy. But she goes where the front wheels point, and can be forced into a directional change at high speed without any drama at all. As a result, confidence comes like an all-enveloping London fog and you keep pushing a linle bit further looking for the limit. It's a limit that never comes.
But what was all this at the beginning about the Elite coming back as a production car? We kid you not. Lazenby now reckons that he's got it to the stage where he canr productionize it in bug-free form. And for once Lotus are being realistic. They will make them in batches of five to order.
"We don't anticipate a rush on orders - in fact we couldn't cope with volume production" says Lazenby. "But we do know there are people about who still rate the Elite as a very desirable motor and who would buy an up-to-date one with 100percent new parts and built-in reliability."
What about cost? Somewhere in the region of £1500, perhaps a shade higher, which makes it more expensive-than an Elan. Guarantee? Six months. parts and labour.
So there you are. Roll up, roll up - the first 40 cash customers will be the lucky ones.