1960 Lotus Elite – Decades Before McLaren & Ferrari, Lotus Built Composite Monocoques

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Despite the fact that I’ve been a fan of Lotus since I was a teenager when my older brother Jeff bought a ’67 Lotus Cortina. I still own the 1966 Elan that I bought while in college, though it’s in pieces awaiting a restoration that I can’t afford to do. So it’s a bit surprising that with the thousands and thousands of photos and videos of cars here at Cars In Depth, that we haven’t featured many Lotus cars. Offhand, I believe that the Evora at last year’s Concours of America is the only Lotus that we’ve shown in 3D, well, other than Jim Clark’s Indy 500 winning Lotus 38 on display at the Henry Ford Museum’s Racing in America exhibit. The truth is that Loti are rare cars. GM and Ford each build more pickup trucks in a week than the total number of Elans ever made. You’re far more likely to see an Isetta microcar at a car show than just about any Lotus, particularly a vintage one.

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Every year at the organization’s World Congress, the SAE’s Mobility History Committee schedules lectures related the theme of that year’s congress. They also usually have a cars related to those talks on display. This year’s theme was Achieving Efficiency and the history committee sponsored a talk by Karl Ludvigsen, author of Colin Chapman: Inside the Innovator, on the Lotus founder. In conjunction, on display was Ford engineer Tim Covert’s 1960 Elite vintage racer. The Elite was Lotus’ first production road car, having previously built only racers. About 1,000 were made from 1958 to 1963. Though sold as a road car, the Elite also had success on the track with drivers like David Hobbs at the wheel. Elites had six class wins at LeMans. Consistent with the SAE’s “achieving efficiency” them, the Elite also was awarded that race’s Index of Thermal Efficiency trophy twice.

The original Elite (Lotus recycled the name in the 1970s, this time for a four seater) is often listed as one of Chapman’s innovations because it has no frame, the fiberglass body is a monocoque. I was going to say that the Elite was a technological dead end. After all, how many other cars since then have fiberglass unibodies? Then I thought about it a bit and realized that while they use fibers of carbon to reinforce the polymer resin instead of fibers of glass, many of today’s supercars like the McLaren MP4-12C and it’s ubercar sibling the P1, are built with composite monocoques, so I guess that once again, Chapman was indeed the innovator.

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