Pawel Litwinski, courtesy of Bonhams
Pawel Litwinski, courtesy of Bonhams
With the Lotus 14 of 1959 — better known as the Elite — Colin Chapman demonstrated that his skills as a racing-car designer and constructor could just as easily be applied to production road cars. Just as innovative as Lotus’s outright competition cars, the Elite featured a fiberglass monocoque body tub, independent suspension all round (based on that of Lotus’ racing monopostos) and four-wheel disc brakes, the rears mounted inboard. Its engine was the 4-cylinder Coventry Climax FWE, a single-overhead-cam unit of 1,216 cc producing 75 hp, while the gearbox, an MGA unit fitted with an alloy casing and modified bell housing, was sourced from BMC. The classically styled body — the work of stylists Peter Kirwan-Taylor, John Frayling and aerodynamicist Frank Costin — possessed an admirably low coefficient of drag, although it made few concessions for comfort or noise suppression. That is not likely to have bothered the Elite’s customers, for whom its 112-mph top speed and superlative handling were of far greater importance than creature comforts. Indeed, so successful was the Elite on the racetrack that the car dominated its class well into the 1960s. Noteworthy achievements include five class victories at Le Mans and two wins in the prestigious Index of Thermal Performance. The excellent Elite offered here, chassis number 1296, was delivered new to United States Lotus distributor Chamberlain of Burbank, CA. Owner Jay Chamberlain had secured the U.S. Lotus import franchise after a successful international racing career, notably topped by his class win at the 1957 Le Mans 24 Hours, where Chamberlain competed in a Lotus Eleven. Invoiced on August 8, 1960, 1296 was configured as a left-hand-drive car, built in the second series of Elite production and benefiting from the higher-quality coachwork constructed at the Bristol Aircraft Company. The car was fitted with Coventry Climax engine number 8863 — the same unit in the car today — and finished in a racy white color over a red interior. The immediate history after being sold from Chamberlain remains unknown, but when acquired by Maryland resident Harold Allen in the mid-1970s, the Elite is said to have been in good, well-kept condition. Mr. Allen would keep the Elite, mostly in static storage, until 2011, when it was purchased by a Southern California-based sports car enthusiast and restorer. The new owner embarked on a full restoration soon after his acquisition, although the Elite was still in remarkably complete, solid and original condition. The body was stripped and refinished in its original white, and the interior was reupholstered in period-correct black vinyl — all done to exacting factory standards. The suspension and braking systems were refurbished as well. Engine work was performed by Coventry Climax specialist Bill Hutton Engineering in Clarksville, TN, while the remaining aspects of the restoration and assembly were handled by the owner’s own restoration shop in Southern California. Today, the sporting Elite presents extremely well, and it is poised to offer a tremendous driving experience on twisty roads or a racetrack. Very few Elites have been restored to the level seen here, and fewer still can be regarded as being as genuine as 1296. Offering iconic styling and exciting engineering, these cleverly designed sports cars are sought by enthusiasts around the world.

SCM Analysis


Vehicle:1960 Lotus Elite Series II
Number Produced:1,047
Original List Price:$4,780
Distributor Caps:$25
Chassis Number Location:Above the Lotus chassis plate on the right side of the firewall in the engine compartment
Engine Number Location:Hand-scribed on the Lotus chassis plate and stamped on the vertical surface of the block below the dynamo
Club Info:Worldwide Club Lotus Elite; Lotus Ltd.
Investment Grade:B

This car, Lot 189, sold for $97,900, including buyer’s premium, at Bonhams’ Scottsdale auction on January 16, 2014.

The original Lotus Elite of 1959–63 pushes a lot of car-collector buttons: It was a technologically advanced car in its day, it was made in limited quantity, it has notable racing accomplishments, it is beautiful to behold, and it comes with a large dose of mojo.

Applying lessons learned from racing, Colin Chapman produced an innovative design with the Elite: a fiberglass monocoque structure with steel frame members and suspension pickup points embedded in the fiberglass. This resulted in a very lightweight car at about 1,450 pounds dry weight. This also meant fragility, another Chapman trademark. In the early cars especially, the fiberglass was prone to cracking and failure at the all-important suspension pickup points. However, that problem was lessened when the fiberglass shell was modified and production was transferred to Bristol Aircraft, where our subject car was produced.

A streetable racer

The Elite was the first car that Lotus built specifically for the street, even though its racing potential was no coincidence. It was also the first Lotus with a permanent hard-top coupe body.

The Elite got the suspension of the single-seat Lotus 12 — Chapman’s first open-wheel race car. This suspension comprised a four-wheel independent suspension with transverse wishbones, coil springs, shock absorbers, an anti-sway bar at the front, namesake Chapman struts at the rear and rack-and-pinion steering.

The Elite also had all disc brakes (inboard at the rear), and a remarkably low 0.29 coefficient of drag achieved without benefit of computer-aided design or even wind-tunnel testing. The result was that most of the Elite’s contemporaries seemed like lumbering family cars.

Although conceived by Colin Chapman, it was Peter Kirwan-Taylor who produced the styling sketches for what would become the Elite. Frank Costin, Chief Aerodynamic Engineer for the de Havilland Aircraft Company, helped to modify the shape to reduce drag.

That low drag was necessary, as the engine selected for the car was the Coventry Climax 1,216-cc, 4-cylinder known as the FWE (“Feather Weight Elite”). This was a modified version of what was originally a fire-pump engine. With a cylinder head, block, and sump made of cast aluminum, and a single overhead camshaft with a single SU carburetor on the early cars, it produced just 75 hp and developed a reputation for burning oil, requiring a quart every few hundred miles. The transmission was a 4-speed BMC B-series box shared with an MG.

Period road tests reported a top speed between 112 and 118 mph, a 0–60 mph time of 11–12 seconds, and fuel mileage as high as 40 mpg.

Fragile, fun and collectible

Lotus made just 1,047 examples of the Elite before attention turned to producing its successor, the Elan. Unfortunately, the Elite’s price was fixed low enough that Chapman reported losing 100 pounds sterling on each car. Given the fragility and frequent racing use of the car, the survival rate has not been high. However, recent years have witnessed a significant increase in interest in the model as collectors have begun to notice the Elite’s many virtues.

Lotus was then, as now, a niche marque, appealing to a certain breed of drivers who often used them in competition. These drivers appreciated their advanced features so much that they forgave their fragility, cramped cockpits and lack of ventilation. As a car for the rebel sportsman, it was in the avant-garde of the Swingin’ Sixties — in short, a car for the thinking, fun-loving nonconformist. If Jaguar had class, Lotus had mojo.

This particular example was the subject of a thorough and correct restoration, with a pair of Weber carburetors replacing the original single 1.5-inch SU and cast-iron manifold. The only other obvious deviations from original spec are the orange directional light lenses, both front and rear, when Elites were originally supplied with white/clear turn-signal lenses for all North American deliveries.

The sale price of this Elite fell somewhat short of the pre-auction estimate of $110,000–$130,000, and is in the lower half of the SCM Pocket Price Guide range of $75,000–$140,000. As an excellent example with a recent and high-quality restoration by a specialist shop, and with rare and desirable — outside of the U.K. — left-hand drive, I call this example well bought. ♦

(Introductory description courtesy of Bonhams.)

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