The cars : Lotus Elite (Type 75/83) development story

Keith Adams recalls the gloriously unconventional Lotus Elite – a 1974 granturismo designed to take Colin Chapman’s company upmarket.

The stylish wedge reflected a new direction for its maker, but was it what the market wanted?


Lotus Elite: a wedge of modernism

Lotus Elite

Picture the scene – it’s the 1974 London Motor Show, and it’s the first time you’ve clapped eyes on the new Lotus Elite in production form. The dramatic proportions and sci-fi detailing of the firm’s latest car are a jarring move away from the svelte 1960s Elan and Europa, and yet, among the concepts, supercars and glam modernism this new car is now. And it’s fabulous.

Except that, like so many ambitious automotive projects of the time, the Type 75 Elite M50’s launch had been wrong footed by geo-political events. Oil prices were rocketing, and the economy was tanking. Inflation was on the rise, and the fear of social unrest was increasing by the day. Not a time, then, to be launching a £6000 rival to the likes of the Citroën SM and Mercedes-Benz 280 CE.

But in 1967, when Colin Chapman began to voice his desire for a more glamorous granturismo to take his company upmarket and away from its kit-car roots, these difficulties had not even been conceived. As a leading Formula 1 team, Chapman felt that Lotus’ position in the marketplace was up there challenging Ferrari and Porsche, and nothing less than an all-new super-sports car would be the vehicle to vault the company into the stratosphere.

Lotus Elan +2

Lotus and its plan to rule the world

Contrary to popular belief, Chapman had been gently pushing up the Lotus marque long before the arrival of the Elite. As early as 1967, with the launch of the Elan +2 (above), Colin Chapman had been laying the groundwork. It was more expensive than anything that had come before, and proved to be an appealing upward expansion of the gorgeous original.

However, he wanted more than the Elan and Europa could offer and, once he’d made his mind up, Chapman started to build a team to produce a new and ambitious range of Lotus cars to replace this appealing pairing.

According to the Elite’s stylist, Oliver Winterbottom (below), the first thoughts for the new car, known as the M50, came from Colin Chapman on 14 November 1967. It was conceived as a new four-seater Lotus, similar in concept to the Reliant Scimitar GTE but, as Winterbottom said, ‘the project started enthusiastically, but soon lost its way. By the time I got there, everybody was pretty sad, they’d already scrapped one proposal, designed by John Frayling, which was pretty but aerodynamically disastrous.’

The project picks up speed

Ex-Jaguar Engineer (and later Lotus CEO) Mike Kimberley joined the firm in 1969, as did former BRM Engineer Tony Rudd. It was Rudd who initially proposed both the front-engined Elite and the mid-engined Esprit as successors to the Elan +2 and Europa. Winterbottom was also ex-Jaguar and, fresh from his work on the ill-fated XJ21, led the new car in a wedgy direction.

Oliver Winterbottom continued: ‘The first Saturday morning in March 1971, I took my drawing board with Chapman, Kimberley and Rudd, and in the course of the morning, we basically came up with the M50 as we all know it.

‘On the following Monday, I had to draw it as a proper engineering package. Just two weeks later, a quarter-scale model was produced, and featured different bumpers – long before the US-safety regulations were thought of.’

Oliver Winterbottom

Aerodynamics and new kind of interior

However, in order to get Chapman to sign off the M50’s styling, it was going to need to be aerodynamically efficient. ‘We spent a lot of time in the wind tunnel at Specialised Models in Huntingdon, and at the Motor Industry Research Association (MIRA), and in seven sessions we produced a landmark low-drag, low lift car.’

Chapman himself personally contributed to the chassis and suspension design, according to Winterbottom: ‘Colin Chapman designed the backbone chassis at his house over a weekend. It was a scheme, not detailed obviously, but he was the man responsible for the basic thinking of these cars.’

While it looked like no other previous Lotus, the M50 followed the same mechanical template as the Elan before it. So, it emerged as a 2+2 with a backbone chassis and fibreglass shell – but there was so much more to it than that.

Lotus M70 Turin motor show 1972

Delays in the programme

Progress on the M50 programme was beset by delays, the first being its interior design. Initially, it was to have a conventional dashboard, as favoured by Winterbottom, but that plan was soon blown out of the water by Colin Chapman, who wanted something more dramatic to match its exciting new exterior styling.

Chapman had met up with Giorgetto Giugiaro at the 1972 Turin Motor Show, which saw the public unveiling of Ital Design’s Lotus-based mid-engined sports car concept – which would later emerge as the M70 Esprit (above). At the show, he offered the job of styling the interior of the M50 to Ital Design.

As Winterbottom later recalled, he produced the model in double quick time, returning it to Hethel. ‘Chapman said to me, for the production car, you have to copy that exactly. Luckily it wasn’t me that had to do that – it was Colin Spooner and two other Engineers – and it took them nearly a year to complete the process, and caused a huge delay in the programme.’

From there, the M50 was essentially fully prototyped by the end of 1972.

Lotus Elite Type 75
Lotus Elite Type 75 prototype with Mike Kimberley (left) and Oliver Winterbottom (right)

All-new engine, all-new body tech

Project M50 would end up being the first Lotus to be powered by the firm’s new 1973cc twin-cam slant-four, 16-valve Type 907 developing 155bhp. Of course, Chapman being the astute businessman that he was, much of the engine’s initial development was bankrolled by Jensen, which elected to use the engine in 140bhp form for its Jensen-Healey sports car, introduced in 1972.

It would also debut the firm’s new glassfibre moulding process, Vacuum-Assisted Resin Injection (VARI). Essentially, the M50 would be built in two halves, the upper and the lower. The join would appear as a very obvious feature line running the length of the body, but was none the worse for it. It would mean that its Eclat sister car would be easily spun off from the Elite, and would also be used very successfully in the Esprit.

And as 1974 dawned, Lotus’ ambitious re-invention – took the form of a three-pronged model programme. The Elite would be the first in 1974, but the closely-related Type 76 Eclat (below) would follow in 1975, with the Esprit (Type 79) in 1976. All would be powered by the Type 907, and would completely reset the company’s output at an altogether more elevated price point. It was certainly an audacious plan.

Lotus Eclat 1975
Lotus Eclat would follow the Elite on to the market in 1975, and was identical from the waistline down – the main difference being a traditional Coupé-style roofline and bootlid

On to launch

When the Lotus Elite was launched in May 1974, it certainly made an impact as the UK’s most expensive four-cylinder car (with Morris Marina door handles and 1800/Maxi interior door pulls no less) and, in one respect might be an easier sell in the midst of the First Energy Crisis than it might have been had there been a more complex V6 or V8 under the bonnet.

Unusually, it came in four versions, known as the 501, 502, 503 and 504. The basic model had a four-speed Ford transmission and manual steering. The 502 added air conditioning and a five-speed Austin Maxi-derived gearbox. Power assistance was offered with the 503, with the 504 subsequently also being offered with a power-sapping automatic gearbox.

Performance – on paper – was up there with its rivals thanks to a low claimed drag coefficient and kerbweight (1043kg). The 0-60mph time of the entry-level Elite 501 was 8.1 seconds and it went on to a maximum speed of 125mph. Being a 16-valve design, it thrived on revs, and needed to be worked hard to get the most from it.

Lotus Elite Type 75
Lotus Elite in launch form in 1974. Styling was certainly eye catching, and very much right for its time

What the road testers said

Motor Sport magazine stated in its June 1974 issue: ‘Colin Chapman and his team have thus tilted directly at the expensive luxury car market, providing a possible economical alternative to Ferrari or Lamborghini owners wishing to trade down. It will be interesting to see whether owners of those more expensive cars will be attracted by the idea of a four-cylinder, 2.0-litre engine.’

Autocar said that Lotus had benchmarked the Elite against the Mercedes-Benz 350SL and Jaguar XJ12, too. But the real test would come when the magazines started pitching the Elite alongside its granturismo rivals.

CAR there first, comparing the Lotus Elite with the Citroën SM and Porsche 911 in its September 1974 issue. It concluded: ‘It’s a frustrating car. It is right in many ways, and yet fails in the one that is so vital: performance. The practicality of the body is beyond reproach; the chassis is well enough sorted out that there can be few grumbles about the ride, handling and roadholding.

Lotus Elite group test

‘It’s the engine that lets the car down so miserably: it doesn’t have enough low and mid-range torque to allow the driver to take full advantage of the handling and roadholding. As a four-seater, the SM would still be our choice. Unhappily, the Elite does not yet provide the best of the four-seater GT world, or superiority in the sports coupe sphere, either.’

Autocar magazine concluded in its January 1975 road test: ‘The Elite 503, in spite of what its specification includes as standard, is not a cheap car, and there are some points which we suggest need improving.

‘But, besides being a tremendous. attention-drawer, it is now a delightful car, and because of a most pleasing combination of good steering, high fuss-free cornering power, good seating and ride and good performance, it is most relaxing to drive. We would like it quieter, but nonetheless we like it greatly.’

Great concept, poor execution

So, the Elite emerged as a great idea that had a few rough edges at launch. The sleek, eye-catching design certainly attracted lots of attention, if not love, from plaudits. Although it wasn’t that much larger than the Elan +2, it looked much larger, with genuine road presence – what was needed at this price point.

However, there were quality issues, as well as some rough edges which came part and parcel with the car’s rushed final development. CAR magazine said of its test car in June 1974: ‘Overall finish is good, but our car, at least, suffered from its fair share of minor problems.

‘An electrical fault meant that the alternator sent too much charge to the battery, boiling its contents. Furthermore, the lights occasionally went dim when the air conditioning thermostat went about its work, and when adjusting the driver’s seat squab, the lever came off.’

Lotus Elite Type 75

Slow sales, model improvements

Despite the splash it made, and the Elite’s usefulness as a four-seater GT car with decent luggage room, sales were slow. The high price was certainly a factor, as was the general poor state of the UK economy, but nagging doubts over the build quality and reliability chipped away at buyer confidence.

The good news was that the Eclat’s arrival in 1975 had boosted production, and its more conventional shape proved more palatable to discerning buyers. Its lower price also helped considerably.

But Eclat buyers were missing a trick, because the Elite’s practicality was a delightful intended by-product of its unusual shape. The glass hatchback and large boot made it a useful long-distance tourer (even if the busy engine didn’t), while generous equipment made them easy to live with. But this alone wasn’t enough, and sales didn’t reach the numbers that Chapman envisaged for the car – clearly monied buyers of the 1970s weren’t too keen on jumping out of their Ferraris and Porsches, despite the F1 team’s outstanding performance.

Lotus continuously chipped away at the Elite, working to improve it. Less than a year into its production run, CAR‘s Mel Nicholls re-evaluated it by taking a trip to the Hebrides in an improved 503. He concluded: ‘So the summit of Lotus’s mountain is clearly in sight, and I think at last I might be coming to grips with the Elite 503’s £7400 price tag.

‘I know it to be a car that commands the utmost attention wherever it goes. I know it to be one of the finest handling cars available. I know that on a demanding road like that one in Argyll, it is devilishly fast and deliciously enjoyable. I know that I am growing to like it very much.’

Lotus Elite Type 83

The final evolution

In 1980, an improved version of the Elite was rolled out in time for the 1980 British Motor Show in Birmingham.  For its engineering changes, it received the new 2174cc Type 912 engine, now boasting 160bhp and a flatter torque curve to level off some of its peakiness. Once again, the new Lotus power unit had appeared elsewhere first, making its debut in the Talbot Sunbeam Lotus.

Other improvements included the fitment of a Getrag gearbox, which offered a far more positive change, while the visual changes were kept to a minimum with the original rear lamps being exchanged for a set of Rover SD1 units. Long-term owners could also take heart from the newly galvanised backbone chassis.

But these changes were enough to turn around the sales success – or lack of it – for the Elite. Throughout its life it had been dogged by production and quality issues, while the world economy conspired against its stellar ambitions – in the end, it was phased out in 1982, with 2535 examples built. Its exit left the way clear for continued production of the Esprit, and the transformation of the Eclat (1500 built) into the excellent Excel (2075 built), which lived on until 1992.

Conclusion

The Elite was a brave experiment for Lotus. History may judge it as a gloriously-styled failure, but there’s no escaping the brilliance of the overall concept and excellence of its handling, ride and steering. It may have been a leap too far for Lotus in the early days of the First Energy Crisis and subsequent global recession, but its efficient engine set the template for other makers to follow in later years.

The slow build up of production just when demand was expected to be at its highest was also an issue. Around half of Lotus’ workforce ended up being laid off in 1974, with a drop-off in quality – and delivering cars a real challenge. How much? Lotus didn’t even have press cars until late in the summer of 1974.

The Elite’s lasting legacy will be that it managed to help Lotus move away from its kit-car roots and onto the shopping lists of more well-heeled enthusiast buyers. Time wasn’t on its side – it would have been so different had it made it onto market at the beginning of 1973 – and neither was the glamour and drama of its sister car, the Esprit. Once that was on the market, and being driven by James Bond, the Elite became rather overshadowed…

Nice concept, shame about circumstance…

Lotus Elite Type 83

Keith Adams

21 Comments

  1. I am somewhat ambivalent about the 501 Elite, a car that could never rise to the aching beauty of the Type 14 Elite. That said, Winterbottom’s early models and sketches were cleaner, crisper and — yes — prettier than the car that made production. Dogged by Chapman’s love of chrome trim — slathered on the A-pillars, side windows and hatch –it could have been a more subtle, yet no less dramatic design. Nor was it helped by the fact that the planned frameless hatch glass kept shattering, forcing the move to a more conventional framed design.

    Stylistically, I would have chopped a foot off the nose (though that would have harmed the excellent crash test results), used a less severe — and deep — dip in the side glass, and stuck to the original bumper design, but it’s easy to criticize from a distance of 50 years. The car, especially in the right color, still stuns today.

    If only Chapman had listened to Winterbottom’s concerns about the ItalDesigin interior. Not only was it overly complex, it forced a number of other small changes that affected the rest of the interior. Also, the use of oversize seats robbed the cabin of space and utility, making it much more cramped and the rear seats less useful than planned.

    And while the car was designed to use a Lotus designed and built V8, what it — and the Eclat and Excel — should have received was their own version of the turbocharged four later added to the Esprit. It would have been much more in keeping with the Lotus ethos, though Chapman was insistent that the company needed a quad cam V8 that, in a pinch, could be used for the next assault on the Indy 500.

  2. I love the Elite, the Elcat and the later Excel. Unfortunately it was typical Lotus, badly built and developed. The later Excel with Toyota parts were a lot better – i mearly bought one in the 90s before I bottled it!. It was a shame as a car the product was right, wedgey, good looking and great handling.

  3. Like the donor car for later models’ tailights, the Elite appeared to come good at a revamp.
    Perhaps it’s a shame that it didn’t get as long a run as the SD1 did following a facelift. (Over four years compared with just two.)

  4. Maybe the reason why the Elite was limited to 125 mph was because Lotus buyers who wanted more power were directed towards the Esprit. The Elite was intended as a more radical alternative to the Reliant Scimitar and had a similar large boot and 2+2 seating. Also with the energy crisis and soaring inflation, Lotus was hoping to attract buyers who wanted performance but without the 12 mpg economy of its rivals. Problem was the Elite was priced very high, quality was poor on early cars, and performance didn’t quite match the looks, so sales were slow.

    • There is no evidence that top speed was artificially limited on the Elite. The later Excel SE, according to well placed speculation, had a top speed that risked exceeding the maximum specified rotation speed for the prop shaft, hence spats were fitted behind the rear wheels to add drag!

      • Hello, Richard, I should have said the car had a top speed of 125 mph, rather than suggesting there was some kind of engine limit imposed by Lotus( which there wasn’t). Also 125 mph was very good for a two litre in 1974 and later models could reach 132 mph. I think the reasoning at Lotus was if you wanted Ferrari like performance, you bought the Esprit, but if you wanted a more practical and refined car, you went for an Elite or Eclat.
        Actually for all the Elite and the more coupe like Eclat only sold 4000 between them over eight years, they created a new niche for Lotus and along with the Esprit and Sunbeam Lotus, probably made more money than the small sports cars they replaced.

  5. The Elite was never fitted with the Ford 4 speed gearbox and 13” wheels. That honour belonged to the entry level 520 Eclat. The 501 Elite managed without power steering and air conditioning! The later Eclat Sprint could also be ordered in 520 spec, and it was a lot of fun to drive.

    On gearboxes, the 5 speed unit fitted to Series 1 Elites and Eclats used the Maxi gear set inside a Lotus casing. It was first used in the Elan +2S 130/5.

    • How was the Maxi gearbox in the +2s and then the Elite?

      5 speeds are good of course, but seems unusual to use a gearbox designed for in sump transverse engined cars in a RWD car? BL for example never used it in any of its RWD cars.

      • BL didn’t even use it in the Princess, even though it really needed a 5 speed gearbox!

        Officially it wasn’t strong enough to cope with the power of the O & E6 engines.

  6. In reality it was a mistake for Lotus to give a higher priority to producing an overpriced poorly executed shooting brake like the Elite over a direct replacement for the Elan. That is not to say the Elite concept could not have been revived at a later date during the Excel era.

    The Winterbottom book notes the loss of revenue from the cheaper Elan was obvious straight away and an attempt was made to develop an Elan replacement in March 1974 known as project M80 (would later be reused on another model), before it was stopped by Fred Bushell because there was barely enough funds to keep the company running let alone for more new products at the time.

    • Also read that what became the Clan Crusader started up as a Lotus project, described as either a competing idea for what became the Europa or a successor to the Lotus Seven that was rejected by Chapman.

      So Lotus basically had two small sports car projects in the Elite-based Elan M80 and the smaller Lotus Clan (Eclan?) ideas to help it better weather the turbulent 1970s.

  7. The partnership with Talbot, while sadly shortlived, was a clever move that benefited both Talbot and Lotus: Talbot actually had a car people aspired to and Lotus technology was available in a mainstream car showroom. The Sunbeam Lotus, with its 2.2 litre engine and 122 mph performance, transformed what was a ho hum supermini into a real performance car that was well loved by its owners. I wonder if the Sunbeam made much money for Lotus.

  8. I’ve had a 1975 503 elite for 20 years now and loved every minute of it. It lets in water and the heater doesn’t work but it’s sheer beauty brings a warm glow whenever I see it

    Awaited green was my fav colour but my lotus yellow is not going anywhere. Thanks ACBC

  9. The big conundrum was the oil crisis. The Elite gave the enthusiast an economy super car which these days would have had a good take up, but not only was a four cylinder not what Sportscar owners in that bracket wanted, but it was not a particularly nice one. Had Lotus not committed to engine manufacture, there was any number of multi cylinder engine that would have suited it better, and encouraged better take up. The Elite was and is a marvellous design, and deserved better.

  10. Allegedly the final iteration, the Eclat Excel (It’s official name, to save on type approval!) was faster round the Hethel test track than the non turbo Esprit.
    I must put my jigsaw puzzle example of an Excel SE back together

  11. I didn’t even own a car when the Elite was current, but if I had been in the car market I would never have considered it due to the 4-cylinder engine. When spending so much money I would have wanted something more special.

  12. Lotus wanted to move upmarket in the seventies and ditched its small sports cars in favour of cars it hoped would take on the Italians and would sell on lower running costs and the patriotic card. Remember, in the 1973-75 period, the price of petrol doubled, inflation hit 25%, and wealthier motorists were being hit with an 83% top tax rate. Lotus were probably hoping someone with a gas guzzling Lamborghini would downtrade to their products, which in the case of the Esprit was a very nice car. However, the Elite sort of missed the mark as it was expensive for its size and was very niche.

  13. Chapman’s desire to move upmarket and away from kit-cars is understandable, however a small 2-seater sports car or two with an Elite-based one at minimum would have done much to boost Lotus’s profitability and mitigate their financial troubles to belatedly bring their planned Type 909 V8 into production from the late 70s to early 80s.

    The agreement with Toyota may have also opened other possibilities with replacing the Imp powered sports car on top of the Toyota-powered Lotus M90 project, Toyota was a major shareholder of Daihatsu. Although there was also the Norton Rotary engine in Project Nora mentioned in Oliver Winterbottom’s book and the stillborn Lotus-Sinclair Roadster project in Barrie Wills non-DeLorean book may have some Rover involvement.

    It is entirely plausible Lotus would have followed the example of Lamborghini, Ferrari and others in producing their V8 with displacements as low as 2-litres if required then their planned 4011cc in the Type 909 in addition to turbocharging the Slant Four to better distinguish the Esprit from the Elite/Eclat/Excel.

    Even larger carmakers were caught off guard by the fuel crises and thought buyers trends would continue to move towards bigger engines.

  14. Porsche recognised that having a single model range powered by a thirsty 3.3 litre air cooled engine could harm sales and brought out the 924, a smaller Porsche powered by a 2 litre Volkswagen engine that made Porsche ownership more affordable. The purists hated it and regarded it as a poseur’s car, but it sold well to a new market and spawned the 944, which offered better performance and was still relatively cheap to own. Actually Porsche managed to cover all bases by the early eighties, from the 924 and 944, to the traditional 911 and the V8 engined 028, which was a grand tourer aimed at buyers of the Mercedes 500 SEC.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


*


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.